Terence Zuber. Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning 1871-1914. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xii + 340 pp. $72.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-925016-5.
Reviewed by Kelly McFall (Department of History/Political Science, Bethany College)
Published on H-German (May, 2004)
Almost every Western Civilization class includes a well-rehearsed and well-intended lecture on the tenuous nature of historical "truth." Many of us, as instructors of such courses, devote a significant percentage of limited classroom time to working with primary documents, running simulations, and exploring causation in order (among other goals) to convey the difficulties inherent in evaluating inevitably inadequate evidence. Yet, almost unavoidably, we will at some point in the semester confidently offer our students an explanation or narrative so widely accepted it simply must be correct. Then, every so often, someone comes along to challenge that explanation.
Terence Zuber takes on one of the most widely repeated stories of freshman level Western Civilization: the Schlieffen Plan. As told in most classes, a single plan for military operations, drawn up by Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, governed German actions in 1914. This plan called for an offensive war in the west (including an invasion of Belgium) in order to destroy the French army in a vast encircling operation and knock France out of the war in six weeks. Schlieffen's successor, Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger), modified the way the German army would be deployed, but accepted the necessity of invading Belgium and the inevitability of war once mobilization had been ordered. The result, of course, was the British declaration of war, the over-extension of German supply lines, the defeat of the Marne, and the emergence of trench warfare.
Zuber's book, Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning 1871-1914, is a frontal assault on this narrative. The Schlieffen Plan, he argues, was the postwar invention of German officers who wanted to avoid the blame for Germany's defeat. Schlieffen's intentions were in fact both more sensible and less aggressive than the Schlieffen Plan as usually portrayed. Zuber's argument persuasively demolishes the commonly accepted version of the Schlieffen Plan. But his claim that the Schlieffen Plan itself never existed is more speculative and rests on a reading of evidence that is plausible but not conclusive. Military historians interested in the outbreak of the First World War will need to read this book and decide for themselves. Others will want to follow the debate closely, but may prefer to wait for a consensus to emerge.
Zuber, who served as an officer in the American army in Europe and later received his doctoral degree from the University of Wuerzberg, lays out the heart of his argument in one long (eight-five page) chapter claming the Schlieffen Plan never existed. The documentary materials for this claim are necessarily scarce, since an allied bombing raid in the Second World War destroyed many of the relevant records. However, in addition to exploiting previously discovered (but, according to him, generally neglected) records, Zuber utilizes a number of newly discovered documents, most importantly a manuscript containing summaries and descriptions of a variety of war plans, staff rides and other preparations for war made during Schlieffen's time as Chief of the General Staff. Zuber uses these materials to present a gradual evolution in Schlieffen's thinking leading to a clear vision for a European war. Far from a rigid offensive strategy demanding a lockstep attack against France, Schlieffen planned to counter-punch against France, Russia or both, depending on the military situation when the war broke out. The likelihood of confronting simultaneous attacks by both France and Russia forced Germany to take the offensive as well. As the situation became fluid, the German Army could then use the mobility offered by railroads and by effective training and practice to find and attack an open flank wherever and whenever it appeared. Zuber argues this broad strategic approach was firmly established by the turn of the century (pp. 161-164). To be sure, Schlieffen eventually acknowledged the size of the German deployment and the location of French fortifications required a German attack in the west to move through Belgium. However, this did not change his willingness to fight the French army wherever a favorable opportunity presented itself. Indeed, in most of the exercises Schlieffen led, the decisive battles occurred in eastern France, southern Belgium and Western Germany, and a flanking movement around Paris was never more than a worst case scenario.
So what of the famous 1905 memorandum Gerhard Ritter and others believe outlined the Schlieffen Plan? Zuber argues this memorandum (which he dates to early 1906) was not actually a war plan at all, but rather a political ploy. According to Zuber, two fundamental challenges shaped Schlieffen's strategic planning. First was his recognition that Germany had to plan for a two front war against powerful enemies. The second was the German government's consistent refusal to authorize a mobilization of German manpower equivalent to that of France or Russia. The only way to address the first was to overcome the second. The government would have to raise the relatively low rate of conscription of German manpower and enable the German army to mobilize and deploy all of its trained reserves immediately upon the outbreak of war if Germany was to have a chance. Schlieffen had proposed this almost immediately after becoming Chief of the General Staff, but the government had rejected his request outright. The 1905 memorandum, in Zuber's view, sought to force the government's hand by constructing a war plan that would work only if the government provided the money to increase the size of the army. But, in Zuber's view, no military planner would construct an actual war plan that relied on nonexistent units (p. 197). Accordingly, he simply passes over the memorandum as irrelevant to Schlieffen's strategic thinking.
So how did the mythic Schlieffen Plan become so widely accepted? Zuber argues, in two chapters that (oddly) bracket the lengthy discussion of German war planning at the heart of the book, that the Schlieffen Plan was the postwar invention of a number of German officers (notably Wilhelm Groener and Hermann von Kuhl). Even before 1914, German strategy, and the prestige and position of the General Staff that designed it, was the subject of intense controversy. During the war itself, critics, notably the influential historian Hans Delbruck, publicly accused the General Staff of missing the chance to win the war in 1914. These critics focused on two key issues: the failure of the German attack in 1914, and the decision to attack France rather than Russia. This argument steadily gained momentum as the consequences of Germany's defeat became clearer. Zuber suggests the officers of the new Reichswehr understood the postwar reputation of the officer corps depended on who was to blame for the army's failure. The solution was to point the finger at a few particular officers (in particular Moltke; Wilhelm Bulow, the commander of the Second Army; and Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch, the liaison officer who ordered the retreat on the right wing in 1914) for failing to understand and implement the war plans drawn up by Schlieffen and thus costing Germany the chance to defeat France in 1914. To convince the German public, the officers launched a publicity offensive (conducted through newspapers, military journals and the German official history of the war) whose core element was the creation of the "Schlieffen Plan," a plan that, had its tenets been followed, would have guaranteed victory. Much later, this fabrication received support from an influential German historian, Gerhard Ritter. According to Zuber, Ritter's conviction that Germany's catastrophic recent history resulted from the militarization of German politics and society drove him to misinterpret the planning documents he discovered among Schlieffen's personal papers in the National Archives in Washington D.C. Ever since, historians have generally accepted Ritter's analysis rather than examining the documents themselves. And so, the myth of the Schlieffen plan.
Zuber's book paints as complete a picture of German prewar military planning as we are likely to get. Not only does he present material dealing with Schlieffen's period as Chief, but he provides similar detail for both Moltke's as well. His summaries of the various exercises and plans are exhaustive, almost blow by blow summaries of years of war games. At times, this detail threatens to swamp the reader, and more systematic chapter introductions, summaries and restatements of the argument would have helped the earlier chapters (the chapter dealing with Schlieffen's activity as Chief of the General Staff is considerably better in this respect, as is the conclusion). In addition, some explanation of technical military terms and translations of words he leaves in German might have helped non-specialists grapple with this material (although these will likely cause little difficulty for Zuber's primary audience). But it is clear Zuber possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of a tremendous amount of material as well as the easy familiarity with military planning, terminology and culture natural to a former military officer (indeed, he suggests that both Delbruck and Ritter went wrong, at least in part, because they were untrained in military affairs).
What becomes apparent is that, while Zuber has changed the terms of the debate, his central conclusion is likely to remain controversial. At a minimum, Zuber's book demonstrates that the "traditional" presentation of the Schlieffen Plan needs significant revision. In fact, both Schlieffen and Moltke (the Younger) believed in the importance of operational flexibility and mobility, and planned to strike the French flank wherever it presented itself. The mobilization and deployment of German forces may have been predetermined and inflexible. Their actions beyond the first few days of the battle were not (although Zuber acknowledges that Moltke distrusted his, or anyone's, ability to manage complicated maneuvers with the massive armies employed by modern nation-states and was less willing to plan for the kind of freewheeling maneuvers Schlieffen embraced). Moltke may have changed the focus of the campaign by strengthening the left wing, but this did not fundamentally change the operation. Rather, it represented a different view of how to ward off a French attack and catch the French with an open flank.
The case for completely discarding the "Schlieffen Plan" rests on shakier ground. Zuber demonstrates that Schlieffen war-gamed eastern deployments throughout his period as Chief of Staff, and argues this proves Schlieffen kept an open mind about the course of military operations. Nevertheless, he still must explain why Schlieffen, in his final war plan, appeared to abandon any effort even to protect the eastern front against a Russian attack. Here, his conclusion that the 1905 memorandum was not relevant to Schlieffen's military thought is reasonable, but not proven. In the same way, his interpretation of the postwar debate is persuasive but lacks the smoking guns that would conclusively prove the kind of conspiracy he suggests. Similarly, basing his argument on war plans and Schlieffen's critiques of these leaves open whether these plans represented Schlieffen's actual intentions in a future war. (I largely accept this, but others might reasonably raise questions.) The destruction of most of the German army archives in an allied bombing raid in the Second World War leaves Zuber functioning much like a medieval historian, using all of his logical powers to find meaning and significance from documents that were not designed to provide them. In the end, I'm convinced Zuber has cast considerable doubt on the existence of the Schlieffen Plan, but has not proven his case.
Regardless, the driving force behind Zuber's claims is broader than the details of military deployments and planning. Although he affords it comparatively little space, what he really hopes to do is to re-open the Fischer debate. His conclusions, he suggests, require a re-evaluation of Germany's guilt for the war (p. 302). Without the Schlieffen Plan, German guilt fades away, since the assumption that Germany's inflexible, aggressive military planning had forced it to expand a mere Balkan conflict into a world war no longer applies.
Here, Zuber's claims are somewhat less convincing. The Fischer debate was always as much (or more) about war aims and attitudes throughout German society as it was about the military, and Zuber's conclusions say nothing about this broader kind of militarism. Moreover, his claim that other countries also had aggressive war plans merely restates what has been accepted by historians for years. Finally, suggesting Schlieffen did not want to fight a preventative war says nothing about Bernhardi or his intellectual allies. Tilting the scales away from German guilt requires stronger evidence than Zuber provides.
Narrowly conceived, Zuber is engaged in a debate about German intentions and preparations for war with historians like Arden Bucholz, Annika Mombauer and Holger Herwig. Accordingly, while his book is too detailed and limited in scope for undergraduates or for historians interested in broader questions, military historians of the period will find it necessary reading. More broadly, though, Zuber's book is symbolic of the broadening discussion among historians about the First World War. Historians like Stig Foerster (who has challenged the idea that the German military went to war expecting a quick and decisive end to the conflict ) have challenged long held assumptions and forced historians to re-examine this most important conflict. It is too early to determine what will emerge as the next revealed wisdom that will form the core of Western Civilization texts. But the conversation should be fascinating.
. Delbruck was especially interested in the second of these, invoking the aura of the elder Moltke to argue the decision to move west rather than east was a crucial mistake. Zuber rejects Delbruck's argument out of hand, suggesting Moltke the Elder had himself come to accept the need to attack first in the west.
. Holger Herwig's account of the attempt by German officers and politicians to persuade Europeans that the German army had never been militarily defeated suggests this kind of cynical publicity campaign was quite conceivable. See "Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany after the Great War," in Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War, ed. Steven E. Miller, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Stephen Van Evera (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
. The debate over Zuber's conclusions has raged since the initial appearance of his thesis in a 1999 article. See, Terence Zuber, "The Schlieffen Plan Reconsidered," War in History, 6 (1999), pp. 262-305. Some historians are obviously convinced; for example, see the presentation of German war plans in Hew Strachan's The First World War: To Arms (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 163-174. Some have simply written off his work as irrelevant; for example, Holger Herwig, "Germany and the Short War Illusion: Toward a New Interpretation," in Journal of Military History, 66 (July 2002), p. 683. And at least one has responded with a detailed critique of Zuber's interpretation. See Terence M. Holmes, "The Reluctant March on Paris: A Reply to Terence Zuber's 'The Schlieffen Plan Reconsidered,'" War in History, 8 (2001), pp. 208-232.
. For example, Stig Foerster, "Der deutsche Generalstab und die Illusion des kurzen Krieges, 1871-1914, Kritik eines Mythos," Militaergeschichtliche Mitteilungen, 54 (1995), pp. 61-95.
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Kelly McFall. Review of Zuber, Terence, Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning 1871-1914.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.