381
24
T
HE
P
REHI STORY OF
THE
GENER AL STAFF*
All armies have general staffs today. ey became accepted after 1871
when the smaller, poorer state of Prussia defeated larger, richer France.
Widely viewed as the most significant factor in this unexpected result
was the general staff. e Prussian army had one. e French army
did not. e world saw the Prussian staas “a dark force, something
more than human, weaving the threads of national destiny according
to a terrible pattern of its own”
1
an image of mystery and power that
still shades it and explains its attraction. Nations all over the world
wanted such triumphs. ey emulated the Prussian system—creating
staffs if they had none, elaborating their embryonic ones if they did,
establishing colleges to train officers for staffs, intensifying acceptance
of staff work. e general staff became universal.
Yet though useful histories of various general staffs have been writ-
ten by Irvine, Hittle, Stoerkel, Goerlitz, Nelson, Hewes,
2
none has
delved into their roots. None has looked into the preconditions needed
before a general staff could come into being to improve the efficiency
and effectiveness of an army or a navy. Perhaps some thoughts—
indicative, not definitiveabout that background may deepen under-
standing of this institution.
e job of a general staff is to prepare an army for what it will
have to do. So it must look ahead.
3
e primary function of mental
activity is to face the future and anticipate the event which is to hap-
pen,” wrote mathematician Gerald J. Whitrow.
4
And indeed men have
always sought to look into the seeds of time/And see which grain will
grow and which will not.”
5
e ancients interpreted dreams, omens,
entrails, the mutterings of the Delphic oracle.
6
Sometimes they were
right—Joseph correctly explained the meaning of pharaohs dream
* From e Journal of Military History, 71(2) (April 2007), 499–504.
382
WO RLD WA R II' S G RE ATES T SP Y
about seven fat and seven lean kine.
7
But often they were wrong.
People today examine tarot cards and read astrology columns in the
newspaper, with no better results. Ultimately the only basis for predict-
ing events lies in the uniformity of nature: what has happened before
will, under the same conditions, happen again. But since conditions
may change, or not be recognized, no one can be certain of what will
happen in the future. e philosopher Bertrand Russell summarized
the situation neatly when he pointed out that “e man who has fed
the chicken every day through its life at last wrings its neck instead,
showing that more refined views about the uniformity of nature would
have been useful to the chicken.”
8
is should infuse a useful skepti-
cism into a study of the general staff and its functions.
Looked at in the broadest terms, growth in three areas of life per-
mitted a general sta
9
to evolve: in secularization, in bureaucracy, and
in management.
e conquest of rational modes of thought over magical and reli-
gious modes began in the Renaissance—Copernicus is the exemplar—
and intensified in the Enlightenment. Sociologist Max Weber called
this profound movement the “disenchantment of the world”; Auguste
Comte, positivism.”
10
It carried science, philosophy, politics with it.
e world moved towards confirmable statements and thus towards
facts and knowledge. Secularization succeeded because it took human-
kind from a passive to an active world view and gave it more control
over events than religious modes did. One of the most important, most
sweeping movements in history, secularization laid the philosophical
foundation for the general staff, enabling it to build on a logical, verifi-
able basis.
As the population of Europe grew and moved from the country to
the cities, rulers sought to generate income by increasing trade and
markets. Around the second half of the sixteenth century, bureaucra-
cies evolved to facilitate this by regulating currency, weights and mea-
sures, foreign affairs, armed forces.
11
Bureaucracy, which permits more
rational control than the two other forms of authority, traditional and
charismatic,
12
needs information. e most basic is who lives where.
Governments had long conducted censuses—Joseph and Mary went
to Bethlehem for one—but in the nineteenth century they intensi-
fied and rationalized these procedures. Prussia established a statistical
office in 1805. e German customs union needed to know how many

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