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Pen and Sword Books

Author Guest Post: Jaap Jan Brouwer


Recruitment, selection and the psychological dimensions of warfare

The German Army lost two consecutive wars and the conclusion is often drawn that it simply wasn’t able to cope with its opponents. This image is constantly reinforced in literature and in the media, where seemingly brainless operating German units led by fanatical officers predominate. Nothing was as far from the truth. The records show that the Germans consistently outfought the far more numerous Allied armies that eventually defeated them: their relative battlefield performance was at least 1.5 and in most cases 3 times as high as that of its opponents. The central question in this book is why the German Army had a so much higher relative battlefield performance than the opposition. A central element within the Prussian/German Army is Auftragstaktik, a tactical management concept that dates from the middle of the nineteenth century and is still very advanced in terms of management and organisation. In this series of blogs we will have a closer look at the key elements of Auftragstaktik and cases that will illustrate the effects of these elements in the reality of the battlefield. In this part of the series we focus on the psychological dimensions of warfare.

The Germans were aware at an early stage of the importance of psychology: to ensure the right man was assigned to each role; to strengthen morale; and to harden troops against the tension and stresses of modern technological warfare. This is perhaps unsurprising, since Germany and Austria had been the cradles of modern psychology. The First World War had shown that a new type of soldier was needed: no longer someone who merely functioned under the all-seeing eye of his officer, but a man who could operate independently at the front and in no-man’s-land. Psychological techniques focused on creating this new soldier, in line with preferred leadership styles in the context of Auftragstaktik, the German command concept. In addition, it was realised that the psychological aspects of new weapons such as tanks and aircraft demanded more than just knowledge and skills; they also imposed demands on the personal qualities of the troops. In contrast to the practice of the British and American armies, German recruits were tested not only for intelligence, but also for social, emotional and character traits: in modern terms, not just IQ but EQ (Emotional Intelligence). Thus the supreme command attached more value to the psychological qualities and the emotional stability of recruits than to formal knowledge or physical strength.

Building resilience

A lot of energy was put into developing methods to analyse and strengthen the willpower, endurance and mental resilience of officers and men. The Germans also realised that a subsequent war would be mainly technological in nature and would require nerves of steel in its soldiers, especially men in special units, such as paratroopers, tank crews and the crews of anti-tank guns. It was not long before psychologists concluded that truckers did not necessarily make good tank drivers, or pilots of commercial airlines good fighter pilots. Technical knowledge and skills needed to be supplemented by the mental qualities required of a soldier. To achieve this, profiles were developed for the different types of role. Tank crews, in particular, were carefully selected. They had to be highly individualistic and able to perform independently, have a good feeling for technology and be prepared to sacrifice themselves for the homeland. Such strict selection and subsequent intensive training contributed to a large extent to the successes of the German tank divisions. Other elite units, such as the crews of anti-tank guns, had to have nerves of steel, strong willpower and perseverance. The latter units were called Panzer Jäger (tank hunters), a name that suggests the aggressive attitude expected of them. Everything was directed at preparing officers and men as well as possible for the battlefield of the future.

Despite initial scepticism and some opposition, the application of psychology found a broad basis of acceptance within the Reichswehr and the Heer. In the period up to the Second World War, more than six hundred publications on the subject of psychology and warfare appeared in Germany. In addition, the Army employed two hundred psychologists, who could base their work on the findings of thousands of academic psychologists in universities and hospitals. (32:154–8)

The drill

Strict parade-ground drill, seen in other countries as one of the most important aspects of discipline, was abandoned by the Germans long before the First World War. They had decided that this way of training troops did not fit with their view of modern warfare. In contrast to popular views of the German Army, drill was used only to a very limited extent. Ludendorff strongly disliked drill and considered it an ineffective way of increasing social cohesion within units. He called it ‘mechanical’ and ‘external’ and compared the drilling of large groups of men to the training of dogs, as an approach that deprived young people of their individuality. The method he proposed was aimed at gaining ‘internal’ or ‘self-discipline’ (Innere Führung). He emphasised shared values, norms and a sense of duty. This Innere Führung would ensure that the men knew their responsibilities even without direction by their officers, and fulfilled them as independent-thinking individuals. (57:100)

Almost the opposite was the case in the US Army, where breaking down the personality of the individual recruit was always the beginning of his education. The drill sergeant was, and still is, responsible for this. Partly due to the influence of the psychologists, the harassment of recruits by German officers and NCOs was ended by the 1930s, and strict guidelines on the subject were introduced. Any officer who did not adhere to them was transferred to a punishment unit, where ‘the qualities of the officer in question would be better used’. (32:167) Due to this attention to psychology in the German Army, it experienced very small numbers of psychiatric cases compared to other forces, even after six years of war. The recruitment and selection system, the training, the rotation system and the emphasis on team-building (Kampfgemeinschaft) made the German soldier particularly resilient psychologically. (63:93–4)

The German Way of War is available to order here.