The Ambivalence of Learning

War Experience and War Preparations in Planning by the German General Staff and in German Politics, 1871-1914

(Last modified September 2008)

“What a turn of providence by God’s hand”: this banner flew over the Brandenburg gate, greeting Germany’s soldiers returning home after the victory over France in the war of 1870/71—perceived as the greatest military triumph in Prussian-German history. The war had been anything but a military walk in the park; far from ending after the victory at Sedan, the fighting dragged on for several months with continued heavy losses. As the German chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke noted, modern war had become a “people’s war”. Merely defeating the enemy’s army on the field no longer sufficed; an entire people had to be brought to its knees. Even after dramatic defeats, men continued to volunteer as soldiers or attacked the enemy as irregulars, as franctireurs. Under these circumstances, ending a war quickly and victoriously had become an extremely difficult undertaking.

This experience from the war of 1870/71 shaped the planning and strategic considerations of the German general staff until 1914 and had significant influence on the actions of leading politicians in the Kaiserreich. For the public at large, however, memories of the Franco-German War and the victory at Sedan, which was celebrated annually, were glorified as a war that had been decided with the capitulation of Napoleon III. And officers serving during the Kaiserreich were also influenced by this perception. Helmuth Moltke (the “old” Moltke) repeatedly reminded the military elite of the realities of the recent war, warning that a war involving all of Europe might become another seven or even thirty years’ war, with horrific consequences for the entire continent—in other words, the people’s war syndrome constituted a terrible threat.

By 1871 it became apparent that, as a result of the constellation of international alliances, the German Reich was threatened by a war on two or more fronts; it was thought that such a conflict could only be won by means of a quick victory on one side. But how was such a victory to be achieved in the “era of the people’s war”? All planning debates that took place within the German general staff up to 1914 centered on this question.

General Alfred von Schlieffen arrived at the conclusion that the only realistic opportunity for a rapid victory was in to the west. But his famous plan emerged in an especially favorable constellation, namely, at a time (1905) when Russia was too weak after defeat at the hands of Japan to come to the aid of France, should the need arise. As all great powers entered into a race to rearm, this window of opportunity was soon closed. Helmuth von Moltke (the “younger” Molkte) was thus forced to calculate on a different basis. He had learned much from his uncle and considered a short war to be improbable, especially since the strategic situation of the Reich was deteriorating rapidly. There is considerable evidence that von Moltke was planning a longer war. At the same time, he hoped that this catastrophe would never occur; when it did, he was demonstrably horrified.

The social prestige of the officer’s corps was significantly enhanced by Germany’s defeat of France, and the members of the general staff were viewed as the upper echelon of the elite. Never before had German officers achieved such public popularity. Many leading officers dreamed of at last having another opportunity to prove themselves in battle and to counter what they saw as German society’s tendency to grow weak and soft. But in the period of peace between 1871 and 1914, due also to the formation of a modern civil society, their fame began to pale. This lead to a gradual growth of insecurity among the ranks of German officers, from which they sought to divert attention with demonstratively martial demeanor and language, for the Supreme Commander expected “his” officers to be perpetually prepared to strike out. What resulted were repeated demands from the general staff calling for a preemptive war and a rising tide of warmongering in military circles, which the younger Moltke was also not immune to. A new war was rapidly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, despite the awareness that a level-headed assessment was bound to lead to the conclusion that such a war would end in disaster. These developments demonstrate that key historical decision-making processes are by no means necessarily guided by instrumental rationality, even in its subjective form.

The outcome of these processes is well-known: the great misunderstanding known as the July Crisis of 1914, in the course of which Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg relied on the martial assurances of the general staff and risked the great war. Apparently, Bethmann believed he could learn from Bismarck’s Machiavellian intrigues, which had lead to Germany’s provocation of war with France during the July crisis of 1870; as things transpired, July 1914 was to echo the earlier crisis.

The assassination of the archduke and his wife in Sarajevo seemed to offer the appropriate pretext. For Bethmann, it was of decisive importance that almost all of the Reich’s political and military leaders were on vacation, meaning that he could take advantage of a rare opportunity to reaction on his own. The polycratic chaos so typical of the political system of the Kaiser, which normally precluded rapid decisions and drastic action, was suspended for a few weeks. As the other policy-makers (e.g., the Kaiser and von Moltke) returned to Berlin, they recognized to their great surprise that war could only be avoided at the cost of a significant loss of face. This was a step they were unwilling to take, due in part to their Prussian-German sense of honored, but also because of a certain element of personal cowardice.

This work centers on analyzing the ambivalence of military learning processes and the role of class-specific mentalities in the era from 1871 to 1914.

The processes of decision-making and development within political and military leadership circles are examined here as case studies. The peculiar dichotomy that characterizes this era of German history—sober recognition of the nature of a coming war paired with a simultaneous readiness, based on motives derived from other contexts, to steer a course that was to end in disaster—calls for carefully considered explanations. It is conceivable that the insights won here might be helpful in promoting a better understanding of other historical developments.

Collection and evaluation of the empirical evidence used in this project is nearing completion. The planned monograph in which the results of the study will be published will be a concise volume in essay form, which concentrates on core arguments.