A Re-Examination of the Schlieffen Plan

A Re-Examination of the Schlieffen Plan
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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? 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.”[1]


Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, Chief of the German General Staff (Wikimedia)

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.”[2]

The real source of change, prior to the onset of war, was from the chief of the German General Staff at the time, Helmuth Von Moltke (the Younger). Holmes persuasively asserts this change in strategy was not in “…reducing the relative strength of the German right wing…that is a myth: in proportion to the rest of his forces Moltke’s right wing was just as strong as Schlieffen’s. The real difference lay in the absolute number of troops involved in their respective plans.”[3] Consequently, where Schlieffen believed it would require 48.5 corps to succeed attacking France through Belgium, Moltke diverged, altering the plan and using only 34 corps to sweep through Belgium. Holmes finds the reason “…in their opposing views of the relation between attack and defense.”[4]


Schlieffen knew Clausewitz’s dictum that defense is the stronger form of war, hence the requirement of nearly all Germany’s army—48.5 corps—to achieve victory against France. On the other hand, Moltke believed initiative, surprise, and speed of the offensive would compensate for the 30% reduction in troop numbers. The strategic logic underpinning Moltke’s offensive plan is in achieving an overwhelming advantage in the balance of forces—focusing all of Germany’s military might—in order to negate the inherent advantages in defense. If balance of forces was not markedly in Germany’s favor, and Russia sufficiently built up its military forces allowing it to open up a second front, a strategic offensive was out of the question for Schlieffen. Given the above evidence, Holmes complicates Snyder’s conclusion that “…Germany’s impending insufficiency of ground forces was arguably caused mainly by Gen. Alfred von Schlieffen’s unnecessarily demanding plan to start the two-front war with a go-for-broke offensive against France before turning toward Russia.”[5]

Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1906 (Wikimedia)

A two-front war was never part of Alfred von Schlieffen’s strategic offensive plans. To be sure, “In a war against France alone he (Schlieffen) favored an all-out attack, but in a two-front war he insisted on a purely counter-offensive strategy.”[6] Holmes argues the original Schlieffen Plan was based on a counter-offensive strategy in the case of a two-front war. Snyder says that the “military’s Schlieffen Plan proceeded from the assumption that France and Russia would fight together and that any war that involved one of them would inevitably involve both.”[7] Schlieffen had several variants of his plan, and “Moltke had written down some general observations on the Schlieffen plan in 1911, misconstruing it as applicable in a two-front war.”[8] Therefore, Snyder is mistaken to say that General Schlieffen’s counteroffensive plans was a self-fulfilling prophecy.[9]


Why was there a bias towards offense amongst members of the German Army staff like Helmuth von Moltke? Using Kenneth Waltz’s three images of international relations to examine variables at the first level (the individual), the second level (the state), the third level (the international system) along with the regional sub-systemic or intra-alliance level—as well as perception and misperception amongst the great powers helps us better understand why there was a bias in favor of offensive action. At the first level of analysis, soldiers focus on military means of achieving foreign policy objectives. They see the international relations as a zero-sum game. Soldiers’ beliefs in the superiority of offensive doctrine are reinforced by the assumption of extreme hostility by opposing side foments. By extension, European policymakers engaged in self-delusions about prospects of offensive war, and miscalculation about the opposing side’s military strength and alliances. At all three levels, a feeling of impending vulnerability was an important cause for the development of offensive military plans against Russia. This strong willingness to go to war was in large part due to the fact that the major continental powers undervalued the relative power of their alliances in the future. Germany’s power was peaking, whereas Russia was slated to have a 40 percent increase in army size by 1917. France also increased the length of military service to 3 years. While the Entente powers’ militaries were getting stronger, the alliance between France and Russia appeared to be at risk. This was because France did not support Russia against Austria and Germany in the Bosnia crisis in 1909. In addition, Russia failed to support France in its conflict with Germany over Morocco in 1905 and 1911.

The first page of the edition of the Domenica del Corriere, an Italian paper, with a drawing of Achille Beltrame depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. (Wikimedia)

Because of the assassination of  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and the subsequent crisis in Serbia, both Russia and France were forced to an abrupt strategic decision. In regards to alliances, Robert Jervis theorizes that cognitive bias in war-planners can lead to them to perceive opposing alliances as more cohesive than they are in reality. Accordingly, this misperception acts as a catalyst for preventive war and cult of the offensive strategic thinking. Rather than wait and risk having to navigate a more precarious strategic environment in the future, preventive war is seen as necessary for survival. Adding further fuel to the fire, most military leaders were proponents of an offensive strategy as opposed to a defensive one. Snyder finds that a defensive strategy would have been more favorable for the continental powers. Because of flaws in each power’s underlying strategic frameworks, defensive strategies or postponement of the war were prematurely ruled out as alternative strategy choices.


At the second level of analysis, several domestic issues that led German war-planners to an offensive bias and a decision to go to war include: the necessity of getting the peace-minded German Social Democrats to support German militarization; lionization of military leaders; and a feeling of operational readiness in 1914. Dale Copeland emphasizes that Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg engaged in diplomatic stalling action to rally support within German Social Democrat circles for the coming unavoidable war. According to Snyder, civilian oversight was trivial, and the “military was allowed to indulge its strategic preferences.”[10] However, this didn’t mean that civilians agreed with the military.


Civilian oversight of the military was minimal, because war planning was considered to be within the autonomous purview of the General Staff.”[11] Moreover, offensive bias was largely the result of parochial interests of Germany Army. According to Snyder, parochial interests such as funding, prestige, wealth, and autonomy motivate generals to plan offensively. He suggests, “The operational autonomy of the military is most likely to be allowed when the operational goal is to disarm the adversary quickly and decisively by offensive means.”[12] Quick and decisive victories depicted in offensive doctrines are more attractive to the public than longer, protracted defensive ones. Indeed,]

The prestige, self-image, and material health of military institutions will prosper if the military can convince civilians and themselves that wars can be short, decisive, and socially beneficial. One of the attractions of decisive, offensive strategies is that they hold out the promise of a demonstrable return on the nation’s investment in military capability.[13]

Along similar lines, Scott Sagan discusses military organizational biases and nuclear deterrence, arguing that “professional military organizations—because of common biases, inflexible routines, and parochial interests—display strong proclivities toward organizational behaviors that lead to deterrence failures…”[14] In addition, “complex organizations commonly have multiple conflicting goals and the process by which objectives are chosen and pursued is intensely political. Such a political perspective envisions apparently irrational behaviors as serving the narrow interests of some units within the organization…Organizations are not simply tools in the hands of higher-level authorities but are groups of self-interested and competitive sub-units and actors”[15] One can apply Sagan’s ideas of military organizational bias, competing interests, and conflicting goals to the German General Staff during the lead-up to World War I and see how their decision to go to war was clearly irrational. Stig Forster describes how parochial interests influenced the General Staff: “The 'demigods' inside the General Staff simply could not afford to accept...that war had ceased to be a viable option of policy. Otherwise, not only they but also the whole army would lose their elevated position in German society.”[16]


A feeling of operational readiness and inevitability of war was another important factor that clouded the General Staff’s decision-making in 1914. Snyder tells us, “All of the European militaries felt operationally ready…in 1914…whereas one or more had felt egregiously unready in earlier showdowns.”[17] Johnson and Tierney are in agreement with Snyder, and discuss shifting mindsets, cognitive biases, and their implications for war onset. Once von Moltke and other high-ranking members of the General Staff crossed the Rubicon, they experienced a transition from a deliberative mindset to a mindset focused on implementation, and became resistant to information that would complicate their war plans. This might include Moltke’s misapplication of Schlieffen’s original war plan, launching a strategic offensive, rather than a defensive counter-offense to fight a two-front war.

In accordance with Johnson and Tierney’s Rubicon theory, the General Staff’s offense bias led to “aggressive or risky military planning. Furthermore, if actors believe that war is imminent when it is not in fact certain to occur, the switch to implemental mind-sets can be a causal factor in the outbreak of war.”[18] In addition, Johnson and Tierney find that overconfidence in war plans “is heightened when war is perceived as imminent.”[19] On the other hand, they tell us, “Not all of the major players in Berlin in 1914 grew in confidence as war drew near.”[20] Even “Helmuth von Moltke...displayed a mix of pessimism and occasional optimism.”[21] By August, however, “German military leaders often highlighted evidence supporting an optimistic appraisal of the outcome of war, such as French budgetary problems and lack of manpower, or the possibility that Britain could be detached from the Entente.[22] Biographer Giles Macdonough tells us Kaiser Wilhelm was not a decisive leader. That being said, according to Lamar Cecil, Kaiser Wilhelm proclaimed on July 31st 1914, “War with Russia appears to me to be imminent and inevitable.”[23] Barbara Tuchman confirms this shift in Kaiser Wilhelm’s mindset is evident in his address to German troops. He proclaimed to his Army, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”[24]

Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Generals Source (Library of Congress/Wikimedia)


In sum, a web of interdependent variables led Germany to war. Hyper-nationalism; a lack of civilian management of the military; the cult of the offensive; preventive war thinking and a  misperception of inter and intra-alliance politics were among the contributing factors. The psychology of German War planners, incoherence of strategic planning, and military organizational politics and domestic politics also played important roles. Additionally, “…implemental mind-sets and associated overconfidence may have been a necessary condition for World War I, pushing actors over the edge when war could otherwise have been averted.”[25] On the other hand, Terence Holmes shows us the Schlieffen Plan was not a self-fulfilling prophecy as Snyder argues. Although Helmuth von Moltke may have had some mixed feelings, he ignored Clausewitzian ad vice concerning offense and defense, and was influenced by military organizational issues and domestic politics (something Schlieffen was largely removed from according to T.N Dupuy). He proceeded to adapt the strategic offensive variant of the Schlieffen Plan (meant for a one front war) to a two-front war that was incorrectly perceived as inevitable. As a result, Moltke’s adaptation became a self-fulfilling prophecy.   

Michael Belil is a foreign policy and security analyst, and a recent graduate from Hunter College. His main interest areas include the impact of non-state actors on international relations theory, the intersection of intelligence and psychology and national security decision-making.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Snyder, Jack. "Better Now Than Later: The Paradox of 1914 as Everyone's Favored Year for War." International Security 39, no. 1 (2014), 93

[2]  Holmes, Terence M. “Not the Schlieffen Plan.” Queen Mary University of London. Perspectives on the Great War: Selected Papers from the World War One International Conference Held at Queen Mary, University of London 1–4 August 2014, 56

[3] Holmes, Terence M. "Absolute Numbers: The Schlieffen Plan as a Critique of German Strategy in 1914." War in History 21, no. 2 (2014), 193

[4] Holmes, Terence M. “Absolute Numbers,” 213.

[5] Snyder, Jack. “Better Now Than Later,” 73.

[6] Holmes, Terence M. “Absolute Numbers,” 207.

[7] Snyder, Jack. “Better Now Than Later,” 80.

[8] Holmes, Terence M. “Absolute Numbers,” 207.

[9] Snyder, Jack. “Better Now Than Later,” 80.

[10] Snyder, Jack. "Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984." International Security 9, no. 1 (1984): 123

[11] Snyder, "Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984." 123

[12] Snyder, "Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984." 126

[13] Snyder, "Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984." 126

[14] Sagan, Scott D. "The perils of proliferation: Organization theory, deterrence theory, and the spread of nuclear weapons." International Security 18, no. 4 (1994): 68

[15] Sagan, "The perils of proliferation,” 73.

[16] Förster, Stig. "Dreams and nightmares: German military leadership and the images of future warfare, 1871–1914." Anticipating Total War (1995): 360

[17] Snyder, Jack. “Better Now Than Later,” 90

[18] Johnson, Dominic DP, and Dominic Tierney. "The Rubicon theory of war: how the path to conflict reaches the point of no return." International Security 36, no. 1 (2011): 7

[19] Johnson, Dominic DP, and Dominic Tierney. "The Rubicon theory of war,” 24

[20] Johnson, Dominic DP, and Dominic Tierney. "The Rubicon theory of war,” 28

[21] Johnson, Dominic DP, and Dominic Tierney. "The Rubicon theory of war,” 29

[22] Johnson, Dominic DP, and Dominic Tierney. "The Rubicon theory of war,” 30

[23] Cecil, Lamar. Wilhelm II, vol. 2: Emperor and exile, 1900–1941. (1996), 206

[24] Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. The Funs of August. Ballantine Books, 1962, 119

[25] Johnson, Dominic DP, and Dominic Tierney. "The Rubicon theory of war,” 31

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