Germany’s infamous military deployment plan of 1914, named after Alfred Count von Schlieffen, chief of the Prussian general staff from 1892–1905. By the time the plan was implemented in August 1914, it should more aptly be called “Moltke-Plan,” as it had been changed and updated by Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth von Moltke, in the years 1906–1914.
Schlieffen’s war planning was conducted against the background of international developments in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Germany felt itself “encircled” by hostile alliances, and its military planners feared that it would most likely have to fight a war on two fronts if a European war were to break out. Schlieffen attempted to find an answer to the dilemma of how to win such a two-front war when faced with superior enemy numbers. As chief of the general staff, he had changed his predecessors’ strategy of concentrating on the enemy in the East—Russia. Instead, he reversed years of planning by focusing on the enemy in the West—France. Russia, he felt, could retreat into its vast terrain and avoid a decisive battle, but Germany would be too stretched to fight on two fronts and needed to secure an early victory, at least on one of those fronts. France seemed to offer that chance; Russia would be slow to mobilize and could be dealt with later. In 1905, faced with an enforced retirement, he put some of his thoughts to paper in a now infamous memorandum, intended to point his successor, the younger Helmuth von Moltke, in the right direction.
The timing of this memorandum is important, as it was written against the background of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. As a result of this conflict, which Russia lost, it was eliminated as a serious threat to the European status quo for the foreseeable future. Russia would first of all have to recover from defeat and revolution. For Germany’s military leaders who feared Russia as a potential future enemy, this was a perfect time to consider “preventive war,” for Germany still had a chance to defeat Russia if it chose to become involved in a European war. In the not-too- distant-future, Germany’s military planners predicted, Russia would become invincible. The so-called Schlieffen Plan was developed against this background and designed primarily as a war against France—and if necessary Britain—in 1905. France, allied to Russia, would not be able to count on its ally’s support in 1905, so this constellation offered a real opportunity to Schlieffen that Germany could avoid a two-front war altogether and concentrate solely on fighting in the west. With one enemy removed, Russia would in future be much less of a threat to Germany.
Schlieffen therefore saw Germany’s best chance of victory in a swift offensive against France; in the east, the German army was initially to be on the defensive. He counted on the fact that that German victory in the west would move quickly and that Russian mobilization would be slow, so that a small German force would suffice to hold back Russia until France was beaten. After a swift victory in the west, the full force of the German army would be redirected eastward against Russia. In effect, this strategy would turn the threatening two-front war into two sequential one-front wars. The plan further entailed that Germany would have to attack France while avoiding the heavy fortifications along the Franco-German border. Instead of a “head-on” engagement, which would lead to position warfare of inestimable length, the opponent should be enveloped and its armies attacked on the flanks and rear, using the existing railway lines, which would ensure a swift German deployment. In addition, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium were not expected to put up much resistance and their neutrality would not be respected in a German advance. Schlieffen intended to concentrate all effort on the right wing of the German advancing armies. The plan involved violating the neutrality of Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium; however, the political ramifications of this act of aggression were considered insignificant.
This was the result of years of planning and of strategic exercises designed to find the best solution to the problem of a two-front war. Schlieffen put this version to paper in December 1905 in a memorandum written on the eve of his retirement. In the following years, his plan was adapted to changing international circumstances by his successor, the younger Helmuth von Moltke. The underlying principle—that of seeking to fight France before attempting to defeat Russia, and of attempting to envelope the opponent—remained the same until August 1914, however, when Germany’s deployment plan was put into action.
In 1914, the plan imposed severe restrictions on finding a diplomatic solution to the July Crisis, particularly because of its narrow timeframe for the initial deployment of troops into Luxemburg, Belgium, and France. Particularly the need to capture the fortified town of Liège quickly put severe time pressure on the German advance. The escalation of the diplomatic crisis into full-scale war was in no small measure a consequence of Germany’s offensive war plans.
Germany began the war with a deployment of the majority of its troops in the west. Seven armies were deployed there, and one army was deployed in the east, where the task of holding back the Russian army was to be shared with the Austro- Hungarian troops. The quick victory in the west, however, was not achieved; in the east the Russians were quicker to mobilize and deploy than had been anticipated, and the much needed support from the Austrians was less substantial than hoped for. What had seemed a sound strategy for winning a war on two fronts ultimately failed in August and September 1914, when trench warfare put an end to the idea of a quick victory on the western front. Arguably, Germany could not win a long war against numerically superior enemies, particularly once Britain entered the war and the naval blockade took effect. Once Moltke’s interpretation of the Schlieffen Plan had failed, it seemed only a matter of time before Germany would lose the war.
After the war was lost and the victors blamed Germany and German militarism for its outbreak, details of the Schlieffen Plan were kept secret. Official document collections made no mention of it. In private correspondence and in their memoirs Germany’s failed military leaders and former members of the general staff nonetheless frequently referred to Schlieffen’s “recipe for victory,” which had, in their opinion, been squandered by Moltke. Details of the memorandum did not become public until after World War II, when the German historian Gerhard Ritter published it and other documents in an effort to prove that German militarism was indeed to some extent responsible for the outbreak of war. Since then, generations of historians have come to accept that German military planning, epitomized by the Schlieffen Plan, was one of the factors for the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914.
This certainty has recently been questioned by the American historian Terence Zuber, who denies the existence of the Schlieffen Plan. Zuber’s contention is that the famous 1905 memorandum did not amount to a military plan and that Schlieffen never intended to launch an attack on France via Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. This thesis has provoked a heated debate but has largely failed to convince critics that there was no Schlieffen Plan. Equally, Zuber’s apologetic interpretation that Germany did not have an offensive war plan in 1914 has found little support. Nevertheless, the debate has reemphasized what others had already pointed out: that there never existed a perfect recipe for victory, that Schlieffen’s hapless successor adulterated his plan, and that it would be prudent to think carefully about the terminology used to describe Germany’s military plans of the prewar years. The notion of the Schlieffen Plan as a convenient way of summarizing German military strategy in August 1914 is inaccurate. The responsibility for the plans that were put into practice in August 1914 lay with Helmuth von Moltke, who had adapted Schlieffen’s ideas to changing international and domestic conditions. Although the principle remained the same, the plans differed in important ways, such as Moltke’s planned coup de main on Liège, which was intended to avoid a violation of Dutch neutrality. It would still be fair to say that the German war plan of 1914 contributed significantly to the outbreak of fighting, but to blame Schlieffen for what followed thereafter is misleading.
FURTHER READING: Bucholz, Arden. Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning. New York: Berg, 1991; Ehlert, Hans, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Gross, eds. Der Schlieffenplan. Analyse und Dokumente. Paderborn: Schöningh. 2006; Mombauer, Annika. Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001; Ritter, Gerhard. The Schlieffen Plan. Critique of a Myth. London: O. Wolff, 1958; Zuber, Terence. Inventing the Schlieffen Plan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.