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The Vanguard System


Gerhard von Scharnhorst, 1755–1813

1,808 words

Frank Martell looks to military history for a model for superior political organization

Late in 1916, Lenin told his tiny group of Bolshevik cadres in Switzerland that it was clear to him that they would never be able to seize power in Russia in his lifetime. Nothing could make clearer the way in which even an experienced revolutionary leader cannot know when his time may come. Some great political changes come about within a few years, but most result from struggles which must be measured in terms of decades. Recognizing this, all political parties which seek radical change must organize themselves for long term success, even if this commitment of time, energy, and resources comes at the sacrifice of short term progress.

In this sense, the most important task for the BNP must be the development of its young activists. This must go far beyond their reading a few handbooks and attending some meetings; a completely new approach is needed. It is best described as the Vanguard System, and is a radical departure from conventional hierarchy in that it respects talent rather than seniority. It is not an untried gimmick, although it has only been instituted by two nations in history. Let us first examine how it worked in those instances, and then discuss how to apply its principles to our present situation.

East and West

The system was first created in the East in the thirteenth century by Genghis Khan and his Prime Minister, Yelieu Chutsai. In the West, it was developed 600 years later by the German generals Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The Mongols called their system the Orkhan and its leaders were known as Orlok. The German version became the General Staff System.

Both operated in almost exactly the same manner, except that the Mongols used the structure to select, train, and place their political administrators as well as their military commanders. The system was so effective in producing top-level military and political directors that Russian kings, up to and including Ivan the Terrible, hired Mongol military and political advisers in preference to European ones, who were considered ignorant by comparison.

In Prussia, the system developed as a direct result of the annihilating defeats of the Prussian Army at Jena and Auerstadt by Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon had himself created a general staff to execute his plans quickly and efficiently, but it remained a purely administrative machine.

The Prussian General Staff, on the other hand, was designed by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to be the brain of the army. It was structured not only to execute plans, but to devise them. It was an attempt to create what British military theorist J. F. C. Fuller called “artificial genius,” which would enable to the Prussian army to compete with the French under Napoleon—perhaps the greatest military mind in Western history.


August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, 1760–1831


Scharnhorst and Gneisenau knew that they did not have anyone available to challenge Bonaparte with any chance of success, so they sought to make every subordinate part of their army superior to every subordinate part of Napoleon’s. Thus, from 1813–15, they would retreat from that part of the French army led personally by Napoleon, and attack those parts led by his marshals, who were inferior in quality to Prussian General Staff officers, despite the much greater battlefield experience of the French commanders.

The system is based on six ideas, three positives and three negatives:

1. That indirect experience (i.e. study) is superior to, and more easily obtained than, direct experience;

2. That young minds are more flexible and more imaginative than old ones;

3. That young bodies are more energetic than old ones;

4. That the political leadership will tend to appoint top military commanders on the basis of political considerations rather than on grounds of military talent;

5. That older commanders will be envious of younger ones with more ability, and will attempt to prevent their rise;

6. That officers will identify foremost with their branch or service and not with the army as a whole; and,

7. That organizational solutions which harness the first three phenomena can solve problems 4, 5, and 6.

The German system operated as follows:

Young men between the ages of 17 and 18, from all classes (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau rose from the middle class and neither was Prussian), were selected for the War Academy through a series of interviews and examinations. The selectors looked for unorthodox minds.

After a three-year cadet stage and two years of experience as low-ranking officers, the best trainees were selected for General Staff training. They were educated and prepared for the highest-level command positions. They learned history, tactics, strategy, grand strategy, organization, leadership, and staff operations. They played sand-lot war games to learn tactics, board war games to learn strategy, and they engaged in field exercises and maneuvers to apply their theoretical knowledge.

Study and professionalism

Napoleon once said that to be a great captain, one had to read about the great captains. The Germans too recognized that history was the foundation of military wisdom, and that study was the essence of professionalism. They therefore systematized the study and teaching of history.

In the early days the Chief of Staff of the Army, who was directly subordinate to the King (the Commander in Chief), personally selected General Staff officers, and placed and promoted them in the military bureaucracy. As the army grew, later Chiefs of Staff relied on a Chief of Personnel to do this, but kept a close watch on the process.

The officers of the General Staff were not considered part of any branch or service except the General Staff itself, and each wore red stripes on his trousers to indicate the fact. Thus they identified only with the part of the army which was responsible for the overall development and guidance of the military organization.

General Staff officers moved rapidly up the military bureaucracy, running the army through staff positions. The actual commander of a corps would almost always be a politically important aristocrat. If he was very stupid, he would be appointed a very sharp Major as his Chief of Staff by the Personnel Department. If he was of mediocre quality he would be appointed a good Chief of Staff. If the commander was brilliant and could do his own thinking, then he would be given an efficient administrator, rather than a thinker. Thus, for example, during the Second World War the great commander Erich von Manstein was denied his choice for Chief of Staff of his Army Group in Russia with a note from the Personnel Department saying that he did not need such a talented officer as his second.

The real commanders

But in most cases, it was the Chiefs of Staff, rather than the less intelligent commanders who ran things and who issued the orders from headquarters. The commander would overrule his Chief only if he was willing to do battle with the Chief of Staff of the entire army, who would normally back his staff officers to the hilt.

There were few commanders who had the courage to defy the General Staff, particularly after the successes of the system in the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars of 1866 and 1870–71 respectively. Thus the German army was nominally run by old commanders, but was in fact directed by a corps of young General Staff officers.

The model arrangement was the Gneisenau–Blücher relationship. Blücher was the commander of the Prussian army that fought Napoleon from 1813 to 1815. He was an endearing and courageous old man, whose fatherly leadership style inspired his soldiers. He was also none too bright, but was willing to admit his failings, and was resolved to compensate for them by surrounding himself with intelligent subordinates. Therein lay his greatness.

Blücher depended upon his Chief of Staff, Gneisenau, to make all of the important operational decisions. The old warrior led his troops from the front, and in the Waterloo campaign this nearly cost him his life when he was crushed by a falling horse on the battlefield of Ligny. If this had happened to Napoleon or Wellington, their armies would have panicked and collapsed. But Gneisenau continued to control the Prussian army from its rearward headquarters. When defeat loomed, he ordered it to retreat away from its supply base and to move towards Wellington’s army. This decision was very risky but strategically correct, and the Prussians arrived at Waterloo just in time to save Wellington from certain defeat.

Despite the success of the General Staff system during the Napoleonic Wars, conservative noble officers were able to undermine it in the 1830s by making the Chief of Staff subordinate to the Military Cabinet, which was dominated by conservative aristocrats. These men considered Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to be Jacobins and class revolutionaries, and they were determined to restore the principles of traditional hierarchy.

However, the General Staff system recovered its fortunes and established its legitimacy during the wars of German unification in the 1860s and 1870s. King Wilhelm I gradually developed complete confidence in his Chief of Staff, the Elder Moltke, allowing him great operational freedom in the war against France.

Unconventional thinkers prized

Moltke ran the army through lieutenant colonels, known informally as the “demigods.” He selected the most unconventional thinkers from the corps of General Staff officers, personally taught them, and placed them in key positions as Chiefs of Staff, or as operations, intelligence, or logistics officers with the various Prussian armies. The “demigods” actually made the decisions, the generals (the nominal commanders) carried out their plans.

Moltke also placed great emphasis on the historical section of the General Staff, which was set to record and analyze the operations of the army, and to draw lessons from other eras that could be applied to modern problems. The system worked so well that its efficiency was never again doubted by the officer corps of the German army.

In the First World War, German soldiers killed twice as many of the enemy as they lost themselves. The Allies so feared the German General Staff system that they outlawed it at Versailles, but foolishly did not adopt it themselves. The Germans pretended to abide by the ban, but in fact only closed the War Academy and decentralized General Staff schooling. The organization was hidden in the nondescript Truppenamt (Troop Office).

The quality of the German officer corps in the Second World War was extraordinary, both in terms of talent and depth. This was reflected in the fact that the Germans killed, overall, six for every man they lost in that titanic struggle. Only the Mongols, six centuries earlier, had been able to produce such a large corps of first-rate tacticians and strategists. As we will see, their secret, too, was a training system which went a step beyond hierarchies of age and experience.

Spearhead, no. 352, June 1998, pp. 18–19.