Schlieffen Plan

Schlieffen Plan
Schlieffen Plan

The Schlieffen Plan was one of the most controversial military plans ever conceived. Devised as imperial Germany's blueprint for victory in World War I, it ironically contributed to Germany's defeat.

The Schlieffen Plan was named after its creator, Count Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1912), third chief of the German general staff. The genesis of the Schlieffen Plan was in the strategic position Germany faced in 1905. Germany's enemies, France and Russia, had formed a military alliance in 1894, while France and Great Britain had formed their own alliance. If war erupted, Germany potentially faced multiple enemies on two fronts. The strategic question of the era was how Germany could win such a two-front war.

German military leaders hoped that, like German military legend Frederick the Great, by employing speed and maneuverability they could defeat one opponent and quickly confront the other. Initial plans called for a limited defensive war against France and a major assault against Russia. Schlieffen inverted this strategy in his 1905 "memorandum" by focusing German power against the French while deploying a defensive force against Russia.

To defeat France, the Schlieffen Plan relied on speed and power. An offensive against France required a rapid mobilization before Russian forces arrived on Germany's eastern frontier. German forces for the French offensive would be deployed along three wings, the left and central wings composed of defensive forces on the Franco-German border and a gigantic right wing on the Belgian border. By placing the bulk of Germany's forces against France, Schlieffen gambled that Russia's vast territory and inefficient railroad system would result in a protracted mobilization.

Finally, Schileffen called for the ruthless invasion of neutral Belgium, France's northern neighbor. By having the right wing cross through Belgium and northern France, Germany bypassed France's fortified eastern border.

The right wing would encircle the French while it engaged the left wing, crushing them between the "hammer" of the right and the "anvil" of the left. If the plan was successful, the French would surrender, and German forces could be diverted to face Russia. Schlieffen predicted the fall of France some 35 to 40 days after German mobilization.

The ramifications of Schlieffen's strategy were profound. First, by relying on rapid mobilization, the plan committed Germany to striking first in the event of war. This rigidity limited Germany's diplomatic options in 1914. Germany could not seek a peaceful settlement to the diplomatic crisis in fear that France and Russia would mobilize their armies first.

Also of great importance was the invasion of Belgium. The Treaty of London (1839) bound the European powers to guarantee Belgian independence and neutrality. German violation of this treaty triggered British entry into World War I and caused significant damage to Germany's international prestige.

Count Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1912)
Count Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1912)

Finally, relying on Russia's slow mobilization was a considerable risk. If Russia successfully deployed its sizable armies while fighting continued in the west, eastern Germany was threatened with what was ominously described as the "Russian steamroller."

Schlieffen retired from active military service in 1906. His successor, Helmuth von Moltke (or "Moltke the Younger," 1848–1916), made significant alterations to the Schlieffen Plan. Moltke employed Schlieffen's same basic strategy when World War I erupted in 1914. Indeed, the plan nearly worked.

Its failure, however, came from numerous causes. Among these were delays, Belgian resistance, the deployment of British Allied Expeditionary Forces, and German exhaustion during the rapid advance. These factors allowed France to assemble a force to meet the powerful right wing at the first Battle of the Marne. Russia also mobilized more quickly than anticipated, threatening eastern Germany.

As a result, the western front stabilized into static trench warfare, while German forces scrambled to decisively defeat Russian armies at the Battle of Tannenburg. Despite this triumph, the Schlieffen Plan's promise of quick victory transformed into a German nightmare of protracted wars on both borders.

The Schlieffen Plan's failure had ominous repercussions for Germany. Designed to prevent a two-front war against superior forces, Schlieffen's deficient strategy led to exactly that fate. The western front was characterized by four years of stalemate, a battle of attrition that led to German defeat in 1918.