An Empire, If You Can Keep It

If the Paul Kennedy school of history is accurate (and in case it isn’t obvious, I’m currently making my way through The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers), then, essentially, economic power that could correlate to military power is one of the dominant characteristics of Great Powers through the ages. As long as it remains fungible, military potential backed by a strong economy is one of the surest markers of “Great Power” status.

But what happens when the two diverge? The United Provinces of the Netherlands come to mind as a predominantly economic power that gradually waned – for all its market innovations, there were eventual limits to its naval power (and it was, of course, perpetually vulnerable by land) – and perhaps the decline of Bourbon Spain, although its regression came both in economic and military prowess. Kennedy’s point is that the key lies not in absolute measures, but in relative ones, and so while these never became “poor” countries, per se, their neighbors and other rivals managed to grow more.

Which brings us to modern Germany: a paper tiger (or, as national emblems might have it, a paper leopard). Germany’s economy is, by all accounts, in pretty good shape, and certainly better than much of the rest of the West. And yet its military is decrepit, in worse shape than even the US Navy’s 7th Fleet. As Stars and Stripes reports:

New German capability gaps have been brought to light in recent weeks, piling up on top of old ones that Berlin has failed to fix.

Among the failures: none of Germany’s submarines is operational, only four of its 128 Eurofighter jets are combat-ready and the army is short dozens of tanks and armored vehicles needed for NATO missions.

In addition, troops are short on the basics: body armor, night vision gear and cold-weather clothing.

The situation is so dire that 19 helicopter pilots from Germany’s Bundeswehr were forced to turn in their flight licenses because of a lack of training time.

The reason: not enough helicopters for the pilots to fly.

Much like Japan’s “economic miracle,” protected solely by minimal “self-defense forces,” Germany has exchanged even the prospect of hard power for economic stability. But such a situation is likely untenable. It pains me to say it, but Ross Douthat wrote a decent piece in the Times.

The third German empire is a different animal altogether. Repudiating both militarism and racist mysticism, it has been built slowly and painstakingly across three generations, in cooperation with other powers (including its old enemies the French), using a mix of democratic and bureaucratic means. Today Germany bestrides its Continent, but German power is wielded softly, indirectly, implicitly — and when the fist is required, it takes the form of fiscal ultimatums, not military bluster or racial irredentism.

But still the system is effectively imperial in many ways, with power brokers in Berlin and Brussels wielding not-exactly-democratic authority over a polyglot, multiethnic, multireligious sprawl of semi-sovereign nation-states. And thinking about the European Union this way, as a Germanic empire as well as a liberal-cosmopolitan project, is a helpful way of understanding how it might ultimately fall.

Obviously, this oversimplifies – and exaggerates – the powers that Brussels holds. But it’s true that Germany has a…unique approach to fiscal policy, one at odds with most of the rest of the EU, and which nevertheless is one that’s been imposed on the other member-states. And ironically, that’s despite its relative military weakness, not because of it (although perhaps this dynamic is less surprising within the framework of the Atlantic alliance).

In so many multiethnic empires and society, the institution bridging ethnic, racial, and religious divides tends to be the military. It’s often when those forces collapse or disintegrate that so too do the borders of a Yugoslavia or an Austria-Hungary. Perhaps, if Germany continues to subtly insist on a continental economic mastery, it would do well to rebuild its own military institutions. And as long as it continues to lead the EU, turning the Eurocorps into something resembling, well, a corps might restart the long-stalled process of integration in more than a purely fiscal sense.

Germany can and will remain European, but if Berlin wants everyone else to identify as such, too, it will have to build more multilateral institutions than merely that of financial austerity.

Lines Drawn, Sides Chosen

One of the more interesting results of last night’s UNSC vote to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya was the voting pattern of the Council. More specifically, the abstentions.

Look at the countries that decided not to vote:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • Germany
  • India
  • Russia

Two things jump out: all four of the BRIC countries abstained from a vote, and of these five countries, the three which are not already members of the P5 are heavily discussed candidates for membership should the council expand. Do they too see themselves as a bloc? Or was it just coincidence?

So it’s interesting to try and ascertain where this reluctance comes from. One can just throw out some crude snapshots: Germany is wary of overseas military operations. China and Russia see any intervention as an ominous precedent and a threat to their own national sovereignty. India and Brazil don’t want the responsibility, perhaps, and see a vote on Resolution 1973 as a distinct voting record that could come back to haunt them (much like the conventional wisdom explaining why a United States senator would never be electable as president).

Also interesting are the military capabilities of these five countries. All, with the possible exception of Brazil, have formidable land armies, but lack a great deal of expeditionary capacity or any meaningful power projection. China has been making the greatest strides in this area with their naval armament program, but is still a long ways off from being able to physically support operations like a Libyan intervention. Much the same goes for Russia, even if the recent Mistral purchases were an attempt to provide new command-and-control capabilities that would make such a deployment easier.

Despite NATO’s series of capability commitments, developing a true airlift capacity remains stuck. Germany is the European leader of strategic lift, and yet still only operates the woefully outdated C-160. Its replacement, the A400M, has nearly three times the weight capacity – but has been delayed yet again and will not enter service until 2014 at the earliest. So even discounting moral reservations, Germany might have some legitimate tactical concerns about intervention in Libya.

Of course, to have to write something like this implies a great deal of cynicism on the part of the international community. The ‘clean voting record hypothesis’, in particular, is a rather damning indictment of why nothing gets done politically either in the international or domestic realm. No matter the reason, though, it appears as if the BRIC countries are their own power bloc, and they’re not going to help if they don’t want to. Which perhaps then begs the question of why the West has to intervene whenever a dictator starts murdering his own people.

(Of course, as I’m writing this, this article pops up in my Twitter feed.)

Operation Tannenbaum, Part IV

It is now November 9 1940. The bitterness of the Battle for Switzerland is something that will live with all Swiss and those German soldiers who participated. Out of the 800,000 Swiss under arms on September 24, 120,000 did not reach the redoubt. Only 15,486 of these soldiers were taken prisoner. In fact, there are more French and Polish prisoners in the German laagers then there are Swiss!

The Zytglogge in Bern, Switzerland.

Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of Heeresgruppe C.

Guisan and his staff are secure in the Redoubt, with the Germans unable to penetrate the massive defense works. However, the Germans are rather unwilling to commit so many forces to the strategically irrelevant alpine region. In the areas at higher altitude, the first snow has fallen, tabling any large offensives until the spring of 1941.

No less than 20 divisions are in occupied Switzerland, and tensions between occupier and occupied are running extremely high. Just as in Czechoslovakia, all popular gatherings have been banned. Weapons and wireless sets owned by private citizens have been ordered to be turned into authorities, including hunting rifles.[1] Heeresgruppe C has not been redeployed to the eastern front for a Russian offensive, and Wilhelm von Leeb has established his headquarters in occupied Bern for the winter.

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Leaving on a Jet Plane

Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary.

Today I’m en route to Hungary to kick off a grand central/eastern European trip, accompanied by an especially lovely lady. If you’re curious, the itinerary is Budapest-Vienna-Salzburg-Munich-Berlin-Warsaw.

I’ll be over there for two weeks, and while I’d like to pretend I’ll make occasional posts with pretty pictures I’ve taken, it would only take a couple of days for you all to see through the charade.

There’s a slight chance I’ll post every once in a while, but don’t hold your breath. Later today I’ll have Part IV of “Operation Tannenbaum” up, which will be the last for some time (and hopefully provide some needed closure). I’ll be back in April for sure.

And again, thanks so much for reading. If you haven’t already, this would be an excellent time to explore the links page and discover some interesting new blogs.

Operation Tannenbaum, Part III

While the odds were against any sort of meaningful Swiss victory in the event of invasion, such a German offensive was equally unlikely in the early years of the war. By 1943, the possibility of a successful German invasion had dwindled to virtually nothing, as the Swiss Army had expanded and modernized to a point that would make Tannenbaum a suicidal mission. This begs the question: why, then, would Hitler ever have chosen to invade Switzerland? Let us proceed with our counterfactual under the following premises.

It is now September 15. The unrestricted bombing campaign authorized by Churchill four months ago has been relatively unsuccessful. Fewer than 25 percent of the bombs dropped are landing within five miles of their intended targets, and only 30 percent have landed in any built-up areas.[1] However, this has had an unintended benefit. Having disguised the few industrial plants manufacturing jewel bearings, the Germans were fairly certain of their security. However, in a truly ironic case, this ended up being more costly, as the plants have been disproportionately hit by the British bombs. Jewel bearings are a main component of bombsights, and without them, Hitler is reluctant to press his luck in the Battle of Britain, much less Operation Sealion.

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Operation Tannenbaum, Part II

Hitler, flush with victory over France, now demanded to see plans for the invasion of Switzerland. His rage knew no bounds, as the head of OKH Franz Halder recalled: “I was constantly hearing of outbursts of Hitler’s fury against Switzerland, which, given his mentality, might have led at any minute to military activities for the army.”[1] Within hours of the French capitulation, Captain Otto Wilhelm von Menges in OKH submitted a draft plan for the invasion.

Menges' Fall Schweiz, first draft (June 26 1940).

Generaloberst Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ (HGr. C), led by Generalleutnant Wilhelm List and the 12th Army would conduct the attack. Leeb himself personally reconnoitered the terrain, studying the most promising invasion routes and paths of least resistance.[2] Menges’ plan called for a pincer movement from German troops in France and Germany focused on taking Bern quickly, with Italian divisions invading from the south. Speed was critical: the plan’s primary objective was to seize the industry in the Solothurn area and capture the railroads, bridges, and transportation infrastructure across the Alps intact.[3]

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Operation Tannenbaum: Hitler’s Invasion of Switzerland

The military picture on the Franco-Swiss border, June 26, 1940.

France was defeated. So too were Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. Austria and Czechoslovakia had been incorporated into the Greater German Reich. Great Britain stood alone in her ‘splendid isolation,’ and the fascist regime of Francisco Franco held sway over the Iberian Peninsula. In June of 1940, all that remained, surrounded by enemies, was the Swiss Confederation.

Hitler called it a “pimple on the face of Europe.”[1] In the heady days of victory for the Third Reich, a move against the alpine republic seemed a great possibility – almost inevitable, even. Even before the Fall of France was made official, plans were being drawn up for ‘Operation Tannenbaum,’ the German invasion of Switzerland. Yet Hitler’s attention was soon drawn towards Britain, and eventually the plan fell by the wayside as he began focusing attention on his Bolshevik neighbor to the East.

But…what if? What if Hitler had decided that the conquest of that mountainous pimple was indeed worth the effort and manpower? What if Tannenbaum had been more than just idle words and an OKW plan? If Hitler had embarked on the ultimate folly, the results would have been disastrous for the Swiss – and the Nazis.

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SMS Goeben, the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and the Coming of the Great War

SMS Goeben

In November of 1914, the once-mighty “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, entered the war to end all wars as a Central Power. Having concluded a secret alliance with Germany against her long-time rival Russia, the conditions for war were met, and on November11 Sultan Mehmed V declared jihad.

As with so many other empires, the jump into war would prove to be the downfall of Turkey as a Mediterranean power, and in fact as an empire at all. The terms of their alliance with Germany pulled the Ottomans into the war, but the real question remains: what led them to sign it? The answers can be found in two places: the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and the arrival of the SMS Goeben.

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