The Schlieffen Plan, part 3

Terence Holmes, Robert T. Foley, Gerhard Groβ, and Annika Mombauer have all argued forcefully against the Zuber thesis, the first two in the pages of War in History. I am only going to talk about Holmes’s and Mombauer’s criticisms. The crux of Holmes’s argument is that Zuber has too rigid a view of the Schlieffen Plan and that Schlieffen’s thinking is for more flexible than Zuber, who is fixated on Paris, portrays. Holmes also maintains that Schlieffen did not consider Russia to be a threat in 1905 and that it would be feasible to raise the troops needed for the plan.

Zuber’s response focuses on two issues: the first issue is a reading of operational plans as portrayed in the 1905 memorandum. This is important because by the time Zuber and Holmes have finished their exchanges, they are arguing about whether or not the ‘Ghost Divisions” could have been raised in 1906 for an assault on France, not for a two-front war in 1914. The second issue which comes out of the first, for the purposes of this blog, is more important. Zuber accuses Holmes of inventing a brand new Schlieffen Plan, one that is not supported by the material (see first point). But more significant is the fact that Holmes’s Schlieffen Plan also differs from the plan defended in the subsequent historiography of the German General Staff (e.g. Groener and Kuhl) and criticized by historians (Gerhard Ritter and Hans Delbrück). It is not Zuber who is fixated on Paris; it is the subsequent historiography about the plan that insists that Paris was the target of Schlieffen’s planning. Zuber is the one challenging the fixation. Even if Holmes is correct and Schlieffen was not concerned about circling west of Paris, this is an important deviation from the conventional wisdom, one could even say dogma, regarding the Schlieffen Plan.   That is the reason why Zuber accuses him of inventing a new Schlieffen Plan.

Mombauer provides the most sweeping and dismissive critique of Zuber’s work. Mombauer does not appreciate Zuber’s occasionally contemptuous tone, although she could be accused of the same towards him. Her claim is that Zuber’s focus on military matters at the expense of a wider framework that takes account of political and economic considerations makes his argument unconvincing. Mombauer also notes that Zuber’s work was the theme of a conference in Potsdam sponsored by the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt (MGFA) in 2004. She notes that Foley, Holmes and Gerhard Groβ, as well as herself, are strongly critical of Zuber and that the results will be published in a forthcoming volume.   What she does not note is that Holmes, by no means a Zuber supporter, did not find Groβ’s, Foley’s, or Mombauer’s work helpful in the dispute with Zuber. She acknowledges that Zuber has forced people to reexamine long held assumptions, but concludes “ultimately, the debate seems of very little consequence to what we know about the origins of the First World War” and that no Schlieffen Plan does not mean no German war guilt.

Mombauer spends the next few pages largely relating the exchanges between Holmes and Zuber and Foley and Zuber, showing little sympathy for Zuber’s position.   As is often the case in many historical debates, both sides are questioning the other’s selection and use of sources.

Mombauer continues her critique of Zuber with a discussion of German war planning from 1906-1914 under Moltke. Mombauer appears to defend the traditional interpretation of the Schlieffen Plan when she writes, “Rather it demonstrates that in 1914 Germany did indeed attack France by marching through Belgium as they had planned to do for some years, and that they aimed for Paris in order to defeat the French.”[1]   Even Holmes, who Mombauer quotes with approval, does not accept this reading of Schlieffen’s intentions. Indeed, most of Mombauer’s position is based on the veracity of assuming what she is trying to prove. Because it is “generally accepted” that World War I began with the German attack on France and Belgium, it must be so.

If Mombauer is correct and that this is the “generally accepted” view, it once again illustrates the western focus of many historians of the Great War and as well as a western bias. Russia mobilized its army first, Austria-Hungary second, France third, and Germany was the last of the continental Great Powers to mobilize. On August 4, 1914, the same day Germany entered Belgium, Russia entered East Prussia and France entered the Lorraine, yet it is “generally accepted” that the war began when Germany entered Belgium. It may be that German actions confirmed that Great Britain would enter the fray, but it cannot fairly be construed as the beginning of the war.

Mombauer claims that her article will critique Zuber’s thesis in the context of broader “political and economic considerations.” Mombauer contends that Zuber does not consider economic dimensions of war planning, but she provides no discussion of the economic dimension of war planning or how it impacts Zuber’s thesis. It is valid to point out that Zuber does not consider the growing tensions among the Great Powers and how that could influence decisions. However, if German actions are put in a larger international political context, then there is ample evidence that Mombauer does not consider which suggests that the “generally accepted” view of many historians does indeed need to be reconsidered, including a reason why France and Russia might want to attack Germany that is not based on fear of German aggression. But therein lies the problem.   The theme of German military aggression is intrinsic to our understanding of modern Germany.

This is where the historiography of the Second World War has impacted our understanding of the Great War.

[1] Annika Mombauer, “Of War Plans and War Guilt: The Debate Surrounding the Schlieffen Plan,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28:5 (2005): 874