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Project D5

Comparing French and German Models of the Heroic in Military Testimonials, 1756-1815


Prof. Dr. Ronald G. Asch
Kelly Minelli

Department of History

This project researches the heroic models and forms of heroic (self-)representation of military officers in the period between the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars. Personal accounts of enlisted men and aristocratic officers are also analyzed. The main sources used in this project are autobiographies, memoirs and diaries, many of which were published by the authors or their families in the decades following their time of active duty. In order to discuss the how authors reinterpreted their war experiences by justifying themselves and making changes after the fact through the use of literary conventions, this analysis also examines war letters. The profound change not only in how wars were fought, but also in the use of force in this period led to a transformation of the heroic model. The image of the hero as an aristocratic officer in the time before 1790 changed profoundly during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and even common soldiers were increasingly ascribed the ideal of heroic masculinity and were given the possibility to become heroes. This project poses the following questions: To what extent did the heroic models of officers and soldiers converge with one another? What were the similarities, differences or overlapping characteristics of various heroic models, such as the aristocratic military leader, professional officer and “citizen” soldiers? How did the notions of honor that were primarily important for aristocratic officers before the Seven Years War develop into a contested symbol of regimental honor for regular enlisted men during the 18th century?

In exploring these question, this research focuses on the cultural transfer between Germany and France. The Seven Years War was the period during which the ideal of the Prussian drilled soldier “machines,” that signified military superiority emerged in Jena and Auerstedt. France’s citizen soldiers also became models for Prussia and other German territories. Finally, this research also explores possible differences in German and French personal accounts and the way new and changing heroic models of soldiers were received by both sides.

Working with the theory of the military historian Yuval Harari, this project will research how the authors addressed emotions and physical sensitivity in this transitional period of conceptualizing military heroism. It asks to what extent Harari’s theory applies to the increasing reliance on violent military experience as a part of the individual’s heroic self-discovery after 1750. Influenced by a culture of sensitivity and the notion of “sublime experience,” these authors also more strongly emphasize their sensitivity and physical reactions to their violent war experiences. This begs the question of how direct experiences with death and injury were processed in the context of war. Were the transgressive characteristics of heroic soldiers, which had been repressed since the Enlightenment, on the rise again after the 1790s, or had they become easier to describe again, if nothing else? This project will also research how the pain, fear, courage and zeal of war were portrayed, along with its meaning for the characterization and stylization of the heroic ideal.