Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War (CUP 2001) by Terry Boardman (2002) Introduction
In her book Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War Annika Mombauer puts forward the thesis that the post-World War I mythology regarding the von Schlieffen Plan has distorted our view of Helmuth von Moltke, who, in her view, was by no means a wimp or an inadequate but rather, was himself a major cause of the war, a key warmonger.
It is the view of this writer that Annika Mombauer’s thesis is fundamentally flawed and not only lacks any real insight into the character of Helmuth von Moltke but also fails to provide any solid, substantial and consistent evidence to uphold itself. This critical review will demonstrate the numerous weaknesses in Mombauer’s argument, an argument that is part of a wider movement among a group of historians today to recast our understanding of the First World War in such a way as to place the prime responsibility for BOTH the catastrophic world wars of the 20th century onto the German people, their society and culture. This attempted reinterpretation of such key events of the 20th century is itself both a deeply flawed and disingenuous presentation of the history of the world wars in terms of Orwell’s “four legs good, two legs bad” (from his novel 1984), that is, the erroneous notion that “the good” was represented in both conflicts by the English-speaking countries and their allies, while “the bad”, “the evil” was represented by the German-speaking countries and their allies. This assertion, which amounts to a colossal lie in connection with the First World War, first came to prominence in association with the infamous “war guilt” clause of the Versailles Treaty of June 1919. (Article 231 of the Treaty, penned by Philip Kerr, Lloyd George’s secretary and member of Lord Milner’s Round Table Group).
In her first paragraph Annika Mombauer asserts the existence of a new consensus among historians that German militarism and hegemonic strivings lay at the root of World War One.
She denies that von Schlieffen would have fought a more successful war and claims that downplaying Helmuth von Moltke's responsibility implies the downplaying of German responsibility (p5). She claims that Helmuth von Moltke's power came from his "special relationship of trust" with the Kaiser (p6). She dismisses Thomas Meyer's book Light for the New Millennium - Rudolf Steiner's Association with Helmuth and Eliza von Moltke: Letters, Documents and After-Death Communications(1993, English transl. 1997) as professionally shoddy (p7) and "of little value to historians" yet admits it is "the most comprehensive collection of primary material pertaining to Moltke." (p7). She passes over the story of how Steiner's 1919 memorandum about the events of July/August 1914 came to be shelved by him following a visit by General von Dommes, and notes that the German Foreign Office objected to it because of their stated fears for the safety of the exiled Kaiser in Holland if knowledge of the German intention to violate Dutch neutrality in 1914 got out (p8). She concludes by commenting on efforts of the post-war Reichsarchiv to whitewash the German war effort and prepare for the next war. In other words, right from her introduction, her presentation is one-sided and polemical.
She discusses military decision-making in Imperial Germany to set the context in which Helmuth von Moltke operated. She notes that the General Staff only became independent from the Ministry of War in the 1866-1871 wars (p25ff), and the key role of Waldersee (the Kaiser's favourite) in this. She comments on the Kaiser's will as Supreme Warlord to intervene in and dominate the General Staff and on his inadequacy. She points out that the Military Cabinet was directly answerable to the Kaiser and became independent from the Ministry of War in 1883. The Kaiser, she says, used it to escape from constitutionalism. She discusses conflicts between the Ministry of War, the Military Cabinet and the General Staff.
She writes that:
Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger) got on well with von Schlieffen, but von Moltke's appointment was opposed and resented by not a few, not least because of his perceived Theosophical leanings. The Kaiser appointed Helmuth von Moltke to be his personal aide-de-camp in 1891, from when he was in close daily contact with Kaiser. Helmuth von Moltke's character is recognised as exemplary (p50) but Mombauer claims that his letters attest to his being "anti-Semitic, xenophobic, nationalist, monarchist….bellicose" (p51) [Nb the first adjective she chooses to list here - TB]. Despite Helmuth von Moltke's early contact with Rudolf Steiner, Mombauer argues that von Moltke regarded his military career as being more important and dropped Anthroposophy when necessary (p54). The Kaiser's nickname for von Moltke was Julius. (p55). She claims von Moltke was nervous about his new post but also ambitious. His letters to his wife show his self-confidence (p58). Prior to his appointment in 1906, he was the first in the post to speak frankly to the Kaiser about the poor state of the army's unrealistic manoeuvres and recommended him to stay away; the Kaiser accepted this advice. She suggests Eulenburg's influence may have been behind von Moltke's appointment.
Terence Zuber's controversial article denying the existence of the Schlieffen Plan is mentioned in note 126 (p74) but came too late for much discussion in Mombauer's book. She repeats the traditional view of the Schlieffen Plan: von Moltke the Elder had planned to split the army 50-50 and go on the offensive against Russia in the East but von Schlieffen had discarded this. She states (p.79) that Germany never realised that her "enemies (post 1904) were largely reacting to German provocation"[Nb the word "largely" here - TB] On p82 she notes the sour relations between the German and Austro-Hungarian General Staffs: after 1896 there was merely only an exchange of New Year greetings.
She writes (p83) that the German government learned of the German General Staff's strategy only in Dec. 1912 [N.b. this is the same year that the British Cabinet learned of the clandestine meetings between the British and French General Staffs – TB]. Von Schlieffen ignored the navy and left Britain out of his considerations.
pp84-84: Here Mombauer presents her view of Schlieffen: a rigid technician, blinkered, obstinate, unrealistic, timid with the Kaiser, a poor strategic thinker who put all eggs in one basket, he simply did the best of a bad job, but this led him NOT to warn government of the risks of the German position. Helmuth von Moltke, she says, essentially continued this technical view with a few strategic considerations relating to France, Holland, and the possibilities of a long war. General Staff confidence in the German Army's military skills led to overconfidence that Germany would win any war despite the difficulties.
p88: She writes that no real change occurred after Helmuth von Moltke took over - apart from improving manouvres, which also became more secretive - until Dec. 1911 (Helmuth von Moltke's Memorandum). von Moltke, she writes, identified France as the military threat and recognised the new offensive spirit in the French Army (p91). He was, she says, determined to prevent any invasion of German territory from East or West (p93) hence he strengthened German forces in Alsace- Lorraine and in East Prussia. [This is interesting in view of Rudolf Steiner's indications re. the stance of Pope Nicholas I in the C9th and the Pope’s determination to affirm the position of the Roman Catholic Church toward both East and West– TB]
Helmuth von Moltke's reasons for respecting Dutch neutrality (cf. Schlieffen's view) were essentially military. Holland, he saw as necessary as Germany's "windpipe" in a long war (p94), especially if Britain were to join the war. This position led to the decision to go through Belgium and Luxemburg only, rather than Holland, and to take the fortress of Liege (see Helmuth von Moltke memoir in 1915, p96). Mombauer almost grudgingly recognises that some political and economic concerns did enter Helmuth von Moltke's thinking, unlike that of von Schlieffen. She avoids saying openly that von Moltke was a better strategic thinker than Schlieffen but that is in fact the implicit thrust of her argument.
p97: Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg didn't find out about the Liege attack plan till 31 July 1914; Mombauer argues that this von Moltke plan "effectively precluded any last minute options for peace - as was indeed the case in 1914." After the war, she notes, many of those involved in the Plan blamed Helmuth von Moltke for its failure, ignoring their own complicity; von Moltke was "a convenient scapegoat". He was later blamed for losing Germany the war because he "tampered" with the Schlieffen Plan. Mombauer is even-handed here, recognising that it was "….his right, even his duty, to adapt the war plan to changing circumstances." (p98) "….it is also difficult to see how von Moltke could have fulfilled his role as Chief of the General Staff had he not adapted and updated Germany's strategic plan on an annual basis."(p100)
But Mombauer says Helmuth von Moltke "boasted" that the Liege plan had been his, yet in the quote she cites there is no whiff of a boast; this is an example of her consistent anti-von Moltke prejudice.
p99: General Groener later claimed there had been a "deep mental rift" between von Moltke and von Schlieffen, so von Moltke didn't consult von Schlieffen after 1906. Mombauer doesn't think this unreasonable. (p99)
Von Moltke, she says, saw war on two fronts as inevitable, so the alternative Ostaufmarschplan (March East Plan), in which the bulk of the army would fight in the east he abandoned as unrealistic; but this left Germany with only one plan - a grave error, according to Swiss historian Adolf Gasser (Preussische Miltärgeist und Kriegsentfesselung 1914. 1985): "With no other plan of action, and in the certain knowledge that the Schlieffen Plan would eventually 'expire' [because of Russian rail development], Germany's military planners must have decided on a war in the near future, when they decided to scrap any alternatives to the Schlieffen Plan. This was proof, in Gasser's view, that in Dec. 1912 Helmuth von Moltke had decided on a 'preventive' war in the near future." (Gasser p5-7)
Then comes a very important statement on p104:
"The scrapping of the plan for an attack in the East was almost certainly partly a result of the war council meeting of Dec 1912, held in response to the bad news from London which shattered the illusion that Britain might remain neutral, at least in the initial stages of a war arising from a Balkan conflict…..Unlike the Chancellor…..the military decison-makers believed in neither French nor British neutrality after the clear warning from Lichnowsky [German ambassador in London - TB] in Dec. 1912." [Note the words 'almost certainly'; this is not evidence but speculation – TB] p105 April 1913 - Plan 2 was definitely dropped - "damning evidence [N.b. Mombauer's choice of adjective - TB] that Germany's military decision-makers were unwilling or unable to develop military strategies for all political contingencies." "The lack of any alternative to an all-out war scenario suggests that within the General Staff there was certainly no desire to avoid a war on two fronts - perhaps even, as Gasser suspects, an explicit desire to ensure that only such a war could occur…"[emphasis TB; note these phrases] Mombauer's conclusion on p105: "It can certainly not be denied that a military leadership that was determined to keep peace would have struggled to develop alternative plans, no matter how slim the chance that they could ultimately be implemented." This is an absurd argument. What military leadership in the world does this ? Their task is to prepare to fight a war, not to keep the peace - that is the job of diplomats. Did the British, French, Russian military develop plans to keep the peace !? This is another example of how Germany is judged by a different standard from other nations.
p106: "During these years [1908-1914] Moltke became convinced that war was unavoidable, even that it was a necessity for Germany, and he continually advocated it." Mombauer has offered no evidence for this assertion at this point. But in her next paragraph she writes, almost in contradiction of her previous statement :
"…before 1911 the General Staff did not exert any real pressure to push for army increases." If the General Staff, led by von Moltke, were as keen on an all-out war on two fronts as she claims, would they not have exerted "real pressure to push for army increases"?
She then introduces without further discussion the convenient label applied by historian Stig Forster - 'doppelte Militarismus' [dual militarism]. This refers to the differing views of the General Staff and the Ministry of War. Her use of Forster's term merely serves to reinforce the view of German society as especially militaristic.
p107: Re. casus belli: "Germany's decision-makers knew that the perfect set-up would be a Balkan crisis." This is a prejudicial term used by Mombauer, who claims that the "decision-makers" had no doubt that great efforts would have to be made to make Germany look innocent and offers as evidence a quote by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria – but was he a "decision-maker"? Hardly. Again, she says: "Due to Moltke's close relationship with the Kaiser, he was able to impress his sense of urgency on the Kaiser…" but she offers no evidence of this.
p108: Mombauer claims that Tschirsky (of the Foreign Office) said to Bernhardi that "he was quite willing to go to war" but the Mombauer quote following this is not evidence of this fact but of something else altogether.
Mombauer writes that following the army bill of 1 Oct. 1913, the idea of waging 'a preventive war' began to take shape in Moltke's mind." But she gives no evidence for this. In the following paragraph she says:
"A picture thus emerges in these crucial years of Moltke as an advocate of war as soon as possible….." But this is not a question of years but of months, by her own admission. In footnote 6 she defines preventive war as:
"not in the sense of pre-empting an attack from one of G's possible future enemies, but of preventing a situation in which G would no longer herself be able to launch an attack successfully." Yet she gives no evidence that Moltke himself thought of it like this.
On p109 she uses the prejudicial term "M's push for war" and on p110 writes that:
"The fact that Moltke so frequently and vociferously demanded war must not be overlooked." After 110 pages she still has offered no real evidence of this, only repeated assertions! Despite severely criticising von Schlieffen and his Plan, Mombauer here essentially accepts the 'Schlieffen School' line:
"The decisions that Moltke took in the years 1908 to 1914 resulted in crucial changes to Germany's military planning and led to Germany's military defeat in the First World War." (p110)
Importantly, she says:
"While it is true to say that Moltke played no decisive part in developing military doctrine, and that as Chief of the General Staff his scope for commanding troops and imparting his strategic ideas at ground level were rather limited, his importance lay rather in the political sphere." This is a not unimportant admission on her part, since it significantly weakens her argument about Von Moltke's central role and responsibility.
Yet again she repeats:
"…due to his close personal relationship with the Kaiser, Moltke's influence cannot therefore be described as negligible." And yet again, after 110 pages, she still gives no real evidence of this ! She then describes the background to the Bosnian crisis of 1908 without mentioning the fact that at the Congress of 1878, it was agreed - following a British suggestion (by Disraeli and Lord Salisbury) that AustriAustria-Hungaryungary should administer BosniAustria-Hungaryerzegovina for 30 years under nominal Turkish suzerainty – that AustriAustria-Hungaryungary should eventually take over full control of Bosnia.
p111: She says that Moltke and Bulow "changed the [Dual] Alliance agreement from a defensive to an offensive one" because Moltke assured the Austrian, Conrad, that Germany would support Austria-Hungary if Russia attacked Austria-Hungary as a result of an Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia. She fails to mention the long string of terrorist assaults on Austria-Hungary, assaults that had emerged from Serbia (the Black Hand secret society etc.). An Austro-Hungarian punitive attack could therefore certainly be described as 'defensive'.
Again and again, as here, she refers to Moltke's awareness of the importance of public opinion; he wrote:
"…peace prevailed in 1909, because the current political situation in Germany was not suited to a bellicose foreign policy. Public opinion would probably not have supported a war over a Balkan issue." Yet Germany is always said to have been a militaristic autocracy, an impression she herself does nothing to dispel; rather, the opposite.
p112: Here at last, she finally presents some kind of evidence that would seem to point to Moltke's desire for a war - his letter to Conrad of Sept. 1909 - but she doesn't say what kind of opportunity Moltke was referring to: war for Germany or war just for Austria-Hungary.
p113: Here is one of the various references to Moltke's personality by contemporaries, all of which are positive - his "open and honest personality…his calm, clear judgment…" But Mombauer ignores the sense of these and prefers to imply that he was some kind of warmongering demon. p114: Here she writes: "Notwithstanding the fact that Moltke's letters did not always accurately portray his true intentions…" Although she has just referred on the previous page to his "open and honest personality", she now implies that Moltke was a liar or deceiver: "…..his bellicose statements…." Were his statements bellicose in the same way as Kaiser Wilhelm's ? Not at all, yet she uses the same word. This is unfounded prejudice.
"That war was not only inescapable, but also desirable was a notion that Moltke shared with most of his military contemporaries…" Mombauer omits to see the force of this point, namely, that throughout Europe military men held this view, and not just in Germany, as she implies. Yet she and numerous other historians, whose arguments in this regard are equally prejudiced, only tend to focus on German military men in this regard.
The question is did Mooltke look forward to war with relish ? Was he a real warmonger, wanting war for its own sake? She never distinguishes this motive from that of the soldier doing his duty as he saw fit, so on p115 she says of Conrad that he "hardly needed Moltke's encouragement - he was himself an outspoken warmonger", the word 'himself' implying that von Moltke was also such a warmonger. She notes "Serbian provocation" against Austria-Hungary and refers to "the troublesome Serbian neighbour" but does not comment on Serbian responsibility.
She cites von Moltke, on 21 Jan 1909 writing:
"…none of the great states will, because of Serbian ambitions, light the torch of war that could set alight the roof of all Europe. That Russia, motivated by such considerations, will stay quiet in a warlike conflict between the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and Serbia does not seem at all unlikely to me." So how then can Moltke be seen as wanting war against Russia out of a quarrel between Austria-Hungary and Serbia? There follows a whole paragraph of mere unsupported assertion that von Moltke never conceived of any alternative to threatening escalation and never felt deterred by "the increasing likelihood that war could result from any localised European conflict." p117 Re. naval race with Britain: "An honorable agreement, for example , on the basis of a reduction in the speed of building, thus seemed desirable to him [von Moltke] too." This is hardly the view of an irresponsible warmongering fanatic, as Mombauer makes him out to be in this book.
p118: here is a quote which shows that von Moltke took the views of the people into account and was no haughty arrogant militarist, but Mombauer does not draw this conclusion.
[N.b. Interesting in view of Steiner's indication about von Moltle's earlier incarnation as Pope Nicholas I, who had a connection with the region of Alsace and the Odilienberg, that his friendly colleague was named Colmar von der Goltz] Finally, after 117 pages, a quote in a letter to Conrad Sept 1909 which does seem to show that von Moltke would have been prepared to see a general war over the Bosnian question in 1908. "I am firmly convinced that it would have been possible to localise the war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and the monarchy would have been stabilised within and strengthened without as a result of the war's victorious completion and could have won a preponderance in the Balkans that would no longer be rocked so easily. Even if Russia had become active and a European war had developed, the conditions for Austria and Germany could now have been better than they will probably be in a few years' time." But note that he says "Even if Russia....", so this does not necessarily imply he was expecting and wanting a war with Russia, but rather one between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.
The mending of the rift with the Austro-Hungarian General Staff was von Moltke's work; von Schlieffen had ignored Austria-Hungary.
p119 Mombauer claims that von Moltke tried to hide from Austria-Hungary the fact that Germany's main force in the East was against Russia because "The knowledge that Germany would only deploy the most minimal forces in the East might have resulted in Austria deciding not to attack Russia….." This is nonsense, because the Austro-Hungarian General Staff could see only too well that German deployment was very small in the East.
von Moltke, she says, "relied on an alliance war motivated by 'Nibelungentreue' (the faithfulness of the Nibelungs i.e. tribal loyalty) but she gives no evidence of von Moltke using this phrase in letters to Conrad or anyone else.
p121 The Agadir Crisis of 1911"The dispatch of the German gunboat Panther to ….Agadir….marked the beginning of the second Moroccan Crisis." No, it was the French colonialist actions in Morocco that initiated the dispute and prompted the dispatch. Then, 3 sentences later, she recognises that "Germany felt provoked by French military intervention in Morocco"[N.b. the mild word 'intervention'] and admits "Germany's reaction is perhaps understandable in the light of the rules of imperialism that applied at the time." In a footnote she describes Geoffrey Barraclough's account of the Agadir Crisis as "perhaps too sympathetic to German intentions" without any discussion of it though says he is accurate in his description of it as bungling and muddled i.e. she allows her readers to perceive nothing but negativity about German actions.
p122 At the height of the Agadir Crisis von Moltke's mood she describes as "pronouncedly bellicose". She writes that heis said to have called for a "reckoning with England" Yet despite this seemingly important quote, she offers nothing more extensive nor any further discussion of the statement. She quotes a long section of a letter by von Moltke to his wife, which seems more ironical than "pronouncedly bellicose" (p124). Rather than actually calling in a bellicose manner for war, the passage from letter simply seems to express his despair at the German government's habit of making demands and then not being prepared to follow them up with action – a typical attitude for a military man, this passage does not strike one as the ranting of a warmonger.
p125 An extremely weak piece of ‘argumentation’ here as Mombauer tries to disagree with those who say that von Moltke's statements at this time were all but the talk of a weak man and that too much shouldn't be placed on them. Mombauer argues with no evidence that his statements during this period show that von Moltke was aiming at war before too long and that his injured pride and uneasy feeling hid a desire for Weltpolitik.
Again she claims that the path from "Agadir to Armageddon" began with Germany: "Arguably the most significant result was that Germany had clearly identified herself as an aggressor and troublemaker." Yet the Agadir Crisis began with French aggression against Morocco! Judging from many western historians' discussion of the Agadir Crisis, it is as if they feel that the other Powers were expected to simply accept the French takeover of Morocco. When Germany challenged it, Germany was then and still is now regarded as a bully and dangerously aggressive warmonger!
p126 "In France, Germany's aggressive and provocative behaviour led to a revival of the revanche idea." No. It began with the Joan of Arc commemorations in 1909, stirred up by French warmongering rightwing chauvinists.
"A longterm consequence of German provocation was the Anglo-French naval agreement…."
" ….Germany, who by now had shown herself clearly as an aggressor." Mombauer fails to contrast this one German gunboat, the Panther, with the French attempt to annex a new colony! Then, on the very next page she says:
"Germany's political decision-makers….did not actually want war in 1911, although they were willing to threaten it to achieve foreign policy gains."
[and what about Fashoda, just 13 years before, when France had come so close to war with Britain over yet another sordid colonial grab?]
p130: Agadir frightened von Moltke into wanting the army kept prepared for war at all times, says Mombauer. But isn't this common sense for any army ?
p132 An important von Moltke memo to Bethmann-Hollweg 2 Dec 1911:
"The equipping, perfecting and strengthening of her military power in all areas are making France an ever more powerful and dangerous opponent. All are preparing themselves for the big war that is widely expected sooner or later [i.e. everyone in Europe]. Only Germany and her ally Austria-Hungary are not participating in these preparations." If even the Chief of the General Staff himself felt that Germany was insufficiently prepared for a war that is "widely expected", then this is not exactly convincing evidence that von Moltke had been pushing for war for years before.
p135 1912 a marked changeover in favour towards the army from the navy and thus a certain lessening of tensions between Britain and Germany: Mombauer writes: "Previously the General Staff had lacked self-confidence vis-a-vis the predominant navy and had received no support from other military or civilian bodies." Yet we are always told by her and by other western historians that this was the most militaristic society on earth! Here she is saying that "the most militaristic society on earth", the army that traced its traditions back to Frederick the Great and before lacked self-confidence vis-a-vis the predominant navy, a body that hardly existed before the mid-1890s!
p136 Mombauer notes that the Balkan War of 1912 was another pretext for a general war but that Kaiser was against it. Bethmann-Hollweg and Kiderlen-Wächter "tried hard to change the Kaiser's mind during those days", she writes but doesn't say that von Moltke tried to do so. Wilhelm II, she notes, only changed his mind " on account of the press and public opinion…" - yet elsewhere, she maintains, like so many others, that this was supposed to be an autocracy !
13 Oct 1912 At the Hubertusstock meeting the Kaiser called for army increases but "was opposed by his military advisers." We note that Mombauer implies that these included von Moltke because she writes that:
He was reassured by both Heeringen and Moltke that the German army was prepared for all eventualities, should the Balkan War escalate. So von Moltke did not want more troops, but the next day he changed his mind. Mombauer tries to rationalise why but can only come up with 'possibilities' and 'suggestions':
"It is possible that Moltke realised….It has been suggested that this change of heart was due to Ludendorff's influence…." p137 von Moltke's niece wrote at the time : "he too thinks there is absolutely no reason for going to war and he said: "If only England and Germany would go together they would lead the world; this whole tension is the work of King Edward [the King had died two years earlier but during his reign relations betwen England and Germany had badly deteriorated, not least due to his own personal sympathies and antipathies - TB]. He thinks the feeling in England against Germany is manufactured by politicians, the press and the diplomats."Mombauer doesn't comment on the way these pertinent points contradict her own central argument. "Moltke, who had known about Austria's bellicose intentions, had obviously not travelled to Vienna hoping to restrain his Austrian colleague…" No evidence is offered for this statement.