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Why fighting ends. A History of Surrender


25-28 June 2009

Venue: Weetwood Hall, Leeds

Convenors: Holger Afflerbach (University of Leeds), Hew Strachan (All Souls College, Oxford), and Andreas Gestrich (GHIL)

Outline of the Conference and guiding questions

This conference proposal presents an international scholarly cooperation between several institutions with the aim producing and publishing a meticulously researched volume of high scholarly standard on the topic of “surrender” in history. It will be a joint project of the University of Leeds and the Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War at the University of Oxford; the German Historical Historical Division of the German Army (Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Postdam (MGFA) have also agreed to contribute. The conveners want to invite a group of specialists to present papers at an international conference at the end of June 2009, hosted by the University of Leeds. The Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War will integrate the project in its running research programme “the changing character of war”, which has already published six volumes with Oxford University Press and has two more in preparation (The changing character of war series). It is hoped that OUP will also publish this conference volume.

The actual list of authors includes at the moment sixteen speakers from Britain, nine from the USA, six from Germany, one each from Austria, Canada, Ireland and Japan. A clear concept, rigorous guidelines as well as a careful discussion of the contributions during the conference, as well as careful editing of the manuscripts, will guarantee a maximum of coherence of the completed work.

The topic: Why fighting ends

The title and the central question of the conference is: How (why?) fighting ends. A history of surrender.

The plan is to analyze surrender from the times of Ancient Greece to the present. We want to look at surrender at three different levels, those of the simple soldier, the military commander and the parent society. The research will be limited for practical reasons on surrender in “the western way of war”, but on several occasions it will be possible to analyze fighting and surrender between Europeans and Non-European cultures, to look “over the fence”.

This analysis will be an attempt to redirect our historical vision towards a better understanding of defeat and surrender through a comparative approach. It seeks to present a cultural and social history of surrender ranging from wars in classic times to the beginnings of the twenty - first century, combining and including various approaches from classical military history to the history of changing mentalities, international laws and norms, and reaching into anthropology. Given the enormous range of possible topics, it is intended to work mainly with carefully selected case studies, which will, we hope, throw a light on typical problems of surrender in the epoch and culture they are chosen from.

In European wars, even in total wars like World War I and World War II, armies normally preferred to surrender, but the point at which the decision to surrender was taken is a difficult question to answer.

We want to find answers to the following questions:

  1. How do battles end?
  2. When, and why, do soldiers stop fighting before they die?
  3. Is it possible to find an answer to this question for the different levels of combat, namely those of the individual soldier, of the military commander and of the parent society?
  4. And is it possible to make a comparison between the circumstances and motivations of surrender in different wars, epochs and cultures and to find some common patterns which allow us to make broader conclusions about the nature of warfare?

The topic is a small part of the big question at the heart of war; name the question why the soldier fights, how he fights, when and why he stops fighting - or even why not. The moment of surrender seems to be explicable through a model of consensus: soldiers risk their lives for a cause which is consensual in their societies and among their primary group, but only as long this promises success. If the continuation of fighting does not contribute to this goal, fighting stops, soldiers go into captivity, military units, ships, fortresses or headquarters surrender. This at least was the quintessential opinion of Carl von Clausewitz, who spoke about the moment of surrender several times in his seminal book “On War”, but unfortunately only en passant. He wrote: “ … there is a moment in war, in which the continuation of fighting is only a desperate stupidity… ”. ( Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, Erster Teil, Erstes Buch, p. 38)

Clausewitz describes the moment in which fighting stops as the moment in which units are “annihilated” – this is, according to his definition, the moment in which soldiers are unable to harm any more the enemy. “Annihilation” in the sense of Clausewitz does not mean the physical death of the vanquished party, but more the loss of cohesion of the unit of which he is a member.

Some modern military historians would probably argue that Clausewitz was the victim of an overly rational approach, a child of his times. John Keegan, as one of the most prominent military historians of our times, would probably connect the moment of surrender with his reflections on a “culture of war”, which is the “mindset” of the combatants, made up of the political circumstances, the convictions, interests and customs, the expectations, unspoken assumptions and fears, maybe even the impact of a male, militant self-image of masculinity as well as of the tendencies in the parent societies.

In other words: surrender is much less a rational decision than it seems, and is connected closely to the cultural background of the combatants. As Thomas Mann once said, culture and rationality can be totally different things.

Aims of the research

The projected outcome of our project is, as mentioned, a scholarly and carefully edited volume; the conference is the means to that end. We hope for a truly scholarly volume. It will offer stimulating and contrasting viewpoints and guarantee competence and diversity. To analyze the moment of surrender as closely as possible, we will ask our contributors to offer a „thick description“, based on sources, on a specific event which happened in their field of expertise. They will use the typical instruments of historians, namely the close analysis of sources. They will be asked to describe the “framework”, i.e. the actual military situation, the possibility of surrender, and then analyze the wishes and motivations of the surrendering soldiers. They should then provide an outlook on the subsequent fate of the vanquished, that is their fate in captivity or, as a returning but defeated soldier, at home.

To allow comparison, we have to limit the number of possible questions and find a kind of standard procedure. All the questions can be summarized by two big ones, namely:

  1. Do soldiers want to surrender? This embraces culture, religion, ideology; psychological factors like emotions, hate, vengeance, hope, feelings of honour; male self images as a warrior; the mood and convictions of the parent societies and the resulting “good boy orientation”.
  2. Do they have a realistic opportunity to surrender? This has to deal with the framework which normally stops the soldier from surrendering, even if he wants to. Here we have to mention questions of command and leadership; morale and discipline and the efficiency of punishment by military authorities; the mood and convictions of the parent societies, and whether they stigmatize surrendering soldiers (“with your shield or on your shield, but not without your shield”); the practical possibilities of surrendering (for example: fortresses and ships, as well as an early modern battle order or a Greek phalanx, offer the single soldier very limited or no real possibilities for individual surrender); the probable fate in captivity (for example the real or imagined fear that the enemy does not take prisoners); and rules and norms regulating that and many other points.

We understand war, fighting and surrender as historical facts, as well as comparable and very similar, but not as monolithic, concepts. For that reason we are looking for an intercultural comparison. Maybe it is possible to find a pattern which is applicable to surrender in all cultures and epochs. But at least we will find and compare similarities which will allow us to explain when, why and how fighting and therefore also wars ended in history.

The importance of this question, and the attempt to understand this as well as possible, means that it is worth trying and to get the best specialists we can so as to reach conclusions which will be helpful and productive for further research on the nature of warfare.


The conveners will try to get public attention for the conference and later also for the volume. The conference will be advertised on several mailing lists. They will also invite some journalists, mainly from Britain and Germany, and they will offer participation in the conference to an enrolled audience of advanced students and scholars. Details will follow and are dependent on the costs and the available finances.

Conference programme (PDF file)
List of speakers (PDF file)