Comparative history is one of the key historiographical trends to have emerged during the twentieth century and more recently has been joined by transnational history.[1] While comparative studies of countries, institutions or experiences have its advantages, it is a field fraught with difficulties. On a practical level, there is the challenge of being competent in different languages in order to read primary source material and this is not just about being able to speak another language but also to be able to read it. Added to this is the fact that language is live and evolves over time. German of a hundred years ago is different to that of the present day. On a philosophical level, there exists the challenge of understanding an unfamiliar culture and society from the one in which you have emerged. I think I just about understand British military culture and maybe those of other English speaking nations but I am not so sure about other countries. Because of this, I have the utmost respect for those who have taken up the challenge of studying the history of another country and immersed themselves in their cultural mores. However, comparative history has its pitfalls and this usually emerges in works that are not explicitly comparing two differing institutions or societies. It normally appears in a work focused on one aspect but that then seeks to make a point of comparison with another country or institution in the hope of illustrating the efficacy of their argument and I think it is something that most historians do instinctively. Historians should be careful about this and ring-fence such conclusions as there are always PhD candidates around the corner willing to tug at the proverbial piece of string!

I came across a useful example of this recently concerning the history of professional military education (PME). I have just finished my chapter on military education in the inter-war Royal Air Force and I was re-reading James Corum’s work The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940, which provides just such an example of a poorly thought out comparison in what, is an otherwise excellent examination of the evolution of the Luftwaffe in this period.[2] In his chapter that deals with leadership and organisation, and where he details the education provided to Luftwaffe officers, Corum notes that:

In comparison with other major air forces of the time, the Luftwaffe officers and officers selected for the general staff received an education that was equal – and generally better – than the higher education offered by the RAF at its staff college at Andover and the US Army Air Corps in the Air Corps Tactical School [ACTS] at Maxwell…[3]

While Corum provides a useful outline of officer education in the Luftwaffe, I would suggest that this quote is a poor comparison on several levels. Firstly, comparing the ACTS to the RAF Staff College at Andover and the Luftwaffe’s Luftkreigsakademie is unfair as it was not where United States Army Air Corps officers went for their staff education. As USAAC was still part of the US Army, they still attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth; the wartime head of the United States Army Air Force, General Henry Arnold, attended in Leavenworth in 1929. ACTS was analogous to the many branch schools that formed part of the US Army at this point. Additionally, unlike Corum’s claim that it focussed on ‘precision strategic bombing’; Faber has shown that this is not the complete truth with a variety of courses run at ACTS.[4] It should also be noted that air power specific lectures at Andover rarely amounted to more than thirty per cent of the curriculum though it did form the major element of syndicate exercises. This illustrates a wide education from a service that was seeking to develop its officer’s intellectual agility as leaders.

The problem of comparing Andover to the Luftkreigakademie is also difficult as the former combined staff education with discussions of operations and doctrine while the latter only focussed on the latter. For staff education, Luftwaffe officers attended the Luftkreisschule in Berlin for four months and then, if selected, they proceeded to the Luftkreigakademie for a year. It is possible to criticise the lack of separation between staff education and the broader study of war at Andover but the Air Ministry viewed it as necessary. Two courses between 1926 and 1928 were temporarily extended to fifteen months in order to adjust start dates, however, the course returned to a year in length as soon as possible. The apparently more developed Luftwaffe experience must also be placed into the broader context of the history of staff education in the German military that was on much firmer ground than that in Britain. Nevertheless, attendance at Andover was part of a recognised leadership development program. By the start of the Second World War, the RAF was examining the possibility of establishing a ‘refresher’ course for selected officers that would have been useful to the service. Additionally, from 1927, RAF officers attended the Imperial Defence College that Corum admits provided the model for the Wehrmachtakademie established in 1935.[5] Given that the cadre of the RAF’s senior leadership of the Second World War were all selected to attend IDC then it could not have all been too bad. The notable exception was Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris who did not attend IDC or Andover.

A final problem with Corum’s comparison comes with his claim that officers from Andover or ACTS rarely studied foreign air forces. I cannot comment for ACTS but this is just not true of Andover. Study of the organisation of foreign air forces was prevalent from the first course in 1922 and from approximately 1927 onwards officers were encouraged to travel abroad to visit other services and report on them on their return. These reports were widely disseminated amongst the Air Staff.[6] Vincent Orange, in a 2006 Journal of Military History article, examines the influence that a report by Flight Lieutenant D.F.W. Atcherley and Squadron Leader Rowley on their visit to Germany had on Air Staff thinking. While it is unclear if this was an Andover sanctioned trip as Rowley was not a student at this time, it does seem that this visit was based on Atcherley’s earlier experience in 1936 when he was at Andover. Orange claims that this report ‘has never been published and “probably went unread, for the minute sheet is blank.”’[7] This is because the copy he cites is in the files of the Directorate of Intelligence (AIR 40) who was its end destination. The minute sheet for the AIR 2 files cited above illustrate that these reports were widely read in the Air Staff including the Directorate of Plans.

Where does this leave us concerning comparing military education systems between countries, as it is clear that it is dangerous to make direct comparisons without a greater understanding of these systems development? Firstly, I would suggest that the discussion on military education should be squarely placed within the context of the paradigm of leadership development as for too long both ACTS and Andover have been viewed through the prism of doctrinal development. While staff and war colleges play a role in the development of service thinking and doctrine these form part an action learning methodology that is part of the process undertaken by officers going through leadership programs. Second, on comparing education systems, Corum’s reliance on secondary sources for both ACTS and Andover highlight the problem of understanding culture and sources. While I am not advocating that Corum should have done archival research for a work that ostensibly focuses on the Luftwaffe, it does raise the question concerning what secondary sources you select as the basis for your comparison. Specifically, Corum does not cite a single source for his discussion of Andover while he relies singly on Robert Finney’s history of ACTS that was produced by the Office of Air Force History and for me this in not enough to be able to draw a useful comparison. This may seem a harsh conclusion but by not illustrating a wider reading on the subject its raises questions on how much the author understands the culture that produced these education systems and from where information is sourced.

Is there a solution to these challenges raised by comparative history? Yes. For me it lies squarely in the realm of the edited collection of essays. A standard form of transmitting historical ideas, the edited collection allows historians to provide a comparison of a theme while the contributory authors focus on an area cognisant with their expertise. While there is usually no conclusion provided, to me this has its own inherent advantage as it allows readers to draw their own views based on those presented. In the field of the history of PME A good example of this is Greg Kennedy and Keith Neilson’s volume Military Education that brought together a series of pieces examining the transnational experience that ranged across the 19th and 20th centuries.[8] More recently, there have been some excellent studies into military education such as Jörg Muth’s comparative study officer education in the inter-war US and German Armies, which illustrates what a command of sources from both sides can bring to this form of studies.[9] Additionally, Harry Dickinson has delivered a useful study of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich that includes some useful material on the Royal Navy’s Staff College that was founded in 1919 while Peter J. Schifferle has delivered an excellent view of Leavenworth in the same period.[10] Despite these I do think there is a need for a collection of essays that allows for a comparative and transnational study that compares the role of military education in the major powers of the inter-war period while also considering specific services settings too. Is this a clarion call…Perhaps…?


[1] Jeremy Black and Donald M. MacRalid, Studying History, Second Edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 104-109.

[2] James Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1997), 249-255.

[3] Ibid, p. 254.

[4] Peter R. Faber, ‘Interwar US Army Aviation and the Air Corps Tactical School: Incubators of American Air Power’ in Philip S. Melinger (ed.), The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 1997), p. 212.

[5] Corum, The Luftwaffe, p. 253.

[6] TNA, AIR 2/9367, Report by Flight Lieutenant L.K. Barnes and Flight Lieutenant D.F.W. Atcherley on Visit to Germany, April 1936; AIR 2/9371, Report on Visit by Staff College Students (Squadron Leader Pike and McEvoy) to Belgium, Germany,  Czecho-Slovakia and Austria, August 1937. See: Vincent Orange, ‘The German Air Force Is Already “The Most Powerful in Europe”: Two Royal Air Force Officers Report on a Visit to Germany, 6–15 October 1936’, Journal of Military History, Vol. 70, No. 4 (October 2006), pp. 1011-1028.

[7] Ibid, p. 1012.

[8] Greg Kennedy and Keith Neilson (eds.), Military Education: Past, Present and Future (Greenwood, CT: Praeger, 2002).

[9] Jörg Muth, Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II (Denton, TX: University of North Texas: 2011).

[10] Harry Dickinson, Wisdom and War: The Royal Naval College Greenwich, 1873-1998 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013); Peter J. Schifferle, America’s School for War: Fort Leavenworth, Officer Education, and Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010).

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6 thoughts on “Comparing Apples and Oranges…Or the Challenge of Comparative History

  1. I have seen and read Finney’s work. Given when it was produced it is a good work. I would like to see someone produce a new history. We have to remember it was written in a period just after USAF independence and while it would be nice to say that this had no influence on its production I am not sure that we can. An up to date analysis of ACTS would make for an interesting history I think.

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