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  • The People's Wars: Histories of Violence in the German Lands, 1820–1888 by Mark Hewitson
  • Katherine B. Aaslestad
The People's Wars: Histories of Violence in the German Lands, 1820–1888. By Mark Hewitson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 512. Cloth $130.00. ISBN 978-0199564262.

During the nineteenth century, war became an affair of the people—a Volkskrieg. So claims Mark Hewitson in the second of three volumes exploring war experiences, changing sensibilities to violence, and attitudes to warfare across nearly three centuries of German history. Inspired by scholarship on the American Civil War, Hewitson seeks to understand what motivated soldiers to fight. As in the first installment of study, Absolute War (2017), Hewitson attempts to separate war from national sentiments and the aspirations of the nation state, as he explores the readiness to go to war among Germans during the second half of the nineteenth century. He argues that [End Page 621] the acceptance of peacetime conscription and rallying for war transcends nationalist sentiments and focuses on the three wars of unification as separate conflicts.

Building on themes established in Absolute War, Hewitson presents the Napoleonic Wars as conflicts involving heightened levels of violence and suffering, which were paradoxically commemorated and remembered as romanticized struggles. He claims that the mythology of 1813 generated popular acceptance and legitimacy in shaping nineteenth-century attitudes to war. Despite a growing awareness of modern warfare due to popular war reportage, the German public, especially soldiers, accepted war in 1866 and 1870–1871, and faced gruesome and savage modern combat conditions that cultivated heroic and horrific "Janus faced images" of war prior to 1914 (525). Although the Volkskriege of 1866 and 1870–1871 also fostered a patriotic mythology, such national mythmaking did not dispel veterans' dark recollections of violence and destruction. Veterans after 1871 harbored contradictory feelings of patriotic pride and physical revulsion when they recalled the campaigns of war (511).

Hewitson views the nineteenth century as a deceptive era of peace and divides his book into two sections: "The Romance of War 1820–1864" and "The Horror of War 1864–1888." The first section describes the romanticization of war after 1815 and its normalization in German society. He asserts that the Napoleonic Wars generated a fundamental change in the ways war was represented and understood by the public. The "myths of 1813" and the persistent "arming of the people" (53) in postwar military service rendered armed conflict legitimate and inevitable. He reviews a rich literature on the role of the post-1815 military to illustrate the many views expressed in the public sphere on the value of militias and a professional army of the line, pointing to the public role of the military in daily life at guard posts, garrisons, and in domestic pacification. He concludes that military service was an accepted fact of life and outlines the military's participation in the revolutions of 1848–1849. Finally, he analyzes war reportage to illustrate popular interest in the conflicts in Greece, Schleswig-Holstein, the Crimea, the United States, and Piedmont. The press offered readers a vicarious experience of increasingly destructive modern warfare—albeit at a distance—at a moment when public commemorations of the Napoleonic Wars positioned the army prominently in daily life.

In the "Horror of War" section, Hewitson focuses on the mobilization, publicity, and experiences of what became known as the three wars of unification, focusing on the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars. Hewitson contests scholarship that emphasizes enmity, race, demonization of the enemy, or sacralization of conflict, instead choosing to present these campaigns as Volkskriege. As "people's wars" and conflicts that would determine the existence of the states involved, they were accepted and legitimized by the German population. Highlighting soldiers' accounts and press reports of major battles, Hewitson points out that battlefield violence differed markedly from the romanticized war stories. In fact, by 1870, the savagery of rapidfire [End Page 622] warfare made the balance between patriotism and horror difficult to maintain (438). Although patriotic mythology, established during the conflict with unification of German states, defined the Franco-Prussian War after 1871, the "heroic and the horrific" nature of this war coexisted in...


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