The Schlieffen Plan

World War 1 Medal

Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

As the crisis which began World War One was developing from assassination, through calls of revenge round to paranoid imperial competition, Germany found itself facing the possibility of attacks from east and west at the same time. They had feared this for years, and their solution, which was soon put into action with German declarations of war against both France and Russia, was the Schlieffen Plan.

Changing Heads of German Strategy

In 1891, Count Alfred von Schlieffen became the German Chief of Staff. He had succeeded the wholly successful General Helmuth von Moltke, who together with Bismarck had won a series of short wars and created the new German Empire. Moltke feared a great European war might result if Russia and France allied against the new Germany, and decided to counter it by defending in the west against France, and attacking in the east to make small territorial gains from Russia. Bismarck aimed to prevent the international situation from ever reaching that point, by trying hard to keep France and Russia separated. However, Bismarck died, and Germany's diplomacy collapsed. Schlieffen was soon faced with the encirclement Germany feared when Russia and France allied, and he decided to draw up a new plan, one which would seek a decisive German victory on both fronts.

The Schlieffen Plan

The result was the Schlieffen Plan. This involved a rapid mobilization, and the bulk of the entire German army attacking through the western lowlands into northern France, where they would sweep around and attack Paris from behind its defenses. France was assumed to be planning – and making – an attack into Alsace-Lorraine (which was accurate), and prone to surrendering if Paris fell (possibly not accurate). This entire operation was expected to take six weeks, at which point the war in the west would be won and Germany would then use its advanced railway system to move its army back to the east to meet the slowly mobilizing Russians. Russia could not be knocked out first, because its army could withdraw for miles deep into Russia if necessary. Despite this being a gamble of the highest order, it was the only real plan Germany had. It was fed by the vast paranoia in Germany that there had to be a reckoning between the German and Russian empires, a battle which should take place sooner, while Russia was relatively weak, and not later when Russia might have modern railways, guns, and more troops.

There was, however, one major problem. The ‘plan’ was not operational and wasn’t even really a plan, more a memorandum briefly describing a vague concept. Indeed, Schlieffen may even have written it just to persuade the government to increase the army, rather than believing it would ever be used. As a result, there were problems: the plan required munitions in excess of what the German army had at that point, although they were developed in time for the war. It also required more troops on hand to attack than could be moved through the roads and railways of France. This problem was not solved, and the plan sat there, seemingly ready to use in the event of the great crisis people were expecting.

Moltke Modifies the Plan

Moltke’s nephew, also von Moltke, took over Schlieffen’s role in the early twentieth century. He wanted to be as great as his uncle but was held back by not being anywhere near as skilled. He feared that Russia’s transport system had developed and they could mobilize quicker, so when working out how the plan would be run - a plan that was possibly never meant to be run but which he decided to use anyway - he altered it slightly to weaken the west and reinforce the east. However, he ignored the supply and other problems that had been left due to the vagueness of Schlieffen’s plan and felt he had a solution. Schlieffen had, possibly accidentally, left a huge time bomb in Germany which Moltke had bought into the house.

World War One

When war looked likely in 1914, the Germans decided to put the Schlieffen Plan into effect, declaring war on France and attacking with multiple armies in the west, leaving one in the east. However, as the attack went ahead Moltke modified the plan even more by withdrawing more troops to the east. In addition, commanders on the ground also veered away from the design. The result was the Germans attacking Paris from the north, rather than from behind. The Germans were halted and pushed back at the Battle of the Marne, Moltke was considered to have failed and replaced in disgrace.

A debate over whether the Schlieffen Plan would have worked if left alone began within moments and has continued ever since. No one then realized how little planning had gone into the original plan, and Moltke was vilified for having failed to use it properly, whereas it's probably right to say he was always onto a loser with the plan, but he should be vilified for trying to use it at all.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The Schlieffen Plan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Schlieffen Plan. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Schlieffen Plan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).