The man behind the Schlieffen plan and his strategic vision


Alfred Graf von Schlieffen

Schlieffen’s strategic vision was dominated by his conviction that a bold, swift, offensive attack on France using a wide outflanking manoeuvre would be the only solution to breaking Germany’s geopolitical encirclement.  France would have to be beaten quickly before Russia could fully mobilise and attack in the east.  Schlieffen’s work as Chief of the General Staff focused almost single-mindedly on this particular strategy, from building up the armed forces, through technological advancement to staff officer training, with the aim of preparing for a possible pre-emptive strike in the early 1900s.  Schlieffen’s strategic views owe in part to the works of firstly Clausewitz, and also in more practical terms to the elder Moltke, whom he succeeded as Chief of the General Staff.  However, it is interesting to note that despite Citino’s claim that German strategy shows continuity on the strategic and operational level from the age of Bismarck to that of Ludendorff and even to Hitler, Schlieffen’s strategic planning deviates from his predecessors somewhat.  His arrival at these views must also, in part, be due to his particular character and position, aloof and withdrawn from political and diplomatic circles, he no doubt suffered in the key areas of ‘statecraft’ as he considered his own role to be concerned mainly with the tactical and operational levels.  Schlieffen’s work is characterised out of necessity by the geopolitical and technological developments and limitations of his time.  In summary, the bold manoeuvre style of war planning for which Schlieffen is so famous was influenced mainly by the specific problems encountered by Germany as a newly powerful state in the centre of Europe, as well as the growing diplomatic developments bringing Germany’s enemies closer together.  Schlieffen devised a solution to this particular problem, however his numerous and notable omissions for example in the areas of politics and logistics, led to his ‘plan’ being eventually altered and discredited in its final form.

It is important to place Schlieffen’s strategic vision in the context of his peers’.  Rothenberg makes it clear that “Schlieffen’s strategic practices, if not his basic concepts, were a break in continuity from Clausewitz and Moltke”.  The main principles of Schlieffen’s strategic views were as follows: offensive, maneuver, mass, and economy of force, put to use with the aim of outflanking and destroying the enemy forces.  In addition to this, Schlieffen greatly underestimated Clausewitz’s insistence on friction, or the ‘fog of war’.  The elder Moltke in particular designed his command system with this in mind, reasoning that “no plan survives contact with the enemy’s main body” (Citino), resulting in his flexible ‘Auftragstaktik’, or mission tactics.  In sharp contrast, Schlieffen’s strategic planning has been labelled as manoeuvre á priori, reducing the reliance on army commanders’ own initiative in favour of a strictly pre-determined course of events.

Schlieffen maintained that new technologies such as the telegraph enabled the commander to act as a “modern Alexander” (in his own words) and as such, localised initiative had no place in ‘modern’ warfare.  Returning to overall strategy, it is clear that Schlieffen favoured a more daring offensive manoeuvre than either Moltke or Waldersee had contemplated.  His predecessors, likewise aware of the danger of a two-front war, had favoured defensive-offensive operations, basically advancing to pre-determined defensible lines and holding them until diplomacy could bring the war to an acceptable conclusion.  Although by 1888 the elder Moltke had turned to France as the more immediately dangerous opponent, and decided to split Germany’s previously balanced forces more heavily on the western side, his proposed deployment of troops to France was nowhere near the scale of Schlieffen’s.  This was an age in which there were, according to Rothenberg, “mounting odds against offensive warfare”, in addition to technological advancement, one had now to also consider national morale, social stability, and economic resources, as was shown to devastating effect during the American Civil War.  Schlieffen however, focusing almost exclusively on military capabilities, argued instead that while a direct offensive would result in static warfare, Germany’s best and perhaps only chance at victory in a two-fronted war would be to employ a swift, broad outflanking manoeuvre in the West to overpower France before turning to her eastern enemies.


A simplified image of the Schlieffen Plan

It has been suggested that Schlieffen’s own personal characteristics were important in development of his strategic vision.  Rather than, as with the elder Moltke, having a broader sense of the political and diplomatic levels of strategy, Schlieffen chose to concentrate on the military objective almost in isolation to other, related areas.  Annika Mombauer suggests that the role of Chief of the General Staff changed with each ‘Chief’s’ personality, and how far each was able to interact with above all the Kaiser.  Considering Moltke the Younger’s friendly relationship with Wilhelm II, it can be seen how closer interaction between the military and government was achieved in this period compared to Schlieffen’s comparative isolation.  With this in mind, Schlieffen regarded his role requirements as Chief of the General Staff as “planning, improving combat doctrine and capabilities” (Rothenberg); he did not try to influence German policy in any way, perhaps due to his predecessor Waldersee’s dismissal because of a policy disagreement with the Kaiser.

Wilhelm II and his General Staff

This disregard for political influence is crucial to an understanding of Schlieffen’s strategic planning, if only because of the main reason that the violation of the neutrality of Belgium was key to his invasion of France, something that the Ministry of War and the Chancellor were only made fully aware of in December 1912.  Mombauer comments that, “the General Staff cultivated the secrecy that Schlieffen had initiated.”  This ‘secrecy’ was not necessarily a creation of Schlieffen’s, the German state allowed its army a great deal of independence in comparison with the other European powers, and this was compounded by the divisive nature of the various ministries.  Schlieffen was under no obligation, for example, to share elements of his planning with the foreign ministry, and as Rothenberg claims “the division of jurisdictions resulted in a serious, possibly fatal, overreliance on military schemes alone”.  It is therefore evident that Schlieffen’s strategic views, with few political limitations imposed within the planning process, were prone to a degree of unrealistic optimism.  Hew Strachan cites politics as the main issue with Schlieffen’s ‘plan’, commenting that “its besetting sin was its political naivety”.

Yet political issues were not the only omissions in Schlieffen’s planning.  Another notable neglected area, according to Gordon Martel, was that of logistics, presumably due to Schlieffen’s rejection of the idea of protracted war.  He did not consult the public or private sectors, or even the related government ministry about possible economic war planning, and chose to favour improvisation of operational supply once within France.  It was only under the younger Moltke that economic mobilisation was considered.  Schlieffen’s personal interests and opinions were therefore extremely important in shaping his strategic planning.  Colin Gray outlines ideal strategic aims, stating that “strategy is neither policy nor armed combat; rather it is the bridge between them. […] The strategist must relate military power (strategic effect) to the goals of policy.”  It is therefore of vital importance to remember Clausewitz’s insistence that “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means”, when undertaking strategic planning.  Although Schlieffen was no doubt familiar with Clausewitz’s theories, as were the great majority of his contemporaries, it seems that he adopted only the instruction that “[strategic planning] determines when, where and with what forces an engagement is to be fought”, choosing to prioritise these more operationally focused tasks.


Europe pre-WWI

Another contributing factor to consider when analysing Schlieffen’s views is geopolitics.  As Gray states, “the problems and opportunities posed by the newly united Germany’s central location in Europe dominated the structure of German strategic planning from 1871 until 1914.”  The German ‘fear’ of encirclement by Schlieffen’s time was well established, with the elder Moltke and Bismarck having considered a war against multiple enemies as early as 1870, although they largely turned to diplomacy to avert any imminent crises.  The threat of future war led to concerns that Germany, without superior numerical force, could not hope to win an attritional war on two fronts and would have to seek decisive battle at the outset.  These views no doubt influenced Schlieffen, and as stated above, he responded to the situation with a different strategic plan to Moltke.  Although they both agreed that Germany’s geo-strategic position demanded “operations culminating in a battle of annihilation” (Rothenberg), Schlieffen’s solution was bolder and contained more risk.  It was recognised that once in motion, military plans were difficult, maybe impossible, to change, and although some have claimed that Schlieffen’s manoeuvre in its original form would have actually defeated France, it was deemed too dangerous by the younger Moltke, who rightly or wrongly altered the deployment of troops, reducing the huge difference in strength between the left and right wings (Mombauer, 2005).

Another criticism of Schlieffen was his reluctance to change his plans in response to external events or developments.  Although in response to Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war and the Revolution of 1905 Schlieffen downgraded a possible eastern attack and assigned 75% of full strength to the Verdun-Lille line, he failed to consider changes in the light of the Balkan crises of 1908-9 and 1912, or in response to rapid Russian military recovery.  Schlieffen’s strategic views therefore were heavily influenced by the geopolitical restraints imposed on Germany, leading him to create a plan to break out of the ‘encirclement’.

In summary, it may be argued that Schlieffen arrived at his strategic views due to a combination of interpretation of earlier theories and strategies; his personal working style and inter-personal relationships; and finally the wider geo-political context in which he had to base his work.  Schlieffen was an ‘exponent of strategic envelopment’ and believed that outflanking manoeuvres could negate numerical superiority, and moreover prevent a war of attrition through one decisive campaign.  His command style also favoured inflexible commands rather than directions in warfare, and as Rothenberg states, “he was a specialist who favoured concrete calculations over abstract speculations”.  His personality shows through at various points of this analysis, highlighting his reluctance to co-operate with government ministries and his conscious exclusion of non-military matters from General Staff work, as well as his estrangement from the Kaiser, leading to his replacement in 1906.  As a final point to consider, moving away from the comparisons of Schlieffen to other German commanders, Rothenberg has likened Schlieffen’s boldness and decisive application of manoeuvre to Napoleon’s method of seeking prompt decision by engaging and destroying the enemy force.  Although the debate on the existence of a formative ‘plan’ written by Schlieffen rages on, his strategic views are clear and whether potentially successful or not, have certainly influenced manoeuvre strategy ever since.

The author would like to acknowledge this article’s dependence on only a few sources, and would welcome any comments with further or newer research/information.


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