Remembering Dennis Showalter, Grandmaster of Military History

tags: obituaries, military history, Dennis Showalter

Paul A. Thomsen, PhD is a Visiting Professor of History at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and not those of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the Maritime Administration, the Department of Transportation or the United States government.


On the evening of December 30, 2019, Dennis Showalter, a noted scholar of German, American, and military history, fought his last battle and rode off on a pale horse. He leaves behind a career spanning six decades teaching countless undergraduate students, shepherding thousands of graduate students, authoring many seminal works, and demonstrating the enduring importance of military history in the minds policy makers, service members, and the American public. 


As word circulates of his movement from a practitioner of the art to a subject of history, many individuals fortunate enough to have shared a room with him will undoubtedly give testimony to his excellence as a lecturer even as he fought against the cancer that eventually stilled his body. When he spoke on matters of history, culture, politics, or even baseball at gatherings, he did not simply lecture in the staid and muted voices too common in today’s academic halls. His deep baritone voice filled rooms with an oratory performance like few others, weaving complex thoughts into a symphonic-like confluence of research, historiography, and common culture made easily accessible to elders of the discipline and the uninformed alike. Reading a book a day on average, few could keep pace with the man on a wide array of topics, including the usage of transportation, armor and firepower, the ancient laws of piracy against Al-Qaida and ISIS, the exemplars of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a cultural metaphor for a PTSD in RAF combat pilots, and how a Yankees pitcher managed to flush a perfect game. 


Like most serious scholars, Dennis Showalter’s depth and breadth of understanding on a wide array of subject matters was a cultural draw, but what kept students overfilling his classes and people coming back for more was the “Showalter Experience.” Over the years, my fellow surrogate academic sons and daughters of Dennis would often sit at the backs of rooms and watch new grad students enter for conference panel sessions, carrying notepads, pens, and almost dower expressions of academic seriousness. As he began to perform, we watched as these sullen figures suddenly dropped, first, their jaws, and then their pens, becoming entranced by the man’s intellectual repertoire sprinkled with cultural touchstones on science fiction, music, and clarifying his point with the phrase “Now in this discussion, mind you, there are three points that need to be considered….” No one was able to compete with Dennis and his sharp wit. 


Few knew from whence the mold that made Dennis Showalter was cast. Born in Minnesota in 1942, neither of his parents was well-educated, monied, or politically aligned. They were practical, stern, fiscally conservative, and they pushed their son with an urgency that defined the children of the Great Depression, hoping their progeny needed never suffer as they had. His mother was a stern homemaker who took care of the family while his salesman father was away. He had regularly traveled from town-to-town in rural America, selling items door-to-door in places still in recovery from the Depression and largely bypassed by the industrial transformation brought about by the Second World War. Upon reflection in the last years of his life, Dennis frequently mentioned how he treasured the trips he made with his father when he was old enough, looking for customers, talking baseball, understanding the value of money, and of how everyone deserved to be treated with dignity, inherent value, courtesy, and the closeness of a friend one had yet to meet. On a subconscious level, it also taught him the mechanics of oration, the audience-performer dynamic, and the art of the show in the sale. When it came time to make a career, Dennis admitted how he hated sales. As he was also “not good with his hands”, he knew the only path open to him was through making “this education thing work.” So he took his mother’s steadfastness and his father’s ability to sell into the academic world, graduating first with a BA from St. Johns University in 1963 and, later, earning a PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1969. In the later, he became close friends with noted Germanist and WWII OSS Chief of the European Axis Section of the Board of Economic Warfare Harold Deutsch, merging a thorough attention to detail with his now legendary showmanship. 


Now on the job market and perceiving himself as a fish out of water as the Vietnam War boiled over, Dennis Showalter displaced his political beliefs and pushed himself to measure up with the more “well-heeled crowd” of scholars with which he found himself sharing office and classroom space. In 1969, he began teaching at Colorado College and, in spare hours, threw himself into writing. During this period, he published many of the still standing authoritative works in his field such as Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany, German Military History Since 1648: A Critical Bibliography, and Tannenberg: Clash of Empires, 1914. However, they were more than just the requisite ticket punching of a new scholar. They were (and still are) recognized as a cut well above the rest, garnering him Distinguished Visiting Professorships at the Air Force Academy, the United States Military Academy, Marine Corps University, a position on the Iraq War Study Group, and regular fixture on the national and international lecture circuit. As he later identified in others, Dennis was “a first rate mind” and he tried to make the world a better place with it through the heart of American democratic principles. 


By the late 1970s, Professor Showalter was firmly entrenched in academic institutional circles, which granted him a vantage point from which he helped lift the profile of military history much maligned by radicals in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. At first, he served as a Trustee for the then-named American Military Institute and Editorial Advisory Board member for Military Affairs.  Following a major incident involving a small group of radicalized American Historical Association (AHA) participants who disrupting a panel of American military historians at the 1984 AHA conference, Dennis was also one of the members who stepped in to attempt to heal the breach between the small self-funded military history group and the organization chartered by congress. There he charmed crowds with his special brand of humor and personal charm, inviting the social history-centric clique to become involved in dialogues with the military history community. When Robin Higham retired after a lengthy term as editor of Military Affairs, Dennis Showalter, as president of the Society for Military History, helped steer the flagship publication, renamed as The Journal of Military History,through a rough transition into the now longstanding editorial hands of Bruce Vandervort at the Marshall Foundation, opening the door to a broader field of scholarly subject matter. Around the same time, Dennis became a regular pitch-hitter for various academic presses as series editor, using these outlets to aid the fledgling careers of young scholars by showcasing their work. Many of these included Kathryn Barbier, Patrick Speelman, Michael Neiberg, David Ulbrich to name just a few. If someone had a good idea, he would find a matching outlet for their efforts whether or not his politics aligned with the author’s views.  Long before “diversity” became a cultural buzzword for change, Dennis Showalter was already ahead of the crowd, championing the (still) most underappreciated quotient of American culture, “the diversity of ideas.” 


“New ideas are always needed,” he once told me. “If they can stand up to inspection, then no one should be left out in the cold.” For these efforts and more, he was awarded the SMH Samuel Elliot Morrison Award in 2005 and the Pritzker Literature Award in 2018 for lifetime achievement. At the time of his death, he was already working on his twenty-eighth book.


Still, Dennis Showalter never quite learned his father’s most important lesson or so he occasionally told me. You see, like the best of educators, Dennis sold his audiences on his subject matter with enthusiasm, but, instead of bargaining or raising the price as others do, he gave away his most valuable possessions for free: his time and his example of how to be a good person in a solipsistic world. Dennis went the extra mile for anyone looking for advice or in need of assistance….even his few detractors. In nearly twenty years, I’ve long lost count of the number of people in need to which he lent money, how many checks he picked up for starving grad students, how many dinners or manuscript edits he dropped to rush to campus to aid a student in crisis. When duty called, he stepped up before others even recognized the need. For example, when Harry Deutsch died, Dennis finished his last book (originally entitled What If?and since repackaged as If the Allies had Won) without question, losing time, money, and a few hairs off his head in the process. “If I make a promise, I stick to it,” my Doktorvater told me in the middle of a situation that would have broken others. “If I make a friend, I side with them to the bitter end.” As those close to him have long been intimately aware, this modus vivendi also extended to felines. Dennis Showalter never let a cat go hungry and never left the Colorado Springs pound without a grateful feline in arm …or two…or in one case, three. He said he couldn’t “bare the thought of leaving them there to await a needle in a cold cell when there was room in my home.” 


 It was an odd quirk of fate that put me in the same room with Dennis Showalter. One day, Bill Forstchen of Montreat College had looked towiden Dennis’s audience by bringing him into mainstream publishing and “get him paid what he was worth.” When the meeting was called, I had put my doctoral pursuits on hold to take care of my dying father. I knew of his scholarly reputation, had read his seminal work of “Railroads and Rifles” and his biography of Frederick the Great (still thedefinitive books in the field several decades later), but I knew little else to be the one to translate academes into businessspeak and keep him on target for manuscript delivery without seeming more than an interested fan. In the weeks following 9/11 and as the ashes of nearly 3,000 victims of America’s post-Cold War “Peace Dividend” rained down outside a Manhattan office, a group of us managed to craft for Dennis his dream project proposal he never thought an academic press would touch, a World War II dual biography akin to Stephen Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer.  Patton versus Rommelwas born that day as was his follow-up Hitler’s Panzers. My first eye-opener to the “Showalter Experience” came when he refused to allow me to call him “Doctor” or “Professor.” Those were “titles that got in the way,” he said. “Just call me Dennis.” The second came when the conversation turned to money. Upon hearing the suggested sum to go with the proposal, he looked around the office, fixed on a copy of a Britney Spears’ memoir and asked with a broad grin if we “could possibly get Brittany to appear on the cover?  Maybe on top of a tank? Hey, if I’m getting my dream, why not get as many readers as possible?” 


When Dennis was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he asked me one night if I thought he had measured up to what his parents had wanted. I’ll tell you what I told him: “Some people are measured by their books, or their perceived professional reputation, or the number of bodies one leaves behind them or, in our current age, their vigorous support for a given political ideology. You sir, have an embarrassment of riches of which they would have been proud.” Dennis didn’t care about things for himself. He cared about what he could do with them to advance the cause of fellowship, free discussion, and an understanding of what it means to be human through the most horrific aspect of our animal dimension, war. There was a time when he was not here and that time, with profound sadness I must admit, has come again.  Many have and will speak of him as a valued grandmaster of the profession, but, most importantly as he now rides into the sunset of history; we should remember Dennis Showalter as a kind soul, a selfless friend, and a good man. 

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