This past August marked the centennial of the beginning of the First World War. Virtually everyone who has learned about the Great War knows about the Schlieffen Plan. The Schlieffen Plan, named after the German Chief of the General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen, was supposedly Germany’s plan to deal with a two front war. The German Army would knock out France quickly, and then turn its attention to Russia. In order to achieve the former, it would have to circumvent French fortifications by going through Belgium to reach France. The Schlieffen Plan was ‘proof’ that Germany had planned a war of aggression and deserved to be blamed for the war. This position was solidified in the Versailles Treaty with Article 231, referred to by most (some would argue wrongly) as the ‘war guilt clause.’ Both the Schlieffen Plan and the War Guilt Clause are standard parts of the Western Civ textbook that most of us had as students and quite possibly still use as teachers.
If Terence Zuber has his way, virtually every Western Civilization textbook would need to be changed, not that publishers would lament having to come out with a new edition. For those not familiar with the name, Terence Zuber is a retired American army officer who received his Ph.D. in history in Wurzburg, Germany. Zuber’s foray into the subject was a 1999 article “The Schlieffen Plan Reconsidered,” caused a lively exchange in the pages of War in History and has forced all but the most hardline opponents, and there are many, to concede that one of the staples of World War I history teaching, “The Schlieffen Plan,” needs to be reconsidered. Zuber begins his exploration of the Great War with a modest claim: There was no such thing as “The Schlieffen Plan.” Zuber would later expand this into a book Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning 1871-1914, published by Oxford University Press. Zuber contends that the 1905 Denkschrift, which has been traditionally pointed to as the source of the plan, was no plan at all. The Denkschrift, usually translated memorandum, was not a battle plan at all. Rather, it was a political document. It might be more accurate to think of the Denkschrift as a position paper in the form of a war game, the kind of paper that a special interest group would present to advocate a particular position or goal. Zuber argues that this is essentially what Schlieffen was doing. The Denkschrift was both a demonstration of Germany’s perilous position militarily and an attempt to advocate for more resources, especially troops for the army. Zuber contends that the Denkschrift, written by a retired General, reflects the beginning of his post-official writings where he tries to work out the ramifications to military strategy of mass armies.
Zuber provides a number of reasons why this document should not be considered a real war plan that focus on the nature of the document and the circumstances surrounding its construction. However, the most powerful reason that Zuber offers is the fact that the Denkschift deployed troops that did not exist. There are quite literally 24 divisions deployed on paper that have no physical counterpart in reality. Zuber calls these “Ghost divisions.” For an offensive one-front war against France, Schlieffen had always maintained that Germany needed at least ninety-six divisions, 24 of which did not exist. As Zuber notes, if Schlieffen wanted to conduct a war of aggression against France, his “Plan” was an open admission that Germany was about 1/3 short of the forces needed to do so.
Contrary to popular opinion and historiographical dogma, Schlieffen did not have an offensive war plan. Zuber writes,
This assertion [of a German offensive] is not supported by Schlieffen’s actual war plans or war games. Schlieffen held two Generalstabreisen West in 1904 and one in 1905; in all three exercises the French were attacking. In his 1905 war game (Kriegspiel), his last and greatest exercise, both the French and Russians were attacking. In all four exercises the initial battles took place in German or Belgian territory. There is no evidence that Schlieffen ever played an outright offensive into France or Russia. In all of Schlieffen’s exercises the German counter offensive attacked against French and Russian offensives.
Zuber contends that not only was Germany’s war plan a defensive one, but that in 1914 German generals were not advocates of a preventive war. Moltke and the General Staff were painfully aware that Germany did not have the numbers or the weapons to support a pre-emptive strike. They were taking steps to rectify their deficiencies, but they would not be sufficient until 1917. Thus, in the words of Sean McMeekin: “So far from ‘willing the war’ the Germans went into it kicking and screaming as the Austrian noose snapped shut around their necks.”
So is it time to revise our textbooks? If so, then why have teachers, including myself, spent nearly a century talking about the ‘Schlieffen Plan.’ Come back next week to find out.
Troy R.E. Paddock is a Professor of Modern European History and Chairperson of the Department of History at Southern Connecticut State University. He received his B.A. in History and Philosophy at Pepperdine University and his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. Paddock’s research interests focus on modern German cultural and intellectual history. He has a book, Creating the Russian Peril: Education, the Public Sphere, and National Identity in Imperial Germany, 1890-1914 (Camden House, 2010)and two edited volumes, World War I and Propaganda (Brill, 2014) and A Call to Arms: Propaganda, Public Opinion, and Newspapers in the Great War (Praeger, 2004). He has had articles published in German History, Central European History, Re-thinking History, Philosophy and Geography, Internationale Schulbuchforshung, and Environment, Space, Place.