The final phase of the Austro-German alliance began in the wake of the Dual Monarchy’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was highlighted by cordial exchanges-beginning in 1908-09 and lasting to the spring of 1914-between Conrad and the new German chief of the General Staff, the Younger Moltke. The two soldiers could hardly have been farther apart in terms of their personalities. While Moltke was dour and pessimistic, Conrad was dynamic and energetic. While Moltke was content merely to fine-tune the Schlieffen plan, Conrad dashed off one major operations plan after another. While Moltke loyally accepted the command function of his Supreme War Lord and declined to interfere in German foreign affairs, Conrad besieged both his emperor and his foreign minister with countless position papers demanding a greater role in Austrian military and diplomatic affairs. And while Moltke basically abhorred war, Conrad reveled in urging countless preemptive strikes-against Italy, Serbia, Rumania, Montenegro, Russia, or any combination thereof-upon his monarch and government.
Of course, neither man was ignorant of the deteriorating position of the Germanic powers in Europe. The Anglo-French entente of 1904 and its expansion in 1907 to include Russia had greatly diminished the chances that Schlieffen’s blueprint for victory could be realized. In addition, the growing uncertainty concerning Italy’s role in any future war had further deepened the pessimism that began to set in both in Berlin and Vienna. While much has been written about the detailed operational planning contained in the Conrad-Moltke letters, of primary interest here is the cooperation that they engendered. The alliance objectives of Conrad and Moltke can quickly be summarized as follows. While the Austrian actively sought to commit Moltke to deploy specific numbers of troops in the east, to offer precise dates for full-force intervention against the Russians, and to define individual military operations, the German refused tenaciously to make firm promises as to deployment strength, to set timetables for bringing the army from the west to the east, and to coordinate specific operations. Instead, Moltke sought to assuage the Austrians with emotional pledges of loyalty and common racial bonds in order to encourage them to do more in the east than merely to assume defensive positions, be it in Poland or even along the Carpathian passes.
In fact, the strategic needs of both general staffs remained as diverse as they had been under Beck and the Elder Moltke. Conrad at all times had to plan against potential hostile powers on three fronts: Russia in the east (Case “R”), Serbia and Montenegro in the southeast (Case “B”), and Italy in the southwest (Case “I”). To meet this potential threat, he had divided his army into three groups. The main force, A-Staffel, was composed of nine corps and was to tackle either Russia or Italy; a second force of three corps, Minimalgruppe Balkan, would concentrate against Serbia-Montenegro; and a strategic reserve of four corps, B-Staffel, could be deployed against either of the two other groups, as the situation demanded. Thus it was paramount to Conrad to acquire a firm, specific German commitment against Russia in order to attach B-Staffel to Minimalgruppe Balkan from the outset of hostilities against the adversary he most despised, Serbia. The Germans, for their part, were equally adamant not to denude the forces required for the main thrust against France through greater commitment in the east. Unfortunately, neither side was willing bluntly to spell these considerations out, with the result that for six years both heads of their respective general staffs danced a polite polonaise around the vital issue of joint military planning.
To be sure, there were occasional indications of closer cooperation. In April 1908, Conrad pondered possible German options for a two-front war and concluded that “in time” one ought to coordinate such matters between Berlin and Vienna. He estimated that it would take four months for such talks. To show that generals did not possess an exclusive right to ignorance, Foreign Minister Alois Count Aehrenthal rejected Conrad’s suggestion by stating “that there is no reason at this time to undertake war preparations for the immediate future.” Two years later, Conrad asked Francis Joseph for permission to conclude a firm military convention with Germany concerning use of connecting railroads in case of war. The emperor vetoed the initiative without giving a reason. In March 1911, Conrad again pressed his monarch to conclude concrete measures with Germany in case of an Anglo-French attack on the Berlin ally. Yet again, Francis Joseph turned his request down after consulting with Aehrenthal. And in July 1913 as well as in March 1914, the Austrian general again recommended detailed talks with the Germans concerning coordinated measures against Russia and Rumania; both German disinterest and political opposition at home to such talks assured their failure.
The nature of the Berlin-Vienna alliance cohesion can perhaps best be gleaned from the following. In November 1912, Conrad’s temporary successor, General Blasius Schemua, visited Berlin to undertake joint staff talks. The Berlin government found out about the visit only through local newspapers, with the result that Foreign Secretary Alfred von Kiderlen-Waechter caustically requested the Viennese government to inform Berlin of such visits in the future! Finally, it should be noted that no political talks had taken place concerning the future configuration of Europe after a possible war (the current concept of “war termination”). When Foreign Minister Berchtold informed Conrad on 6 July 1914 that the Germans would likely raise this question in the near future, Conrad lamely replied: “Then say that we also do not know that.” And while the Triple Alliance partners did manage on 1 November 1913 to hammer out a naval convention for the Mediterranean area, not only was this solidly based upon the unknown ally, Italy, but it was also devoid of any real appreciation of the actual naval situation to be encountered in a war with the Triple Entente.
The fact that Austria-Hungary and Germany failed to develop a common political-strategic war plan by 1914 is beyond dispute. The official Austrian history of the Great War concluded that Conrad and Moltke “beat around the bush concerning the heart” of the matter. Theobald von Schafer, who wrote one of the volumes of the German official history, likewise noted that “neither [side] laid their cards on the table… Neither Moltke nor Conrad always spoke their innermost thoughts.”
Four days after Austria-Hungary had commenced shelling Belgrade and on the very day that the Germans invaded Belgium, the Reich’s military attache at Vienna, Karl Count von Kageneck, confirmed the deplorable lack of joint planning on the part of the two “disjointed allies” when he informed Moltke’s chief aide, General Georg Count von Waldersee: “It is high time that the two general staffs consult now with absolute frankness with respect to mobilization, jump-off time, areas of assembly and precise troop strength . . . Everyone has been relying upon the belief that the two chiefs of staff had worked out these most intimate agreements between themselves.”
As is suggested above, the reasons for this lack of concrete planning were neither institutional nor bred of ignorance. Rather, they were political and personal. Whereas past works on this topic have tended to stress either the fragile nature of alliance cohesion (Craig), or the incomplete exchange of information between Conrad and Moltke (Stone), or the basic military miscalculation of overestimating one’s own forces (Ritter), it is to suggest that the failure of Berlin and Vienna to devise a coherent and coordinated strategy before 1914 lay primarily in the fact that both pursued national strategies that were not mutually beneficial. In addition, neither side was blessed with soldier-statesmen able to conduct joint strategic planning. Neither general staff comprehended the diplomatic, strategic, and domestic difficulties faced by the other. Neither Conrad nor Moltke was willing to lay his cards on the table. Both feared that such action might jeopardize their jealously guarded independent strategies. In the end, human shortcomings and vastly differing perceptions of the national interest as well as of the nature and purpose of alliances proved decisive.
In assessing the period from 1871 to 1914, it is fair to say that the cautionary approach of Bismarck, based squarely upon recognition of Germany’s vital interests as a continental state wedged between France and Russia, was carelessly jettisoned by Wilhelm II at the start of his reign-without any basic reassessment having been undertaken. Once that political decision had been made, military planners in Berlin and Vienna drew up their operational and tactical studies independent of each other. Neither fully shared their plans and thoughts with the other. Vague indications of intent in case that the casus foederis set in proved highly inadequate in 1914. Distrust and suspicion of each other’s political motives further precluded firm alliance commitments. While Conrad never fully informed the Germans of his secret desire to tackle Serbia concurrently with Russia and feared that the Germans “with greedy egoism sought to displace the [Dual] Monarchy from Serbia in particular and the Balkans in general,” Moltke refused to commit himself to specifics with regard to his eastern deployment. Nor did German civilian leaders spell out clearly their Balkan policy in the wake of the abandonment of Weltpolitik as evidenced by Schlieffen’s famous memorandum at the end of 1905. Romanticized assurances of standing “shoulder-toshoulder” with the Austrians, of Nibelungentreue, and of Bundestreue could not in the end overcome the divergent political and military aims and polices of the two Germanic powers.
Above all, Conrad never addressed the problem that his ambitious and multifaceted strategies were quite beyond the capabilities of the Austro-Hungarian state and its military. Moltke, for his part, refused to face the fatal flaw in the Schlieffen Plan-namely, to gamble the Reich’s future on the destruction within a few weeks of a French national army that was numerically superior to his own. Conrad as well as Moltke demanded more-both of their own forces and of their ally-than could rightfully be expected. Both sought Napoleonic battles of envelopment and annihilation (Kesselschlachten) in order to destroy the main enemy. Both wanted to avoid a war of attrition, which would place stress on the national cohesion of the Habsburg Monarchy and which could only favor the entente position against Germany. And, while both knew the general contours of the other’s operations plan, both preferred to pursue their independent military strategies. In the end, neither managed to resolve the dichotomy between their quite separate and distinct political and strategic goals. Neither appreciated, much less addressed, the enormous political, economic, and military problems attendant to modern coalition warfare in an industrial era. Certainly, neither soldier was prepared to inform either monarch or government that the Central Powers’ diplomatic and strategic difficulties probably lay beyond the realm of military resolution.
In the final analysis, the task may simply have lain beyond the limited talents of Conrad and Moltke. Even a veteran of coalition warfare such as the French General Maurice Sarrail is reputed to have remarked to Premier Georges Clemenceau, himself an experienced veteran of coalition warfare during the Great War: “Since I have seen Alliances at work, I have lost something of my admiration for Napoleon.”