Reflections on the operation history of a battle

Thorsten Loch/Lars Zacharias


During the past one and a half decades the scientific analysis of the history of armed forces and war has recorded a considerable degree of attention and increasing interest in the German speaking countries. The writing of military history has come out of its assigned existence on the fringe of historical research. Meanwhile the matter of its methodical instruments has become a central scientific interest in this welcome revival. Sönke Neitzel stated that since the 1990ies the writing of military history has developed in the slipstream of the writing of cultural history and has been supported considerably by the necessary research work on the Holocaust. Due to this obviously for him very important but at the same time constricted view on armed forces, war and power he asked if especially in German military historical research a “military history without wars” was written. The discourse on the definition of the position and on the methodical matu­ring process of this historical sub-discipline begins with this question: Has the writing of military history passed through a fruitful discussion of methods since the 1990ies, or has it reverted much too early to a necessary multi-perspective approach, which is essentially nothing else than a concerted refusal of older forms of writing of defence and military history, at the same time forgetting to develop characterization and profile of its own? Perhaps there even was no definition of the position, but instead just an extension of already existing questions towards a new and unused topic: the armed forces in peace and war? Does the writing of military history in all its long-windedness, therefore, on the contrary not follow up cultural, political and diplomatic historical approaches which are applied in other sub-disciplines as well? The (ostensible) obvious answer, a however disposed operation history could help military history to take better shape, would be too simple and would certainly come off worst. On the other hand, as Bernd Wegner has put it, the blanking of the history of military operations would actually mean a dangerous reduction of the historical analysis of wars and would thus be a grave deficit. A “modern” operation history will only be conferred its importance, if - as a sub-discipline of military history - it is able to offer findings on questions of overriding importance. In this essay we approach the German-German War and explore the possibilities of the operation-historical microcosm of the Battle of Königgrätz. In this concluding part we examine the personnel decisions of General Ludwig von Benedek which he made as the battle was approaching. The biographical facet of the writing of operation history introduced in this essay also put a new complexion on the General’s decisions which have often been criticized. If as historians we take the liberty of neglecting this micro level offering treatment of operation history, we will miss the realistic opportunity to find the great within the small, if necessary. We should at least look for it there.