Title: What was the Schlieffen Plan?
Author: Dick Cheney.

What was the Schlieffen Plan?
There is no war plan in history that has been scrutinized or shrouded in as much confusion and debate as the now infamous Schlieffen Plan. Historians are completely divided as to what exactly it really was. Was it just a myth put together by contemporaries to describe the aftermath of a failed German flank attack through Belgium? Was it a blueprint for victory? Was it operational planning and strategic military thinking gone wrong? Or was it simply a concept paper -and an early deployment scheme- that was later modified by Moltke the Younger who now had to deal with a two-front war?

Few if any conclusions are easy to draw, and our best source for records -the German Archives- were mostly destroyed in 1945.

What we do know of course, was that Alfred von Schlieffen was Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906, and that he was given one of the most ridiculous sets of problems ever given to a German war planner; how to win the next European war, a war most colleagues knew was going to be fought from a position of extreme disadvantage and on a scale unlike anything the world had ever seen before.

And that’s it. After acknowledging the rise of million-man armies and a position of strategic weakness for Germany, our conclusions about Schlieffen and his plans end, and everything else is debatable. Though its clear from his later writings and studies that Schlieffen probably would have supported an all-out attack against France in the event of a two-front war, his 1905 memo, the actual precursor to the plan enacted by Moltke, outlined only a course of actions against France. It does not summarize deployments for a two-front war. And, very importantly, it argued for 96 divisions at a time when Germany could only deploy 78. To some historians then, who aren’t buying that the Schlieffen plan was ever a real plan, the 1905 study was a neat little gimmick for more troops.

While we can certainly envision political pandering, it’s not fair to say that Schlieffen did not ever think about a two-front war or conceive of means to avoid a long and protracted war for Germany, the main planning obstacle to Moltke and the General Staff. Though no expert on logistics, and the inclusion of ghost divisions leaves us with something to be desired, Schlieffen’s many plans and what if scenarios at least show us what he and his fellow officers thought might be possible – that France could be defeated quickly.

It can be argued then -as many have- that the original Schlieffen memo (1905) laid the groundwork for a battle of annihilation. Personally obsessed with Cannae, Schlieffen’s hypothetical flank attack through Belgium and the Netherlands into France represented envelopment on a grand scale and a belief that wars could still be won decisively. If France’s armies could be destroyed quickly enough, or beaten badly enough, then Germany’s armies in the West could be redeployed in time to face new threats in the East, thus solving for a two-front war. This logic, combined with weak assumptions on Russian mobilization plans, and new intelligence estimates that suggested weakness in the East, allowed elements of the Schlieffen plan to survive into 1914, including the attack through Belgium. Moltke and company had decided on France first because Schlieffen’s plans were showing it was possible, and his concepts of annihilation would be the key to victory.

The Schlieffen Plan vs. Plan XVII

Of course, nobody would actually maintain that Germany went to war in 1914 with the same battle plan that Schlieffen had painted in 1905. Molkte had developed his own deployment plans and drew troops away from the right wing to help bolster German defenses in the Lorraine. The Schlieffen plan also made no assumptions about possible intervention from Italy and only weak assumptions about Britain. It did not again, offer detailed deployments in case of a two-front war, and Molkte was probably within his right to modify the original plan. It was also Prussian tradition to allow army commanders to take their own initiative once fighting had begun, and few if any detailed steps of Schlieffen’s memo are comparable to the actual plan enacted by Moltke. Though the central idea of maneuvering for positional advantage remains, including Schlieffen’s strategy of annihilation, its likely that Molkte was posturing more for defensive warfare and counterattack in his deployments, whereas Schlieffen might have favored massed attack and relentless pursuit of the enemy. Regardless, its clear through hindsight that neither plan had the troop strength or the logistics needed to envelop the French armies. Though German forces were capable of moving at great speed, it was still too much of a gamble to expect anything in Schlieffen’s aggressive timetable of 48 days. There were simply too many assumptions, and too many holes that needed filled. Not even a naval strategy was accounted for. To those that argue then that the Schlieffen plan was still the spiritual basis for the German war plan (as I myself might argue for), it looks like it was endorsed because nobody was thinking of a viable alternative. Nobody had yet solved for a two-front war or had proposed anything different than a ridiculous military solution to Germany’s strategic predicaments. Where was Bismarck now when we needed him?

The debate of course, lives on. Proponents of the Schlieffen plan say the plan would have worked had Molkte not have modified it. Others say the Schlieffen plan was a postwar invention by the General Staff, meant again to save their own inflated egos. Others, to include maneuver theorists, say Schlieffen’s writings and essays were ahead of his time, and that envelopment and encirclement were the correct call against fortified positions, along with modern weapons. Serious studies show though that the plan could not have amounted to anything more than a gamble, Germany could not count on enough rail, material, or manpower to pull off such a maneuver. We know too that command and control still left something to be desired, with commanders still communicating by runners. Armies that numbered in the millions -to include nations at war- should have been the end of decisive battle, yet the Battle of the Marne is still sometimes called a miracle. Whichever position we take, one thing is clear, the Schlieffen plan -real or imagined- represents a military tactic elevated to the position of national strategy. To solve its strategic dilemmas, Germany would rely on its military, forgoing the legacy of Realpolitk and all other instruments of national power, including deal making and diplomacy.

The consequences of Germany relying on its military, as its self-appointed savior, speak for itself. The combined French-British-American and Italian alliance, to include naval blockade and war in the East, was a military disaster for Germany, one no country could realistically hope to benefit from. The Schlieffen plan was military genius at its worst and should remind us all that sometimes war is too important to be left to the generals.