The Schlieffen Plan-Fantasy or Catastrophe? Terence Zuber Argues That the German Army's Rigid Plan for a Quick Victory in France in 1914 Was a Postwar fabrication.(Column)

By Zuber, Terence | History Today, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Schlieffen Plan-Fantasy or Catastrophe? Terence Zuber Argues That the German Army's Rigid Plan for a Quick Victory in France in 1914 Was a Postwar fabrication.(Column)


Zuber, Terence, History Today


THE HISTORY OF GERMAN war planning prior to the First World War has been dominated by the so-called `Schlieffen Plan', commonly said to have been developed in a study written in early 1906 by the recently retired Chief of the German General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen (1853-1913). The concept was to deploy the entire German army in the west. No forces would be sent to protect East Prussia against the Russians. Seven-eighths of the German army was to be deployed between Metz and Aachen, on the right wing of the German front, leaving just one-eighth of the army to guard the left flank in Lorraine against a French attack. The right wing of the western army would sweep through Belgium and northern France, if necessary swinging to the west of Paris, continually turning the French left flank, eventually pushing the French army into Switzerland, while seeking a single great battle of annihilation. Following this quick and decisive victory, the Germans could deal with the Russian threat.

When war broke out in 1914, the German commander Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916) did indeed attack on the right by invading Belgium, but his force was not as strong as envisaged in the Plan; the attack was halted at the Marne in September, and a war of attrition ensued.

Indirectly it was the historian and publicist Hans Delbruck (1848-1929) who brought the Schlieffen Plan to the attention of the public, in early 1919. Delbruck wrote that Germany had used the wrong plan in 1914. It would have been wiser to attack in the east and defend in the west: this had been, Delbruck said, after all the plan of the great Field Marshal von Moltke (1800-91, uncle of the 1914 commander) between 1871 and 1888. An offensive in the east would have produced a quick victory over the Russian armies in Poland. Germany could have respected Belgian neutrality, which would have weakened British enthusiasm for the Entente. A German victory was in any case impossible. Germany should have conducted a war of attrition leading to a negotiated peace, rather than seeking a decisive victory.

Delbruck's accusations were a direct challenge to the professional officer corps. The General Staff's counterattack was not long in coming. In 1920, Hermann von Kuhl provided the first detailed information about German war planning, and set out the General Staff party line: that Schlieffen had bequeathed a brilliant plan to Moltke, who had failed to understand it.

The second volley was provided in 1921 by Wolfgang Foerster, who made Schlieffen's study the center-piece of his de fence of General Staff war planning, with particular emphasis on the idea of committing maximum force to the right wing to annihilate the French army. To illustrate this he published a map from Schlieffen's papers which showed seven active army corps and six corps of replacement troops swinging to the west of Paris. Such an operation, in Foerster's view, would surely have produced a decisive German victory. Foerster acknowledged that Schlieffen's study was concerned only with a one-front war and that it required an army larger than the Germans actually had at the time. Nevertheless, what was important was the concept. This, he said, was Schlieffen's legacy to Moltke, and it was Moltke's job to turn it into reality. The Reichsarchiv in Potsdam now claimed that Schlieffen's brilliant Plan had failed because of egregious mistakes made in 1914 by three officers--Moltke, Billow (the 2nd Army commander) and Hentsch (Moltke's liaison officer at the battle of the Marne)--all three dead by 1920.

From 1908 to 1912 Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937) was the head of the deployment section under Moltke, and knew the German war plan intimately. In Ludendorff's opinion, Moltke followed the concept of the Schlieffen Plan, but failed to execute it properly. Ludendorff supported this contention by noting that in the real war plan for 1905-06 Schlieffen deployed fifty-four infantry divisions to the right wing, just as did Moltke in 1914. …

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