Workshop report II: Endings of the Fiscal-Military System

This blog continues from an earlier post on the beginnings of the European Fiscal-Military System in the early sixteenth century. The question of when did the fiscal-military system end is, however, equally important, and connects our historical research to current affairs.

One important distinction of the fiscal-military system of the early modern period compared to medieval or modern recruitment is the central role of regiments. In the project, we are looking at the organisation of recruitment outside of a territory’s own jurisdiction (which includes personal unions and colonies). Foreigners fighting wars is nearly a timeless phenomenon, and prominent e.g., during the medieval crusades or in the modern Spanish civil war. However, distinctive for the fiscal-military system was the recruitment of regiments as a whole from other powers. Instead of individual recruitment (which did happen as well), whole units, often with their officers, were loaned or sold to by their commanders or rulers to another sovereign power. Interestingly enough, this process was not in any way teleological. Individual recruitment never really disappeared, but, more importantly, after successfully using the system of foreign regiment recruitment for a few hundred years, the practice lost importance during a longer peace period in Europe after 1815. Listing all the many reasons why recruitment of foreign regiments lost its importance in the 19th century takes us far beyond the scope of the project, but nonetheless, we discussed a few ideas.

Colonialism is, as usual, the big awkward elephant in the room – colonial recruitment falls outside of our definition of foreign regiments being under a different jurisdiction than the recruiting power. The rise of recruitment from colonies therefore adds to more own subjects in an army, and counters the need to look elsewhere. This was one factor in the declining importance of the fiscal-military system during the 19th century. However, states such as France (Foreign Legion), Great Britain (Gurkhas), or the Netherlands (Europeans in the East India Company) continued foreign recruitment throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Talking of problematic political concepts: the rise of nationalism, and the related scepticism of anything perceived as foreign, was an important motivation to reduce foreign recruitment. Recruitment becomes political in ways it wasn’t in the early modern period. Individual foreign fighters, motivated by their own political stance, e.g., in the Greek War of Independence, were acceptable, a sovereign sending whole regiments to another country wasn’t. However, we realised that this mostly pertains for men – less for money and materials, the other two important “m”s needed in warfare. Here, the late 19th century does not seem to be a turning point, and financial transactions as well as arms trade seem to continue in similar ways as since the 18th century. One of the important factors here is that arms production on a larger scale than the village smithy forging individual weapons for personal use is really hard to scale back in peace times. Once the machinery rolls, it does not simply stop.

Finally, from controversial concepts to a controversial man: Napoleon. Our discussions led to the suspicions that the French in the Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars are the first to opt-out of the early modern fiscal-military system. On the positive side, after 1815 and all this dealing with France and Napoleon brought most of the European powers into one city to dance and make peace, this peace actually lasted for quite some time. In other words, the demand for recruiting within the European fiscal-military system decreased substantially. When this demand increased once again in the later 19th century, the world has changed fundamentally, not any longer fitting within a European based system of foreign recruitment of regiments. Communication and the ever-prominent railroad systems also changed the nature of warfare, in addition to changes of ideologies and political frameworks.