German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, mastermind of an aggressive German military strategy that will soon be used, in modified form, at the start of the Great War, dies on this day in 1913 in Berlin.
The son of a Prussian general, Schlieffen entered the army in 1854 and participated in both the Seven Weeks’ War with Austria in 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Over the next few decades, Schlieffen rose through the ranks of the Great General Staff, an elite corps of about 650 officers that served as the strategic nexus of the Prussian army. He became its chief in 1891.
In the years since the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the German alliance agreement with Austria-Hungary in 1879, Schlieffen’s predecessors, Alfred von Waldersee and Helmuth von Moltke (known as Moltke the elder—his nephew, also named Helmuth, would serve as the General Staff’s chief during the Great War), had worked on developing a potential military strategy to fight a future two-front war against France and Russia. When Schlieffen took over, he continued these efforts, seeing such a war as an ever-more distinct probability. The planning was prescient. France and Russia—an unlikely match, given one’s status as a progressive democracy and the other’s as a tyrannical monarchy—did indeed join together in an alliance of their own in 1894, largely in response to the German threat.
Schlieffen believed that Germany’s best bet was to engage France first, attacking through Belgium and Holland and enveloping western France before finally taking Paris, decisively ending France’s status as a great power. Meanwhile, a smaller German army would hold off Russia in the east—Schlieffen believed Russia would not be able to mobilize its forces quickly enough to provide a formidable challenge. This strategy, outlined in an informal memorandum Schlieffen wrote in late 1905, near the end of his tenure as chief, came to be known as the Schlieffen Plan.
Less than two years after Schlieffen’s death, the German army, under the command of his successor, Helmuth von Moltke (the younger), invaded Belgium on its way to France, violating that country’s neutrality and effectively turning a smaller conflict into a general European war and eventually a global one.
The failure of the Schlieffen Plan to quickly and decisively achieve Germany’s aims in the latter part of 1914 was variously attributed to flaws inherent in the plan itself and to its faulty execution under Moltke, who significantly modified the outline set forth by Schlieffen, declining to invade the Netherlands and refusing to significantly weaken his army on the Eastern Front for the sake of a quick victory in the west. In fact, the combination of the plan’s tight timeline; a French resistance that was stronger than expected; Russia’s quick and effective mobilization; and the general difficulty of moving and supplying the German troops and carrying out effective communications on such a grand scale in the west, proved to be too difficult and the decisive strategy envisioned by Schlieffen and put into practice by Moltke gave way to the reality of a longer and more grueling conflict.