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Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma: Consolidating Political Control While Maximizing Military Power

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Civil-military relations scholarship forecasts that governments fearing coups d’état and facing belligerent external and internal adversaries face a dilemma. Governments can coup-proof to reduce coup risk, but such measures reduce military effectiveness. Conversely, if they eschew coup-proofing to maintain military effectiveness, they risk coups. This paper explains how governments facing coup threats and belligerent adversaries can alleviate this dilemma. It first describes five coup-proofing measures that generally reduce military effectiveness, such as politicized promotion and reduced training, and two other coup-proofing measures that do not reduce effectiveness, bribery and indoctrination. Because leaders can pick and choose which coup-proofing measures to employ, leaders facing coup and belligerent adversary threats can reduce the coup-proofing dilemma by adopting those coup-proofing measures that do not reduce effectiveness and avoiding those measures that reduce effectiveness, within availability and dependence constraints. The paper presents a case study of coup-proofing in Nazi Germany, a deviant case for coup-proofing theory and democratic victory theory because Adolf Hitler avoided being overthrown in a coup and fielded an effective military. The case study demonstrates support for the theory that a leader can simultaneously reduce coup risk and optimize military effectiveness by employing some coup-proofing tactics but not others.
Foreign Policy Analysis (2020) 16, 312–331
Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma:
Consolidating Political Control While
Maximizing Military Power
DAN REITER
Department of Political Science, Emory University
Civil-military relations scholarship forecasts that governments fearing
coups d’état and facing belligerent external and internal adversaries face
a dilemma. Governments can coup-proof to reduce coup risk, but such
measures reduce military effectiveness. Conversely, if they eschew coup-
proofing to maintain military effectiveness, they risk coups. This paper
explains how governments facing coup threats and belligerent adversaries
can alleviate this dilemma. It first describes five coup-proofing measures
that generally reduce military effectiveness, such as politicized promotion
and reduced training, and two other coup-proofing measures that do not
reduce effectiveness, bribery and indoctrination. Because leaders can pick
and choose which coup-proofing measures to employ, leaders facing coup
and belligerent adversary threats can reduce the coup-proofing dilemma
by adopting those coup-proofing measures that do not reduce effective-
ness and avoiding those measures that reduce effectiveness, within avail-
ability and dependence constraints. The paper presents a case study of
coup-proofing in Nazi Germany, a deviant case for coup-proofing theory
and democratic victory theory because Adolf Hitler avoided being over-
thrown in a coup and fielded an effective military. The case study demon-
strates support for the theory that a leader can simultaneously reduce coup
risk and optimize military effectiveness by employing some coup-proofing
tactics but not others.
Coups d’état occur when a “small but critical segment of the state apparatus” dis-
places from power the ruling leader (Luttwak 1979, 27). Leaders wish to avoid being
overthrown because leadership provides personal benefits, leaders wish to shape
national policy, and leaders can personally suffer imprisonment, exile, or execu-
tion if they lose power. Coups often involve members of the military, and their in-
volvement has led scholars to describe a dilemma faced by coup-threatened leaders.
Leaders can take actions to reduce the coup threat, “coup-proofing,” but, conven-
tional wisdom holds, these actions reduce military effectiveness. That is, conven-
tional wisdom declares that governments can either address internal coup threats or
optimize military effectiveness but not both (Biddle and Zirkle 1996;Brooks 1998,
Dr. Dan Reiter is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Political Science at Emory University. He is the award-
winning author, coauthor, or editor of Crucible of Beliefs: Learning, Alliances, and World Wars (Cornell, 1996), Democracies
at War (Princeton, 2002), How Wars End (Princeton, 2009), and The Sword’s Other Edge: Trade-Offs in the Pursuit of Mil-
itary Effectiveness (Cambridge 2017), as well dozens of articles on international relations, foreign policy, conflict, and
methodology. Previous versions of this article were presented at the Universities of Chicago, Virginia, and Maryland.
For additional helpful feedback, thanks also to Michael Horowitz, Jeff Staton, and Caitlin Talmadge. For research assis-
tance, thanks to Stefan Koehler.
Reiter, Dan (2020) Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma: Consolidating Political Control While Maximizing Military Power.
Foreign Policy Analysis, doi: 10.1093/fpa/oraa001
© The Author(s) (2020). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Studies Association. All rights
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DAN REITER 313
2019;Quinlivan 1999;Reiter and Stam 2002;Biddle 2004;Beckley 2010;Pilster and
Böhmelt 2011;Talmadge 2015,50;De Bruin 2018, 1437).
This article proposes that this iron dilemma between either preventing coups
or optimizing military effectiveness is not inevitable. Leaders can ameliorate this
dilemma, simultaneously addressing coup threats and threats from belligerent ad-
versaries, both other states and internal rebel groups. Leaders have several coup-
proofing tools at their disposal. Some tools reduce military effectiveness, such as
distorted command structures, nonmerit based promotion practices, reduced train-
ing, counterbalancing, and restricted information flows, while other tools, such as
indoctrination and personal bribery, do not. Leaders can adopt some tools and not
others. When a leader faces a coup threat and a belligerent adversary, they can re-
duce both threats by employing coup-proofing tools that do not reduce military ef-
fectiveness and avoiding tools that reduce effectiveness. As a result, coup-threatened
leaders can simultaneously reduce the threat of overthrow and deploy effective
militaries.1
This article applies this argument to a case study of Nazi Germany. There have
been several single case studies of civil-military relations and military effective-
ness (Brooks 2006;Gaub 2013;Grauer 2017; qualitative comparative works include
Biddle and Zirkle 1996;Brooks 1998;Quinlivan 1999;Talmadge 2015;Pollack
2019) because such an approach provides the depth needed to account for context,
process-trace, and accurately code independent and dependent variables. Nazi Ger-
many was selected because it is a “deviant case” not well explained by current theory.
Exploring the case provides an opportunity to develop and demonstrate the plau-
sibility of new theory (George and Bennett 2005, 75, 114–15). Conventional coup-
proofing theory forecasts that coup-threatened regimes can choose either to reduce
coup risk or field an effective military but not both. And yet, Adolf Hitler, fearful of
a coup, was able to reduce substantially this tradeoff, avoiding getting overthrown
while fielding an effective military. How did he do this? Relatedly, democratic vic-
tory theory proposes that dictators tend to lose their wars in part because they are
more likely to coup-proof (ReiterandStam2002), and yet totalitarian Nazi Ger-
many built a gigantic empire through war, before suffering eventual defeat. Critics
of democratic victory theory focus on Nazi Germany as a critical outlier of the demo-
cratic victory thesis (Desch 2008), noting that “the army that is most often singled
out as the historical exemplar of tactical effectiveness is not democratic: Germany”
(Brooks 2003, 187). The theory here explains the deviant case of Nazi Germany for
both theories: why coup-threatened leaders can avoid being overthrown and field
effective militaries and why dictators can sometimes field effective militaries.
Nazi Germany demonstrates the patterns forecast in the theory. Hitler imple-
mented coup-proofing tactics that do not threaten effectiveness, personal bribery
and indoctrination, and with a couple of exceptions avoided tactics that threaten
effectiveness, regarding training, promotion, command, information, and coun-
terbalancing. As a result, Hitler avoided being overthrown while fielding an effec-
tive military. Further, the German military avoided the specific effectiveness pitfalls
that the coup-proofing literature forecasts will be caused by coup-proofing, such as
inability to conduct combined arms operations, inability to implement maneuver
strategy, inadequate training, and poor military leadership. The exceptions are that
Hitler impeded information flows and counterbalanced at high levels (though he
did not do so at low levels). Though these high level actions may have degraded Ger-
man intelligence, they did not preclude Germany from achieving overall high levels
of military effectiveness. These actions are interesting because coup-proofing the-
ory predicts low level information impediments and counterbalancing rather than
high level efforts, and, therefore, they suggest expanding coup-proofing theory.
1See also Brown, Fariss, and McMahon (2015).
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314 Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma
This article has four parts. First, it describes five coup-proofing tools that
reduce military effectiveness and two coup-proofing tools that do not reduce
effectiveness. Second, it argues that governments facing both internal coup threats
and belligerent adversaries can ameliorate the coup-proofing dilemma by adopting
coup-proofing tactics that do not reduce military effectiveness and avoiding those
that reduce military effectiveness. Third, it presents the Nazi Germany case study.
Last, it concludes, suggesting avenues for future research.
The Tools of Coup-Proofing
Coups become more likely as the military (and other elites) gain increased motive
and ability to replace the leadership. Scholars have for decades explored coups
(Nordlinger 1977;Finer 1988), describing actions leaders sometimes take to reduce
coup risks (Luttwak 1979;Wiking 1983;Horowitz 1985;Sudduth 2016). Huntington
(1957, 8–10) proposed that military professionalism can prevent coups, profession-
alism being composed of expertise, social responsibility, and corporate identity.
Civil-military scholars have debated Huntington’s professionalism thesis, noting
that professional militaries intervene in politics (Feaver 1996;Finer 1988,21),
expertise sometimes facilitates military intervention in politics (Nordlinger 1977,
50), and social responsibility sometimes causes a military to intervene (Nordlinger
1977,85).
Some factors that affect coup likelihood are difficult for a leader to manipulate
easily and/or quickly. Economic downturns make coups more likely. Political insti-
tutions in authoritarian and democratic settings affect coup risk; for example, single
party regimes are more durable than personalist regimes (Geddes 1999).
Actions leaders can more easily take to alleviate coup risk are often termed “coup-
proofing.” Definitions of coup-proofing overlap substantially but not completely.
Quinlivan (1999, 133) defined coup-proofing “as the set of actions a regime takes
to prevent a military coup.” Sudduth (2016) described coup-proofing as “strate-
gies that are associated with reducing the militaries’ coup-making capabilities.” She
excluded redirecting resources—bribery—as coup-proofing, assuming that such ac-
tions might increase the ability to launch a coup. Conversely, Quinlivan included
the diversion of resources to the military, “funding,” as coup-proofing. This arti-
cle follows Quinlivan’s broader definition, but it discusses the point that resource
diversion might increase coup capability while reducing motive.
Scholars propose that coup-proofing undermines military effectiveness. Leaders
facing coup and belligerent adversary threats confront a fundamental dilemma:
actions taken to limit coup threat reduce military effectiveness and increase expo-
sure to belligerent adversaries, but eschewing coup-proofing to optimize military
effectiveness makes a coup more likely. Military effectiveness, “the process by which
armed forces convert resources into fighting power” (Millett, Murray, and Watman
2010,2;seealsoReiter 2017), is often divided into four levels: tactical (techniques
used by combat units to secure operational objectives), operational (using appro-
priate concepts and doctrines to accomplish objectives within a theater of war),
strategic (using armed forces to accomplish political goals), and political (secur-
ing necessary resources for military operations). As discussed below, different coup-
proofing techniques predict different levels of (in)effectiveness.
This article proposes that the coup-proofing dilemma does not always exist; lead-
ers need not always choose between either reducing coup risk or maximizing mil-
itary effectiveness. It develops this claim in the next two sections. This section
describes seven major coup-proofing tools, listing first coup-proofing tools that
threaten military effectiveness and then tools that do not reduce effectiveness.
This section builds on Talmadge’s (2015) framework, first listing her four coup-
proofing tactics that reduce effectiveness, promotions, training, command, and in-
formation, then adding a fifth, counter-balancing. The section then describes two
coup-proofing tactics that do not reduce effectiveness, military indoctrination and
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DAN REITER 315
personal bribery. The following section proposes that leaders facing both internal
coup threats and belligerent adversaries can ameliorate the coup-proofing dilemma
by implementing coup-proofing tools that do not reduce effectiveness and avoiding
tools that reduce effectiveness.
Coup-Proofing Tactics That Reduce Military Effectiveness
Promotions
Disgruntled military officers launch or support coups. Leaders can reduce coup
threat by selecting and promoting military officers that are loyal and less likely to
participate in a coup attempt and by dismissing, imprisoning, or executing military
officers unlikely to be loyal and more likely to participate in a coup attempt. Lead-
ers distinguish between likely loyal and disloyal officers by noting officers’ famil-
ial, ethnic, religious, and/or ideological characteristics. South Vietnamese leaders
privileged Catholics over Buddhists, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein promoted Sunnis over
Kurds and Shiites, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro favored ardent Communists (Horowitz
1985;Biddle and Zirkle 1996;Brooks 1998;Harkness 2018, chapter 13; Quinlivan
1999;Talmadge 2015;Roessler 2016;Johnson and Thurber 2020).
However, promoting on qualities other than merit worsens performance, as of-
ficers are lower caliber, reducing military leadership quality at all levels of rank
(Biddle and Zirkle 1996;Quinlivan 1999;Talmadge 2015). Loyalty concerns drove
Saddam Hussein to purge competent Iraqi commanders after the Iran-Iraq War:
“Generals who could execute complex military operations competently could also
execute coup d’états. That was certainly the basis of Saddam’s approach to his senior
commanders. He preferred those he could trust no matter how stupid or incom-
petent over the competent and independent” (Murray and Woods 2014,303n).In
the 1990s, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori government consolidated control by promoting
loyal officers, who were “not the brightest and the best, but the mediocre and the
weak” (former Peruvian general Daniel Mora quoted in McMillan and Zoido 2004,
84).
Competent military leaders contribute to effectiveness in three ways: inspiring
troops to fight harder, mastering the craft of combat, and selecting quality subor-
dinates (Reiter and Wagstaff 2018). Specifically, competent leaders are needed to
implement more demanding, successful military strategies, such as maneuver-based
and modern system strategies (Mearsheimer 1983;Reiter and Stam 2002;Biddle
2004). Quantitative studies have demonstrated that quality leadership is correlated
with battlefield success (Reiter and Stam 2002,79;Reiter and Wagstaff 2018).
Training
The skills needed to fight belligerent adversaries can also be used against the civilian
government itself. Seizing control of the state can require force, including captur-
ing the capital and important infrastructure, arresting civilian leaders, and contain-
ing troops loyal to the regime. Civilians concerned about coups understand this and
sometimes deliberately reduce training quality and/or frequency to reduce coup
threat (Biddle and Zirkle 1996;Quinlivan 1999;Talmadge 2015). Countries receiv-
ing US-sponsored military training assistance experience more coups, demonstrat-
ing that high quality training makes militaries more capable of carrying out coups
(Savage and Caverley 2017).
Sabotaging military training to neuter a coup threat undermines tactical and op-
erational military effectiveness. Realistic, extensive training is critical to help mil-
itaries fight well, use military technology competently (Biddle and Zirkle 1996),
implement demanding military strategies such as the modern system or maneuver-
based plans (Biddle 2004, 49–50), maintain cohesion (Castillo 2014, 30–31), and ex-
ecute combined arms operations (Talmadge 2015, 14). Combined arms operations
are critical for combat success because they allow different elements to contribute
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316 Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma
their strengths while concealing weaknesses: infantry control territory, artillery and
air deliver heavy firepower, etc. (Biddle 2004, 37–39).
Command
Even if high-ranking officers are loyal, leaders worry that coup threats that might
emerge from lower in the ranks. Lower level officers might seek to overthrow the
government and would have the capacity to do so if they led enough troops and/or
were stationed near the capital (Singh 2014). Some (political) leaders reduce this
threat by centralizing the military command structure. Specifically, lower level com-
manders receive limited command autonomy and must secure permission from
higher levels of command to act, even during fighting, such as to pursue the en-
emy or to redeploy. Reducing command autonomy limits the ability of junior offi-
cers to use the forces at their disposal to overthrow the regime. There also may be
frequent rotation of commanders in order to prevent them from bonding with the
troops under their command (Quinlivan 1999;Biddle 2004, 49; Talmadge 2015).
Centralizing command in this manner reduces tactical and operational military
effectiveness. It removes from combat leaders the ability to innovate quickly and re-
act to emerging threats and opportunities. It also impedes the ability to implement
military strategies that require commander autonomy, such as maneuver strategies
and the modern system (Mearsheimer 1983;Biddle 2004;Talmadge 2015).
Information
Information flows are critical to organizing and thwarting coups. Coup-plotters seek
to learn the preferences of others, communicating secretly to coordinate amongst
themselves and recruit more supporters (Singh 2014). Conversely, civilians wish to
monitor information flows within the military to detect possible coup-planning ac-
tivities and to impede these flows to make coup-planning more difficult. Civilians
might impede both horizontal information flows (communication between military
branches at similar levels of command) and vertical information flows (communi-
cation up and down the chain of command). This is done both directly, through
restricting information flows within the military, and indirectly, by creating internal
security units designed to heighten units’ and officers’ suspicion of each other, thus
reducing cooperation and communication (Quinlivan 1999;Talmadge 2015).
However, impeding coup-related communications can also block combat-related
communications, undermining tactical and operational effectiveness. Healthy in-
formation flows enable militaries to reduce the uncertainty inherent to combat en-
vironments, providing accurate data on deployments and performance of the op-
ponent, the nature of the combat environment, and the performance of one’s own
military, facilitating adaptation and improvement (Grauer 2017). Further, blocked
information flows can undermine the interbranch coordination required for com-
bined arms operations (Talmadge 2015, 14). These dynamics can reduce tactical
and operational effectiveness.
Counterbalancing
Leaders can reduce coup risk by counterbalancing, building separate military or
paramilitary units, often stationed near the capital, that answer to the leader and
are tasked with protecting the leader from coups. Relatedly, leaders sometimes in-
crease and deepen divisions within the military hierarchy, including establishing
more branches of the military and/or reporting channels, to impede the coordina-
tion coups require (Huntington 1957, 82; Belkin and Schofer 2003;De Bruin 2018;
Pilster and Böhmelt 2012;Powell 2012). Quinlivan (1999) describes this dynamic as
building “parallel militaries.”
However, counterbalancing can reduce political and operational military ef-
fectiveness. Parallel armed forces make the allocation of military resources less
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DAN REITER 317
efficient if those forces have first priority over advanced technology and other ma-
terial and are not used in combat. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein kept
his Republican Guard, an elite unit created to protect the regime from coups, de-
ployed near Baghdad and away from battle (Quinlivan 1999, 146). Further, those
units are less likely to be used effectively in combined arms operations because
they are outside the command structure of the rest of the military (Quinlivan 1999;
Pilster and Böhmelt 2011).2
Coup-Proofing Tactics That Do Not Reduce Military Effectiveness
Military Indoctrination
Different types of indoctrination of the military can reduce coup risks, indoctrina-
tion being different from training in combat skills. First, military academies and
education can stress the difficulty of successfully executing a coup (Quinlivan 1999,
151–52). Second, members of the military can be indoctrinated to accept the norm
of civilian rule, the core of Huntington’s (1957) conception of objective civilian
control. In countries like North Vietnam, Communist ideology stresses the role of
the Communist Party in leading the nation (Talmadge 2015, 63–64). Third, the
military can be indoctrinated to be loyal to a specific civilian leader, emphasizing
the ability, destiny, and/or divine right of the leader to guide the nation. Leader-
based indoctrination can incorporate other ideological elements, such as nation-
alism (and the leader’s duty/right to lead the nation) as well as the subversion of
the individual to the group and in turn the leader of the group (Castillo 2014,
28–29).
All three kinds of indoctrination reduce coup risk. Stressing the difficulty of
a coup discourages potential coup-potters, and emphasizing the norm of civilian
rule stresses the illegitimacy of a coup. Leader-based indoctrination can strengthen
regime control of society and the military (Castillo 2014, esp. 29). Leader-centered
ideologies emphasize the ability and/or destiny of the current political leader to
guide the nation and the military itself. Individuals who embrace this perspective
would oppose any efforts to displace the leader, viewing such acts as treason that
threaten the nation’s very existence. Note that even if higher level officers are not
effectively indoctrinated, the indoctrination of soldiers and lower-ranked officers
makes higher level officers less willing to launch a coup because a coup is unlikely
to succeed if the bulk of the armed forces are unwilling to follow or are actively
opposed (Singh 2014).
Indoctrination ought not reduce military effectiveness. Some studies have
found that ideological indoctrination, including of leader-based ideologies such as
Nazism, can actually increase tactical effectiveness, by improving military cohesion,
the “capacity of a country’s armed forces to fight with determination and flexibil-
ity on the battlefield, while also resisting the internal pressure to collapse when
the likelihood of winning a war diminishes” (Castillo 2014, 18; on nationalism and
military effectiveness, see Posen 1993;Reiter 2007). That said, other studies have ex-
pressed doubt that indoctrination affects soldier motivation or unit cohesion (Shils
and Janowitz 1948), but virtually no studies argue that indoctrination undermines
effectiveness.3
2Narang and Talmadge (2018) find that paramilitaries do not reduce military effectiveness.
3In World War II, hypernationalism reduced Japan’s military effectiveness, as brutalizing prisoners made American
troops less willing to surrender (Reiter 2007). However, Germany did not abuse Anglo-American prisoners. In the East,
in 1941, Germany treated Soviet prisoners poorly even as hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers surrendered. By
the end of 1941, Germany improved its treatment of Soviet prisoners, as they needed them to address emerging labor
shortages (Morrow 2014, 208–24). Hence, German hypernationalism did not reduce German military effectiveness by
increasing POW abuse, which would have reduced surrender rates.
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318 Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma
Personal Bribery
Civilians can provide rewards to military members to incentivize them not to
launch coups. Forms of bribery vary widely, including official payments, unoffi-
cial payments, control of legal or illegal economic assets or activities, gifts of lux-
ury goods, increasing military spending, permitting corruption, and providing sex-
ual/marital slaves/partners, among others (Quinlivan 1999, 153–54; McMillan and
Zoido 2004). Some forms of bribery might increase the capability of the military
to launch coups, if those material rewards increase the organizational strength of
the military through, for example, increased military spending (Powell 2012;Svolik
2012;Sudduth 2016). However, other forms of bribery, termed here “personal
bribery,” involve the transfer of resources directly to individuals and do not increase
the military’s capacity to launch a coup because they are too small in amount to in-
crease organizational power, are directly controlled by individual officers for their
personal consumption, and/or are not fungible (such as luxury goods). Though
personal bribes do not increase the capability to launch a successful coup, they can
disincentivize officers from launching coups.
Personal bribes ought not reduce military effectiveness. An exception might be
if bribery is widely known throughout the military, undermining military cohesion
and the willingness of troops to fight and die for the regime (Brooks 1998). These
deleterious effects will be avoided if bribes are kept secret.
Summary of Expected Consequences for Military Effectiveness
The individual effects of different coup-proofing tactics can be difficult to untan-
gle because some coup-proofing tactics predict the same outcomes, and there are
synergistic effects across coup-proofing tactics, but forecasts can be made. Training,
leadership, command, and information undermine tactical military effectiveness,
and those four plus counterbalancing undermine operational effectiveness. Several
coup-proofing tactics undermine the ability to execute combined-arms operations
and maneuver or modern system military strategies. Counterbalancing might re-
duce political effectiveness, described as the efficient allocation of resources.
Which Coup-Proofing Tools Do Leaders Employ?
The above section describes seven coup-proofing tactics, five of which reduce mili-
tary effectiveness, two of which do not. When do leaders adopt coup-proofing tac-
tics? Broadly, leaders are more likely to coup-proof as the perceived coup threat
grows. Talmadge (2015, 2) echoes long-standing ideas from coup scholarship that
leaders are more likely to perceive a coup threat, and in turn coup-proof, when
political institutions are weak and a country has a history of coups. Some propose
that because dictators face far greater coup risks than elected leaders (Powell 2012),
they are more likely to coup-proof (Pilster and Böhmelt 2012;Talmadge 2015).
The next question is, which coup-proofing tactics do coup-threatened leaders em-
ploy? Scholars often propose that a coup-threatened leader tends to adopt a suite
of coup-proofing tactics rather than pick and choose among them (Brooks 1998,
9; Quinlivan 1999;Gaub 2013, 224; Narang and Talmadge 2018, 133). Talmadge
(2015, 253n) allows that, theoretically, coup-threatened leaders could adopt only
some measures, avoiding those tactics that might degrade military effectiveness,
but she dismisses this possibility, proposing that, empirically, leaders tend not to
be satisfied with limited coup-proofing measures and instead implement a broad
set of coup-proofing tactics. Relatedly, many scholars conclude that coup-proofing
presents a dilemma, that a government can either protect itself against internal coup
threats by coup-proofing but reduce its ability to confront belligerent adversaries, or
eschew coup-proofing to optimize military effectiveness but expose the government
to heightened coup risk. Talmadge (2015, 19) made this point:
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DAN REITER 319
The trade-off will be acute. Adopting coup prevention practices will secure the regime
against the military at home but hobble the state’s ability to defeat a conventional
foe. Adopting conventional war practices [rejecting coup-proofing] will maximize the
state’s chances of victory against the external foe but significantly raise the chances of
the regime being overthrown at home.
Quinlivan (1999, 165) agreed: “a state that organizes its forces according to the
coup-proofing principles . . . has a military capability smaller than indicated by in-
ventory counts of units or weapons.” Pilster and Böhmelt (2011, 347) concurred:
Political leaders face a dilemma. To paraphrase Chiang Kai-Shek, should they pacify
the interior or focus on the external threat? Coup-proofing protects leaders from
domestic threats as military coups become less likely. Simultaneously, coup-proofing
harms military effectiveness and therefore makes leaders more vulnerable to external
threats.
Brooks (1998, 53) stated, “maintaining political control [of the military] involves
a substantial trade-off in military effectiveness,” and, more emphatically, in a 2019
review of civil-military relations scholarship, “such trade-offs are a central theme in
the body of scholarship on how coup prevention tactics impede military effective-
ness. . . . Leaders must accept greater risks of either military defeat or loss of office
from coup conspiracies” (Brooks 2019,390).Biddle and Zirkle (1996, 173) made
this point in a more specific application: “In states like Iraq the threat of political
violence by the military creates powerful incentives for civilian interventions that
reduce the military’s ability to cope with advanced technology.”
However, because only some coup-proofing tactics reduce military effectiveness,
leaders might be able to alleviate this dilemma. Specifically, leaders might adopt
coup-proofing tactics that do not reduce military effectiveness and avoid, or at least
reduce, their reliance on coup-proofing tactics that do. This is consistent with the
view that leaders choose from an array of tools to stay in power, what Schedler
(2002) referred to as a “menu of manipulation” and what Frantz and Kendell-Taylor
(2014) described as a “dictator’s tool-kit.” This article’s central proposition is: Lead-
ers facing a high coup threat and confronting belligerent adversaries will tend to adopt coup-
proofing tactics that do not reduce military effectiveness, and tend to avoid those coup-proofing
tactics that reduce military effectiveness.
This proposition builds on and qualifies Talmadge’s central thesis. She lists
four types of coup-proofing tactics, all of which reduce military effectiveness. She
proposes that rises in external threats can cause governments to abandon coup-
proofing tactics, but because she does not include coup-proofing tactics that do not
reduce effectiveness, within her theory, governments are unable to reduce coup
threat while also addressing external threat. By allowing that some coup-proofing
tactics do not reduce military effectiveness, the theory here explains how leaders
can reduce coup risk and optimize military effectiveness simultaneously. That is,
where Talmadge predicts that leaders facing high coup and external threats must
choose between addressing either the coup threat or the external threat, this arti-
cle proposes that leaders can address both threats, by implementing coup-proofing
tactics that do not reduce military effectiveness and eschewing those that do.
If leaders can choose some but not all coup-proofing tactics, this raises two ques-
tions. First, what factors affect civilians’ choices? Second, why don’t leaders always
make the apparently optimal choice of implementing only those coup-proofing tac-
tics that do not reduce military effectiveness?
Governments do not always have complete flexibility in choosing coup-proofing
tactics. Different regimes, including different types of dictatorships, rely on vary-
ing tactics to hold on to power (Geddes 1999). Some leaders are so dependent on
certain tactics they use to maintain power that they are unable to abandon them,
as doing so would cause them to be overthrown. Also, some coup-proofing tactics
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320 Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma
might not be easily available or implemented in all regimes. Some dictatorships
cannot impose effective leader-centered indoctrination, such as South Vietnam and
Syria. Bribery may be challenging if the right kinds of resources are unavailable.
Regimes may be unwilling to purge military officers from a different ethnic group,
as doing so might make civil war more likely (Roessler 2016;Harkness 2018). The
military effectiveness incentives to give more autonomy to lower level commanders
might be lower, if those officers are themselves low quality and unable to make use
of greater autonomy, as was the case in 1970s Egypt (Pollack 2002).
One final point. Reduced military effectiveness affects the ability to fight civil
as well as interstate wars. Several coup-proofing tactics, such as politicized promo-
tion and reduced training, undermine the ability of a military to engage in any
type of warfare, including counterguerrilla warfare (Sudduth 2016). One reason
the Libyan military could not crush the 2011 rebellion was because coup-proofing,
including centralizing command and promoting on the basis of tribal affiliation,
had damaged its effectiveness (Gaub 2013). The Iraqi military performed poorly
against ISIS in the mid-2010s in part because of coup-proofing, including promot-
ing Shiites over Sunnis and Kurds (Fraiman, Long, and Talmadge 2014;De Bruin
2014).
Coup-Proofing in Nazi Germany
This section applies the theory to Nazi Germany, exploring how Hitler’s choices of
coup-proofing tactics affected coup risk and German military effectiveness. There
are advantages to a qualitative approach. There are no high-caliber, cross-national,
quantitative data to measure personal bribery,4information flows, or command
structures. Case studies permit process tracing and accounting for context, enabling
the identification of spurious correlation. For example, as discussed below, Hitler
took increasing control of his military not to coup-proof but to guide Germany to
victory. Relatedly, measuring military effectiveness quantitatively across wars is dif-
ficult. Using war outcomes as a proxy for military effectiveness risks aggregation
error. Further, the very nature of effectiveness varies across wars. Some belligerents
focus on capturing territory, while others focus on attriting the enemy, making it
difficult to craft a single, cross-conflict measure of effectiveness.
Hitler perceived a coup threat. When he took power in 1933, Germany lacked a
tradition of strong civilian control of the military. There was weak civilian control
of the military up to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 (Snyder 1984). In 1916,
General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg executed a de
facto bloodless coup, creating the “Silent Dictatorship” (Kitchen 1976). More coup
attempts followed, including the 1918 Kiel sailors’ revolt and the 1920 Kapp Putsch.
This historical context gave Hitler reason to suspect the military. He was especially
paranoid of the old Prussian officer corps and, in late 1939, regarded the Army as
the “most insecure element of the state” (quoted in Goda 2004,101;seeWette
2006, 155). Later, in March 1942, Heinrich Himmler warned Hitler that “anti-Party
and anti-state movements [in the Army] were in progress” (Engel 2005, 126). A few
months later, Hitler remarked to Himmler that his “enemies were growing stronger
the longer the war went on . . . [they included] even high-ranking people in the
military” (Engel 2005, 140–41). In May 1943, Hitler remarked to Joseph Goebbels,
“All generals lie . . . All generals are faithless. All generals are against National So-
cialism. All generals are reactionaries” (Lochner 1948, 368). In the words of one
historian, “Hitler was in fact by no means always certain that he had the generals’
support, and he remained suspicious of them to the very end” (Wette 2006,153).
Hitler was not overthrown. But was this because Hitler’s control of the military
was so strong that a coup was unlikely, making coup-proofing unnecessary? If Hitler
4Powell (2012) uses military spending per capita to measure bribery.
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DAN REITER 321
was secure from coup threats, then this was because of the coup-proofing efforts
described below, including bribery and indoctrination. Historians have made just
this point, that especially after 1938 Hitler faced limited threat from his generals
because of his coup-proofing efforts (Wette 2006, 153–56).
Another perspective is that coup risk in Nazi Germany was low because of the
strength of Nazi political institutions, not because of Hitler’s coup-proofing. Clas-
sifying the strength of Nazi German political institutions is difficult because Hitler
cemented his hold on power by destroying some German political institutions and
creating an odd political regime that exhibited both “shapelessness” and “power”
(Broszat 1981, 346). That is, Nazi Germany exhibited some forms of high institu-
tionalization, like a strong party, but lacked others, like an authoritarian parliament
or rules for leader succession. However, the general strength of German political
institutions notwithstanding, Hitler still perceived a coup threat, motivating him to
coup-proof.
Avoiding Coup-Proofing Tools That Reduce Military Effectiveness
Hitler mostly rejected coup-proofing tools that might have threatened German mil-
itary effectiveness, such as undermining training, politicizing promotion, centraliz-
ing command, blocking information flows, and counterbalancing. Hitler wanted
an effective military to conquer lands in Europe, the Soviet Union, and North
Africa and to fend off perceived threats. One of the most important consequences
of avoiding coup-proofing measures that reduced effectiveness was that it permit-
ted combined arms operations and the implementation of maneuver-based mili-
tary strategies. The particulars will be developed below, but two general points are
worth stressing. First, Germany not only employed combined arms and maneuver
based strategies, but they largely innovated their use, especially the incorporation of
armor and airpower (Murray 1983, 30–31, 35–39; Mearsheimer 1983). Maneuver
strategies to this day are sometimes known by the term invented by the Germans,
blitzkrieg. Second, combined arms and blitzkrieg were the most important elements
of German operational military effectiveness, permitting the conquests of Poland,
France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Greece, and Yugoslavia, and hundreds
of thousands of square kilometers of Soviet territory. “Rapidly effective communica-
tions” between German ground and air forces in the May 1940 campaign in the west
was essential, as German air force attacks in support of ground operations “played
a decisive part in the success of the German campaign in the west” (Umbreit 2015,
282–83). Successful cooperation between air and ground units was also critical for
the conquest of Norway (Murray 1983, 35). One comprehensive assessment of mil-
itary effectiveness in World War II declared, “the Blitzkrieg was nevertheless an au-
thenticnewoperationalform,and...wouldprovetobethemostsophisticatedand
effort-effective of those employed in the war” (Ziemke 2010, 302).
Germany was able to take these actions because it mostly eschewed coup-proofing
measures that would reduce effectiveness. Regarding promotion, Hitler prioritized
merit to a perhaps surprising degree, improving the quality of German military
leadership. Though Hitler engaged in occasional, targeted purges in the 1930s,
such actions became less frequent once the war started. Hitler stayed away from
the comprehensive dismissals of officers sometimes seen in other regimes—such as
the Soviet Union in the 1930s or Turkey in 2016—refraining from relieving, im-
prisoning, or executing vast numbers of officers suspected of dissent, even after the
July 1944 assassination attempt (see below). Keeping purges targeted and limited
allowed Hitler to bolster the internal strength of his regime without significantly
undermining the quality of military leadership.
Specifically, Hitler declared as early as 1939 that demonstrated performance in
combat would determine promotion. He formalized this view in 1941, relieving
several commanders following setbacks in the Russia campaign, choosing their
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322 Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma
replacements on the basis of combat performance rather than political reliability
(Kershaw 2000, 445; Hürter 2007, 349). Hitler remarked to an aide in October 1942
that he “did not demand of any officer that he be a National Socialist, but enthu-
siasm to strike a blow, to fight were pre-conditions for everything which followed”
(Engel 2005, 137). After July 1944, general staff officers could only be promoted af-
ter serving a tour at the battlefront (Van Creveld 1982, 144). One quantitative study
found that in the North African, Italian, and West European theaters, German gen-
erals were significantly more likely to be demoted after poor performance in com-
bat in comparison to exhibiting mixed or strong combat performance (Reiter and
Wagstaff 2018).
Hitler also avoided reducing military training as a coup-proofing tactic. German
soldiers received high quality training. This training, including exercises in com-
bined arms operations, prepared the army well in the years leading up to the out-
break of war (Messerschmidt 2010, 245). During the war, combat veterans improved
training by sharing lessons from contemporary combat experience with new re-
cruits, improving German combat performance (Van Creveld 1982, 73–74). Supe-
rior training helped Germany attain higher tactical and operational military effec-
tiveness than Allied militaries (Fritz 1995, chapter 2; Müller 2016, 91–92).
Hitler’s approach to military command is more complex. At lower levels of com-
mand, he gave German officers substantial combat authority. His willingness to give
junior officers command authority is expressed in Auftragstaktik, the German no-
tion that commanders are informed of their objectives in broad terms and given
leeway to decide how to accomplish those objectives, using their own initiative and
judgment if needed (Van Creveld 1982, 35–37; Widder 2002). Auftragstaktik was
not disrupted by Hitler’s ascent to power (Messerschmidt 2010, 243). Auftragstak-
tik requires giving commanders the authority to innovate in battle and a system of
military education and training that nurtures and develops resourceful and clever
officers. Affording command authority to German field officers improved combat
performance and enabled the implementation of the German military strategy of
blitzkrieg. Greater command authority had other benefits, such as allowing comman-
ders to react to devastating losses by throwing together the survivors of destroyed
units to create new, surprisingly effective combat formations (Fritz 1995,236).
An alternative view is that Auftragstaktik aside, Hitler engaged in other forms of
command centralization, personally taking increasing command over the direction
of the war as it progressed, especially beginning in December 1941, when the inva-
sion of the Soviet Union stalled. However, Hitler’s growing involvement was driven
not by coup-proofing incentives but rather by a desire to improve combat perfor-
mance (Fest 1996, 183–84; Weinberg 2005, 293–94; Hürter 2007, esp. 284; Fritz
2018, 263). That is, he did not exert increasing control over military operations to
prevent officers from coordinating in preparation for a coup but rather because of
his belief that he and he alone could guide Germany to victory.
The next question is, did Hitler’s assertion of command undermine military ef-
fectiveness? German generals after the war self-servingly claimed that Hitler was an
incompetent amateur, and if he had left the war to them, Germany would have en-
joyed greater success. However, recent historical work demonstrates the flaws in the
argument that Germany would have won if only the war had been left to the gen-
erals. German generals sometimes agreed with Hitler’s erroneous judgment. For
example, in 1941, both Hitler and his generals assumed Germany would easily de-
feat the Soviet Union (Weinberg 2002;Förster 2010;Fritz 2018). On June 6, 1944,
both Hitler and his generals were hesitant to send forces immediately to meet Al-
lied forces landing in Normandy, all speculating that the Normandy landing was a
decoy, a distraction from the main landing at Calais (Fritz 2018, 314–15).
Two further questions merit discussion. First, did the centralization of command
produced by Hitler’s assertion of control reduce the ability of the German military
to engage in combined arms operations or maneuver warfare? Hitler’s actions had
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DAN REITER 323
neither effect. For example, in the early months of 1943, long after Hitler asserted
command, the Germans executed a “classic” of maneuver warfare on the Eastern
Front in the Donetz Campaign, routing Soviet forces and stopping a Soviet coun-
teroffensive (Glantz and House 1995, 147). Germany used maneuver tactics in de-
fense that August at Orel and Belgorod-Kharkov (Glantz and House 1995, 167–70)
and defense-in-depth tactics in July 1944 to effectively blunt the British Operation
Goodwood Offensive, defense in depth requiring, among other things, competent,
autonomous lower-level commanders (Biddle 2004, chapters 3, 6). German forces
continued to engage in combined arms actions throughout the war, when they had
the material capacity to do so.
Second, some might argue that Hitler’s “no retreat” order, a manifestation of
reduced commander autonomy, undermined the German war effort. The rigidity
of Hitler’s “no retreat” order has been exaggerated, as Hitler sometimes permitted
or authorized retreats, including from Donetz on the Eastern Front in February
1943, in southwest France in fall 1944, from the Balkans in 1944, and from Latvia in
1944 (Glantz and House 1995, 144; Weinberg 2002, vii; Evans 2008, 211–12). Some
propose that the no-retreat order was prudent, as it may have helped prevent larger
setbacks (Kershaw 2000, 456), or that it did not harm the war effort, such as Hitler’s
refusal to allow withdrawal from the Kuban bridgehead near the Crimea in 1942
(Weinberg 2002, vii).
Regarding information, the record is more mixed. Hitler did not disrupt hor-
izontal flows of information within and between military units. As noted, the rela-
tively unimpeded horizontal flow of information between units permitted successful
combined arms operations. On the other hand, Hitler impeded information flows
at higher levels partly to consolidate his political control, perhaps undermining
German intelligence. Relatedly, he engaged in counterbalancing at high levels to
cement his control, including exacerbating divisions between the high commands
of the armed forces (OKW) and army (OKH), splitting the air force from the army,
and allowing Joachim von Ribbentrop to create a spy agency alongside military and
party intelligence organs (Kahn 1978, chapter 27; Fest 1996, 103). He fragmented
these higher elements of the state to prevent substate actors from gathering power
through monopolizing intelligence and to make them more dependent on him,
thereby consolidating his political power. These actions degraded German intelli-
gence by distributing resources inefficiently and by preventing actors from aggre-
gating all the pertinent information for making decisions (Kahn 1978, 535). Quality
intelligence is an input into what Millett, Murray, and Watman (2010) describe as
strategic military ineffectiveness, as when, for example, inaccurate assessments of
the enemy reduce the likelihood of operational success. Some propose that poor
intelligence contributed to the ill-fated decision to invade the Soviet Union (Förster
2010, 199–204).
Three points about these intelligence/counterbalancing dynamics are worth
noting. First, existing coup-proofing scholarship says little about how controlling in-
formation flows or counterbalancing might undermine intelligence at higher levels
of political and military decision-making. Its discussion of information focuses on
degraded ability to conduct combined arms operations and to self-correct for short-
comings revealed in combat rather than distorting broader assessments (Quinlivan
1999;Pilster and Bohmelt 2012;Talmadge 2015, 17–18) or on “yes-men” dynamics
undermining intelligence (Talmadge 2015, 17–18, Pollack 2019,11516).Thatis,
the German case emphasizes a previously underexplored consequence of coup-
proofing for military effectiveness. Second, we should be careful about blaming
Hitler’s operational failures on intelligence failure caused by coup-proofing. Other
factors beyond coup-proofing contributed to German intelligence failures, includ-
ing arrogance, an aggressive foreign policy orientation that encouraged the neglect
of intelligence, an organizational culture within the German military that was hos-
tile to a focus on intelligence, and anti-Semitism (Kahn 1978, chapter 27). Further,
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324 Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma
a taproot source of Hitler’s greater errors, declaring war on the Soviet Union and
the United States, was his core political ideology that envisioned war with these two
states as vital and inevitable (Fritz 2018, 129; Weinberg 1995, 153–54, 195), perhaps
reducing the role played by intelligence estimates in causing these decisions.
Third, as described below, any deleterious effects on intelligence notwithstand-
ing, Germany still enjoyed overall high levels of tactical and operational military
effectiveness.
Beyond splitting elements of the high command and intelligence apparatus, did
Hitler engage in other counterbalancing that might have undermined effective-
ness? German combined arms successes suggest the absence of detrimental coun-
terbalancing among military branches. Some might propose that Hitler used the SS
as a counterbalancing tool to coup-proof, perhaps reducing military effectiveness
by siphoning off resources to units that were kept away from combat and did not
coordinate with other military units.
Hitler did not use the SS in a manner that reduced German military effectiveness.
The SS evolved over time, and, during the war, SS duties included policing, occu-
pation duty, mass killing, managing economic enterprises, and combat. The focus
here is on the combat Waffen SS units because, as the war progressed, the Waffen
SS expanded greatly in size, such that, by 1944, 75 percent of the eight hundred
thousand SS personnel were Waffen SS, and understanding the military effective-
ness implications of the SS requires focusing on the Waffen SS (Stein 1984,xxxii;
Koehl 2000,205;Brebeck 2015, 120; see also Wegner 1990). Consistent with the
theory developed here, Hitler envisioned that after the war, with a reduced exter-
nal threat, the SS would shift its emphasis from combat back to internal security
(Cameron and Stevens 2000, 166–67).
The Waffen SS did not waste military resources; they were sent into combat and
not kept near Berlin to protect the regime (Ripley 2004, 337). Further, Waffen SS
units generally cooperated with the rest of the German military, not operating as
a separate, unintegrated force. Friction between the regular army and the SS was
about the same as friction among the branches within the regular German army
(Müller 2016, 41). The Waffen SS fought effectively and in concert with other units,
helping Germany accomplish key military objectives in the east and west, such as
rescuing embattled German forces at the Third Battle of Kharkov in February and
March 1943 (Ripley 2004, e.g., 333–34). These units were not redeployed to Berlin
following the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, in contrast to their likely
concentration around Berlin in early 1938, perhaps because of the much higher
external threat in 1944 (see Koehl 2000, 207). This is consistent with this article’s
proposition that under higher conditions of threat from belligerent adversaries, dic-
tators are less willing to engage in coup-proofing measures that undermine military
effectiveness.
Employing Coup-Proofing Tools That Do Not Reduce Military Effectiveness
In short, Hitler mostly avoided coup-proofing tactics that would have reduced
military effectiveness. Conversely, he embraced coup-proofing tactics that did not
threaten military effectiveness. Hitler used personal bribery to maintain the polit-
ical support of his generals, offering promotions, money, and land (Hürter 2007,
135–37, 164, 174–75; Seaton 1982, 143–44). Several members of the high com-
mand received birthday presents of 250,000 reichsmarks (Goda 2004, 111). General
Heinz Guderian received double his normal salary, tax-free (Hart 2010, 83). When
General Werner von Blomberg was dismissed in 1938 because of personal scandal,
his ongoing loyalty was cemented with a fifty-thousand-reichsmark bribe and a full
pension (Kershaw 2000, 31). SS officers were promised large farms in conquered
regions of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Tooze, 2006, 270–71).
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DAN REITER 325
Hitler was sometimes creative in his bribery. In 1938, he looked past his aversion
to divorce, encouraging/allowing Army Commander in Chief Walther von Brau-
chitsch to leave his wife and marry his mistress. Hitler personally paid the divorce’s
financial settlement, a sum Brauchitsch could not afford, providing more payoffs
to Brauchitsch over time to ensure his loyalty. Not unrelatedly, Brauchitsch did
not participate in coup plots in fall 1938 and fall 1939 and even informed Hitler
about rumors of a coup plot in January 1939 (Gisevius 1947, 260, 264; Fest 1996,
95; Nicholls 2000,35;Orbach 2016a, 88, 283–84). Brauchitsch’s unwillingness to
participate in coup threats was contagious, as it dissuaded generals such as Franz
Halder from engaging in coup plotting (Orbach 2016a, 90).
To reduce internal coup threats, Hitler used bribes that “were specifically de-
signed to bind senior military officers to Hitler and the Nazi state” (Hart 2010,83).
Hitler described the practice to an aide: “[Hitler] spoke about promotions follow-
ingtheFrenchcampaign...Hehaddoneitintentionallyanddeliberately...
the more one honoured bravery and military success, the more indebted and duty-
bound did the recipients become, quite independent of their personal beliefs, to
their oath and to the figure they had to thank for the honour. In this way he was link-
ingatax-freegratuitytothepromotions...whathedidexpectofageneralandan
officer was that he subordinate himself in politics utterly to the political leadership
. . . That would be easier to accomplish, even against one’s inner conviction, as the
recipient of honours awarded by the head of state, and by this means of itself and
also towards the state he would feel duty-bound to so act” (Engel 2005, 96). Indeed,
when Guderian was relieved of his command, bribes tempered “whatever bitterness
Guderian felt at his dismissal,” and, perhaps not surprisingly, Guderian rejected ap-
proaches from several coup-plotters across the course of the war, electing not to par-
ticipate in the July 1944 assassination attempt (Hart 2010, 83, 99). Colonel-General
Johannes Blaskowitz, one of the few military officers who formally protested atroc-
ities committed in Poland in 1939–1940, never participated in coup activities and
condemned the July 1944 assassination attempt, perhaps because of the steady dis-
cretionary financial payments he received (Clark 2014, 56). As these bribes were
generally concealed, and recipients kept these payments secret (Goda 2004), the
bribes did not reduce military effectiveness by undermining troop morale.
Hitler also reduced coup risk by indoctrinating German soldiers to be loyal to
him (Bartov 1992;Fritz 1995). Broadly, Hitler created a political ideology for all of
German society that demanded unwavering loyalty to Hitler personally and the Nazi
Party, through propaganda, the schools, the media, destruction of non-Nazi Party
institutions, and crushing dissent. Boys between ten and eighteen were required
to join German Youth and Hitler Youth for a combination of indoctrination and
premilitary training. Simply by being drawn from German society, German soldiers
were indoctrinated to obey Hitler (Bartov 1992;Kershaw 2000;Castillo 2014, 46–54;
Müller 2016, 94). Once within the military, this indoctrination accelerated. Hitler
changed the soldier’s oath in 1934, requiring soldiers to swear loyalty to him per-
sonally rather than to the state (Deutsch 1974, 19–20). While serving, soldiers were
exposed to a constant barrage of leaflets, booklets, speeches, radio broadcasts, news-
paper articles, and other forms of propaganda emphasizing Nazi ideology (Bartov
1992,120;Fritz 1995).
The indoctrination of younger officers and soldiers and their likely nonpartici-
pation in coup efforts made coup plots less attractive to highly ranked officers op-
posed to Hitler, including during the fall 1938 Sudetenland crisis (Orbach 2016a,
61), the fall of 1939 after the invasion of Poland (Müller 2016, 117), and the 1944
coup attempt (see below). Troops were deeply loyal to Hitler, and even in the last
months of the war, when Germany was being annihilated, there were no troop mu-
tinies (Fritz 1995, 252). Officers recognized that propaganda had made the ma-
jority of German troops loyal to Hitler and “even those [German officers] who
did find the courage to plot against Hitler were evidently much disheartened to
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326 Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma
discover that virtually no military units existed which could knowingly be deployed
in a Putsch attempt” (Bartov 1992, 146; see also Fest 1996, 332).
Indoctrination did not reduce effectiveness but rather increased German troop
staying power and effectiveness (Fritz 1995, esp. 241–42; Förster 2010;Castillo 2014,
207). In particular, the ongoing annihilation of German units in the east meant that
primary groups would be unable to maintain unit cohesion, critical for tactical ef-
fectiveness, because the primary groups were being destroyed. Cohesion and a will-
ingness to fight were maintained, rather, by indoctrination (Bartov 1992, chapters
2–4).
Some might propose that German military effectiveness was undermined because
German generals did not contest foolish orders, perhaps because they were indoc-
trinated to believe in Hitler’s infallibility. However, the historical record does not
support such a view. Generals sometimes disagreed with Hitler. They dissuaded
Hitler from invading France in fall 1939. They disagreed with the scope of his De-
cember 1944 Ardennes offensive. And, they genuinely supported perhaps Hitler’s
largest error, the invasion of the Soviet Union, not because their vision was blocked
by ideological blinders but because their professional judgment was simply wrong
(Weinberg 2005).
Summary
Facing coup threats and belligerent adversaries, Hitler mostly avoided coup-
proofing tactics that reduced military effectiveness and employed tactics that did
not reduce effectiveness. He could do this because coup-proofing tactics that do
not reduce effectiveness were available; he could make personal bribes, and his po-
litical persona and regime ideology facilitated effective indoctrination. The result
was that he employed enough coup-proofing to limit the risk of being overthrown
while fielding a tremendously effective military that built a gigantic empire. The
exception to this pattern, as discussed, is that restricting information and counter-
balancing at higher levels of decision-making may have degraded intelligence.
These coup-proofing choices helped optimize German military effectiveness. The
definitive study of great power military effectiveness from 1914–1945 concluded
that Nazi Germany had one of the most operationally effective militaries and the
most tactically effective military (Cushman 2010, 321). A quantitative study found
that when facing British or American units, German forces inflicted about 50 per-
cent more casualties than they suffered, attesting to German tactical effectiveness
(Dupuy 1977, 234–35; see also Van Creveld 1982, chapter 1). A leading comparative
study of military cohesion classifies Nazi Germany as having high levels of cohesion,
in part because of indoctrination (Castillo 2014). Van Creveld (1982, 163) states: “In
point of morale elan, unit cohesion, and resilience, [the Germany Army] probably
had no equal among twentieth-century armies.”
There was coup-plotting in Nazi Germany, the most salient episode being the
July 1944 coup attempt. The plan was to assassinate Hitler, after which the plotters
would seize control of the government. This article’s theory helps explain why the
coup attempt failed. Bribery dissuaded senior German officers like Guderian and
Blaskowitz from participating, weakening the effort. Once the assassination attempt
failed, the coup-plotters became deeply disillusioned, recognizing that indoctrina-
tiondoomedtheeffortbecause,aslongas“theFührerwasalive...noamount
of charisma [of the coup-plotters] could persuade the majority of officers to turn
against his orders” (Orbach 2016a, 232). They were right; because of indoctrination,
troops recoiled from rather than rallied around the conspirators once they heard
of the assassination attempt (Fritz 1995, 242). Some might point to the hundreds
of officers arrested in the wake of the attempt as an example of a coup-proofing
purge,5but these are relatively modest purge figures, presenting limited reduction
5On hundreds arrested, see Orbach 2016b.
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DAN REITER 327
in military effectiveness. They pale in comparison to the ten thousand military offi-
cers arrested in the purge following the 2016 failed coup in Turkey (Kenyon 2018)
or the thirty to forty thousand Soviet officers imprisoned or executed by Stalin from
1937 to 1941 (Glantz and House 1995,11).
That said, the broader lesson of the 1944 incident is that leaders cannot always
eliminate coup risk and optimize military effectiveness. Our theory disagrees with
the conventional scholarly wisdom that leaders face a dilemma and must choose to
either reduce coup risk or optimize military effectiveness. But our theory does not
forecast that leaders can completely avoid this tradeoff; they cannot simultaneously
build highly effective militaries and reduce coup threat to zero. Hitler reduced coup
risk without undermining military effectiveness through indoctrination and bribery,
but the risk was not eliminated, as evidenced by the July 1944 plot. To go farther in
reducing coup risk would have required him to engage in coup-proofing measures
such as loyalty-based promotions that would have further reduced military effective-
ness, a tradeoff he was unwilling to make.
Conclusion
Leaders can substantially reduce the coup-proofing dilemma by employing a mix
of coup-proofing tactics. Choosing the right mix allows them to alleviate coup risk
and field effective militaries. The argument improves our understanding of military
effectiveness, explaining that leaders do not always have to choose between either
reducing coup risks or fielding effective militaries. Relatedly, it helps explain why
dictators like Hitler can field effective militaries without being overthrown.
There are several avenues for future research. First, the Germany case suggested
a new connection between coup-proofing and military effectiveness: blocking infor-
mation flows and counterbalancing at higher levels degrades intelligence. Future
work can develop a deeper theoretical account of this dynamic, build out specific
empirical expectations (how exactly might degraded intelligence manifest itself),
and execute empirical tests. It might also apply coup-proofing to war initiation de-
cisions, exploring more deeply why regimes like dictatorships are less likely to start
wars they go on to win (Reiter and Stam 2002).
Second, more empirical work is needed, including reanalysis of cases previously
explored in coup-proofing research. Regimes described previously as having been
coup-proofed comprehensively may be better characterized as implementing some
but not all coup-proofing techniques, as forecast by the theory. For example, in the
late 1980s, Saddam Hussein reduced some but not all coup-proofing techniques—
such as improving training and making promotion more merit-based while retain-
ing bribery and indoctrination—allowing Iraq to perform better in its war against
Iran while avoiding Saddam’s overthrow (Karsh and Rautsi 1991, 181–84; Pollack
2002, 218–21; Murray and Woods 2014, 286–87, 302–3; Talmadge 2015;Marr 2017,
164–65). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Egypt rolled back some but not all coup-
proofing techniques—such as improving training, reducing counterbalancing, and
making promotion more merit-based while still engaging in some purges—allowing
Egypt to perform somewhat better in its 1973 war with Israel without experienc-
ing a coup (Pollack 2002, 89–90, 98–99; McGregor 2006, 275). After 1940, Joseph
Stalin reduced some but not all coup-proofing techniques—such as rehabilitating
imprisoned military officers, improving training, giving commanders more author-
ity, and making promotion more merit-based, while retaining counterbalancing and
maintaining Communist indoctrination—allowing Soviet military performance to
improve but without permitting Stalin’s overthrow (Reese 2005, 146–47, 160; Glantz
2005, 124, 472–74, 615–19; Kotkin 2017, 759). High caliber cross-national data on
various coup-proofing techniques and military effectiveness would permit quantita-
tive testing.
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328 Avoiding the Coup-Proofing Dilemma
Third, bribery as a coup-proofing tool needs further exploration. The article sug-
gests the importance of categorizing and understanding the variety of different
types of bribes that can be offered, recognizing that some can reduce coup motiva-
tion without increasing coup capability. Future work can also explore how at least
some forms of bribery might affect military effectiveness, such as widespread, de-
moralizing corruption practices. There is also the possibility of connecting bribery
practices within state governments with comparable practices in rebel groups, in-
cluding securing lootable resources and distributing sexual slaves and “war wives”
to maintain control. Rebel groups sometimes approve forced marriages to officers
as a means of strengthening loyalty to the leadership (see Baines 2014).
Fourth, future work could explore when coup-proofing tactics are or are not avail-
able to be implemented effectively by leaders. Not all attempts at indoctrination
work equally well in all regimes. Not all bribery options are always available. A more
complete understanding of what tools are available to what leaders will provide a
fuller understanding of how leaders choose.
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