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A Re-Examination of the Schlieffen Plan

By Michael Belil
via the Strategy Bridge web site

What best explains the German General Staff’s decision to go to war in 1914? Was Alfred von Schlieffen’s war plan a self-fulfilling prophecy that pushed the Triple Entente to balance together against Germany?

Alfred von Schlieffen 1906"A two-front war was never part of Alfred von Schlieffen’s strategic offensive plans." — Alfred von Schlieffen in a 1906 photo.This article argues that the best, most recent scholarship concerning the impact of pre-war German military planning depicts a situation in which not one, but a multitude of of causal factors led Germany to go to war in 1914.

The most compelling scholarship illustrates that the primary factors that led Germany to war include: the culture of nationalism, militarism, and the ideology of the offensive that was prevalent in the General Staff; pessimism about the prospect of victory in the future and optimism about victory in the present (preventive war thinking); perception about the strength and unity of the Triple Entente; the psychology and cognitive biases of German War planners; incoherence of strategic planning and organizational politics; and last, the idea that “grand strategy in this era was a three-level game in which the need to cobble together working coalitions on the domestic and alliance levels often seemed more pressing than even the life-and-death threats posed by foreign competitors.”

The Schlieffen Plan

I diverge from Jack Snyder’s analysis when it comes to the base Schlieffen Plan. He posits Alfred von Schlieffen’s plan was a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it pushed Russia to balance with France against Germany. In contrast, Terence Holmes persuasively argues against the idea that Schlieffen plan demanded a two-front war. Based on the Generalstabsreise West exercises in 1904 and 1905, He writes, “…from the inception of his new strategic idea Schlieffen was convinced that it would need at least the entire German field army—and probably a great number of extra troops as well — to be deployed in the west if there were to be a decisive attack on France. That would leave no troops at all for deployment to the east, so there was clearly no question of this scheme being adopted in a two-front war.”

Read the entire article on The Strategy Bridge web site here:

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