Interview with Klaus Schmider
- Published: 03 December 2011 03 December 2011
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
AHF: Which trends in the contemporary WW2 historiography would you describe as good and which as bad?
Schmider: In the German media and politics there two current trends which are slightly worrying. One, there appears to be a declining interest to discriminate between the degrees of responsibility and culpability of individuals who served the Third Reich. Secondly, there is a creeping tendency to view Imperial Germany through the same lens, seeing it as the logical predecessor to Nazi Germany and quite often ending up by looking at it from a completely ahistorical perspective. What is truly disturbing is that a number of historians who are in a position to know better are taking their cue from this.
AHF: The interest in the Wehrmacht is not subsiding. How would you explain this?
Schmider: It’s important to realise that many of the Wehrmacht’s victories (even when they went hand in hand with more blunders then most people realise) are unique. When I wargame scenarios like the German landings in Norway or Crete with my students you can’t help feeling that there really was no way they should have been able to pull this one off. Regardless how often you repeat the process, the end result is always the same: an Allied victory. So how did those different outcomes come about ? Just as important is the ease with which most of its senior leaders allowed themselves to be corrupted by the regime and took part in crimes of commission or omission which they must have known were not just wrong, but in many cases counterproductive. Fear of the Gestapo rarely played a role, the last months of the war excepted. When it suited them, they were perfectly capable of countermanding a Fuehrer’s directive and even leave written evidence behind that they had done so. The moral corruption of an elite on such a scale is not without parallel in history, but the speed with which it happened is.
AHF: What about other topics? Which sub-fields do you think still need more research?
Schmider: The Spanish Civil War constitutes an interesting paradox. There are literally thousands of titles on it available, many of them very good. Even so there is a very one-sided focus on certain angles. A reader limited to English-language works, for instance, could be forgiven for thinking that the entire war can be reduced to a sort of private feud between the International Brigades on the one hand, and the Condor Legion, on the other. It’s like the Spaniards have been airbrushed out of the picture. The recent unearthing of numerous mass graves of victims of Francoist firing squads has given research a new impulse, but is yet to be followed up by research into the dynamics of repression on the rebel side. Above all, there is still a major dearth of biographies of high- to medium-level perpetrators.
As Parshall and Tully recently brought home to us, the Japanese side of WW 2 is in so many ways still the equivalent of the undiscovered country. That this should still be the case 70 years after Pearl Harbor will never cease to amaze me.
AHF: You teach at the UK Military Academy at Sandhurst. Can you tell us which topics dominate the curriculum (if it is not classified information)?
Schmider: Mostly post-WW 1 military history with insurgency and counter-insurgency occupying quite a bit of our time. We still dedicate a couple of seminars to the theories of Clausewitz, but are then forced to fast-forward to the 1920’s.
AHF: What are the differences in the way military history is taught there and on a “civilian” university?
Schmider: We tend to have less time to indulge in things like discussing the latest trends in historiography or allowing our students to take time off for the sort of research which will give them a degree by the end of the course. That’s just in the nature of the job and is unlikely to change.
AHF: You have what might be considered as a dream job for a military historian. Can you tell us something about working conditions there?
Schmider: The workload has increased considerably since I joined Sandhurst in 1999. What more than makes up for this are the students. They are always pressed for time to attend to a myriad of other duties, but always manage to be of good cheer – nearly all of them. Beats me how they do it.
AHF: An important question: do you find your salary adequate? Can one live off teaching history?
Schmider: I manage to get by.
AHF: How about publishing? Any money to be made there?
Schmider: That depends on the extent to which you’re willing to yield to a publisher’s siren calls and dump “unnecessary burdens” like source notes and bibliographical essays.
AHF: You have probably visited many archives-how do continental ones (e.g. in Germany) compare to those in English-speaking countries?
Schmider: Many German archives tend to have a major problem with the use of cameras. Photocopies, on the other hand, tend to be at least 20-30 % cheaper than in the PRO at Kew.
AHF: What would you advise to young archive-goers?
Schmider: From the first day keep a systematic record of every single file you’re perusing. Jot down at least a couple of sentences as to its content in such a manner that you’ll be able to make sense of it in a few years time when you refer back to it again. Also, don’t give up too soon. If the first volume of a particular file series doesn’t give you the jackpot, try two or three more. This way the chances of you turning away from what might have been the mother lode of primary sources without realising it will be diminished.
AHF: Serious researcher can’t do without archival documents. Can he do without the internet nowadays?
Schmider: From the very parochial viewpoint of a WW 2 historian: he probably still can. There are a few exceptions to this rule, like the magnificent Croat armed forces order of battle compiled by Henry de Zeng IV, but in other areas electronic tools can be a hindrance as much as a help. The Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg has an electronic catalogue, which in theory is a fabulous shortcut to the riches hidden in this magnificent archive. Problem is that the process of accessing it would probably have reduced a Bletchley Park codebreaker to tears.
AHF: How does oral history fit in your work? What are your experiences with interviewing veterans?
Schmider: Due to the time that has elapsed since 1945, I’ve interviewed only a handful. For my Ph.D I was extremely lucky to find three important players of the war in Yugoslavia: two German intelligence officers and a Yugoslav gentleman who was involved in the negotiations with the Germans in 1943. They gave generously of their time and provided a number of important nuggets of information. It is important to realise that very rarely will material witnesses be blessed with both a fabulous memory and a willingness to completely unburden themselves to a complete stranger. When a fact they tell you is truly crucial to the argument you’re trying to make, but cannot be corroborated by any other source, you must point this out to your readers in a footnote.
AHF: In 2002 your book on Second World War in ex-Yugoslavia was published and met an instant acclaim. Why Balkans?
Schmider: Pure chance. As luck would have it, a very good friend of mine and Professor Gerhard Weinberg (in a footnote of his magnum opus ‘A world at arms’) recommended the same subject. I had just given up on something completely different, so I decided to give it a shot.
AHF: Almost ten years have passed since it was published. Having gathered additional information in the meantime, would you find an overhaul necessary? What would you change?
Schmider: I would dedicate slightly more space to few ancillary subjects like the history of pre-war Yugoslavia. Also, I’ve found that some German sources I barely touched at the time (especially Kriegsmarine and NSDAP files) contain a number of surprising nuggets which I would like to include in a revised edition. Peter Broucek pointed out in his review that I needed to dedicate more space to the armed forces of the Croat state, and I think that was a valid criticism.
AHF: You have given detailed explanation of the inner workings of the Wehrmacht’s reprisal policies in occupied Yugoslavia. Would you consider the myth that the SS alone is to blame for the atrocities dead in German society?
Schmider: I think it’s fair to say that this particular myth was slain 30-40 years ago.
AHF: Your other (historical) interests cover “air and sea warfare” Could you elaborate on this?
Schmider: These were my main interest prior to joining the RMA Sandhurst. Can’t put it down to anything, pure idiosyncrasy. Years ago I intended to scratch this particular itch by writing an operational history of the First battle of the Atlantic, but I had to sacrifice this to other priorities.
AHF: What are your writing habits? What advice would you give in this respect?
Schmider: Get up at the crack of dawn and have a page written before breakfast. Needless to say, I’ve never managed to do this myself.
AHF: How does your work reflect on your private life? Is there spare time for other activities?
Schmider: Strangely enough, there is. This is down to the fact that when I don’t have at least a full fortnight which I can set aside for academic work, I don’t even bother trying.
AHF: Is there a book you are currently working on?
Schmider: A re-examination of Axis strategy in the late summer/autumn of 1941. Still needs a lot of work though.
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