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"The rise and fall of military honour in Western Europe, 1789-1918"

Final Report Summary - EMH (The rise and fall of military honour in Western Europe, 1789-1918)

The rise and fall of military honour codes is a timely topic. Although the term human rights is now used more commonly than honour in public discourses about restraints on violence in war, questions of normative conduct remain at the core of what expressly or subliminally unites international coalitions against perceived rogue states and ‘terrorists’. These norms reflect a widely held belief that soldiers in the eighteenth-century’s Age of Reason acted with restraint towards each other, that this ‘enlightened’ consensus was gradually lost with the advent of total war between 1789 and 1945, and that modern armies are in the process of reconnecting with the cosmopolitan, albeit Eurocentric, ideals of their predecessors. The EHM project set out to investigate this narrative. It tested, firstly, whether the so-called ‘long nineteenth century’ (1789-1918) did fore-ground a break in historical continuity and – if so – to what extent. Secondly, it explored ways of conceptualising how even a social phenomenon as destructive as war could serve to further transnational dialogue in Western Europe. Thirdly and more specifically, the project studied the instrumentalisation of honour in the multilateral setting of prisoner-of-war regimes. For much of the time period under consideration officers captured in battle could pledge their word of honour (parole d’honneur) not to escape in return for freedom of movement within or en route to their place of confinement. Provisions for parole d’honneur-based agreements remained a stock-in-trade of international agreements to ameliorate the effects of war like the Hague Conventions (1899/1907), yet such concessions to chivalry in the end did little to prevent large-scale excesses against military captives in the First World War. Was this deterioration the result of a clash between cosmopolitan values and the rise of xenophobic nationalism?

Research conducted on the basis of a broad range of published and archival sources for EHM showed that while the shift away from mercenary to conscript armies in the wake of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars did have a nationalising effect, the unprecedented interaction of populations from different parts of Europe also fostered respect for each other. Furthermore, given that these so-called ‘French Wars’ were accompanied by extensive territorial revisions in continental Europe which rendered political boundaries malleable, the distinction between comrade and enemy was never as clear-cut as the myth of the citizen-soldier fighting for a national cause suggested. Instead of marginalising the transnational code of civility enshrined in parole d’honneur, nation-building in the later nineteenth century actually appears to have made the enforcement mechanisms more stringent. Prussia, France, and other countries introduced the death penalty on violations of parole d’honneur complementary to the shaming of non-conformists by the ever more powerful mass media. Moreover, despite the severe restrictions imposed on the mobility of both officers and men in captivity during the First World War, the ‘small parole’ (i.e. written promises from captives to remain within a fixed geographical area in return for permission to go on unsupervised walks) continued to be exchanged. The tentative conclusion of EMH is therefore that military honour did not so much lose its relevance as contribute to a general climate of violence in which transgressions entailed dire consequences because national reputations were put at stake.

To better understand the collectivisation of honour, EMH decided to take a closer look at the social dynamics within Western European armies. In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the separation between the ranks was strict; only officers possessed the right to give parole, and even among the commission holders there existed hierarchical gradations. The horizontal stratification of military honour in the subsequent century posed a thorny dilemma for governments about whether to extend the privilege of parole to the rank-and-file. On the one hand the introduction of conscription in France, the German states, and much of the continent made distinctions based on social rank seem outdated, but at the same time the horizontal stratification of parole challenged head-on conscript armies’ claim that every male citizen was liable to serve his country. As the honour code began to transcend the officer caste and indeed the category of legally recognised combatants, as civilian detainees suffered captivity in increasing numbers between 1789 and 1918, the moral responsibility for compliance came to rest on every POW, which in theory bypassed the chain of command and empowered individuals to withhold further service from their country by accepting parole.

In foreign policy, too, military honour was an intrinsically political commodity. When used by warring parties to constrain the unnecessary suffering of captured enemies, statesmen could use mutual adherence to a higher ‘civilising process’ (Norbert Elias) to build trust but also to fuel national passions when one side’s compliance was cast in doubt. EMH’s study of parole d’honneur demonstrated, however, that the criteria of civility were never fixed since they generated claims and counter-claims about what qualified as ‘honourable’ conduct. The major finding of EMH was that far from becoming obsolete, the transnational articulation of military honour remained a constant in Western European warfare because of its very adaptability to both the logic of humanitarianism and justifications for unbounded conflict.

The target audience of the project are not only military, legal, and diplomatic historians but also policy-makers and educated non-specialists interested in learning more about the role of the military as an instrument of cross-cultural communication and understanding the conjoined evolution of humanitarian values and total war in the formative phase of modern warfare between the Revolutionary and First World Wars.

Contact person: Dr. Jasper Heinzen (