History Highlights, Second Reich...1871 to 1918, WWI...First World War

The Schlieffen Plan was put into action in 1914, but trouble in East Prussia changed the course of history.

Germany’s war contingency plans…drawn up in 1905…were a creative strategy to achieve a rapid victory in a two front war. The goal of rapid engagement was seen as a way to win and also save lives and minimize economic damage to all belligerents. So the plan, dubbed the “Schlieffen Plan” after its designer Count Alfred von Schlieffen, gave German leaders peace of mind. The 1906 portrait shown here depicts General von Schlieffen.

The Schlieffen Plan was a solution to the problem of being landlocked and surrounded by numerically superior enemies. And such fears were not unwarranted. They were honed over the centuries by the hard experience of warfare conducted on German lands with devastating results. The ‘Thirty Years War” comes to mind as one example of a horrifying international war on German soil.

The plan was precise and risky. It required first of all a full-force advance on the Western Front, to achieve a rapid victory, and then quickly shift the bulk of forces to the Eastern Front, where the numerically superior enemy was expected to mobilize slowly. This strategy was feasible considering that in the “War of 1870” the Prussian Army defeated France in a short war. And the Russian Empire was considered a lumbering giant, slow to mobilize its enormous but mostly primitive population.

When war broke out in August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm famously boasted that he would have lunch in Paris in exactly 42 days. Such was the precision of planning and confidence of German leaders in their finely honed military machine.

The Schlieffen Plan was put into action, but trouble in East Prussia changed the course of history. People today don’t know much about East Prussia, once located on Germany’s easternmost border. But in August 1914 it was the hot spot on the Eastern Front. The Russians surprised everyone by launching an immediate invasion of East Prussia.

Germania in 1914 ..surrounded, but ready to fight

How could trouble in East Prussia derail the perfect plans of a superb military machine? The answer rests with our human emotions. The unexpectedly swift invasion of East Prussia caused the kind of indignation that we might feel if Mexico invaded Virginia. The Kaiser simply could not tolerate the desecration of his sacred Prussian homeland. He ordered two German Armies removed from the Blitzkrieg already deep into France and routed them to the threat in the east, violating the Schlieffen Plan strategy.

Emotion thus overruled strategy, but the reasons are understandable. East Prussia was the legacy of the Teutonic Knights. By 1914, Germans had ruled this land for 700 years and it was the birthplace of the Kingdom of Prussia. And it was homeland of the “Junker” nobility who dominated the Officer Corps of the entire German Armed Forces.

But the result of weakening the German right wing at the Western Front, caused by removing two armies, was the major reason of the German failure to achieve a quick victory in France. Even worse, the rerouted troops were not needed by the time they arrived on the Eastern Front… Germany already had a new hero, Paul von Hindenburg, the savior of East Prussia and hero of the Battle of Tannenberg.

Knowing all of this gives gives you a different perspective. When we hear of WWI it seems as if the Western Front was the whole war..trench warfare, a savage stalemate war, fought in a miserable moonscape of dirt and mud…with Germany and Austria-Hungary versus Britain, France, Italy and the US coming in at the end of the war. But that was only one half of the conflict.

The other half of WWI was a different war, a mobile war fought on the Eastern Front...a fight with Germany and Austria versus the huge armies of the Russian Empire, which included the territories of future Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. That war was an epic struggle as well. What is normally forgotten is that Germany and Austria were the only ones of all the belligerents in the war, that had to split their forces and fight on both the Western and Eastern Fronts.

The Kaiser congratulting victorious German troops after their victory defending East Prussia.

After the first victories on the Eastern Front, the war there was mobile and ended in victory over Russia in 1917. But on the Western Front the war froze into a stationary bloodbath. The failure of executing the Schlieffen Plan robbed Germany of a fast victory, such as the victory over France in 1870, and tragically the goal of Schlieffen to save lives and minimize economic damage to all belligerents was also lost. Germany still had conquered the most territory and was winning the war until the end of 1917. It is very likely that Germany would have won the war if the United States had not saved the exhausted British and French in 1918.

July 1917 German poster demonstrating that Germany was winning the War.

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