The Iron Chancellor won strategic security for Germany; his myopic successors threw it away.
As fanfare and celebrations ushered in the new century on January 1, 1900, two nations were clearly emerging from the pack as contenders for the rank of “superpower “: the United States and Germany. The impact of these two powers on our century is obvious. But of the two, only the United States, whatever its current political, economic, and intellectual difficulties, has remained a superpower in every sense of the word. Indeed, Germany exists only in a fragmented form that-for now, at least-might be termed “the Germanys.”
Many of the causes of the German catastrophe stem from what passed for strategy in the period leading up to the First World War. This was a time when the German nation, overconfident, aggressive, and arrogant, dreamed of Continental and world empires. It was also a time when the Germans, in terms of intellectual vigor, economic expansion, and technological innovation, appeared to have every prospect of realizing those dreams.
Germany’s powerful position resulted largely from the masterful strategic insights and enormously skillful policies of Prince Otto von Bismarck. The Iron Chancellor had taken the Prussian state through three immensely successful wars, unified Germany into the most powerful Continental state, and then-unlike virtually any other European statesman before or after quit while he was ahead.
Bismarck’s technique was to first isolate his intended victim from the rest of Europe, skillfully managing the crisis so that the blame fell elsewhere; then, after the Prussian army had humiliated the opponent, he extracted a price that seemed reasonable. Above all, he never appeared to threaten the general security of the other European power. In the end his settlements resulted in the creation of a powerful new state at the very heart of Europe, but people quite correctly perceived his initial goals as limited.
From 1871 to 1890 Bismarck followed a careful policy of consolidation and peace, buttressed by skillful diplomacy. The Iron Chancellor fully understood that the German empire confronted a two-faced problem: On one hand, its location and growing economic power gave it unparalleled capacity to influence the course of European politics as long as the iron fist remained inside the velvet glove; on the other hand , he saw what virtually none of his German contemporaries recognized: Germany’s position made her vulnerable both on the Continent and in her contacts with the rest of the world. As he once remarked, in a European world of five great powers it was better to be one of the three rather than one of the two.
Bismarck’s successors saw things differently. They began to think in terms of the “rightful” limits of German national power. Most of them refused to see the vulnerabilities of Germany’s strategic position, and the fact that overaggressive German pressure would cause the other great Continental powers to draw together in an anti German coalition.
Two other factors contributed to Germany’s flawed approach to strategy. One was the military’s contempt for civilians, especially politicians and intellectuals. German officers thus dismissed not only current thinkers on military question s, such as Hans Delbruck, but Carl von Clausewitz as well. To them the great victories of the wars of unification were due wholly to the performance of the Prussian armies led by Helmuth von Moltke; they entirely missed the enormous and crucial political contributions that Bismarck had made.
By the turn of the century, substantial numbers of the German military were dismissing political factors as being of no significance to strategy. The problem with such myopia was that it evoked enthusiasm from the kaiser of the German Reich, who was a factor all by himself. Wilhelm II came to the throne woefully unprepared both intellectually and psychologically for the demands of the job. He represented Germany at her worst: brash, conceited, arrogant, and yet with an enormous inferiority complex. Wilhelm proved averse to serious study, incapable of sustained interest, and unwilling to grapple with complex issues.
The collapse of Bismarck’s strategic framework began almost immediately after Wilhelm removed him as chancellor in 1890. Bothered by the seeming contradictions of being allied to two antagonistic powers, czarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the new German leadership opted to drop the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in the belief that an isolated autocratic Russia could never get together with an isolated French Republic.
Within a few short years, the czar was standing bareheaded at the playing of “La Marseillaise,” the French and Russians had become firm allies, and Germany faced the dreaded prospect of a two-front war.
Having fundamentally altered the balance on the Continent against themselves, the Germans now tackled the world balance. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan had written his important study The Influence of Sea Power upon History. Wilhelm, a thorough enthusiast of all things naval, grasped at Mahan and sea power as a means for Germany to find its place in the sun. While Wilhelm provided the dream, his choice to head a new resurgent navy, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, provided the political savvy, driving force, and intellectual justification for the creation of the High Seas Fleet.
Tirpitz forged a domestic political alliance of Junkers and industrialists. In addition, he developed a first-class political campaign to mobilize public support, and a strategic justification, the so-called risk theory. According to this theory, if the Reich built a fleet large enough to sink a significant portion of the Royal Navy, Britain would confront the possibility that either France or Russia or both could seize world naval supremacy; and therefore Britain would never dare go to war with Germany.
The risk theory was actually a smoke screen behind which Tirpitz’s real strategy hid. The admiral believed that in a sustained naval race over a period of decades, Germany could mobilize the manpower and other economic resources to win a great naval battle and destroy the Royal Navy and the British Empire at one blow.
Tirpitz’s strategic approach rested on a number of assumptions, each of extraordinarily dubious validity, and the failure of any of which would invalidate the whole concept. Although virtually every one of the assumptions soon proved false, Tirpitz and the kaiser, with considerable popular enthusiasm behind them, maintained a rigid course toward disaster. Among the assumptions was the belief that, given age-old antipathies, Britain could not possibly form alliances with either France or Russia.
The British acted with considerable speed to address the burgeoning German naval threat. In 1902 they formed an alliance with Japan in which, among other provisions, the Japanese agreed to protect British interests in the Far East so that the British Pacific Fleet could return to Atlantic waters.
In 1904 the British and French arrived at an entente in which both countries settled all of their major differences, and they also agreed informally to address the German problem together. In 1907 the British reached a similar agreement with the Russians. In 1912 the French agreed to protect Britain’s strategic interests in the Mediterranean in return for Britain’s guarding the Atlantic coast of France. Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet was now largely concentrated in the North Sea. The British were firmly in the anti-German camp. Having antagonized virtually everyone on the European continent, the Germans now found themselves virtually friendless except for their alliance with the moribund Austro Hungarian Empire.
During the 15 years before the start of World War I, the precepts and strategy of the German Empire came to be increasingly dominated by the infamous Schlieffen Plan. Formulated in 1905 by the general staff under Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the plan called for a great wheeling invasion of France through Belgium. Given Germany’s resources and military strength, and the realities of European geography, Schlieffen determined that Germany could win a decisive victory over France. But looking at the operational constraints imposed by the formidable geography of the Franco German frontier and by the existence of the neutral Low Countries, Schlieffen determined that Germany could achieve a successful knockout blow only by violating Belgian neutrality with a massive attack. After outflanking the French defenses, the Germans would swing deep into France and then hammer the French armies into a great encirclement up against the Swiss border.
It was a wonderful operational conception that, like Tirpitz’s risk theory, seemed to solve all the dilemmas of Germany’s weakening strategic position. But the plan made some extraordinary miscalculations. It assumed that the Belgians would not fight; that the logistics would function to keep the forward spearheads reasonably supplied; that the Russians could not mobilize fast enough to be a threat; that the British would not be a serious factor; and that the French could not react fast enough to counter the German move. Perhaps the most disastrous assumption was that war among highly industrialized states could be short, swift, and decisive.
Above all, the Schlieffen Plan carried with it strategic implications that guaranteed both its failure and Germany’s loss in World War I. By launching the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans brought Britain into the war and ensured that the weight of the world economy would be marshaled against the economy of the Reich. We are, of course, here dealing with Liddell Hart’s conception of grand strategy as involving the mobilization and articulation of all of the resources of a nation or nations for war. In this case German fascination with military solutions blinded them to the strategic implications of the Schlieffen Plan.
Consequently, Germany went to war in 1914 with a flawed operational plan and no strategy except to win the war quickly. When that failed and the Schlieffen Plan collapsed, the Germans were left quite literally at sea. Given the confusion and incompetence at the highest levels, it is not surprising that the Germans even managed to add the enormous economic and strategic potential of the United States to the already formidable coalition that they confronted. MHQ
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1990 issue (Vol. 2, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Dismantling Bismark
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