Operation Valhalla: Writings on War, Weapons, and Media

by Friedrich Kittler, edited and translated by Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz, Duke University Press, 2021, 312 pp.
Paperback $27.95, ISBN: 978-1-478-01184-2 

Operation Valhalla collects German media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s (1943-2011) essays, lectures and interviews on war, weapons and media from the time period 1985 to 2009, in English translation. The volume features translations of Kittler’s work by the editors Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz. Six of the essays have been previously published in English translation, eight are new translations of previously published work, and four are from Kittler’s archive, among them two manuscripts from 1999, previously unpublished: Manners of Death in War and Playback: A World War History of Radio Drama. The volume also comes with a scholarly introduction by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and a commentary. 

This book makes Kittler’s previously untranslated and unpublished work on war, media and literature available to the English-speaking research community as well as to those teaching at university level. Operation Valhalla thus sheds light on an often overlooked facet of the thought network of the media theorist who wrote Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1985, 1990), Grammophone Film Typewriter (1986, 1999), There Is No Software (1993), Protected Mode (1997), and Music and Mathematics (2009, 2011). The composition of the volume and the scholarly introduction provide valuable context for readers to understand the complexity, connections and development of Kittler’s argument in this area. The volume represents only a selection, however. For instance, it omits On the Theoretical History of Information Warfare.The introduction highlights main strands and leitmotifs of Kittler’s thinking, but also traces some instances where he arguably erred. The translations are of overall excellent quality, with slight variance in terms of either focusing on improving readability in the target language or preserving nuances of Kittler’s German. The editors’ preface provides context and justification for editorial decisions at the scholarly editing level (e.g. case-by-case decisions regarding the scholarly representation of the texts, see Ottilie Hauptmann [viii; 166-169]) as well as regarding commentary and correction of factual errors in Kittler’s texts (e.g. differences between marking errors in the texts or ‘correct[ing]’ them ‘without further ado’, [ix]).      

Operation Valhalla does not pretend to be a scholarly edition in a strict sense, or a scholarly collection of translations that abides by the neutrality standards of a scholarly edition, for that matter. Instead, the editors make a scholarly point of taking a strong editor position, “reconnoiter[ing] and invad[ing] the texts more than is usually the case” on the textual representation level (viii), with an introduction that represents Kittler as “a lifelong [military history] aficionado who acquired an in-depth knowledge of Prussian and German military matters” (viii), and a critical commentary that documents “inaccurac[ies],” “honest blunder[s],” as well as “mistakes that appear to have method” on Kittler’s part (viii-ix). The introduction by Winthrop-Young is largely based on his research published in Kittler and the Media.2 The emphasis on what Winthrop-Young calls Kittler’s “Martial a Priori of Media” (3) throughout this introduction thematically narrows the perspective on the theorist’s work, and falls short of situating the included essays in the context of his general media theory. The detailed attention and weight that the editor gives to particular details of military history in some cases seem to exceed the role these actually play in Kittler’s work (e.g. “mission tactics,” “Auftragstaktik”).3 Well-versed readers of Kittler’s will be surprised to see the scholarly introduction liken his work to “hard-core Marxist analyses,” followed by a speculative note that “[t]he similarities are too obvious to be coincidental” (4). The editors’ effort to document occasional inaccuracies in Kittler’s texts is a productive critical and philological endeavor towards historicizing this theorist’s work, necessary to situate his oeuvre in the history of (German) media theory. However, while the highlighted “gaffe[s]” (ix, 43) are indeed mistakes on Kittler’s part, a more scholarly, balanced, and precise documentation would have been desirable in some cases—especially where Winthrop-Young corrects Kittler on the history of Zuse’s Z4 and his interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.This criticism aside, Winthrop-Young reiterates an important point from his book Kittler and the Media: that Kittler’s writings on war, weapons and media have a disturbing blind spot: in his essays, he seems to have ignored—or at least not explicitly dealt with—the Holocaust dimension of technical activities at Nazi concentration camp Mittelbau Dora, and the technological aspect of the industrial-scale organization of the German 20th century genocide of the European jews (39, 43). 

With Operation Valhalla, editors Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz make an important contribution to research on Kittler’s work, as well as the history of media studies and media theory. The translations are of overall excellent quality, which is even more important as several of the essays had not been previously translated or published. The introduction and commentary provide valuable insights and shed light on an often overlooked aspect of Kittler’s work and research interests. Despite being based on in-depth scholarship in this field, some readers may find the narrow focus of the introduction and some occasional imbalances in its commentary to be downsides of this timely and otherwise well-compiled book. 

1 Friedrich Kittler, “Zur Theoriegeschichte von Information Warfare,” in Information. Macht. Krieg, eds. Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schöpf (Vienna, New York: Springer, 1998), 301-307.
2 Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Kittler and the Media (Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press, 2011).
3 Kittler never seems to use the term of Prussian “mission tactics” (‘Auftragstaktik’) in his own work, and certainly not in the essays translated in this volume. Only in an interview led by Alexander Kluge, the interviewer once brings up the term ‘Auftragstaktik’, which Kittler then briefly confirms (129). The extended commentary on this term and its role in military history (16-18, passim) exceeds the weight it had within the context of Kittler’s essays.
4 The scholarly introduction traces Kittler’s erroneous claim in Grammophone Film Typewriter (1986) that Zuse’s Z4 computer was involved in the design of the V2 rockets stationed at concentration camp and ordonnance factory Mittelbau-Dora to Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Enigma (London: Burnett Books with Hutchinson, 1983). Winthrop-Young argues that Kittler could have known better, had he read (and trusted) Zuse’s autobiography Der Computer – Mein Lebenswerk (1970), or Hodges’ later acknowledgement of the mistake (40). Winthrop-Young then cites Zuse’s autobiography with his statement that after witnessing some aspects of the crimes committed against humanity at Mittelbau-Dora, his team did decide not to bring the Z4 (Versuchsmodell 4) there, but instead hide it disassembled in the Allgäu region (40). He also cites an anecdotical report about a witness from a Bavarian local newspaper, according to which the Z4 was used after the war only to “calculat[e] milk yields and help out with accounting” (40).
Telling the story like this leaves out some relevant details, and makes Kittler’s factual error seem much more consequential in terms of misjudging Zuse’s position towards the Nazi regime, the German military complex and the historical constellation of the first reliably functioning computer. The scholarly commentary should have noted that despite the fact that Z4 was not brought to Mittelbau-Dora and has never been productively used for any directly war-related calculations, Zuse’s work was intertwined with the interests of the Nazi regime and in part dependent on official and military resource allocation and financing. It is known that Zuse’s autobiography cannot be regarded as a reliable source and paints a much different picture than the archive at the Deutsches Museum Munich. See 100 Jahre Konrad Zuse – Einblicke in den Nachlass, ed. Wilhelm Füßl (Munich: Deutsches Museum München, 2010); Wilhelm Füßl, “Konrad Zuse und das Bauhaus,” Kultur & Technik 44, no. 2 (2020), 56-59. See also Hilmar Schmundt, “Rassenforschung am Rechner,” Der Spiegel, June 14, 2010, 118-119.
Traces of this interdependence and alignment of interests are already obvious in Zuse’s autobiography. Despite the fact that Zuse rejects “rumors” that his pioneering computers have been used to process ballistic calculations for the artillery (Konrad Zuse, Der Computer – Mein Lebenswerk, 5th edition, with editorial notes by F.L. Bauer and H. Zemanek [Heidelberg, Dordrecht, London, New York: Springer, 2010], 73) and maintains that his computers were only of “indirect military value,” (ibid.) his work was closely related to military interests and applications of his time in Germany. The Z4 was never productively used for military purposes because its development was not far enough along, and the regime showed little interest in the technology (ibid.), but as Zuse reports in his autobiography, the Z4 was finished and briefly assembled at the Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt in Göttingen (AVA, Aerodynamics Research Institute), where it did its first calculations before being disassembled and shipped to the Allgäu region— obviously with the purpose to demonstrate its usefulness for aerodynamics (Zuse, Der Computer, 82). Before, Zuse worked at Henschel on the development of guided bombs, namely the Hs 293, and their statics, for which he was exempted from conscription to the front (‘uk’, unabkömmlich, Zuse, Der Computer, 53-54). The Z3 was of interest for the calculation of certain wing aerodynamic effects (‘Flatterfrequenzen’). During his work on the Z4, Zuse also made use of ‘Fremdarbeiter’ (civil forced laborers), which had been assigned to his computer construction team (Zuse, Der Computer, 73).
Winthrop-Young also highlights that in Kittler’s lecture Of States and Their Terrorists, (136-148) the thinker falsely construes the protagonist of Kipling’s novel Kim, Kimball O’Hara, as a “Halbblut” (“half-blood,” born to an Indian mother and Irish father, 140), while the novel states explicitly that his biological heritage is European (ix). The correction of this error on Kittler’s part is certainly necessary, especially because Kittler is interpreting the “master work of imperialism” here (Edward Said, “Introduction,” in R. Kipling, Kim [Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, Penguin Books, 1987, 45]). It should be noted, however, in fairness, that Kipling describes Kimball O’Hara as a complex hybrid identity throughout the novel, a “white boy … who is not a white boy” (Alisha Walters, “A ‘White Boy … Who is Not a White Boy’: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Whiteness, and British Identity”, Victorian Literature and Culture 46, no. 2, [2018], 331-346., here 331, 339, passim). In this short passage, Kittler mainly refers to Kimball O’Hara’s “ability to move between the fronts” and pit “Queen Victoria against Czar Nicholas in their struggle over … Afghanistan’ (140), which is an effect of his hybrid identity.

Thorsten Ries, the University of Texas at Austin