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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:                  Hans Delbrück, History of the Art of War, Vols. I & II.  University of Nebraska Press (1990) [1920-21].

Hans Delbrück's History of the Art of War is certainly an ambitious book, as the title indicates.  First published in 1900-1920, the four volumes covered "the art of war" from the Persian Wars up through Napoleon.  Since he was writing during the heyday of European imperialism, it is not surprising that Delbrück concerns himself solely with the development of Western warfare; since the book was written by a German during the heyday of racially-based nationalism, it occasionally slips into exaggerated admiration for German martial prowess (as far back as Roman times).  He also deals only with land warfare--naval warfare is mentioned only incidentally.  These caveats aside, Delbrück's research and method of organizing his material make this a remarkably durable book--a testament to the enduring strength of the Rankean school of "scientific" history.

The organization of the book is unusual, but very effective.  The main text of each chapter contains Delbrück's argument, while a more-or-less extended "Excursus" follows in which he lays out his evidence in detail, summarizes how other scholars' views differ from his own, and explains the reasoning behind his views.  By separating his conclusions from the scholarly argument surrounding them, he avoids confusing the reader (this is especially applicable for the often arcane debates of ancient military history), while his reasoning is clearly spelled out in case more detail is desired.  In most current historical writing, footnotes have come to play the part of Delbrück's Excursus, to the detriment of the utility of the footnotes, which become so long and full of references to related works it becomes nearly impossible to locate the reference to a specific statement in the text (the actual function of footnotes).  Delbrück's old-fashioned method was thus refreshing.

Another one of the strengths of the book was Delbrück's very critical examination of his sources.  He constantly tested each author's account with reality, and often found that what was supposed to have happened was not physically possible.  An obvious example of this is Herodotus's claim that the Persian army of Xerxes numbered 2,000,000.  While no historian would support this number, Delbrück goes farther than most in his willingness to simply say, "Since this is clearly impossible, we have no idea what the size of the Persian army really was."  One of the main bases of his critical reading of ancient sources is the way that popular belief can deviate from reality within only one generation, which he supports using evidence from the Middle Ages where the stories could be checked.  He argues that victory against a numerically superior foe was often the way that any hard-fought battle came to be portrayed in popular tales, regardless of the actual numbers involved.  In the example of the Persians, he argues that both the nature of the Persian empire and the way they conducted their campaigns in Greece suggest that the Persian army was actually a small, knightly force.

Another strength is the depth of thought that is apparent in the selection of what to cover, a vital necessity for a book of this scope.  Delbrück limits his history to "the art of war," which he defines broadly but carefully to encompass anything which affects the way that an army conducted itself in the field.  His history is not, therefore, a catalogue of the major battles throughout history; rather, he selects those battles which illustrate an important change in strategy, tactics, organization, etc.  He also devotes at least half of the book to the political and economic history which interacted with purely military affairs to produce these changes.  For example, in explaining Caesar's conquest of Gaul, he notes that "the superiority of the Roman art of warfare was based on the army organization as a whole, a system that permitted very large masses of men to be concentrated at a given point, to move in an orderly fashion, to be fed, to be kept together.  The Gauls could do none of these things." (Vol. I, p. 510)

That Delbrück's history has survived so well is largely due to his obvious mastery of the material, but the way in which his evidence is presented is also important.  With all the evidence for each chapter laid out in its Excursus, it is relatively easy to locate where his conclusions have been superseded by new research.  What is most remarkable is how little this is necessary.

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