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Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War

Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War

Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War
By Annika Mombauer
Reviewed by Daniel Hindes

Explanations for the start of the First World War fall primarily into three categories. Fault is assigned either to the Germans, the English, or to everybody. The heart of the case against the Germans is that they clearly wanted a war and conducted their diplomacy accordingly. The case against England is built around evidence that the British Empire intentionally provoked Germany. And the case for blaming all sides incorporates the above facts and more. Frequently the view you find correct depends on national background, with the Allies blaming Germany exclusively, which is easy enough to do. Germans frequently point out the central role England played, especially in not de-escalating. And sober heads everywhere can see how it is possible that both views contain elements of the truth.

The question was highly politicized from the start. With one eye to history, the Germans were careful in their planning to mobilize after Russia so as not to be seen as the aggressor. As the war began, the propaganda machines of all the participant nations went into overdrive, each justifying their own side. As the war dragged on and public support flagged, the questions of how and why the war started were raised more urgently on both sides. And once the war was over the public, especially in Germany, became intensely interested in how the war started and why Germany lost. And thus the figure of Helmuth von Moltke became the focus of much scrutiny, as Moltke had been the Chief General Staff of the German military in the critical first months of the conflict. Since he died (of ill health) during the war, he was certainly a convenient scapegoat.

Helmuth von Moltke, known as Moltke the Younger because of a famous uncle with the same name, was chief of the German General Staff – the highest military commander in Germany – in 1914 when the war broke out. He was in charge of executing the Schlieffen plan (named after his predecessor, who came up with it) which involved invading France through neutral Belgium in order to bypass French defenses on the Franco-German border and win the war through the element of surprise. With a quick victory in France (on the Western front) the bulk of the German Army could then proceed against Russia in the East. That was the plan von Moltke inherited and slightly modified. In 1914 the plan failed to win the necessary quick victory, and the war bogged down into trench warfare, with Germany ultimately losing four years later.

Annika Mombauer’s carefully researched book Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War does an excellent job showing how elements of the German military, as well as the Kaiser, clearly desired war in the years up to 1914. Her thorough and meticulous research carefully reconstructs the events leading up to the war as experienced by the German leadership. The complex character of von Moltke comes out in the many sources she cites, and he is revealed as a conflicted figure, torn between duty and realism. While the thrust of Mombauer’s argument is to blame von Moltke for the war and its loss, her research is much more careful and can actually support several conclusions. Von Moltke was bound by duty, custom, and tradition to the values of Prussian militarism, and was bound to carry out the will of his boss, Kaiser Wilhelm. Wilhelm had been blustering about war for decades, but was also recognized as both a poor tactical leader of his own military and a security risk by his own General Staff. Related either closely or distantly to nearly every head of state in Europe, he was not above boasting of his military plans to his cousins, who were in turn leaders of countries his military planed to attack. His General Staff thus withheld key elements of their war planning from him.

Von Moltke was a realist and tactical commander. As a realist he knew before it even started, and long before most others realized it, that the First World War would not be a short and jolly escapade, finished in months. He also knew that for Germany’s Schlieffen plan to work, it had to be executed rapidly and completely. Half measures and last minute changes would doom both the plan and the nation’s chances of ultimate victory. In the slow-motion train wreck that launched the hostilities he was thus torn between a desire on the one hand to “do it right” and get the war started, and on the other to avoid what he knew would be a far more difficult conflict than many believed.

Mombauer goes day by day and sometimes hour by hour through the deliberations of late August 1914, using von Moltke’s journals, letters, and statements about the events by others privy to the situation. She finds von Moltke by turns aggressive, depressed, reluctant, and expressing confidence in German victory. Her attempt in the introduction and conclusion is to find von Moltke guilty of contributing to the start of the war by not doing enough, or even very much, to stop the conflict. And she can find some support for this in the materials she cites. But I would argue that such a view is not the only way to read von Moltke. It is little wonder that he displayed confidence and belligerence in the presence of his subordinates. It was required of him, part of the job description of a Chief of the General Staff. War was what the Kaiser repeatedly claimed that he wanted, and von Moltke would have been looked at quite askance if he suddenly turned pacifist at the hour his military expertise was needed most.

There is plenty to indicate that von Moltke desired to avoid the conflict if possible, but the problem lays in the “if possible”. Because if the conflict could not be avoided, von Moltke would be the one responsible for winning it, and he knew that it could only be won by acting rapidly and decisively at the outset. So he was in the agonizing position of hoping to avoid the war while being duty bound to start it as soon as possible if it was going to happen. There was no third option. For a Prussian military commander of the time, and one whose illustrious family history went back through generations of service, duty was a powerful force. That he had any inclination at all to avoid war is itself a testament to his vision. So von Moltke’s dilemma was this: whether war happened was beyond his ability to control; when it happened was his responsibility. What to do in this situation?

What von Moltke did was be clear about the options to the Kaiser, who vacillated considerably between starting war and not starting it. When von Moltke felt that war was unavoidable, he then worked forcefully to start it as soon as possible. For this historians have a difficult time judging him. Mombauer looked at the evidence and decided that von Moltke must be held responsible for the war’s outbreak, given his role. But why did von Moltke feel that war was inevitable? In his own words Moltke felt was was inevitable because of the actions of the Allies, particularly Great Britain. British diplomats held out the possibility of stopping the conflict using diplomatic pressure from their side, but then attached impossible conditions at the very last minute. This was read by the German command at the time as proof that Great Britain was simply trying to stall the outbreak of hostilities and disadvantage Germany.

So who really is to blame? I do not mean to completely exonerate von Moltke here, much less the very belligerent German military command as a whole, and especially not the Kaiser, who as head of state and absolute monarch was the final authority. But it is worth pointing out that there were other parties outside of Germany who could have averted the conflict with just a little bit of genuine effort. So who is to blame for the start of the war? No single person, or any one side. Everyone contributed.

Von Moltke was a realist and tactical commander. As a realist he knew before it even started, and long before most others realized it, that the First World War would not be a short and jolly escapade, finished in months. He also knew that for Germany’s Schlieffen plan to work, it had to be executed rapidly and completely. Half measures and last minute changes would doom both the plan and the nation’s chances of ultimate victory. In the slow-motion train wreck that launched the hostilities he was thus torn between a desire on the one hand to “do it right” and get the war started, and on the other to avoid what he knew would be a far more difficult conflict than many believed.

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