The so-called Schlieffen Plan, Germany’s infamous military deployment plan of the early twentieth century, took its name from Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1905. Its genesis and the reasoning behind it are best explained against the background of international developments in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.
INTERNATIONAL BACKGROUND TO SCHLIEFFEN’S MILITARY PLANNING
The Entente Cordiale (1904) between Britain and France had just been successfully tested during the First Moroccan Crisis (1905–1906), and Germany began to feel the full consequences of its own expansionist foreign policy. To Germany, British involvement in a future war now seemed almost certain, and consequently Italy, allied to Germany and Austria since 1882, became a less reliable ally, because it would be unable to defend its long coastlines from Britain and might therefore opt to stay neutral in a future war. The international events of 1905 and 1906 marked the beginning of Germany’s perceived ‘‘encirclement’’ by alliances of possible future enemies.
Between this time and the outbreak of war in 1914, the General Staff became increasingly concerned about the growing military strength of Germany’s enemies. As a result of the Russo-Japanese War (1904– 1905) Russia was eliminated as a serious threat to the European status quo for the foreseeable future. It would first of all have to recover from a lost war and revolution. For Germany’s military leaders who feared Russia as a potential future enemy, this was a perfect time to consider ‘‘preventive war,’’ because Germany still had a chance to defeat Russia. In the not too distant future, Germany’s military planners predicted, Russia would become invincible. The Schlieffen Plan was developed against this background and designed primarily as a war against France (and Britain) in 1905 and 1906.
Schlieffen saw Germany’s best chance of victory in a swift offensive against France, while in the east the German army was initially to be on the defensive. Russia would be dealt with after France had been defeated. In effect, Schlieffen aimed to turn the threatening two-front war into two 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 interminable position warfare, the opponent should be enveloped and its armies attacked on the flanks and rear. Moving through Switzerland would have been impractical, whereas in the north the terrain was easier to negotiate and the necessary railway lines existed that would ensure a swift German deployment. In addition, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium were not expected to put up much resistance. With these considerations in mind, Schlieffen decided 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, but Schlieffen and his colleagues in the General Staff considered the political ramifications of this act of aggression insignificant.
In his planning, Schlieffen counted on two things—that German victory in the west would be quick, 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 directed eastward, and Russia beaten in turn.
This scheme was the result of years of planning and strategic exercises designed to find the best solution to the problem of a two-front war. Schlieffen put this version on paper in December 1905 in a memorandum written on the eve of his retirement (this document is usually referred to as the ‘‘Schlieffen Plan’’). In subsequent years, the plan was adapted to changing international circumstances by his successor, the younger Helmuth von Moltke. Nevertheless, the underlying principles— trying to fight two wars on one front, wanting to fight against France before attempting to defeat Russia, and attempting to envelop the opponent—remained the same until August 1914, when Germany’s deployment plan (now significantly revised) was put into action.
In 1914 the plan (more aptly called the ‘‘Moltke Plan’’ at this point) imposed severe restrictions on the possibility of finding a diplomatic solution to the ‘‘July crisis,’’ particularly because of its narrow time frame for the initial deployment of troops into Luxembourg, Belgium, and France (the neutrality of the Netherlands was spared by this time). The escalation of the crisis to full-scale war was in no small measure due to Germany’s offensive war plans.
THE MYTH OF THE SCHLIEFFEN PLAN
After the war was lost, Germany’s military leaders initially attempted to keep details of the plan a secret, not least because they might have underlined the war guilt allegations made by the victors against Germany. Official document collections omitted Schlieffen’s memorandum of 1905, although in private correspondence and in their memoirs, contemporaries frequently referred to Schlieffen’s ‘‘recipe for victory,’’ which had, in their opinion, been squandered by his successor. Details of the memorandum did not become public until after World War II, when the German historian Gerhard Ritter published this and other documents. His study of the Schlieffen Plan, and his subsequent publications, blamed German militarism for the outbreak of war.
More recently, however, it has been argued by the American historian Terence Zuber that there never was a Schlieffen Plan. His contention is that the famous 1905 memorandum did not amount to a military plan. Other historians have suggested that it would be more appropriate to use the term Moltke Plan when referring to the outbreak of war in 1914, because by then Schlieffen’s own plan had been superseded by that of his successor. Zuber’s thesis has provoked much debate (see, for example, the journal War in History where much of this debate has taken place), but he has largely failed to convince his critics that there was no Schlieffen Plan. His apologetic interpretation that Germany did not have an offensive war plan in 1914 has similarly found few supporters.
The debate has, however, reemphasized what others had already stressed: that there never existed a guaranteed recipe for victory that Schlieffen’s hapless successor adulterated, and that it would be prudent to think carefully about the terminology used to describe Germany’s prewar military plans. The term Schlieffen Plan as a convenient way of summarizing German military intentions is perhaps not accurate enough; by 1914, when Germany put its offensive war plan into action, Schlieffen had long ceased to have any influence on Germany’s military planning. The responsibility for the plans that were put into practice in August 1914 lay with his successor, Helmuth von Moltke, who had adapted Schlieffen’s ideas to changing international and domestic conditions.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Bucholz, Arden. Moltke, Schlieffen, and Prussian War Planning. New York, 1991. Ehlert, Hans, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Gross, eds. Der Schlieffenplan: Anlayse und Dokumente. Munich, 2006. Foley, Robert T., trans. and ed. Alfred von Schlieffen’s Military Writings. London, 2003. Mombauer, Annika. Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. Cambridge, U.K., 2001. Ritter, Gerhard. The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth. Translated by Andrew and Eva Wilson. London, 1958. Translation of Der Schlieffenplan: Kritik eine Mythos. Zuber, Terence. Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning, 1871–1914. Oxford, U.K., 2002.