This article started out as a hunt for information on German
imperial cadet helmets. As one thread lead to another,
I found that I had to learn more to figure out what I wanted.
It took a long time to have it all fall into place. The book
For King and Kaiser by Steven Clemente finally provided
the rest of the insights I needed in English. What I found
surprised me. Given a lifetime opinion of officer's,
general staffs and pre-commissioning training formed in the
US Army and by reading English language accounts of mostly
English officer ways, I soon found the Germans were quite
different. For each and every rule there were always exceptions.
We Value Loyalty and Obedience … exclusively.
It is outside of my scope to
go back to the historical foundation of the officers in Prussia but
it is important to know that it came from a feudal structure
with the service of vassals to the king. Nineteenth century
Prussians seemed to make out as though this was some sacred
bond when medieval reality was different as kings had difficulty
enforcing fealty. None the less this bond of vassal to king
and obedience to his will dominated the entire scene. We wanted
and insisted on loyal officers. Ones we could trust
through thick and thin no matter what to be loyal to the king.
Led by the nobility of the eastern provinces known as Junkers
, The admission to the officer ranks had to be tightly controlled
to enable only the loyal obedient types to enter into this
most respected and sacred profession.
Oh crud the population and army is expanding.
first kink in the armor was size. In 1914 the army was 761,000
men, 26,000 regular officers and 25,000 officers in the reserve.[i]
More officers were needed than the nobility could provide.
Historically there were nobles and officers from traditional
officer families. These were good solid stock that could
be counted on. Now expansion would find us accepting
others into the fold so the Junkers had to find a way to restrict
entry into the fold to only those who had the right attitude.
In general there were three classes of people.
nobility and with them traditional old officer families.
middle class. Some quite rich but families without the
benefit of nobility.
Class #1 had always filled officer ranks. Now, due to
the size of the Army, some of class #2 had to be let in and
under no condition what so ever would anyone from class #3
enter. Some is a relative word. By 1913, 70% of the army was
middle class and 48% of the generals were middle class.
Well, if the 1st class guys had to have some #2s
added in they certainly didn't need to hang out with them.
The tool to do this was the elite regiment. At first
all of the #1s went to cavalry regiments. However, not all
nobility could afford the extra expense of maintaining a horse
etc. so the Foot Guard regiments became exclusive too. The
bottom of the totem pole was the technical regiments of Pioneer
and Foot Artillery. Those fields that required thinking were
good for the #2s, the #1s would focus on saber waving. There
was a lack of prestige as well as technical schools required.
Technical schools meant having to pass courses as well as
Even by the time of the death of Fredrick the Great 10%
of the army were #2s and they were all focused in Pioneer
and Foot Artillery regiments.
[iii] Regimental exclusiveness
did not end. By 1913, 16 regiments were exclusively
noble, Eighty % of cavalry officers, 48% of infantry
and 41% of field artillery were noble. A few middle classers
made it into the guards regiments. These were known as Concession
Joes (Konzessionschulzes) and were not very welcome.[iv]
An example from the 1912 Rangliste gives 36
of 36 non-nobles in IR154.
following table gives you a feel for branches in 1861.[v]
For some reason I was never able to find reference
to Train Battalions. No telling where they fit but
as they were not saber guys probably quite low.
Did I forget that we wanted quality?
Short answer is that is wasn't that important. In fact it
could be a threat. As more #2s entered the officer ranks with
good solid skills those #1s who did not posses those skills
or scores had to be protected. The American army is rife with
nepotism but still the son has to have certain minimum skills.
Not so in the Prussian ranks. You had to have birth,
loyalty and obedience. Attitude could make up for many
other failings. In all schools there were exceptions made
to allow instructors to give extra credit to candidates with
good attitudes. So a non-passing score could be rescued
by deportment. Likewise a superb score of a #3 could be made
failing by his "attitude".
Schools were nothing like in the USA
The German school system provided the road into commissioning.
Just like the US system but it is REALLY different.
In today's US world
you go to primary, (8 years) secondary school, (4 years) and
then, when 18 years old, college (4 years). If that
college is an academy like West Point
, you are commissioned at graduation. You can join the Reserve
Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) in a standard university and
be commissioned upon graduation after at least a couple years
of cadet training. All commissioned folks have 16 years of
school a college education and a commission as a second lieutenant
at about age 21 or 22. Source of commissioning matters not
after young lieutenants get into their units. Nepotism
Not so the Imperial German. The striking thing about
the German officer is youth. Far younger than any of
his western counterparts you could find officers at 17. Without
talking maturity or education you find yourself looking at
long service Germans rushing to get commissions and starting
the clock on seniority. You could go the cadet route or the
Fahnenjunker civilian route. Source of commission is very
important as is nobility.
If we look at the American system everyone goes to school
until age 18 and graduation from secondary school. Germans
started at age 6 and had to go to age 14. This was primary
school or Volksschule. Unlike western public schools Imperial
German secondary school was not free to the parents. It is
also VERY confusing because if the child was going to attend
secondary school he transferred into a private secondary school
at age 9. So parents had to start shouldering the economic
costs of the education from age 9 until they could stop supporting
the child. If the child would not be sent to secondary school
he would remain in primary school until age 14 all at no additional
cost to the parents.
So now you see why the emancipation of students became a major
concern of families. Perhaps you begin to ferret out why commissioning
and self sufficiency seemed so urgent. You also see that families
had to decide very early (age 9) to bear this expense or not.
Two basic types of Secondary Schools
While there were several types and focuses there were basically
2 types of secondary schools; "6 year" and "9
year". They were the same except for the addition
of 3 more classes in the 9 year version. At the end of 6 years
of secondary school you stood at the age of 14 the required
epitome of this education was to take an exam called the Abitur.
After 9 years of school. Passing this exam guaranteed you
good jobs. However you had to stay in secondary school until
age 17-18 and pass a very difficult test. You could also leave
school with a certificate of the highest grade qualified for.
About 30% of the 9 year secondary graduates earned the Abitur.[vi]
A test taken 3 years earlier was often far
more important to student and families. Known as the
One Year Certificate qualification, you could take it at the
end of 6 years and if passed you qualified to be a One Year
Volunteer (OYV). This meant only one year of service.
The cost however was huge almost 2000 marks or the equivalent
to a year in the university. Why would one do this?
The advantage of being able to seek a reserve commission was
worth going into debt to be a OYV.
could also go to a cadet school. Cadets were an interesting
lot. By 1910 2/3rds of the cadets were non-noble.
[viii]The major investiture
was the quasi-formal clothing ceremony. The picture of the
Saxon Cadet I have should show how indifferent the issuers
were for size of these issues of the lower cadet schools.
Prussian lower schools did not wear helmets but each school
had a unique uniform. If it was too large you had no recourse
in this issue uniform but to grow into it.
[ix] Cadet life seemed to
revolve around efforts to find food as their normal fare was
inadequate. Some Saxon cadets moved into the Prussian system but
stood alone and
arguably always better. Saxony did maintain a separate cadet corps.
Doctorate is the calling card but the Reserve Commission is
the open door."[x]
German society was made of haves and have less'. To be a have
you needed a commission. It didn't make you noble but allowed
you to do work in honor for a lifetime. A reserve commission
allowed you to be one of the elite of society. True,
not an active officer but a pretty good deal that lasted a
You could take the OYV examination at the end of the 6th year
of secondary school or after 6 years of the 9 year school.
You didn't have to finish the whole nine years. The
OYV certificate acted as a diploma of sorts for many employers.
An interesting point is that OYVs did not have to enter active
service for their year until they were 20. So the candidate
had years for education or employment.
additional certificate, the
Prima certificate was supposedly a requirement to take the
Fähnrich exam. Reality in officer selection allowed for
royal dispensation which ensured all the "right"
folks could take the exam. Or even not take the exam and have
an automatic pass. As a side, the Bavarian system was far
more rigid requiring an Abitur to get a commission. As a result
by 1914 only 15% of the Bavarian officer's had noble titles.
number of dispensations is always played down. Not that
many is the conventional wisdom. Let's take a look at
test totals for a couple years:[xii]
taking Fähnrich test
taking Fähnrich test
taking Fähnrich test
taken after was school
Several hundred took the officer test without taking the Fähnrich
test. That is quite a few dispensations and exceptions by
my counting. In 1900 holders of the Abitur (and anyone
with a year in University) were exempted from the Fähnrich
If there were about 100 dispensations then about 200 Abitur
holders skipped the exam. Of the 25,670 aspirants between
1870 and 1914 who decided to leave school early and take the
Fähnrich test 43% of those were cadets[xiv].
were far more desirable to a regiment than a civilian taking
the Fähnrich test. In 1871 the senior cadet school has
700 cadets and supplied 40% of the army"s officer requirement.
By 1889 the number of cadets had risen to 960 and the permanent
home at Gross-Lichterfelde was established. This was
the senior institution. Relate it to the civilian schools,
the top 3 grades from ages 14-17. There were no less
than eight junior campuses which fed the senior institution.
(Köslin,Postdam,Wahlstatt, Bensberg, Plön, Oranienstein,Naumberg,
and Karlsruhe .) You started at age 10 at the lower
school and moved to the senior school at about age 14. Families
paid for cadet school. It was not free or subsidized.
The number of officers provided annually during the 20th
century was 240.[xv]
The incentive again was to get these boys out to earn a wage
and not burdening the families with school costs. Scholarships
were available to help defray the cost and as a tool to ensure
unwanted folks could not afford it.
So What Were the Steps to Becoming an Officer?
As you can imagine the steps were full of exceptions and changes
all aimed at ensuring the right guy got in and the wrong guy
did not. The basic ten steps to commission were similar for
both the civilian method, Fähnenjuker, or the cadet schools.
Some of these had more exceptions than others.
Step 1. Find a Regiment
Guard and Cavalry regiments actively recruited nobles to keep
the regiments pure. Sort of like modern recruiting, all methods
were used to lure the young nobleman. They used fancy uniforms
and depot locations near fashionable large towns. Guard and
cavalry units could expect additional income of 1000 marks
per month for a candidate Remote lower regarded regiments
often had problems attracting new blood. None-the-less,
they insisted on a rigid class and social pick in step 2.[xvi]
maintenance of high social standards led to great shortages.
8% short in 1889 of total officer billets. In 1902 56 infantry
regiments received no applications! This was blamed on middle
class folks not wanting to wade through the army’s prejudice.
Step 2. Get Regimental Colonel to
sponsor you to qualify.
This was the key and maybe most
difficult step on the ladder. The family was looked
at in detail as well as the candidate. Sufficient
income was required and the regimental commander and
his other officers didn’t want to accept a fiscal
problem maker. A somewhat sad story is told by Vera
von Etzel about how Artur v.
Klingspor made it into the Kürassier-Regiment
von Seydlitz (Magdeburgisches) Nr.7. Very expensive
gear at that time and a burden even for his father,
Lieutenant Gen. Leo v.
Klingspor. The older brother was subsidized
by his father and received his commission. But he
after his younger brother, Hans Arvid, died
while in the academy. Perhaps the loss of a son
required his father to make sure his surviving son
was in the 'best'. But the enormous cost of a
'fancy' regiment would keep the regiments populated
by the more affluent - the 'vons'.[xviii]
The father and son went to a dinner to be seen by
all a one night precursor of step 8. The Colonel
would not give final approval until the Fähnrich
exam was passed or in the bag. Cramming with a tutor
for the exam was a standard practice.
3. Pass the Fähnrich examination
you were supposed to have a Prima certificate or dispensation
to gain entry. 90% had a Prima Certificate. 75% passed the
first time. You could take it again and few if any failed
the second time. If indeed they did fail the second time it
was into the ranks as an OR. In 1890 the Kaiser demanded leniency
in grading. If leniency failed he used dispensations
which totaled over 1000 between 1901 and 1912.[xix]
the end of 6 cadet years or the age of 17 the cadets took
the Fähnrich exam and merged into the commissioning process.
Cadets were a little different because they were called Brevet
Fähnrich. If you really did well on the Fähnrich exam you
could be selected as a Selekta cadet and maintained at the
school. They became cadet non commissioned officers and "ran"
the non-senior cadets in the following year. There was a huge
advantage of being a Selekta. If you passed the Officers
exam you got commissioned. No need to be voted on buy
the officers of the regiment.[xx]
You could also stay at the academy, delay commissioning and
try for the Abitur. The Selekta helped you for the rest of
your military life. The Abitur was a civilian life advantage.[xxi]
Never the less the number of military Abitur holders grew
steadily from 1/3 in 1880 to 2/3rds in 1912. The number
of middle class officers who saw the lifelong civilian advantages
of the Abitur took sway.[xxii]
Step 4. Spend time in the ranks in the regiment
folks that passed moved into the regiment as an OR but was
referred to as an "avantageur". Officially, the
title was "Officeraspirant" that title was officially
changed in 1899 to "Fähnenjunker". He wore
a portapee that identified him. He lived in the barracks for
a period that varied by regiment from 6 weeks to 1 week. He
started as a Gemeiner and when he moved out became a Gefreiter.
All costs associated with his service were borne by him like
a OYV. At this point he could also have a civilian batman.[xxiii]
promoted to unteroffizer he got to eat at the officer's mess.
At this point he started being called Fähnrich. The word
Portapeefähnrich went away in 1899. A Fähnrichsvater
was appointed to be his mentor. Long drinking bouts and rules
of the mess were common place. While the Fähnrich was
encouraged to spend freely, indebtedness was a major embarrassment
for the entire mess. Step 4 passed quicker and quicker. At
first 6 months, the time shortened to three months (two if
you came from a cadet school) by the turn of the century.
There were exceptions as some cadets left the academy with
some advanced training and were considered Patent Fähnrich.
They never were privates just Gefrieter.
The time in the ranks was so short folks didn't learn the
system. Only the reserve officers who went through the
year as a OYV understood the difficulties of the OR.
Step 5. Be promoted to Fähnrich "if
all went well".
aspirant applied to the colonel that he was "qualified"
and deserved a military qualification certificate (Dienstzeugnis).
If approved by the colonel and ALL of the officers of the
regiment he was officially promted to Fähnrich and paid a
salary. He also got to wear the silver sword
knot. Between 1892 and 1894 for example, of the cadets 59%
became Brevet Fähnrich, 10% Patent Fähnrich
and about 1/3 were Selekta.
Step 6. A course at the
Abitur holders, Selekta cadets and civilian Abitur holders
who had been University students for a year were exempted
from this requirement. However, If you look at the ages you see that expanded civilian education
took time and money whereas you could skip the education and
go into the commissioning system and start making money and
seniority. This course shrunk in length as the need for officers
became more pressing and the desire became to commission in
1 year. At the end of the course you took the officer’s exam.
This course eventually went to seven months in length.[xxvi]
7. Pass officer exam (become a DegenFähnrich) and return
Cadets went straight to step 10 if they passed. . Passing
was not a problem (98% pass with re-take option.). Obedience
and attitude came before grades. It was considered far easier
than the Fähnrich exam.
[xxvii] At the regiment the
Fähnrich waited (briefly) for a vacancy and for the next steps
to be completed.
Step 8. Regimental officers balloted,
to see if they agree to accept candidate.
cadets did not have to undergo this. Majority vetoes were
final. Minority vetoes had to be sent to the King for
decision. If you failed you were either sent to another regiment
for another try or to the reserves in disgrace or with a major
stigma. Few candidates failed as it required going against
the Colonel’s wishes. Some were rejected in full knowledge
because of a lack of personal wealth in which case the candidate
was sent to another regiment without stigma.
Step 9. Colonel Recommends
Promotion to Second Lieutenant to Kaiser
Fähnrich became a second lieutenant and a member of the
social elite. EXCEPT if you were in the Foot Artillery or
Engineers. These two branches considered the newly commissioned
as supernumeraries until they had served one or two years,
attended technical school, and passed a qualifying exam.
[xxix] Technical schools
were viewed by the nobility as "schools for plumbers".
[xxx] Is there any question
why the nobles eschewed these branches?
Step 10.Promotion is Officially Gazetted[xxxi]
There were all sorts of rules for seniority and backdating
dates of rank but it is outside my scope to dwell on these.
Abitur holders finally got payback and got their dates of
rank predated 2 years.
you are an Officer or “Trick or Treat you are in the
Being one of the
elite you found yourself in another world. There
were no rules for promotion. That’s right no rules.
Seniority and noble connections both mattered. A
normal progression was 8 years, to First Lieutenant,
14 to Captain, 25 for Major, and 30 for Lieutenant
Colonel. Pay was not reasonable as it was 1/5th
of his American counterpart.[xxxii]
Low pay with
high status meant that marriage had to be a business
deal where the girl brought the “bacon” to the
table. It was not unusual to use a marriage agency
nor for the brides father to assume the officer’s
existing debts. Marriage had to be approved by the
regimental commander to ensure the woman had enough
money and an unblemished record.
[xxxiii] Have you
ever noticed how unhappy German brides look in their
wedding pictures? Maybe it was cultural. At least
my wife smiled when we got married.
So life wasn’t
always rosy but now we know how you got to this
social plateau. Clemente’s book was heavily relied
on for citations in this article but as you can see
the pages and information had to be rearranged. What
are my conclusions?
were far younger and less well educated than
their western counterparts.
Wealth and social
position drove the train.
There were many
regiments where the have – less types resided.
For every rule
there were exceptions made for the right person.
So there it is in
short (well sort of not exactly 300 pages.). Have
at it all critiques very welcome.
[i] Clemente, Stephen, For King and Kaiser,
Greenwood Press, Westport , CT , 1992, p205.
[iii] Clemente, Stephen, For King and Kaiser,
Greenwood Press, Westport , CT , 1992, p3.
[iv] Ibid. pg 206.
[v] Ibid. pg 16
[vi] Ibid. pg 32
[vii] Ibid. pg 33
[viii] Op cit. Clemente, pg 111.
[ix] Ibid pg. 115
[x] Ibid. pg 115.
[xi] Ibid. pg 41
[xii] Ibid pg 258
[xiii] Ibid. g.43
[xiv] Ibid, pg. 212.
[xv] Op Cit Clemente, pg. 82-83
[xvi] Op Cit Clemente, pg 64
[xvii] Ibid. pg. 207.
[xviii] Wehrmacht-Awards thread, Prussian
Commissioning, 7/28/2004 Posted by Brian S.
[xix] Op cit Clemente pg 43.
[xx] Ibid pg. 94
[xxi] Ibid. pg 101
[xxii] Ibid. pg 209.
[xxiii] Ibid. pg 72
[xxiv] Ibid pg 73-74.
[xxvi] Ibid, pg.150
[xxvii] Ibid, pg 150-157.
[xxviii] Ibid. pgs 158-159.
[xxix] Ibid. pg 160.
[xxx] Ibid. pg 210.
[xxxi] Martin, A.G., Mother Country Fatherland,
Macmillan & CO, London , 1936 pg 16
[xxxii] Ibid. pg. 161-162.
[xxxiii] Ibid. pg 163-164.