October 21, 2023

The New Prussian Soldier After The Victories of Napoleon


Napoleon 1815, Waterloo. 

Related: Otto von Bismarck: The Iron Chancellor.

Napoleon humbled and humiliated the royalist armies of Europe so badly that they had no choice but to reform. The Prussian army was up to the challenge more than anyone else. It responded to its military defeat at the hands of Napoleon by 1) opening up its prestigious institution to all classes, 2) making education based on independent thinking a central focus in military training, and 3) instilling a nationalist spirit in the Prussian soldier.

An excerpt from, "Knowledge Must Become Capability": Institutional Intellectualism as an Agent for Military Transformation" By Steven W. Knott, A Nation At War In An Era of Strategic Change, September 2004, Pg. 21 - 42: 

Acknowledging the need for change (if not the socio-political implications of the French transformation), Prussian King Frederick William III convened a military commission in 1807 to investigate the debacle at Jena-Auerstädt and propose reforms to the existing military structure. While the king failed to recognize that Prussia’s defeat lay beyond the sole realm of military concerns, the individuals he appointed to the commission fortunately possessed far greater intellectual vision.

. . .Prior to overhaul by the reorganization commission, the state had reserved admission to the Prussian officer corps almost exclusively to members of the aristocratic landed gentry, or Junker class. Commissions rested on the basis of political influence and patronage rather than an officer candidate’s actual merit or military potential. As a result, inconsistent talent, insularism, and professional stagnation had characterized the Prussian officer corps before 1807. Moreover, the Junkers discounted the value of formal education (believing that it made one “soft”―a thinker rather than a doer); as a result, the intellectual capacity of the officer corps remained limited as well. The reformers transformed the officer corps first by persuading the king to grant eligibility to all elements of society. New officers whether Junker or commoner―would receive appointment through a universal examination process blind to station or influence. This measure alone served to expand significantly the talent pool from which candidates came, and it proved to be the principal foundation upon which the new Prussian officer corps would rest. Secondly, Scharnhorst, recognizing the value of education, supervised the creation of three military schools to provide basic instruction to all newly commissioned officers prior to assignment with the active force. Compulsory military education was also unprecedented in Prussian military tradition; yet it proved equally successful and ensured standardization of quality while promoting intellectual growth among the new officer corps.

In tandem with reforms to the officer corps, the commission also pursued significant transformational objectives in recasting the Prussian soldier. At Jena-Auerstädt the men in the ranks did not constitute a peoples’ army whose common interests were coupled with those of the state; in fact, most viewed the war as solely the concern of King Frederick William (and the Junker class), thereby resulting in an alarming popular indifference to the French invasion. Consequently, the average soldier was bereft of esprit de corps or patriotic spirit, and, equating service in the king’s army with unjust coercion, he was likely to desert at the first opportunity. The reformers pursued a twofold scheme to transform the Prussian commoner-in-arms into a citizen-soldier. The first was through a system of egalitarian universal conscription which denied exemption to any element of society and mandated a shorter period of obligation. The goal of universal conscription was to ensure that the military “burden . . . was carried on all shoulders” and that service in the Prussian Army became “a proud civic duty . . . that turned the cause of the state into the cause of every man.” An additional advantage would be in promoting a new nationalistic spirit in which fealty to the king also encompassed a growing loyalty to the state―or Fatherland. Secondly, primarily through the work of Stein, the reformers wished to expand markedly the powers of the constitutional element of the government vis-à-vis the king. They hoped this would encourage a feeling of general enfranchisement among the people to combat the pervasive sense of alienation from government resident throughout Prussia. Moreover, included in this initiative was an attempt to transfer control of the army from the king to constitutional civilian authorities. While the reorganization commission was extremely successful in implementing universal conscription in 1808, the king rejected initiatives to expand constitutional powers or surrender control of his army. Nevertheless, sufficient measures were in place to transform the existing system and produce Prussia’s first citizen soldiers as the reformers envisioned.

Having addressed successfully basic organizational deficiencies as well as implemented initiatives to transform the officer corps and the Prussian soldier, the commission members likewise created the means to administer, train, and lead this new army with “institutionalized genius”―the general staff system. This measure proved the most unprecedented and intellectually revolutionary of all the reforms in the commission’s efforts to counterbalance France’s military revolution (as well as Napoleon’s genius). Best described as “the intellectual center of the army,” this new general staff concept far transcended traditional European staff organizations responsible primarily for executive clerical and courier functions. The Prussian Army meticulously selected, organized, and empowered the best officers―intellectually and professionally―to function collectively.

. . .The achievements of the reorganization commission provide a persuasive example of institutional intellectualism as an agent for military transformation. Working under a mandate from the army commander-in-chief (King Frederick William III), the reformers operated within and as a function of the military system. Moreover, they enjoyed a degree of intellectual freedom and engaged in a critical exchange of ideas that were remarkable for the time. This climate in turn allowed for the synergistic union of Prussia’s leading military thinkers―and their focused intellectual energy achieved a level of societal, political, and military reform that truly was transformational. 

. . . One final observation is germane: the immutable factor of time. Even institutional intellectualism takes years―possibly decades―to reap the fruit of its transformational seeds. The Prussian reformers put sweeping socio-political-military changes in place between 1807 and 1812. As a result, the Prussian Army performed significantly better in the campaigns of 1814 and 1815 against Napoleon; yet the full return on their intellectual labor was not realized fully until the wars of 1866 and 1870, in which the Prussian Army defeated Austria and France, respectively, and established the Prusso-German nation as the greatest power in Europe. (Pg. 25 - 30).


The command of the Prussian Army had been reformed in the wake of the defeats suffered by Prussia in the Napoleonic Wars. Rather than rely primarily on the martial skills of the individual members of the German nobility, who dominated the military profession, the Prussian Army instituted changes to ensure excellence in leadership, organization and planning. The General Staff system, which sought to institutionalize military excellence, was the main result. It sought to identify military talent at the lower levels and develop it thoroughly through academic training and practical experience on division, corps and higher staffs, up to the Great General Staff, the senior planning body of the army. It provided planning and organizational work during peacetime and wartime. The Prussian General Staff, proven in battle in the Wars of Unification, became the German General Staff upon the formation of the German Empire, given Prussia's leading role in the German Army.

An excerpt from, "The Political Soldiers of Bismarck's Germany: Myths and Realities" By Dennis E. Showalter, German Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb., 1994):

No German officer after 1871 could get away with blaming the rank and file when something went wrong. The military successes which had made united Germany a reality were interpreted as consequences of a close and positive link between army and society. The familiar epigram that the Franco-Prussian War was won by Prussian schoolmasters was only one illustration of a special relationship deserving to be nurtured and sustained in the new Imperial order.

. . .German soldiers' concern with moral and psychic factors after the Franco-Prussian War has been frequently described as a symbol of outmoded caste attitudes. It reflected instead the successful absorption and institutionalization of a major legacy of the French Revolution: the importance of the man behind the gun. As modern weapons rendered the battlefield ever  emptier, the modern soldier needed a complex set of moral equipment in order to fight and win. Loyalty, patriotism, comradeship were no longer enough. Above all, the man in the ranks needed to see himself almost in dialectical terms as an autonomous component of a disciplined military community, able to respond individually to complex battlefield challenges while at the same time contributing consciously to a planned result.

. . .This approach bore a significant general resemblance to the concept of Bildung still current, at least as an ideal, in Imperial society. It involved the deliberate cultivation of a mental and emotional attitude, as opposed to emphasizing technical proficiency. It also involved a willingness to accept acquired, as opposed to purportedly inborn or inherent, characteristics. The Imperial army developed as anything but a blood-sworn community of warriors set apart from its society. Increasingly the officer corps functioned as an open-access elite, socializing the sons of a broad spectrum of interest groups into the Imperial structure at relatively low cost to present self-esteem and previous identity. This concept is no less valid for being more applicable to the lower and middle ranks than the higher ones. It was more likely for a subaltern without family or connections to become a major than a general. But very few members of any bureaucratic system entertain serious expectations of rising to its top. Such institutions succeed in large measure according to their ability to provide a reasonable degree of continued job satisfaction at lower echelons. And in this context the Imperial army must be counted a significant success, particularly in comparative terms. Under the Empire no German institution ever succeeded in becoming truly comprehensive. The army was no more exclusive than most of its equivalents, including the universities and the civil service. And its place at the top of a hierarchic society offered even its lesser lights status and prestige accorded to no other profession.