The Strengthening of a Nation’s Unification
Book Essay on: Marilyn Coetzee, The German Army League
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). 176 pages

by Tracy Kavanaugh
November 8, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
19th Century Germany
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2006

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About Tracy Kavanaugh

I am a senior History major with an emphasis in the Classical and Archaic history. I have always been fascinated by the complex history of Germany . I was able to visit Hitler's "Eagles Nest" in Berchtesgaden in June of 2004. I like to learn about German history and have always taken an interest in the classes that I have taken. I am grateful that I have been able to extend my knowledge through this course. I chose this book because I was interested to learn about what factors may have led up to World War One. Also, I was fascinated by the inner working and ideas of the German people during this stressful time.

Abstract (back to top)

Coetzee’s The German Army League gives a detailed look into the nationalistic programs that were formed before World War One. The book focuses on the journey of one man in particular, General August Kiem. Throughout the book they explain the aims of the German Army league and the procedures that had to endure to keep the organization intact. The main idea of the group was to have the people of Germany come together and raise funds so Germany could strengthen its peacetime army, and to get ready for the war that was thought to be coming. The main idea of the book was to give a complete overview of the ways a single nationalistic group functions and how important it was to the German society before World War One. In this essay I try to show how August Kiem worked to keep the nationalism in Germany alive while gaining a large amount of power through out his reign as leader of the German Army League.

Essay (back to top)


In the book The German Army League by Marilyn Coetzee, many ideals are explained through the lens of the founders of a league trying to push German nationalism. The book’s main focus is to show the inner working of one of the many patriotic activist groups that sprang up in the years before World War One. During the eve of World War One a large number of these national groups entered the social sphere and the people wanted to join them and support their ideas. The groups consisted of the Pan-German league, and Navy league. These were the groups that supported and tried to get more money for the military. Many people would join multiple groups so they could feel as if they belonged somewhere and to some important organization. The national idea was that there needed to be a united Germany and with this unity the general populace would be able to build an army that could rival the surrounding countries.

One man in particular, General August Keim, had a strong desire to be part of the nationalistic groups after he retired from the military and serving in the Wars of Unification. Keim soon became a journalist and made a big controversy over the undesirable state that the German Army was in. With this he introduced the Army Bill of 1893, which would increase the amount of funds set aside for the army. Soon after helping pass the Army Bill Keim decided to join the first of the patriotic leagues, the Navy League. After he joined, Keim wanted to make sure he was at the head of this organization. These leagues were not to be politically stressed programs but did not follow those rules. Keim used his high position to engage in the “secret engineering” with the Catholic Center Party. After the top leaders of the Navy League learned Keim had done this, he was thrown out of the organization. Keim had to find a new outlet so he could express his views about Germany. This is when, in 1908, Keim joined the Pan-German League. Once again Keim rose to the top ranks of the organization and made friends with the president, Class. The top committee, also known as the Ausschuss, invited Keim to be a part of it in 1910. While in this organization he formed some of his own groups that spurred little or no success. In 1912 Keim decided that it was time that he make his on non-partisan league, so he founded the German Army League. This league was mainly for making the German army stronger and pushing for a more nationally recognized and supported German unification. Keim wanted to make sure Germany was ready for inevitable war. Keim was a very influential and charismatic leader and was able to make the Kaiser give more funds to the army than to the navy. Keim believed that the German army needed to have more people, but many people were joining the French Legion League and joining the French army. A mass amount of propaganda was put out to dissuade people from joining the French. The league realized that joining the army may not seem very appealing so they made better incentives to join the army.

One of the main goals of the league was to expand the ground forces to make a more formidable army. The league kept getting more money and was able to fulfill it promises about the incentives. With everything going as planned the league got an increase in attendance to its meetings. Keim was a master at propaganda and used his skills to lure in new people to hear him and his ideas of making Germany a superpower. The league was also able to boast the fact that they had women in the league. The duty of the women was to tend to their domestic duties and tend to soldiers when they were wounded. As Europe got closer to World War One the league went into a financial depression and the enthusiasm started to decline as well. The league needed to put up a good image, but they were incapable of doing so because people were not paying their dues, and there was a financial strain on the league. Right before the war they tried to push for an economic reform project which the government shot down. Then because of this the economy of Germany went into a depression and raw materials were scarce. They were not able to pull themselves back up during the war.

Essay (back to top)

The years that led up to World War One were full of formations of patriotic groups and reorganizing the army and pushing nationalistic ideology. In her book The German Army League, Marilyn Coetzee explains why the German Army League was needed in the torn nation of Germany. This book explains in detail how the league was formed, what was needed to be done to keep it going strong and the need for the league so they could push German nationalism. This league would not have been possible if it were not for the charismatic leadership of General August Keim and the way he built the short- lived dominance of army power in Germany.

General August Keim was a man who started off as a military man who fought in the Wars of Unification for Germany. He was wounded and shortly after became a journalist who looked into the inner workings of the German military and political structure. Keim seeing that it was in a dismal state he was going to write an article in the newspaper to ridicule the organization in hope that it would be seen and something would be done about it. These ideas caught the attention of the Chancellor Leo von Caprivi who had Keim become the spokesman for the 1893 Army Bill. With Keim's rhetorical skills he was able to push the reform through and get extra money put toward the building of a stronger German force. Keim seemed to like the limelight and liked to be involved in military issues, but being injured during the war he could no longer fight, so he joined a patriotic group called the Navy League. Once he got in the league he soon gained much prestige and power in the group. As the head of the propaganda campaign he was able to push whatever he felt was needed to help expand the army. These groups were known to be non-political, but Keim pushed political ideas as well. This was his first mistake and “By involving the Navy League in political affairs and by undermining the Center’s parliamentary position, Keim clearly had made a mockery of the league’s nonpartisan vow” (Coetzee, pg.20). He had lost his powerful position in one of the most prominent leagues at the time. He needed to find a new group which would let him gain the same power and agree with more of his ideas.

This is when Keim moved to the Pan-German League in 1908. Coetzee explains “But for Keim, the Pan-German League would serve only as a temporary holding tank whereby the general could launch a series of patriotic societies based upon his populist visions” (Coetzee, pg.22). Even though this will turn out to be true, Keim continued to climb the ranks of this league and was soon admitted into the executive committee. Once he gained power he made several groups that were never prominent even in the time of patriotic group frenzy. Except in 1911 he had some high ranking men in the Pan-German league who seemed to share his nationalistic views, and with this he formed the German Army League. After all this time Keim was finally able to control his own group and push the legislation he wanted. The Army League which Kiem founded “Certainly the Army League’s goals fell squarely within the category of ‘national endeavors,’” (Coetzee, pg.26). This shows readers that Keim is a nationalist, and that one of his main goals was the political unity within Germany.

Keim had very strong ideas for the reform of the army, and he wanted funding and more recruits to make the army strong again. Not only did he need funding, but he needed to convince the Kaiser that he needed ground forces, and that he should take funds away from the Navy, and he succeeded. The reorganization of the army seemed like it was needed, and they needed Keim to lead it. Then because of his desire and enthusiasm to build up the German army it will be shown how this progressed and flourished until the eve of World War One.

The league needed a charismatic and dedicated leader to make it become just as big and influential as the Navy League and Pan-German League already were. One of the first ideas Keim had was that he had to make joining the army look more appealing. He knew that he needed a larger force, improvement in mobility and “increase in the salaries of enlisted men,” (Coetzee, pg.34). This would be one way to get men interested in hearing his proposals. Keim needed more funding if he was going to keep these promises, so along with dues to be in the league he proposed an Army Bill. Even though a strong left opposition was against giving more funding, he received the approval in May. Keim sent out General Litzmann to see what the strength was of other European armies and realized that something needed to be done. Keim “essentially accepted the inevitability of a future (and probably imminent) war and underscored the need for Germany to promptly fortify its army in preparation for that conflict” (Coetzee, pg.37). All of this building of an army came because of the Balkan Wars that the Austrians had to conduct without the help if their allies, the Germans. They were not ready to help because of their crippled army.

Another reason Keim was bent on building a new army was because the French built up their own because of the Morocco crisis in 1911. French nationalism swept through the country and they were now a formidable force, which scared the Germans. They knew the French were disappointed in losing Alsace-Lorraine, and would do anything to reclaim territory. In the same respect the Germans wanted to keep territory in Africa and expand more, which would not be possible if they did not have a strong peace time army. This was a chance to show the public why they needed to make the army strong. Keim knew that propaganda was going to be the only way to attract people to his cause and raise awareness of the terrible shape the German defense was in. Keim wanted to “spread the ideology of popular nationalism” (Coetzee, pg.44). He knew this would look good to the public and support the army. One issue he made sure the public knew was that the league was nonpartisan and anyone from any political group was welcome. Coetzee points out that “The act of labeling the Army League a political association would have been tantamount to a declaration of war on all of the nationalist societies” (Coetzee, pg.47). This led to the German Army League becoming a prominent league throughout Germany. Many more branches spread out through the nation and attendance tripled. The German Army League had a constitution which clearly stated “the Army League served a dual purpose- to fortify the Germany army and to strengthen Germans’ patriotic consciousness” (Coetzee, pg.51). This was one of the ways the league was going to show the public that it was for a new Germany, and it was willing to do whatever it took to keep it a central power. Some of the propaganda that was employed was the use of word play “Adjectives like ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ were used frequently in its propaganda to reinforce the biological function of war” (Coetzee, pg.52). Not only this but the league would use slide shows so the meetings would look more interesting and keep the public informed. Coetzee also states that “In addition to slide shows, it was suggested that branches increase the number of patriotic celebrations and family entertainment evenings” (Coetzee, pg.70). This was a way to keep the public interested in the German Army League. Keim started the recruits early with having young boys join a group where they would be worked into shape and the school would install nationalistic ideas into their daily life. This enthusiasm did not stay for long. It is shown through the inside details Coetzee reveals that “the Federation [The German Army League] blamed its stagnation on a lack of inspirational leading personalities whose enthusiasm and organizational skills were essential to maintaining the necessary high level on enthusiasm and commitment” (Coetzee, pg.71). This shows the slow but sure decline in the pertinence and importance that this league served the German public.

As World War One got closer the public stopped paying dues and lost interest in preparing the army for a war that never seemed to come. Many people that were in the German Army league were also in some other patriotic leagues. Coetzee speculates that it “raises some questions about the commitment of those individuals who pledged themselves to several organizations simultaneously” (Coetzee, pg.98). It just goes to show that people seemed to not see why the Germans needed this big army; they did not see the big scare of the Triple Alliance. It seems that in conclusion to all of the propaganda and hard work, the Germans were not supporting the need of a big army. Coetzee explains “Yet the stagnating membership in 1913, followed by precipitously declining figures throughout the war and thereafter, suggested that the league’s members remained unconvinced” (Coetzee, pg.122). This seems to be the ending sentiments of an influential group throughout the eve of World War One. The German Army League was something that the German population needed, but they left behind them. Even when the German Army League expressed opinions about the economic state of Germany and they tried to help with raw materials that were scarce, it was lost on the German ears.

Many problems arose before the German Army Leagues efforts could be felt because it was felt by the members as not a needed nationalistic group. One of the big problems was the war the eventually came and hit Germany hard. Coetzee explains “Rather, mounting casualties, labor unrest, and general war weariness undermined the league’s influence” (Coetzee, pg.114). The war also sent the major leaders, such as Kiem, to different points. The league lost any kind of major leader in the executive committee and had to be run by dedicated members. This did not last very long, but the league tried hard to stay together through out the hardships. A large problem that faced the German Army League is purely financial. Coetzee says “By 1917 the league’s treasury had become so depleted that the executive committee voted to abandon paying the postage for subscriptions to Die Wehr” (Coetzee, pg. 115). The repercussions of this were that without a paper there was no way to keep in touch all throughout Germany. The members of the league were also not willing to pay their outstanding membership dues. Even with some contributions by individuals the league could not recover from their financial deficiency. With the inability to fund the league it was not able to stay together. Not only financial difficulties, but the war took a huge toll on membership. This was the reasons why the German Army League eventually disbanded during World War One.

The critics of this book vary and some would say it’s a well written book while others agree that it was not long enough or did not look at the important issues. I tend to agree with the positive insight of the book. As one critic says “It is well written, well documented, has a valuable bibliography and an adequate index” (Eleanor Turk, pg.409). I would agree that Coetzee keeps good notes and goes into the inner workings of the German Army League with painful detail. In conclusion to this book she does a good job of describing how this league came to be an important part of German history and how Keim was a very important part of having it stay in existence for so long. As for one last observation Coetzee says, “Despite the league’s impressive propaganda and persistent efforts to secure a German victory of the First World War, members failed to respond to its wider message” (Coetzee, pg. 122). The German Army League fulfilled its purpose as did Coetzee in diligently documenting this time in period.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

  • Review by Geoff Eley, in: American Historical Review, Vol. 96, No. 5. (Dec., 1991), pp. 1569-1570.
    This review mostly criticizes what is wrong with Coetzee's analysis of a book written by Eley. He deals with her interpretation of Wilhelmine Germany. I find his critique to be misleading and I found the book very interesting to read. jstor
  • Review by: Eleanor L. Turk, in: German Studies Review, Vol. 14, No. 2. (May, 1991), pp. 407-409.
    This review praises the book. It starts off with a bit of a summary of facts and continues to praise Coetzee’s work. The review gives readers a good idea of what the book is about and that it is a good book to read to learn about the German Army League. jstor
  • Berghahn, Volker R. and Wilhelm Deist. "The Nationalists Mobilize on Behalf of the Army: An Appeal by the German Army League: Aufruf des Deutschen Wehrvereins" [“An appeal by the German Army League”], Hamburger Nachrichten, No.84 Trans. Adam Blahut. (February 20, 1912).
    This newspaper article provided by the German Historical Institute talks about the founding of the German Army League. It mentions some of the great misfortune that the Army League saw before the Great War. The text gives a little historical background to the book.
  • Wikipedia: "Causes of World War I"
    This page gives a detailed historical view on the causes that led up to World War One. I used this to understand the changes that had to be made in a society before it could be ready to go into a total war mode of society. I wanted to make sure I knew the other causes and not just Marilyn Coetzee’s view.

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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