The Schlieffen Plan, part 2

If there was never a Schlieffen Plan, then it is fair to ask: Why has the Schlieffen Plan become a staple of virtually every single Western Civilization textbook?   It is a good question and one for which Zuber has a persuasive answer.

The standard narrative about the Schlieffen Plan is inextricably linked to its failure. The chief scapegoat in this story is Schlieffen’s heir, General Helmut von Moltke (the younger), who foolishly moved troops from the right flank too soon, thus ruining any chance of encircling Paris and crushing France quickly. The authors of this narrative, Lieutenant-Colonel Wolfgang Foerster, General Hermann von Kuhl and General Wilhelm Groener, come from the post-war General Staff and all served during the previous war. Zuber also points out that Kuhl had the distinction of having made decisions that undermined both German strategy and von Moltke’s orders.   In other words, rather than Moltke not being true to the perfect plan handed down to him, the bigger reason for German failure on the Western front could be found in decisions made by high ranking officers at the front that deviated from strategy and thus cost Germany a chance at victory. The revisionist story afterwards was a classic example of covering one’s interests. (Note: this is not the same as saying the Germans definitely would have won had the officers acted differently.) Zuber documents how these officers were the ones in charge of writing the official history of the war afterwards and how they jealously protected access to materials in order to promote their version of events.

One of the earliest accounts of the opening battles on the Western Front came from the Swiss military historian Hermann Stegemann, History of the World War Vol. 1. (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1917). Stegemann apparently had good relations with the German army and Zuber characterizes his analysis of German operations as “perceptive.” Nowhere in Stegemann’s work is there mention of a Schlieffen Plan. More important than strategy were the operations and combat effectiveness of the German Army.[1]

After the war, the German General Staff came under heavy criticism from the German military historian and armchair strategist, Hans Delbrück. Delbruck argued against the entire military strategy claiming that a focus on the East and a defensive position in the West would have kept Britain out of the war and allowed Germany a chance to win. This was a direct challenge to the competency of the General Staff. If they were responsible for the defeat, should the same people have a role in the new Germany?

Kuhl was the first to respond to this challenge. In The German General Staff in the Preparation and Conduct of the World War (1920), Kuhl maintained that Schlieffen had left a brilliant plan for his success Helmut von Moltke (the Yonger) who failed to understand it properly. Also in 1920, Groener published an article in the prestigious and influential Preussische Jahrbook (Prussian Yeabook) where he introduced the idea of the Schlieffen plan. In that same periodical, he would write a glowing review of Kuhl’s book. Shortly after, Foerster would publish Count Schlieffen and the World War (1921) where he would use the 1905 Denkschrift as key to understanding Sclieffen’s war planning and as his defense of the German General Staff. Foerster would become the archivist for the General Staff and wrote the official histories of the war in the west and the Marne campaign. Erich Ludendorff would also, albeit with less effectiveness, lend his efforts to defend the honor of the General Staff. But it was the former three, Kuhl, Groener, and Foerster, who promoted the idea of the perfect plan that was messed up by Moltke, who had conveniently died during the war and was not in a position to defend his actions or refute their assertions.

The records of the German General Staff from the Great War were destroyed during the Second World War. The bulk of the knowledge that we have about the Schlieffen Plan that did not come from the post-war staff came from the German historian Gerhard Ritter who wrote Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth. Ritter’s work used a collection of documents that had been in the possession of Schlieffen’s daughters until 1931 when they were turned over to the Reichsarchiv (Federal Archive). This collection, consisting of different drafts and maps (some that were not even Schlieffen’s), was presented as a coherent war plan. Ritter’s interpretation has been the basis of much of the work from Gordon Craig’s The Politics of the Prussian Army (1964) to Holger Herwig’s The First World War (1997).

Zuber asserts that the Schlieffen Plan was not the German war plan in 1914, but rather a straw man, or straw plan, invented after the war in order to make Moltke the scapegoat and preserve the prestige of the German General Staff. As one can imagine, Zuber’s claims would cause a substantial rethinking of the war. So it should not come as a surprise that Zuber’s work has been challenged. But that will have to wait until the next installment.

[1] T Zuber, “The SchlieffenPlan Reconsidered” War in History, 6:3 (1999) , 263.