Academic journal article The Historian

Through the Looking Glass: German Strategic Planning before 1914

Academic journal article The Historian

Through the Looking Glass: German Strategic Planning before 1914

Article excerpt

"Contrariwise," continued Tweedledum, "if it was so, it might be; and, if it were so, it would be; but as it ain't, it ain't. That's logic."

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

In August 1914 the armies of Imperial Germany went to war according to a single-force design, the Schlieffen Plan. That operations plan had not been coordinated with the Prussian War Ministry, the Imperial German Navy, the Foreign Office, the Chancery, or even the Austro-Hungarian ally. As a result, there existed no coordinated national strategy--much less an alliance strategy--and no joint-forces command. The German armies headed west, hoping somewhere in northern France to crush the combined forces of France and Great Britain. In the East, Habsburg armies dashed into Galicia in hopes of defeating isolated Russian forces before the proverbial "steamroller" got under way. Both navies remained in port.

The obvious question: Why this lack of coordinated planning? Was it constitutional? Was it a function of tradition? Was it structural? Was it simply oversight? Or was it the result of individual failures? To be sure, there were examples that other states had come to realize that military-naval as well as political-diplomatic strategy-making demanded central coordination. Great Britain in 1902 had established the Committee of Imperial Defence as a forum for discussing defense matters between Cabinet ministers and representatives of the two armed services. France had established two coordinating agencies: the Conseil superieur de la guerre as the highest military coordinating body, and the Conseil superieur de la defense nationale as the highest governmental coordinating body. But no such coordinating agency existed in Germany. (1) As late as 1930, Bernhard von Bulow (1849-1929) revealed this inability in his (posthumously published) memoirs. After making the sensible statement that "wars in the final analysis are won or lost not just militarily but also politically," the former chancellor then prided himself "that on principle I never involved myself in military matters." (2) Apparently, politics and military matters were two separate and unconnected areas, to be kept isolated from one another.

The failure to devise a coherent and integrated national strategy before 1914 stemmed in large measure from the peculiar Prusso-German military structure. At the top of that command structure stood the Hohenzollern king-emperor, who exercised almost limitless powers in the military realm. Wilhelm II was the de facto commander-in-chief of all Prussian land forces (as well as of the Imperial German Navy). The extent to which the Prussian war minister or state secretary of the Navy Office could steer passage of monetary bills through the Reichstag (the federal parliament of the empire) alone limited their authority. The existing military agreements with Bavaria, Saxony, and Wurttemberg and the generosity of parliament constituted the principal brakes on the monarch's military powers.

The decision-making process was firmly imbedded in the constitutions of the North-German Confederation (16 April 1867) and of the German Reich (16 April 1871). Specifically, Article 63 of the Constitution of 1871 enshrined the Prussian king-emperor as "Bundesfeldherr," that is, as commander-in-chief of all federal land forces. "The entire armed land forces of the Reich will be composed of a unified army, which will be placed under the command of the Kaiser in war and in peace." (3) In time of war, it further granted the king-emperor operational control of the non-Prussian armies through the institution of the Great General Staff (which was not embedded in the Constitution). Article 64 accorded the king-emperor power to make all officer appointments, from subaltern to chief of the General Staff. Article 11 granted him exclusive power to declare war, which he exercised only once, on 31 July 1914. Mobilization of the federal armies and a subsequent declaration of war--except in case of an attack on the Reich--required the approval of both the imperial chancellor and of the German Federal Council (Bundesrat), which also occurred only once, on 1 August 1914. …

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