History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: First World War

In Austria before the War

… THERE LIVED A WELL RESPECTED FAMILY


The business of the Civil Service is the orderly management of decline.

William Armstrong


In the Year of the Lord 1889, the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph celebrated his fifty-ninth birthday and forty-first anniversary of his reign over the vast Empire of Austria and Hungary; when he died, in 1916, he had ruled the state for sixty-eight years. The realm was huge – covering over 180,000 square miles or about 450,000 square kilometres. The emperor’s domains stretched, in the east-west axis, from Czernowitz on the Prut River in today’s Ukraine to Vorarlberg near the Swiss border, and, in the north-south axis, from the lower Elbe River near Aussig to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) in southern Croatia, two-thirds down the eastern Adriatic coast.

Ethnically and thus politically, however, these territories were hopelessly divided. The racial diversity of the Imperial population included Germans in Austria, Hungary and the Sudetenland; Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia; Slovaks to their east; Poles in western Galicia and Ruthenians, Catholic Ukrainians, in the eastern part of it; Magyars in Hungary and Transylvania interspersed with some more Germans and Romanians; Slovenes, Friulians and Italians south of the Julian Alps; and finally Croats, Bosnians, Albanians, Montenegrinos and Serbs in and around the Balkan mountains.

Ethnolinguistic Map

All these groups fought incessant but mostly inconclusive battles over appointments, representation and influence in the empire and its court, while a laborious civil administration struggled with the actual governance of the multitudes. The exceptionally long reign of Francis Joseph had much aided the ossification of the Imperial structures, which, given the Habsburgs’ reverence for tradition, were conservative, to say the least; pre-modern, and reactionary.

Yet on the outside things appeared fit for eternity. Stefan Zweig, one of Vienna’s famous sons, describes the peculiar atmosphere of town and country:

When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-years-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanence, and the state itself was the chief guarantor of this stability. The rights which it granted to its citizens were duly confirmed by parliament, the freely elected representatives of the people, and every duty was exactly prescribed.

Our currency, the Austrian crown, circulated in bright gold pieces, as assurance of its immutability. Everyone knew how much he possessed or what he was entitled to, what was permitted and what was forbidden. Everything had its norm, its definite measure and weight. He who had a fortune could accurately compute his annual interest. An official or an officer, for example, could confidently look up in the calendar the year he would be advanced in rank, or when he would be pensioned.

Each family had its fixed budget, and knew how much could be spent for rent and food, for holidays and entertainment; and what is more, invariably a small sum was carefully laid aside for sickness and the doctor’s bills, for the unexpected.

Whoever owned a house looked upon it as a secure domicile for his children and grandchildren; estates and businesses were handed down from generation to generation. When the babe was still in its cradle, its first mite was put in its little bank, or deposited in the savings’ bank, as a “reserve” for the future. In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovable in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed), another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence seemed impossible in an age of reason.

This feeling of security was the most eagerly sought-after possession of millions, the common ideal of life. Only the possession of this security made life seem worthwhile, and constant widening circles desired their share of this costly treasure.

At first, it was only the prosperous who enjoyed this advantage, but gradually the great masses forced their way toward it. The century of security became the golden age of insurance. One’s house was insured against fire or theft, one’s field against hail and storm, one’s person against accident or sickness. Annuities were purchased for one’s old age, and a policy was laid in a girl’s cradle for her future dowry. Finally, even the workers organized, and won standard wages and workman’s compensation. Servants saved for old-age insurance and paid in advance into a burial fund for their own interment. Only the man who could look into the future without worry could thoroughly enjoy the present. (1)

This peaceful state of bliss, however, did not necessarily embrace the whole empire; a new age has brought forth anarchists and socialists. Neither was the status of the rural poor much to write home about. Yet law and order were generally held in high regard for the safety and continuity of society they implied. Into this world of order, a son, whom she named Alois, was born, on the morning of June 7, 1837, out of wedlock, to the peasant maid Maria Anna Schicklgruber in the hamlet of Strones in the Austrian Waldviertel.

The Waldviertel, which literally translates as the “Wooden Quarter” or “Forest Quarter”, was one of the Austrian monarchy’s backwaters, a hilly “country of peasant villages and small farms, and though only some fifty miles from Vienna it has a somewhat remote and impoverished air, as if the main currents of Austrian life had passed it by.” (2) It is located slightly north-east of Linz, respectively north-west of Vienna, between the Danube River and the Czech border in the direction of Brno. It is a borderland and has seen its shares of marauding armies over the centuries. German tribes on the way to the treasures and temptations of the Roman Empire had crossed through the land which the Romans called “Noricum”, followed by the Huns, various tribes of Goths, the Hungarians and finally the Turks. It had seen armies in the Thirty-Years-War and the Napoleonic Wars; only after the Congress of Vienna a century of peace graced its gently rolling hills.

Peasants of the Waldviertel

The name “Hitler”, variably spelled “Hidler”, “Hiedler”, “Hüttler”, “Hietler”, “Hytler” or “Hittler” was one of the more common names in the district. It is documented as early as 1435, when the Abbot of the Herzogenburg Monastery drew up a deed granting to Hannsen Hydler and his wife property near Raabs, on the Thaya River. (3) The etymology of the name indicates a possible derivation from the German word “Heide” [in English “heather”, relating to a meadow], of which the Waldviertel was full. All of Alois’ life occurred within a radius of one hundred miles of Linz, then as now the capital of the province of Oberösterreich, Upper Austria.

Little is known about Adolf Hitler’s paternal grandmother Maria Schicklgruber. The tiny village of Strones where she lived was far too small to be a parish of its own, and thus baby Alois had to be registered in the slightly bigger village of Döllersheim, a couple of miles to the north-west. It was generally known that the baby was born out of wedlock and therefore was, strictly speaking, “illegitimate”. Many theories have been spun and explanations offered in which this circumstance supposedly played the one or other role in Alois Hitler’s life or in that of his son Adolf, and they are all bunkum. The reality of the Waldviertel dictated that “legitimacy” was a concept the peasants simply could not afford to pay heed to, and which occasioned no advantages in their daily lives. “Illegitimacy” might have been a significant problem for the heir of a throne or the prospective owner of land, a shop or business, but not to farmhands and share croppers. It was a common occurrence, and there is not the slightest indication that Alois ever suffered from an imagined stigma attached to it. There were no empires to bestow on Alois, and his son took them regardless of a court’s permission.

The Remains of the Hamlet Strones

Another disparaging theory was circulated in the early 1930s regarding Adolf Hitler’s parental grandfather. Alois, the rumours held, was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Jewish merchant from Graz named Frankenberger or Frankenreither, who had seduced Maria, who was working as a maid in his household – in a variation of the theme, the merchant’s son was the debaucher, and his father paid for the girl’s discretion.

Such a story, if true, would naturally be a feast for Hitler’s political enemies. After a few Austrian newspapers had come up with it during the German general election campaign of 1930, the allegations resurfaced when Hitler ran for German president against Hindenburg in 1932. At length, Hitler dispatched his legal counsellor Hans Frank to investigate. The lawyer was told that the nineteen-year-old son of a Mr. Frankenberger from Graz was the culprit, whose father had allegedly paid alimonies to Fräulein Schicklgruber for fourteen years; a variance of the story had Mr. Frankenberger and his lecherous son in Linz, not Graz. There was, however, not a shred of evidence available in either town, no trace of payments, and hence the story slowly died. Research in the Austrian and Jewish records of Graz and Linz undertaken after 1945 established conclusively that no Jewish families had been allowed to settle in either town before the 1860s, twenty years after Alois’ birth. Neither were there any Frankenbergers or Frankenreiters at all, and thus the bottom fell out of the story for good.

Photograph rumoured to show Alois’ Birthplace
Weitra Today

The first five years of Alois Schicklgruber’s life were spent in Strones with his mother, who married, in 1842, a seldom employed millworker named Johann Georg Hiedler from the nearby hamlet of Spital near Weitra. [FN1] The marriage seems not to have changed much: the couple lived in abject poverty, and after Maria died five years later of tuberculosis and Johann Georg re-entered the vagrant lifestyle, the child passed into the wardship of Johann Georg Hiedler’s brother Johann Nepomuk Hüttler of Spital, House # 36. This wardship gave rise to a fair amount of village gossip: rumour control asserted that Johann Nepomuk was, in fact, the biological father of the boy.

[FN1] The name “Spital” is a common name for Austrian villages and towns, and the village of Spital in Lower Austria, which plays a role here, must not be confused with the town of Spital in Carinthia, whither, for example, historian Marlis Steinert puts Johann Nepomuk Hüttler.

Nobody knows who Alois’ father truly was, and it is possible that Maria did not know herself. In this time and place, sexual relations among farmhands were essentially unregulated, babies born out of wedlock numerous and considered welcome additions to the work force if they survived early childhood.

More interesting than idle speculation about the identity of Adolf Hitler’s grandfather is the question of why Alois’ original birth certificate underwent rewriting, tampering and forgery in the summer of 1876, when he was already thirty- nine years old. What had happened in the meantime that could explain such an act?

In 1850, at the age of thirteen, Alois ran away from home, a fact that allows an inference or two about the circumstances or happiness of his childhood. He fled to Vienna, where he quickly found employment as apprentice to a cobbler. He finished, as far as we know, the four years standard apprenticeship and became a shoemaker, but soon quit this profession and enlisted in the Austrian civil service. He passed the entrance examination, which seems quite an achievement since he had enjoyed little schooling at home, and was accepted to serve in the Customs division of the Austrian financial administration. In “Mein Kampf, son Adolf described his father’s arrival in the Austrian capital as follows:

“As the son of a poor cottager, he [Alois] could not even in those early days bear to stay at home. Before he was thirteen, the youngster laced his tiny knapsack and fled from his homeland, the Waldviertel. Despite all the attempts of “experienced” villagers to dissuade him, he made his own way to Vienna in order to learn a trade.

This was in the fifties of the last century. It was a bitter decision to take the road and plunge into the unknown with only three Gulden for travel money. But by the time the thirteen-year-old had grown to seventeen, he had passed his apprentice’s examination [as a cobbler], but was not yet content with his lot – quite to the contrary. The long period of hardship, the endless poverty and misery he had suffered, strengthened his determination to give up the trade in order to become something “better”.

Once the village priest had seemed to the poor boy the embodiment of all humanly attainable heights, so now, in the great city, which had so powerfully widened his perspective, it was the rank of civil servant. With all the tenacity of a young man, who had grown “old” in suffering and sorrow while still half a child, the seventeen-year-old clung to his new decision – and he became a civil servant.” (4)

These words must be read with the knowledge that Adolf Hitler was on the record to regard his father with feelings closer to hate than love, but here he attempts to draw a picture of success, which was to contrast sharply to the opinions he shared in private, or at his headquarters’ dinner tables in the Second World War. More than from the laundered account of his father in “Mein Kampf” we can infer, regarding the happiness of the family Adolf grew up in, from the fact that Alois’ first son Alois Jr., Adolf’s half-brother, left this home at the same age of thirteen as his father had, never to return.

Meanwhile, the stations of Alois Schicklgruber’s rise to a somewhat respectable position in the Customs department – the highest to which he could aspire, given his limited education – followed the predictable patterns of civil service careers; that is, moving through the ranks and around the country. Originally attached as a most junior servant to the Austrian Ministry of Finance in 1855, he was relatively quickly promoted. In the year 1861 we find him as a supervisor in Saalfelden, Tyrolia, and in 1864 as an assistant in the bigger Customs office in Linz. In 1870, he was moved again, to Mariahilf, a change that was sweetened by a promotion to assistant collector. A year later he arrived in the small border town of Braunau at the Inn River, with the rank of Senior Assistant; he grew to like the little town and stayed for almost two decades. In 1875, he was promoted to Assistant Customs Inspector. His career was not spectacular per se, but it was a decent calling for a man of his origins and, apparently, that was what his family thought when they concocted a scheme to bestow upon him a dollop of enhanced respectability.

Braunau City Centre

On June 6, 1876, Alois and three of his friends – Josef Romeder, who was one of Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s sons- in-law, Johann Breiteneder and Engelbert Paukh – paid a visit to the public notary Josef Penkner in the small town of Weitra, not far from Alois’ birthplace Strones. The notary was paid to prepare for Alois a “LEGALISIRUNGS-PROTOCOLL“, a protocol of legitimization for his birth. The three friends attested that Johann Georg Hiedler, he of the vagrant lifestyle (whom they had known well, they said), had attested to them at various times that he was, in fact, the biological father of Alois Schicklgruber, whom he planned to legitimize one day. The document was drawn up, the witnesses signed, but for a reason that remains unexplained, the paper featured Alois’ new family name in the form “Hitler”, not as “Hiedler” or “Hüttler”. Beweaponed with this document, the posse made its way to the little town of Döllersheim on the next morning, where they paid a visit to the local priest, Father Josef Zahnschirm, upon whom they played a “cunning peasant trick”. (5)

Döllersheim, Church and Cemetery

On the power of the notarized document, and perhaps a contribution to the church funds, Father Zahnschirm agreed to make a few changes to Alois Schicklgruber’s baptismal record. The original birth certificate featured blanks in the space for the name of the father and the field for remarks. The blanks were now filled by entering “Georg Hitler. Cat.rel., Living in Spital” as the father, and under “Remarks” that …

“The undersigned witnesses hereby confirm that Georg Hitler, who was well-known to them, acknowledged paternity of the child Alois, son of Anna Schicklgruber, and they requested that his name be entered in the baptismal register. +++ Josef Romeder, Witness, +++ Johann Breiteneder, Witness, +++ Engelbert Paukh, Witness.” (6)

Legalisierungs-Protocoll by Notary Josef Penkner (Joachimsthaler, Anton, “Hitlers Weg begann in München 1913 – 1923”, Herbig-Verlag, ISBN 3-7766-2155-9, p. 15

Speculations about this mission abound. Some private family business may have played a role; rumours tied Johann Nepomuk Hüttler, who had been so conspicuously absent in Weitra and Döllersheim, into the drama; “There was village gossip that Alois was his natural son.” (7)

The net result of the clandestine affair was that Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler. Father Zahnschirm had clearly been lied to when he was told that Johann Georg Hiedler was still alive [“Living in Spital“], but the churchman may have had his own thoughts about the procedure from the beginning, as had, apparently, the witnesses: the priest “forgot” to date and sign for the changes, and the witnesses had turned illiterate, signing with crosses, which could be explained as errors, should the need arise. The climax of the play came when the improved birth certificate was registered at the nearest Austrian chancery in Mistelbach. [FN2]

[FN2] Marlis Steinert followed up on the Austrian government’s subsequent authentication of the fraud: “A correspondence between the priest, the communal administration and the Financial Office in Braunau confirmed the legal validation of the  document  per matrimonium subsequens [due to Georg’s marriage to Maria Anna five years after Alois’ birth], citing a decree of the Ministry of the Interior in Vienna from September 12, 1868, in which such legitimations should be granted as far as possible.” (9)

The formerly illegitimate Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler, civil servant and owner of a gold-buttoned uniform; when he, half a year after Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s death, bought a farm for the proud sum of five thousand florins in cash; the village gossip nodding – conclusions confirmed.

Alois had gone through a number of romantic entanglements in his life, and had sampled experience in holy matrimony as well. He had married for the first time on October 1873 at thirty-six years of age, although it seems that at this time he had already fathered a child in a different relation. (8) At any rate, the marriage seems to have been built on reasons superior to love alone: the bride, Anna Glassl-Hoerer, was the daughter of a high-ranking financial officer, an inspector in the Treasury’s Bureau of Tobacco, fourteen years older than her husband and of ill health. Nobody would have been surprised had status and finances played a role in the match.

Due to the frequent changes of assignment, Alois had made it a habit to lodge in Gasthäusern, inns, for the greater part of his life, and these lodgings brought him into daily contact with waitresses, chambermaids, laundresses and tobacco girls, whether he liked it or not. Apparently he did not mind, and he did possess the most important condition to warrant female attention, a steady job and hence a steady income. By the time Anna filed for separation in 1880, perhaps tired of his infidelities, he had quite openly conducted an affair with the waitress of the Gasthaus Streif, a girl named Franziska (Fanny) Matzelsberger, for some time.

Yet the relation to Fanny did not preclude Alois, as it seems, from experiencing an urgent need for another maidservant, and he soon installed another young girl of sixteen years in his mansard under the roof of the inn; a slender, attractive girl named Klara Pölzl. The idea met with the furious opposition from Franziska, who had zero doubt about the nature of the services Klara would be asked to perform for Alois, and she succeeded in having the competition thrown out quickly. In due time Franziska bore a son to Alois Hitler, who was named Alois Junior, on January 13, 1882. When Anna, who had in the meantime obtained a legal decree of separation, died in the following year of consumption, Alois was free to marry Franziska. She soon bore Alois another child, a girl named Angela.

Alois’ Workplace – the Customs Station at the Inn River Bridge …

At this time Alois officially decided to accept the paternity of the children and had Alois Jr. and Angela legitimized. It was an outward sign of his striving for recognition and respectability, which were what counted in this deeply authoritative society. He had a gratifying career and money to spend; he earned more than, for instance, the local school principal. He was in his “best years” and loved to have his photo taken, in uniform. A question remains as far as the sympathies of his colleagues at work are concerned; one source describes him as “rigid and pedantic“, yet these would be qualities his employer might favour and may explain his success. In a letter to a cousin who had inquired about a job for his son, Alois drew the following portrait of himself and his profession:

“Don’t let him think that the ‘Finanzwach’ [Fiscal Service] is a kind of game, because he will quickly be disillusioned. First, he has to show absolute obedience to his superiors at all levels. Second, there is a good deal to learn in this occupation, all the more so if he had little previous education. Topers, debtors, card players, and others who lead immoral lives cannot enlist. Finally, one has to go out on duty in all weathers, day or night.” (10)

Characteristically, Alois’ enumeration of “immoral” lifestyles did not include dubious and perhaps illicit contacts to waitresses and chambermaids, nor illegitimate babies. But a shadow soon appeared on his private horizon; a short time after giving birth to Angela, Franziska developed tuberculosis, as Anna had, and was forced to leave Braunau to seek a cure in mountain air. Alois was suddenly left alone with two small children on the top floor of the inn, and since his career as Customs official had not prepared him for the care of toddlers, he reimported Klara as soon as Franziska had left town. Klara Pölzl was actually Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s granddaughter, and therefore Alois’ niece, in the context of which the closeness of family relations in the Waldviertel may be observed again. One photo of Klara has survived. She was tall and slender, almost as tall as her husband, had very regular and attractive features framed by brown hair; not a beauty but what is called in France a “belle laide”, an interesting girl. The outstanding aspect of her face was certainly her voluminous turquoise eyes. By all accounts she was neat, simple, and loving. Her education was close to nil, but, then again, the sources agree that she behaved correctly in public and had no problems with the role of being the common-law wife of a Customs official. In private, she was known as a most efficient housekeeper, cook, organizer, and nurse to the children.

The community in Braunau accepted her without qualms, which is somewhat surprising: it was one of these little towns in which the neighbours take an interest in everything that is not their business. In the summer of 1884, Franziska died of consumption, as Anna had earlier, and Klara was already pregnant. Alois wanted to marry her, but now the manipulation of the birth certificate backfired: since the former Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler, he was officially Klara’s uncle and no marriage was possible under the laws of the Austrian Catholic church unless a dispensation was granted. With the aid of the local priest, Alois composed a letter to the Bishop of Linz, which has survived:

“Most Revered Episcopate!

Those who with most humble devotion have appended their signatures below have decided upon marriage. But according to the enclosed family tree, they are prevented by the canonical impediment of collateral affinity in the third degree, touching second. They therefore make the humble request that the Most Revered Episcopate will graciously secure for them a dispensation on the following grounds:

The bridegroom has been a widower since August 10th of this year, as can be observed from the enclosed death certificate, and he is the father of two minors, a boy of two and a half years (Alois) and a girl of  one year and two months (Angela), and they both need the services of a nurse, all the more because he is a Customs official away from home all day and often at night and therefore in no position to supervise the education and upbringing of his children. The bride has been caring for these children ever since their mother’s death, and they are very fond of her.

Thus, it may be justifiably assumed that they will be well brought up and the marriage will be a happy one. Moreover, the bride is without means, and it is unlikely that she will ever have another opportunity to make a good marriage. For these reasons the undersigned repeat their humble petition for a gracious procurement of dispensation from the impediment of affinity.

Braunau am Inn, 27. October 1884                                                  

Alois Hitler, Bridegroom – Klara Pölzl, Bride” (11)

Enclosed was a version of the family tree, which presented Alois Hitler as the son of Johann Georg Hiedler, the vagrant, whose brother Johann Nepomuk Hüttler was the grandfather of Klara Pölzl, the bride. We will have the opportunity to encounter a letter or two written by the young Adolf, Alois’ son, in a later post, and they will sound oddly similar in diction and style to the epistle above. Alois’ petition for a dispensation reeks of the same sort of not very sublime deception that he had employed in the “improvement” of his original birth certificate; what John Toland had called the “cunning peasant trick“. The son was to employ similar tactics in his own time.

The addressee, the Bishop of Linz, hesitated, and decided, following proper bureaucratic procedure, to call upon a higher authority. A short summary of the case, including the original letter, family tree and a “testimonium paupertatis“, an instrument of declaring poverty which waived the payment of the usual fees, was forwarded to the Sacra Rota, the department of the Holy See that deals with matrimonial issues. The Vatican apparently cared as much or little about a wee bit of incest in Braunau as the peasants of the Waldviertel cared about legitimacy, and the release was granted three weeks later.

Braunau, Church

Alois Hitler and Klara Pölzl were married on January 7, 1885. The ceremony took place in the morning, in a hurry, it seems: Klara complained that before noon, “my husband was already on duty again.” (12) Later in the evening, a small banquet in the company of Alois’ Customs colleagues followed at the Gasthaus Pommer.

The Gasthaus Pommer in 1934 (with Nazi Flag), in which the couple also took residence

The marriage hardly changed anything in their lives. The pair had known each other for years, and Klara was accustomed to her duties in the household. She was a simple but quiet, modest and polite woman that never put up demands on her husband, the children, or the community. She was deeply religious and attended services regularly. The family lived without any trace of scandal, even Alois’ private investigations into the lives of the local waitresses and chambermaids seemed to abate. Money was not plenty but sufficient to afford the family a proper living standard, and they played their parts in the community without fail.

If we gaze at Klara’s photograph, taken when she was about twenty-six, we look into the face of a simple but pleasant country girl. The most impressive feature of her face are indeed her luminous, expressive eyes. Robert Payne observed:

In the photograph she looks vulnerable, but not too vulnerable. She was a spirited woman, who could, if necessary, stand up to her husband. She was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but her face suggests an uncommon gentleness and tenderness, an essential goodness. She was one of these women who live for their husbands, their children, and their faith. (13)

She was to bear six children to Alois, four sons and two daughters, of which one each survived childhood. The elder children Alois Jr. and Angela were joined by Adolf in April 1889 and Paula in January 1896. Four children died young: Gustav at the age of two; Ida at the same age; Otto died in the cradle, and Edmund in his sixth year. [FN3]

[FN3] It seems that the fate of the Hitler family was no exception. A boyhood friend of Adolf, August Kubizek, described the early trials of his freshly-married parents as follows: “At first the young couple lived in the house of my mother’s parents. My father’s wages were low, the work was hard, and my mother had to give up her job when she was expecting me. Thus, I was born in rather miserable circumstances. One year later my sister Maria was born, but died at a tender age. The following year, Therese appeared; she died at the age of four. My third sister, Karoline, fell desperately ill, lingered on for some years, and died when she was eight. My mother’s grief was boundless. Throughout her life she suffered from the fear of losing me, too; for I was the only one left to her of her four children.” (14)

At this point in time and place, such a mortality rate was considered almost normal. Children were born and died by the thousands, of measles, diphtheria, pneumonia and other common childhood diseases; deadly in a time which knew not yet sulphonamides or penicillin. The family was in the care of Dr. Eduard Bloch, a general practitioner, but the science of microbiology was not yet invented and the invisible agents of death prospered unhindered.

In general, however, it was a respectable and orderly family which welcomed, at six o’clock in the evening of April 20, 1889, its newest member, Adolfus.

Birth Certificate
Baby Adolf
Announcement of Birth in the local newspaper …

(1) Zweig, Stefan Die Welt von Gestern, Gutenberg, Kap.3

(2) Shirer, William, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon & Schuster 1960, ISBN 978-1-4516-4259-9 (hc.), S. 7

(3) (6) (10) (11) (13) Payne, Robert, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Praeger Publishers 1973, Lib. Con. 72- 92891 (hc.), S. 5, S. 6-7, S. 10, S. 12, S. 14

(4) Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf, 851.–855. Auflage 1943, Alle Rechte vorbehalten Copyright Band I 1925, Band II 1927 by Verlag Franz Eher Nachf., G.m.b.H., München, S. 2-3, Online Link

(5) (7) (12) Toland, John, Adolf Hitler, Anchor Books 1992, ISBN 0-385-42053-6 (pbk.), S. 4, S. 4, S. 6

(8) (9) Steinert, Marlis, Hitler, C.H. Beck, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-406-37640-1 (hc.), S. 17, S. 18

(14) Kubizek, August, The Young Hitler I Knew, Arcade Books 2011, ISBN 978-1-61145-058-3 (pbk.), S. 23

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Vanity of Black Jack Pershing


Preceding article: Wilson and the Fourteen Points


YouTube Documentary Video

Video – Dramatization [by Innis Lake Entertainment]


American troops attacking on the order of John J. Pershing

The German army was still slowing down Allied progress in late October, but, clearly, their stand was the next-to-last act of the drama: something had to give. In the event, it was the Kaiser‘s favourite toy, the High Seas Fleet, the navy.

With the German empire in its death throes, two groups in the German navy, first the admirals, then the seamen, took matters into their own hands. The submarine weapon had been sheathed but the High Seas Fleet remained a powerful force. Enraged by the U-boat decision, Scheer and the Naval Staff decided to use the surface ships in one last offensive thrust, a bold variation on earlier unsuccessful attempts to lure the Grand Fleet over a U-boat ambush. The difference this time was that the Germans intended to fight a battle whether or not the U-boats had managed to reduce the Grand Fleet’s numerical superiority.

Further, the German admirals did not care whether the High Seas Fleet won or lost; they cared only that it inflict heavy damage on the Grand Fleet. Hipper agreed with Scheer that “an honourable battle by the fleet –
even if it should be a fight to the death – will sow the seed for a new German fleet of the future.” Besides preserving honour, a battle that inflicted severe damage on the Grand Fleet might also influence the peace negotiations in Germany’s favour. (42)

Kept secret from the German government, the scheme devised to bring everything that floated to bear against the Royal Navy: eighteen Dreadnought-type battleships, five battlecruisers, twelve light cruisers and seventy-two destroyers. The tactical plan was to tempt the Grand Fleet to pursue the High Seas Fleet over a barricade of mines and U-boats, which would reduce the British numerical superiority enough to allow the Germans to win the day or die in glory. To entice the British admiralty’s attention, Hipper, promoted to Fleet Admiral, envisaged raids on British ports and bombardments of coastal cities. A special group of cruisers and destroyers was to rattle the British cage by sailing into the Thames estuary and attacking the local shipping. When the Grand Fleet descended to end the nuisance, the Germans would be ready. Scheer, now naval C-in-C, and Hipper both hoped that “a tactical success might reverse the military position and avert surrender.” (43)

Battle Plan for October 31

This was either remarkable optimism or complete delusion. Scheer approved Hipper’s plan on October 27, and twenty-two U-boats headed out to set a trap. The rest of the fleet was called on to assemble in Jade Bay, where their unexpected presence caused ado galore. Instances of desertion had already occurred at Cuxhaven, and continued among the crews of the battleships that arrived in the bay during October 29. The concentration of all the big ships in one port could not mean anything but an operation being laid on, and the scuttlebutt soon confirmed that the next morning would bring the order to weigh anchor. No sailor had doubts as to for what purpose. The crews of the battleships “König“, “Kronprinz Wilhelm“, “Markgraf“, “Kaiserin“, “Thüringen” and “Helgoland” hoisted red flags and thus declared their insurrection; “on all these ships, seamen had no interest in ‘an honourable death for the glory of the fleet’; they wanted surrender, discharge and permission to go home.” (44)

The SMS Thüringen was one of the ships to lead the revolution …

Around 10 pm on October 29, Hipper found most of his fleet inoperative, and when, on the next morning, the mutiny spread to the battleships “Friedrich der Grosse” and “König Albert“, the sortie had to be aborted. To quench further insubordination, Hipper ordered the three battleship squadrons to separate and return to their home ports of Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Kiel. “Thüringen” and “Helgoland”, however, did not move an inch, and Hipper called on a battalion of loyal marine infantry to have their crews arrested, shackled and imprisoned. (45)

Soldier’s Council of the “Prinzregent Luitpold”.

Hipper’s attempts at enforcing discipline only stoked the fire, and by dividing the battleship squadrons to three harbours he only succeeded in spreading disobedience further. When the 3rd Squadron arrived at Kiel on November 1, carrying chained seamen by the hundreds, it was greeted by four thousand rebellious mariners and dock hands that had helped themselves to arms by breaking into the well-stocked arsenals and demanded the captives’ release. The next day saw the establishment of provisional sailors’ and workers’ councils, a call for a general strike by the unions, and the taking over of port and town by November 4. A posse of mutineers set out to arrest the commanding admiral, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, Wilhelm’s brother, who…

Sailors demonstrate in Kiel

was forced to flee for his life, hiding behind a set of false whiskers and the red flag flying on his car. Even so, the car was shot at several times, the driver was seriously wounded, and the Prince was forced to take the wheel himself in a mad dash for the Danish frontier at Flensburg. (46)

Soon the mutiny fostered open calls for revolution, and as coastal vessels spread the message to the smaller port towns, the railways spread the germs of revolt over the country. Committees of revolting sailors and soldiers brought their demands to the burghers of any town they entered: an immediate armistice, the abdication of the Kaiser and the formation of a new, democratic and republican government. Still, the news was sketchy in many places, and in an attempt to find out exactly had happened in Kiel, Chancellor Prince von Baden sent an embassy of two Reichstag deputies to the town: his friend Conrad Haußmann and the former butcher and journalist Gustav Noske, a representative of the Social Democrats. When the emissaries arrived at the town’s railway station, they were greeted by a crowd whose apparent revolutionary resilience convinced Noske to hold an improvised speech in which he essentially promised the listeners that their demands were soon to be met. The same evening he was able to inform Berlin about the details of the revolt, adding that the crowd had elected him to the post of revolutionary governor of Schleswig-Holstein. (47)

The Revolution spread like a wildfire …

In the meantime, suffering on the Western Front was much increased by the return of the so-called Spanish Influenza, which, despite the name, seems to have originated at Fort Riley, Kansas. (48) [FN 1] There had been an early outbreak of influenza in the summer, subtracting about 400,000 soldiers from the already weakened German lines and perhaps a comparable number from the Allied trenches, but the second outbreak proved both more contagious and lethal. Arriving American troop ships brought the epidemic to the great debarkation ports; the soldiers infected the French, who in turn infected the British, and both their POW’s, in turn, infected the Germans.

Fort Riley soldiers at Camp Funston

[FN 1] The Influenza Epidemic of 1918/19 undoubtedly deserves its own blog entry. Please refer to the Wikipedia article in this context.

Oddly, the disease struck hardest at the fittest, particularly young men in their prime. Troopships laden with men packed closely together became floating pest holes. An American convoy arriving at Brest on October 8 in the midst of the Meuse-Argonne campaign had 4,000 men disabled by the flu, with 200 already buried at sea. Two hundred of the sick carried off the “Leviathan” died within days. …

The epidemic posed a dilemma for President Wilson. Since military camps had become hothouses for spreading the infection, orders for 142,000 men scheduled to report for induction late in September were cancelled. Should he, Wilson wondered, also cancel the embarkation of troopships?

On October 8, he met with the army’s gruff chief of staff, General Peyton March, to ask his guidance. Both men accepted that to cram soldiers into the ships was to pass a death sentence on thousands of them. But Pershing was pleading desperately for replacements, especially since he had 150,000 men down with the flu. Just two days before Wilson and March met, Prince Max had made his appeal to the president to bring about peace. Wilson and March recognized that the surest guarantee of defeating the Germans was to continue the deliveries of Americans to France, now swelling to an average of 50,000 weekly. How might the Germans react if they learned that the pressure was off because the American manpower pipeline had shut down? March told Wilson, “Every such soldier who has died [from influenza] has just as surely played his part as his comrade who has died in France. The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause.” The troopships continued to sail. (49)

On October 27, Prince Max signalled President Wilson that all his demands were to be met. Technically, it was of course not his decision but his cousin’s Wilhelm, but Max had, cautiously, preferred not to inform the Kaiser of the clause in Wilson’s demarche of October 23, which seemed to demand the abolishment of the monarchy. He would cross this particular bridge when he met it. When Turkey asked for an armistice on October 30 and Austria on November 4, Germany was alone in the war. The front still held, miraculously, but in the air hung the smell of revolution. On October 29, Wilhelm left Berlin for the Supreme Command Headquarter at Spa, in the questionable belief that his presence close to the front would improve the soldiers’ panache. But it was the absence, not the presence, of the Imperial person that set things in motion, which set free a sort of rebellious entelechy in the capital, causing the final, decisive, and irreparable dissipation of the Ancien Régime.

“Reds are streaming with every train from Hamburg to Berlin,” Count Harry Kessler, socialite, diplomat and Social Democrat supporter, recorded in his diary on 6 November. “An uprising is expected here tonight. This morning the Russian Embassy was raided like a disreputable pot-house and Joffe [the ambassador] with his staff, departed. That puts paid to the Bolshevik centre in Berlin. But perhaps we shall yet call these people back.” (50)

By the first November week, the mutiny of the sailors had been followed by the insubordination of many garrisons, whose unwillingness to support the failing Prussian state eased the appearance of public uprisings. Local anarchists, Spartacists and Independent Social Democrats proposed various forms of revolution, and councils took over the administration of most big towns. In the first week of November, Red flags were carried through the streets of Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Duisburg, Frankfurt and München. But it was a curiously silent rebellion, the reports agree, that pervaded the streets; violence, nay, even overspirited discussion was strangely absent. That was to change soon enough. The Spartakusbund, German’s Bolsheviks in disguise, had quietly concentrated followers in the capital during the first week of November while their leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, prepared the German Revolution.

Karl Liebknecht (1871 – 1919), a co-founder of the Spartacist League, foments revolution in Berlin

Liebknecht’s Father Wilhelm had been a personal friend of Karl Marx and achieved socialist sainthood by becoming a co-founder of the SPD and editor of its newspaper, “Vorwärts” [‘Ahead’]. His son studied law and economy in Leipzig and Berlin before becoming, essentially, a lawyer for the socialist movement. He was elected to the Reichstag for the SPD in 1912 and was the sole member of the socialist camp to vote against war credits in August 1914. When it became clear that the rest of the party would at least temporarily support the government, and hence the war, Liebknecht began to seek sympathizers outside of the party.

For this objective he founded the “Spartakusbund“, the League of Spartacists, named, of course, for the Thracian slave Spartacus who had led the uprising against Rome in 72-70 BC. The “Spartakusbriefe” (‘Spartacus Letters’), the league’s anti-war newspapers, were banned soon enough, and its founder and editor found himself at the Russian front, where he refused to fight and was consequently assigned to a burial detail. Released from service for reasons of health, he went straight back to anti-war propaganda and headed the Socialist Peace Demonstration on May Day 1916 through the streets of Berlin. This time he was charged with high treason and sent to prison for four years, but the sentence was commuted under Prince von Baden’s amnesty for political prisoners of October 1918. As soon as he was back on the streets, he “resumed his leadership of the Spartacists, in partnership with the Polish activist, Rosa Luxemburg.” (51)

Rosa Luxemburg

Frau Luxemburg was an early apprentice in the business of insurrection; she had been active in the illegal socialist and anti-Czarist movements of pre-war Russia since she was a schoolgirl. (52) Timely escaping the attentions of the Okhrana, she wound up in Switzerland where an affluent lover allowed her to study at the University of Zürich and to subsidize the illegal socialist parties of Poland and Lithuania. She was perhaps the most extreme socialist outside of Russia in these years, advocating global and remorseless revolution. She became a German by marriage in 1903, joined the SPD, and began to throw her weight behind the radical wing. Eventually, she became known as the factotum of the world revolution and was regularly thrown in jail, rescued by her old Swiss flame, and jailed again. She joined Liebknecht immediately after her release by von Baden’s amnesty and began to organize the revolutionary bureaucracy of the Spartacists.

This poisonous pair, like Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, saw the moderate Socialists of the SPD as their principal enemies. “The party must be recaptured from below,” Luxemburg wrote, “by mass rebellion.” Their allies were the anti-war left-wingers who had split from the main SPD in 1917 and formed their own Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and who were only slightly less extreme than the Spartacists. The moderate Socialists responded by sneering at them in “Vorwärts”, contrasting the “pathological instability” of Spartacus with their own “clear-headed and sensible calm.” But while the moderate Socialists were maintaining their sensible calm, the Spartacists were meeting returning troop trains at the rail termini to beg for or buy rifles, pistols and machine guns. (53)

Meanwhile, Prince Max faced the problem of how to end the war and the monarchy without involuntary nurturing the revolution. He concentrated his final efforts on three decisive issues: the replacement of Ludendorff, the deputation of the executive power to a government able to guide the country peacefully through the many changes that were to follow and, a prerequisite for the latter, the abdication of his cousin Wilhelm. On November 9 he appointed General Wilhelm Groener, son of a NCO from Württemberg and a transportation and supply specialist, to Ludendorff’s former post of Chief of Staff and – quite unlawfully – transferred his own office and authority as chancellor of the Reich to the forty-seven-year-old former saddle maker and chairman of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert. The remaining task was the most difficult. No civil, much less a government led by socialists, could exercise authority with the discredited emperor still in office.

At this point, Wilhelm was at Spa, the imperial head full of foolish fantasies of how, as soon as an armistice was signed, he would lead his loyal armies back to Germany and restore order. What Prince Max back in Berlin recognized was that, far from being a solution, Wilhelm’s return was the problem. In Metz, the Allies’ next target, 10,000 German soldiers had reportedly mutinied, formed a Soldier’s Council, and taken over the city. Similar overthrows of the old order were erupting all over Germany. … Peace seekers inside Germany accepted that the only act that would prevent the masses from swinging over to the radicals was the removal of the country’s discredited monarch. (54)

In the last ten days since his arrival at Spa, Wilhelm had successfully managed to avoid the intrusions of reality and maintained that abdication was out of the question. Not quite used to being contradicted, the Kaiser refused to listen to the explanations of Prince Max’s messenger Drews, Prussian Minister of the Interior. He had “no intention of quitting the throne because of a few hundred Jews and a thousand workmen. Tell that to your masters in Berlin.” (55)

Baden recognized that he had to talk to his cousin in person. On the evening of November 8, he called Wilhelm on the telephone and tried to cut through the Kaiser’s obstinacy by making clear that, in lieu of Wilhelm’s abdication, civil war was to ravage the country. The emperor did not believe a word. It was inconceivable, he riposted, that the army would refuse to follow him. In addition, since it was Prince Max who had asked Wilson for an armistice, not Wilhelm himself, he felt quite unconcerned. “You sent out the armistice offer,” he said, “you will also have to accept the conditions.” (56) On the next morning, November 9, the leadership of the army, Hindenburg and Groener, called at the Hotel Britannique in Spa to pay their sovereign a final, necessary visit.

In Spa, on 9 November, the Emperor met the leaders of his army, the institution through which the Hohenzollern dynasty had risen to power, and to which it had always looked to sustain its dignity and authority. Wilhelm II still believed that, whatever disloyalties were being transacted by civilian politicians in Berlin, whatever affronts to order disturbed the streets, his subjects in field-grey remained true to their oath of military obedience. Even on 9 November, he continued to delude himself that the army could be used against the people and the royal house preserved by turning German against German.

His generals knew otherwise. Hindenburg, the wooden titan, heard him out in silence. Groener, the workaday railway transport officer, son of a sergeant, who had replaced Ludendorff, found the sense to speak. He knew, from soundings taken among fifty regimental commanders, that the soldiers now wanted “only one thing – an armistice at the earliest possible moment.” The price of that, to the House of Hohenzollern, was the Kaiser’s abdication. The Kaiser heard him with continuing incredulity. What about, he asked, the Oath of Allegiance, on the regimental colours, which bound every German soldier to die rather than disobey? Groener uttered the unutterable. “Today,” he said, “the Oath of Allegiance is only a few meaningless words.” (57)

In the chancellery in Berlin, unable to follow events in distant Spa, von Baden consulted Ebert on the situation on the streets. Ebert warned that unless the abdication could be effected with speed, a coup d ‘état by Spartacists and USPD became more likely every hour. Since Prince Max was aware that the monarchy was finished willy-nilly, he dictated, in antecedence of actuality, to an employee of the Wolff Telegraph Office in Berlin a message stating that “The Kaiser and King has resolved to renounce the throne.” (58)

Fireworks of the High Seas Fleet on account of the Kaiser’s Abdication
“The Kaiser has renounced the Throne” -afternoon extra by the SPD paper “Vorwärts” on November 9, 1918

When the sensational cable was brought to the attention of the party in Spa within minutes, Wilhelm exploded in a diatribe against all traitors, civilian or military, but was forced to realize that the game was up. At 3:30 pm, on Saturday, November 9, 1918, he relinquished the throne, and the Second Empire had come to its end, forty-seven years and ten months after its inception in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. On Hindenburg’s advice, Wilhelm left for exile in the early morning hours of November 10, to Castle Amerongen in the Netherlands, the seat of Count Godard Bentinck, who would be his host for the next twenty-three years. (59)

Wilhelm II crossing the Dutch frontier

Meanwhile, events in the capital precipitated head over heels. Philip Scheidemann, vice chairman of the SPD, had rushed from the chancellery to the Reichstag to inform his colleagues of Ebert’s appointment. Having a well-deserved lunch in the cafeteria, he was informed that Spartakus and USPD had summoned their followers to the Emperor’s town palace, ostensibly for the proclamation of the revolution and the launch of the German Socialist Soviet Republic. Speed was of the essence.

Scheidemann proclaiming the German Republic

Scheidemann stormed to the terrace outside the Reichstag library where he was cheered by a crowd vacillating between hope and apprehension. Improvising, Scheidemann informed the people about the Ebert appointment and the creation of a new, republican and democratic government, and ended his brief address with the words: “The rotten old monarchy has collapsed. Long live the new! Long live the German Republic!” (60) Meanwhile, Spartacist delegations had appeared in factories, barracks and caserns and mobilized a crowd of thousands of supporters, who were marched to meet at the Royal Palace. Liebknecht greeted the revolutionary assembly from the balcony of the building, whence formerly the Kaiser had addressed his subjects:

Comrades!” he cried. “The red flag flies over Berlin! The proletariat is marching. The reign of capitalism which has turned Europe into a graveyard is over. We must summon our strength to build a new government of workers and peasants, to create a new order of peace and happiness and freedom not merely for our brothers in Germany but for the whole world. Whoever is resolved not to cease from the fight until the Free Socialist Republic and the world revolution shall be realized, let him raise his hand and swear!” The crowd roared back “We swear!” But Liebknecht was two hours too late. (61)

Ebert had acted quickly and already persuaded the USPD, Liebknecht’s sole possible supporters, to enter into a coalition with the SPD by offering the smaller party an equal share, three of six posts, in the provisional government. The new executive power was named Council of People’s Commissars and was expected to share the administration with the workers’ and soldiers’ councils of the capital until a national assembly could enact a constitution and subsequently install a legitimate government. Ebert’s cautious manoeuvring also persuaded the liberal and Catholic interests in the capital and much of the country to support the formerly dreaded SPD as a mainstay of the new republic, and thus the government had at least the legitimacy of the popular backing.

That was, if the revolution could be kept at bay. This indeed seemed to be the case: except for a few skirmishes on Saturday evening and Sunday, November 10, Berlin remained quiet, and, the issue of a German republic now advanced from the realm of possibility to actuality, the eyes of the nation returned to the Western Front. The war was still going on, and the Allied Supreme Command had already scheduled the next offensive, against Metz, for November 14, and further attacks were planned far into 1915.

Pershing, now commanding close to two million doughboys, seemed to long for an augmentation of his military prestige by the conquest of Sedan, which was by far the most attractive target on the south-eastern part of the front. It was the town where the Prussian army had beaten the French in 1870 and taken Napoleon III and 100,000 poilus prisoners-of-war.

Mathias Erzberger

Meanwhile, Prince Max had dispatched a delegation for the negotiation of the armistice to the French trenches near Haudroy on November 7. The party was headed by Matthias Erzberger, chairman of the German Catholic Centre Party, which supported von Baden’s informal government. He was a known pacifist and the sole well-known face in the German deputation which, except for him, consisted of mid-level functionaries of the Foreign Service, Army and Navy. (62) The embassy was taken, by train, to a railway coach in the Forest of Compiègne, sixty-five kilometres north-east of Paris, and the expected gruff treatment delivered by Foch and General Weygand. The armistice conditions were laid out as follows:

All occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, plus Alsace-Lorraine, held since 1870 by Germany, must be evacuated within fourteen days; the Allies were to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and bridgeheads on the river’s east bank thirty kilometres deep; German forces must be withdrawn from Austria-Hungary, Romania and Turkey; Germany was to surrender to neutral or Allied ports 10 battleships, 6 battlecruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. She was to be stripped of heavy armament, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 aeroplanes.

The next demand threw the German delegates into despair. Though their people already faced famine, the Allies intended to paralyse the country’s transportation by continuing the naval blockade and confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks. Weygand droned on through thirty-four conditions, the last of which blamed Germany for the war and demanded she pay reparations for all damage caused. (63)

The French delegation at Compiégne

The German delegation was given a seventy-two hours deadline and an opportunity to convey the Allied demands by radio to Berlin. Erzberger realized that the conditions imposed were far too acrimonious to be entrusted to the radio, which might be monitored, and only informed Prince Max that a courier was on the way. Then he asked for a preliminary suspension of combat until a reply was received, pointing out that four thousand lives or more a day could thus be saved. Foch refused, as a favour to Pershing, who, furious that his grand design of conquering Germany was being foiled, insisted on fighting to the last minute; to the greater glory of the American Expeditionary Forces and his own command.

The Erzberger mission overnighted in the Forest of Compiègne near Foch’s railway coach, drafting letters of protest they hoped might have a moderating influence on the Allied conditions. At 8 pm on November 10, they received a French report of an intercepted message from Berlin which confirmed Erzberger’s plenipotentiary powers and authorized him to sign the instrument of truce.

Early French Plan for the partitioning of the Continent

A second message was received, from Hindenburg, verifying the authenticity of the first signal and instructing Erzberger to try to have the naval blockade lifted, for the sake of the starving women and children. At 2 am the next morning, November 11, the German deputation was led back to the railway car for a second round of discussions.

Foch, however, remained intransigent, and the sole moderation of terms Erzberger achieved was that the Allies “would contemplate the provisioning of Germany during the Armistice as shall be found necessary.” (64) The cease-fire was signed just after 5 am, to take effect by 11:00 of the same day, six hours hence, and the meeting was adjourned. All that remained for the soldiers on both sides of the wire was to spend six more hours in their trenches and the slaughter would be over.

Matthias Erzberger at the armistice at Compiegne

That is, for everyone except the AEF, which was directed by Pershing to continue the attacks scheduled for the day without regard of the armistice taking effect at 11:00. Since Foch had informed all Allied commanders, including Pershing, in advance of the conditions of the truce, it was clear that whatever ground could be gained in a last-minute offensive would be ground the Germans were obliged to give up within two weeks anyway.

Pershing did inform his regimental and division commanders that a ceasefire was to take effect on 11:00, but directed his chief of staff that, between 5:00 and 11:00, the AEF was “to take every advantage of the situation.” (65) Nine out of sixteen U.S. division commanders on the Western Front interpreted the absence of specific orders as an incentive to launch the scheduled attacks; seven refrained from further jeopardizing their men lives and limbs.

Thus, nine U.S. divisions attacked the enemy on the morning of November 11, and since the Germans were forced to defend themselves whether they wanted or not, almost 11,000 casualties were unnecessarily added to the total of the war’s losses. With more than 2700 men dead at the end of these few hours, the last day exceeded the average daily toll of 2,000 dead by far.

Putting these losses into perspective, in the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy, nearly twenty-six years later, the total losses were reported at 10,000 for all sides. Thus, the total Armistice Day casualties were nearly 10 per cent higher than those on D-Day. There was, however, a vast difference. The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided. (66)

At 11:00 on November 11, 1918, the guns ceased fire along the Western Front. But it was only in the aftermath of the great conflict that the members of the old Imperial houses realized for how long, in truth, their relevance had diminished without their notice. For it turned out that the power of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov dynasties had not ended in February 1917 or November 1918, but in the summer of 1914 or even earlier – in their driving the old continent into war and pestilence they had, alas, overlooked the shadows of nationalism and socialism lingering in the rear mirror, forces eager to embrace the Imperial inheritance.


[42] [43] [44] [45] Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003, ISBN 0-345-40878-0, pp. 773, 775, 775, 776

[57] Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, p. 418-419

[48] [49] [54] [55] [56] [58] [59] [62] [63] [64] [65] [66] Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, pp. 303, 304-5, 315-16, 316, 317, 318, 318, 306, 307-8, 323, 325, 378-9

[46] [47] [50] [51] 52] [53] [60] [61] Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, pp. 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 30, 32, 32

Next Article: Revolution in Bavaria and Germany

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Second German Empire

Header: A mural painted in 1884 by Carl Steffeck depicting General Reille delivering Napoleon III‘s letter of surrender to King Wilhelm I at the Battle of Sedan on September 2, 1870


With Austria relegated to the sidelines of German politics after the loss of 1866, Prussia took over the leadership of the German states, which still numbered in excess of a dozen. On the map, the changes were slight; the geography of the “German Confederation” was little altered by the disappearance of Austria’s unfortunate allies. More important changes occurred in the economic cooperation of the German states, especially in the critical sector of customs and tariffs. Despite industrialization and the rising importance of direct taxes, they remained a major part of every state’s income.

 Linguistic Map of Germany around 1870, with the names of the German border rivers as mentioned in August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben's "Song of the Germans", which became the national anthem in 1922
Linguistic Map of Germany around 1870, with the names of the German border rivers as mentioned in August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s “Song of the Germans”, which became the national anthem in 1922

The Deutscher Zollverein, the German Customs Union, had been steadily expanding in the nineteenth century from its profane origins as the Common Prussian Customs Tariff of 1828: soon it included the southern German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden, and in 1867 – Austria having been knocked out of the picture – most of the remaining German states joined up; the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Mecklenburg and the Kingdom of Hanover. By 1869, the Zollverein’s and the German Confederation’s geographical borders were virtually identical. Following a slight update of the political structure, the German Confederation was renamed the “North German Confederation“, the only significant difference being the introduction of the universal male suffrage at twenty-one years of age.

Funnily enough, the first election results under the new terms caught Bismarck in a rare miscalculation: he had assumed that the victory over Austria would benefit his conservative parliamentary allies most, yet, in the event, the majority of the seats went to his enemies, the Liberals, and a few even to his nemeses, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Zentrum (Centre), party. Due to this unexpected failure of the German voters, Bismarck’s further plans hit a few parliamentary snags, but the Iron Chancellor proved himself fit to overcome mere human challenges.

His reasoning in regard to a possible German unification was that the passions of war might overcome the political impediments again – as they had done in 1866. If the southern states, in particular the outspokenly independent Kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg, were reluctant to follow his lead, the fervour of war might tip the scales. A suitable opponent and bogeyman was readily identified in the person of Napoleon III, Emperor of France.

It was true that, since 1815, open hostilities had not occurred between France and Prussia, but Bismarck, an experienced French hand on account of his tour of duty as Prussian ambassador in Paris in the 1850s, had a clear idea which buttons to press to inflame France with patriotic belligerence.

Napoleon III, nephew and successor of the great Corsican, who had proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1852, was in dire need of military, or any other, glory. His Mexican war in support of Emperor Maximilian had been an unmitigated disaster [AD 1861-1867], and the military grandeur of the empire was in sore need of restoration. He had viewed with distaste the emergence of Prussia as the new German power; not so much as a matter of principle, of which he had none, but because he had cast a longing eye upon the Duchy of Luxemburg as the price for his neutrality in the Prusso-Austrian war of 1866. He was furious when Bismarck explained, after the victory, that, since Luxembourg did not belong to Prussia, it could not be ceded to France.

Bismarck interviewed Graf Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff, on the chances of a Prusso-French war. Moltke indicated that success seemed likely, and Bismarck went on to seek a suitable opportunity for war, a casus belli. He did not have to wait too long.

Otto von Bismarck, Secretary of War Albrecht von Roon and Chief of the General Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)
Otto von Bismarck, Secretary of War Albrecht von Roon and Chief of the General Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)

In 1869, the Spanish throne had been left without issue, once again, and after protracted discussion the Spanish crown council decided to offer the crown to Wilhelm’s cousin, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern. When the news of the Spanish offer and the prince’s eventual acceptance reached Paris, Emperor Napoleon as well as his loyal subjects interpreted the message from Madrid as proof of a renewed German conspiracy to encircle France. Proper vigilance demanded to exert the necessary precautions at once; to nip the planned crime in the bud.

The French ambassador to Prussia, Vincent Benedetti, was urgently dispatched to the spa town of Bad Ems, where Wilhelm was taking the waters. Benedetti’s orders comprised two objectives: in the first instant, to demand that Leopold’s acceptance be withdrawn, and, for seconds, to demand Wilhelm’s public affirmation, in his capacity as the head of the Hohenzollern family, that under no circumstances any prince of the house was to accept a Spanish offer should one be renewed.

The demands were quite unusual, to say the least, for Napoleon III certainly lacked cause as well as authority in the matter. Wilhelm responded that nothing kept the Emperor of France from discussing the topic with Prince Leopold himself, who was a grown man, and he, Wilhelm, was not his mother. As far as the second demand was concerned, Wilhelm pointed out his lack of authority to speak for future Hohenzollern generations. Benedetti cabled to Paris, reported Wilhelm’s answers, and was advised to ask for a second audience, to repeat Napoleon’s requests. Such reiterated inquiries were not exactly good diplomatic style. Wilhelm’s secretary, Heinrich Abeken, summarized the second interview as follows in a telegram to Bismarck:

His Majesty the King has written to me:

Count Benedetti intercepted me on the promenade and ended by demanding of me, in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself in perpetuity never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns renewed their candidature.

I rejected this demand somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind [for ever and ever]. Naturally, I told him that I had not yet received any news and, since he had been better informed via Paris and Madrid than I was, he must surely see that my government was not concerned in the matter.

[The King, on the advice of one of his ministers], decided, in view of the above-mentioned demands, not to receive Count Benedetti any more, but to have him informed, by an adjutant, that His Majesty had now received [from Leopold] confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already had from Paris and had nothing further to say to the ambassador.

His Majesty suggests to Your Excellency, that Benedetti’s new demand and its rejection might well be communicated both to our ambassadors and to the Press. (29)

Bismarck changed the text a bit and leaked it to the French press bureau HAVAS:

After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand
on His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their
candidature.

His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again and had the latter informed by the Adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the Ambassador. (30)

Bismarck's Draft of the Dispatch from Ems
Bismarck’s Draft of the Dispatch from Ems

Bismarck had given the message a new edge.

He cut out Wilhelm’s conciliatory phrases and emphasized the real issue. The French had made certain demands under threat of war; and Wilhelm had refused them. This was no forgery; it was a clear statement of the facts. Certainly the edit of the telegram, released on the evening of the same day (13 July) to the media and foreign embassies, gave the impression both that Benedetti was rather more demanding and that the King was exceedingly abrupt. It was designed to give the French the impression that King Wilhelm I had insulted Count Benedetti; likewise, the Germans interpreted the modified dispatch as the Count insulting the King. …

The French translation by the agency Havas altered the ambassador’s demand (“il a exigé” – ‘he has demanded’) to a question . It also did not translate “Adjutant”, which in German refers to a high-ranked Aide-de-camp, but in French describes only a non-commissioned officer (adjutant), so implying that the King had deliberately insulted the ambassador by choosing a low-ranked soldier to carry the message to him. This was the version published by most newspapers the following day, which happened to be July 14 (Bastille Day), setting the tone and letting the French believe that the King had insulted their ambassador, before the ambassador could tell his story. …

France’s mistaken attitude of her own position carried matters far beyond what was necessary and France mobilized. Following further improper translations and misinterpretations of the dispatch in the press, excited crowds in Paris demanded war, just as Bismarck had anticipated. The Ems Dispatch had also rallied German national feeling. It was no longer Prussia alone; South German particularism was now cast aside.

Benedetti, the messenger for the Duke de Gramont’s demands for pointless guarantees (the Hohenzollern family had withdrawn Prince Leopold’s candidature on 11 July 1870 with Wilhelm’s “entire and
unreserved approval”), became an unseen bit-player; his own dispatches to Paris no longer mattered. In the legislative chamber, by an overwhelming majority, the votes for war credits were passed. France declared war on 19 July 1870. (31)

Which was exactly what Bismarck had expected. In a series of clandestine treaties with the southern and central German states since 1866, he had laid the foundation for the eventuality which now had occurred – war with France. In the case that France declared war on Prussia, as it had transpired, the German states had pledged their support to Prussia. Two more agreements Bismarck had negotiated sub rosa, with Russia and Austria, secured their neutrality in the events that now were unfolding. Napoleon could not find a single ally, and the German countries he had hoped to win to his cause now appeared on the side of Prussia, to defeat the third Bonaparte as they had defeated the first.

Battle of Sedan, September 1 and 2, 1870
Battle of Sedan, September 1 and 2, 1870

For the first time since the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in the seventeenth century, a concerted German army took to the field. The campaign of 1870 subsequently became the apotheosis of modern military staff planning, because it largely went as scheduled. For the first time in a substantial European war, the railway lines became the principal means of troop transportation and the coordination of train movements the decisive factor for the appropriate deployment and subsequent supply of the forces. The opening skirmishes along the borders were mostly won, as Moltke had expected, and followed up by a large-scale thrust into the Lorraine. The main axis of the approach aimed at the Meuse River, the crossing of which the French had to deny the enemy at all cost, because it was the last natural defence line on the way to Paris.
Napoleon III had come to Sedan in person, where the French troops were chiefly deployed. Moltke’s plan was to encircle the French army, by the simultaneous forward movement of two pincers north and south of their defensive position, and to use the river to block their retreat. The operation succeeded, and on September 2, 1870, Napoleon III and the French army were forced to surrender. In numerical terms, the Battle of Sedan became the largest victory of modern times achieved in a single encounter: over 100,000 French soldiers had to march into captivity. The emperor’s capitulation vaticinated the eventual success, even if mopping-up operations and a protracted siege of Paris kept the German soldiers busy for a few more months.

Bismarck and Napoleon after the Battle of Sedan
Bismarck and Napoleon after the Battle of Sedan
The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

On January 18, 1871, in the great Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, the assembled German princes declared the establishment of a new “German Empire”, and unanimously elected Wilhelm I, King in Prussia, to the dignity of “German Emperor” [not ‘Emperor of Germany’]. Since the new entity was technically only an “eternal” federation – as the treaty said – of sovereign princes, who remained independent to various degrees, the Second Empire was not and never became a centralized state like France or Russia.

Anton von Werner's famous painting - Proclamation of the Emperor, January 18, 1871
Anton von Werner‘s famous painting – Proclamation of the Emperor, January 18, 1871
Parade through Paris, Match 1, 1871
Parade through Paris, Match 1, 1871
Victory Celebration in Berlin
Victory Celebration in Berlin

Yet soon flaws appeared in Bismarck’s grand design, which was appropriately called a “revolution from above”. Unification was not a result of the will of the German people but a covenant of thirty-six German princes, who agreed on elevating one of their number to emperor but little else. The German bourgeoisie had been unable to achieve the same political emancipation the citizens of the United States, England or France had secured: not for a lack of trying, but for the bloody repulsion of the reform movement of 1848. The German peoples’ efforts had collapsed in the horror of soldiers that fired upon their own families, and suffocated in the subsequent terror of the political police. These dreadful experiences must not be underestimated: together with the horrors of the Thirty-Years-War still alive in the folkish subconsciousness, they explain much of the political apathy that abounded in Germany before 1871. For the bourgeoisie, Bismarck’s “top-down” revolution only amplified the feeling of being excluded from political decisions. Peter Watson explains:

In a real sense, and as Gordon Craig has pointed out, the people of Germany played no part in the creation of the Reich. “The new state was a ‘gift’ to the nation on which the recipient had not been consulted.” Its constitution had not been earned; it was a contract among the princes of the existing German states, who retained their crowns until 1918.

To our modern way of thinking, this had some extraordinary consequences. One result was that the Reich had a parliament without power, political parties without access to governmental responsibility, and elections whose outcome did not determine the composition of the government. This was quite unlike – and much more backward than – anything that existed among Germany’s competitors in the West. Matters of state remained in the hands of the landed aristocracy, although Germany had become an industrial power. As more and more people joined in Germany’s industrial, scientific, and intellectual successes, the more it was run by a small coterie of traditional figures – landed aristocrats and military leaders, at the head of which was the emperor himself. This dislocation was fundamental to “Germanness” in the run-up to the First World War.

It was one of the greatest anachronisms of history and had two effects that concern us. One, the middle class, excluded politically and yet eager to achieve some measure of equality, fell back on education and “Kultur” as key areas where success could be achieved – equality with the aristocracy, and superiority in comparison with foreigners in a competitive, nationalistic world. “High culture” was thus always more important in imperial Germany than elsewhere and this is one reason why … it flourished so well in the 1871-1933 period. But this gave culture a certain tone: freedom, equality, and personal distinctiveness tended to be located in the “inner sanctum” of the individual, whereas society was portrayed as an “arbitrary, external and frequently hostile world.”

The second effect, which overlapped with the first, was a retreat into nationalism, but a class-based nationalism that turned against the newly created industrial working class (and the stirrings of socialism), Jews, and non-German minorities. “Nationalism was seen as social progress, with utopian possibilities.”

Against the background of a developing mass society, the educated middle class looked to culture as a stable set of values that uplifted their lives, set them apart from the “rabble” (Freud’s word) and, in particular, enhanced their nationalist orientation. The “Volk,” a semi-mystical, nostalgic ideal of how ordinary Germans had once been – a contented, talented, apolitical, “pure” people – became a popular stereotype within Germany. (32)

Needless to say, such “contented, apolitical, pure’ people” had never existed outside of the imagination of overzealous history professors and racist journalists. But the “popular stereotype” worked, and resulted in a sort of anti-Socialist and anti-ultramontane nationalism, not truly directed against other nations, rather against the “enemy within” – liberals, democrats, socialists, Catholic, Jews, and so forth – against whose “internationalist” designs Prussian secular and Protestant clerical authorities never tired to warn the burghers. It was essentially a nationalism of the upper strata of society, who attempted to ensnare the support of the bourgeois middle class against the assorted enemies of Kultur. The Second Empire’s nationalism almost amounted to a negation of the effects of industrialization, of modernity, in some ways even of the enlightenment. Its character remained medieval.

The core of this “internal” nationalism was formed more or less, during  the years following the foundation of the Empire, by the nucleus of the “Folkish Movement“(‚Völkische Bewegung‘), to whom we – and the world – more or less owe the First and Second World Wars. It absorbed the “bloody romanticism” of the Napoleonic era [see the article by Elke Schäfer] and was later perceived and used as useful spectre by the elite. Not without reason did the idealized depictions of the “Germania”, below two by Philip Veit, always held swords in their hands.

When a “Deutsche Arbeiter Partei”, a ‘German Workers’ Party’ was founded in Bohemia (i.e. technically Austria) before World War I, its agenda was not to advance the cause the working class, as one naively might assume, but to protect the interest of German workers over Czech or Moravian workers. The German people, meanwhile, remained the political wards of the old elites, which were absolutely unwilling to give up the precious authority they had barely regained after the shocks of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 and the Napoleonic wars. The constitution, which the nobility tailored according to its fears and needs, could truthfully be called anachronistic in its obvious fear of democracy and liberalism.

Berlin around 1900

For the “satisfied, apolitical and pure” Germans, whose picture was frequently summoned by the officials of the empire, did not do too well, unless they were born as nobles. German industrialization went over their dead bodies – Bismarck’s social legislation was not born of his passion for the suffering of the working class, but were his minimum concessions to prevent the socialist revolution. There was unofficial slavery – the Schwabenkinder – and living, working and living conditions in the cities were horrible. 3,279,021 Germans emigrated to the USA alone between 1870 and 1919.

Children working from age five ...
Children working from age five …

The constitutional framework of the German Reich did … differ sharply in key respects from that of Britain or France, whose diversely structured but relatively flexible parliamentary democracies offered better potential to cope with the social and political demands arising from rapid economic change.

In Germany, the growth of party-political pluralism, which found its representation in the Reichstag, had not been translated into parliamentary democracy. Powerful vested interests – big landholders … the officer corps of the army, the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy, even most of the Reichstag parties – continued to block this.

The Chancellor of the Reich remained the appointee of the Kaiser, who could make or break him whatever the respective strength of the Reichstag parties. The government itself stood over the Reichstag, independent (at least in theory) of party politics. Whole tracts of policy, especially on foreign and military matters, lay outside parliamentary control.

Power was jealously guarded, in the face of mounting pressure for radical change, by the beleaguered forces of the old order. Some of these, increasingly fearful of revolution, were prepared even to contemplate war as a way of holding on to their power and fending off the threat of socialism. (33)

This willingness, however, was not restricted to Germany: most of the more reactionary monarchies of the continent, in particular Russia but also Italy, Spain or some Balkan countries, feared socialists much more than the armies of their fellow princes, with whom they could always find some arrangement. The foundation of the Socialist International [SI] (International Workingmen’s Association) in London 1864 spirited the spectre of communism worldwide. Yet whatever the real threat of socialism or any other modern development might truly signify, in certain respects, chiefly in its inner relations, the Second Reich showed a distinctly pre-modern character by design – as if nothing had changed since 1806. It could be seen most clearly in …

… the Reich’s federal structure, which was designed to take account of the special rights and sensitivities of the south German states in particular. The establishment of a Baden Legation in Berlin and a Prussian one in Karlsruhe [Baden’s capital] is an indication in itself of the remarkably “unfinished” character of the Reich’s structure – it is as if the development towards a modern, unitary constitutional structure had stopped at the half-way mark.

But the federal system of the Kaiserreich went further: in 1894 Baden Legations were also opened in Munich and Stuttgart, and a little later Russia even suggested that a Russian military attaché should be stationed in Bavaria. These legations were not merely courtesy institutions but represented an important component of the political structure of the Reich, and they were a pointer to the fact … that the Lesser German Reich, forged by war and diplomacy, in many respects continued to be governed by foreign policy methods even after its so-called unification.

Political Organization of the Empire

A related problem, frequently reported on by the Baden envoys, was the continued existence and indeed the constant growth of particularism, especially in Bavaria. The perceptive Baden envoy in Munich, Baron
Ferdinand von Bodman, reported in December 1895 from the Bavarian capital that “under the influence of the all-dominating court and of the Austrian-clerical [Catholic] party, all measures … are directed at building up Bavaria as a self-sufficient … state”. Above all in the two Bavarian army corps, according to Bodman, “the Reich and its head, the Kaiser, are being eliminated to the furthest possible extent.”

Count Anton Monts, the Prussian envoy in Munich, was convinced that “a process of detachment [by Bavaria] from the Reich was taking place,” Bodman reported. Similarly, the astute Arthur von Brauer, who had served for many years under Bismarck, observed in May 1893 that Bavarian particularism was making enormous advances. He wrote to the Grand Duke: “Under the influence of the Old-Bavarian party the monstrous idea is gaining more and more ground that south Germany should be placed under the special hegemony of Bavaria just as north Germany is under Prussia.” In 1898 the Grand Duke of Baden himself felt obliged to warn the Reich’s government against moving too close to the Catholic Centre party because the aim of this party was “to destroy the present Reich in order to create a new federal constitution with a Catholic head.“…

Whether they were based on a sober assessment of the objective circumstances or are ultimately explicable only in psychological terms, these anxiety complexes are of absolutely crucial importance in evaluating the political culture of Wilhelmine Germany. (34)

Imperial Coats of Arms

John Röhl‘s analysis above identifies one psychological factor in the new empire’s policies, but there was another, unspoken, psychological implication. What Bismarck had ultimately “superimposed over a highly fragmented society” (35) was a formula hatched to take account of the specific German situation, that is, foremost, its political particularism; thus nationalism had to be instilled and cohesion created from the outside, and top-down, instead of bottom-up, and by the people. Yet the decisive factor why Bismarck chose this strategy was that, unlike the crown of 1849, the result would be acceptable to his king. Essentially, an emperor’s new clothes were hung upon ye olde authoritarian Prussian regime.


Footnotes: [29] [30] [31] Heinrich Abeken, Otto von Bismarck – The Ems Dispatch, see Wikipedia

[32] Watson, Peter,The German Genius, Harper Collins 2010, ISBN 978-0-06-076022-9, pp. 112 – 113

[33] [34] Röhl, John C.G., The Kaiser and his Court, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-56504-9, pp. 112 – 113 and 153 – 154

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

Hits: 141

No Country for Old Men*

Alexander von Kluck and the Staff of 1st Army
Colonel General Alexander von Kluck and the Staff of 1st Army

From “The Little Drummer Boy“, Chapter 18, ‘De Bello Gallico’

The opening battles of the Great War had made it plain to see that this conflict of industrialized nations had no resemblance to the short, victorious and honourable war patriots cheered for and generals had promised. Not only had the latter, in every country, gravely underestimated the expenditures of modern war in regards to ammunition, gear and victuals, it became shockingly clear that, in the age of mechanized war, infantry attacks over open fields would produce casualties in numbers never beheld before. Poison gas was soon to add one more horrific dimension to the suffering.
One of the great contrasts that this war produced was that of ages. While the industrialized countries of Europe conscripted their young men by the age of twenty, in war below that age, the chief generals of the Great War were of, comparably, biblical ages.

On the German side in 1914, Moltke was 66 years old, Hindenburg 67 and Kluck and Bülow both 68. On the side of the Allies, Joffre and French were 62 and Gallieni 68. Their advanced age was not a matter of chance, but the expression of the pre-War belief in “experience”, the preeminent value in what Stefan Zweig called the ‘World of
Security’ before the war.

The world about and above us, which directed all its thoughts only to the fetish of security, did not like youth; or rather it constantly mistrusted it. … Austria was an old state, dominated by an aged Emperor, ruled by old
Ministers, a State without ambition, which hoped to preserve itself unharmed in the European domain solely by opposing all radical changes. …
So arose the situation, incomprehensible today, that youth was a hindrance in all careers, and age alone was an advantage. Whereas today, in our changed state of affairs, those of forty seek to look thirty, and those of
sixty wish to seem forty, and youth, energy, determination and self-confidence recommend and advance a man, in that age of security everyone who wished to get ahead was forced to attempt all conceivable methods of masquerading in order to appear older.
The newspapers recommended preparations which hastened the growth of the beard, and twenty-four- and twenty-five-year-old doctors, who had just finished their examinations, wore mighty beards and golden
spectacles even if their eyes did not need them, so that they could make an impression of “experience” upon their first patients. Men wore long black frock coats and walked at a leisurely pace, and whenever possible
acquired a slight embonpoint, in order to personify the desired sedateness; and those who were ambitious strove, at least outwardly, to belie their youth, since the young were suspected of instability.

It didn’t occur to anybody’s mind that this was the first mechanized, “World War”, for any rank, corporal and general alike.
But as long as the generals insisted on sending unprotected men to attack, over open fields, other men, who had the advantages of being protected in entrenched positions, secured by barbed wire and supported by rapid-fire arms, casualties were to mount. This was “the simple truth of 1914-18 trench warfare.” What rankled the troopers was the Olympian aloofness shown by some of the principal commanders.

Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff
Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff loved to be portrayed as great strategists

The impassive expressions that stare back at us from contemporary photographs do not speak of consciences of feelings troubled by the slaughter over which those men presided, nor do the circumstances in which they
chose to live: the distant chateau, the well-polished entourage, the glittering motor cars, the cavalry escorts, the regular routine, the heavy dinners, the uninterrupted hours of sleep. Joffre’s two-hour lunch, Hindenburg’s
ten-hour night, Haig’s therapeutic daily equitation along roads sanded lest his horse slip, the STAVKA’s diet of champagne and court gossip, seem and were a world away from the cold rations, wet boots, sodden uniforms, flooded trenches, ruined billets and plague of lice on, in and among which, in winter at least, their subordinates lived.

Sooner or later, inevitably, the soldier will seek responsibility for the conditions he is exposed to not only with the enemy but his own higher-ups. All of the three early C-in-C’s on the Western front of 1914 were eventually replaced, Moltke in September 1914 [his successor Falkenhayn at the end of 1916, ¶], Sir John French in December 1915, and Joffre, who was promoted to the honourable but hollow position of “Marechal de France”, in December 1916.

Hindenburg und Hitler
Hindenburg’s final sin …

Alas, their replacements tended to be not much younger either of age or intellectual freshness. The British press coined the expression of
describing the BEF as “Lions, led by Donkeys,” and nobody mistook the generals for the lions. War, to paraphrase Yeats, is “no country for old men”, but, over most of its duration, the Great War was.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19, Quotations etc. see The Little Drummer Boy, Chapter XVIII and Appendices)

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Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan

German Military History Research Office Edition 2007

Perhaps the most famous – and most misinterpreted military document in world history – but not, as is often claimed, the blueprint for 1914 – is the so-called “Great Memorandum” (also known as the “Schlieffen Plan”), written by German Field Marshal and Chief of Staff Alfred Graf von Schlieffen – dated 1905, the year of his retirement, but probably completed in 1906. It was simply a memorandum – a military-political statement that repeatedly addressed the issue of (in Schlieffen’s opinion) a much-needed expansion of the German army at a time when much of the budget went to the Navy. It was not a current deployment, let alone a mobilization plan. Link to the PDF – File

Author’s remark: Please keep in mind that this post is about the 1905 original Great Memorandum of Count Schlieffen – NOT about what happened in 1914, as described in the map below.

The “Schlieffen Plan”, like any other document, must be seen in the historical context in which it originated. Two arguments seem to be particularly valid here: (1) The plan arose from a certain tradition – that of the Prussian General Staff to plan and carry out rapid campaigns for limited objectives, which had worked so well in 1866 and 1870/71, and (2) no one had an alternative. Holger Herwig – with whom this author does not necessarily agree on everything – argued in 2003 in the anthology “The Origins of World War I,” Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-81735-8, p. 155:

But Schlieffen’s critics lacked a viable alternative. Their vision (or fear) of a peoples‘ war lasting anywhere between seven and thirty years was unacceptable – to Kaiser, generals, parliament and nation. The Second Reich was not the Third; total mobilization for total war was anathema to one and all.
Thus, simply to reject Schlieffen’s blueprint of a short war for limited aims – a strategy deeply rooted in Prussian military annals – was to deny the very viability of what the historian Gerhard Ritter called „Kriegshandwerk“.
Put bluntly, to concede that the vaunted Prussian Genera Staff could no longer conduct short wars of annihilation was to admit that war had ceased to be a viable option by the start of the twentieth century. There were few takers in Germany for such a radical notion.

Hence, war it had to be. After having lost the Great War, however, in various post-war works of German officers Hermann von Kuhl, Gerhard Tappen, Wilhelm Groener and Reichsarchiv (Imperial Archives) historians directed by former Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) Wolfgang Förster, a thesis or narrative was developed that held:

I. That in the years leading to 1905, the former Chief of the German General Staff, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, had conceived a development and operations plan for a two-front war against France and Russia that all but guaranteed victory, and

II. that it was the failure of 1914 Chief of Staff Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Helmuth von Moltke the Younger to follow and execute the plan properly that led to Germany’s loss of the World War.

The story had to be taken on faith, because the famous plan was not made available – not a snippet of it was published to support the allegations. Yet in principle – so much was known – the plan prescribed an attack on northern France through Belgium and an encirclement and subsequent siege of Paris, which should force a French capitulation – more or less like shown in the West Point Map below:

After most German military archives were destroyed in the subsequent Allied bombings of World War II, the plan was believed lost, that is, until in 1953, German monarchist historian Gerhard Ritter found a copy of Schlieffen’s Memorandum of 1906 (backdated to 1905) at the National Archives in Washington. Indeed it appeared that the original memorandum had not been stored in the ministry of defense at all but at his home and was found much later in the estate of his daughter. In 1958 he published the paper in English, with a foreword by B.H. Liddell-Hart, under the title “The Schlieffen Plan – Critique of a Myth” at Praeger, New York (the original German version appeared 1956 at R. Oldenbourg, Munich). [No ISBN Number or Library of Congress Card available] It is available here as a PDF File – please read carefully.

THE GREAT MEMORANDUM by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Great German General Staff 1891 – 1902. Often called the blueprint for World War I, although on closer inspection one might develop severe doubts. Why?

A few hints: The Memorandum describes war solely against France – NOT a two-front war including Russia. The plan employs 94 divisions all in all – a number which never existed (Moltke had to do with 68 divisions in 1914, of which a few had guard duties at the North Sea Coast and around invested cities like Maubeuge and Brussels) – but most crucial are logistic and spatial impossibilities. John Keegan analysed them in “The First World War”, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, and I hope I will be forgiven if I quote Keegan’s analysis at length:

The Great Memorandum - Author's Copy
The Great Memorandum – Author’s Copy

[Schlieffen’s] midnight pettifoggery had as its object an exact adjustment not of German numbers to those that the French could deploy, but to what the Belgian and French road network could carry. Such calculations were
the groundwork of staff-college training: students, transferring from prepared tables the length of a marching column – twenty-nine kilometres for a corps, for example – to a road map, could determine how
many troops could be pushed through a given sector at what speed.
Since thirty-two kilometres was the limit of a forced march, that would be the advance of a corps on a single road; but the tail of a column twenty-nine kilometres long would remain near or at the marching-off point at
the day’s end. If there were twin parallel roads, the tails would advance half the distance, if four three- quarters, and so on. Ideally, the units of a corps would advance not in a column but in line abreast, allowing all
of it to arrive at the day’s end thirty-two kilometres further on; in practice, as Schlieffen admitted in one of his amendments, parallel roads were at best to be found one to two kilometres apart.

As his great wheeling movement was to sweep forward on a front of three hundred kilometres with about thirty corps, however, each would have only ten kilometres of front on which to make its advance, in which
there might be at best seven parallel roads. That was not enough to allow the tails of the columns to catch up with the heads by the day’s end. The drawback was serious in itself; more seriously, it absolutely forbade any
attempt to crowd more troops into the radius of the wheeling movement. They would not fit, there simply was not room.

Here we come to the question how the six (non-existing) Ersatz-Corps that the attentive reader will see appearing out of thin air in Map 3 could have made their way to Paris?

It is at this point that a careful reader of the Great Memorandum recognises a plan falling apart: Map 3 in no way shows how the new corps are to advance or to invest Paris, the central strongpoint of the “great
fortress” that was Schlieffen’s France. The corps simply appear, with no indication of how they have reached Paris and its outskirts. The “capacity of the railways” is irrelevant; railways, in Schlieffen’s plan, were to carry the attackers no further than the German frontier with Belgium and France. Thereafter it was the road network that led forward, and the plodding boots of the infantry that would measure out the speed of
advance.

Schlieffen himself reckoned that to be only twelve miles [just under twenty kilometres, ¶] a day. In the crisis of August and September 1914, German, French and British units would all exceed that, sometimes day after
day – the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment averaged sixteen and a half miles during the great retreat from Mons to the Marne, 24 August – 5 September, and covered twenty-three and twenty-one miles on 27 and 28 August respectively – but Schlieffen’s mean was not far short of the mark. Von Kluck’s army on the outer wing of the great wheel achieved a little over thirteen miles a day between 18 August and 5 September, 1914, over a distance of 260 miles.

For the “eight new corps,” needed by Schlieffen as his plan’s clinching device, to arrive at the decisive place of action, they would have actually needed to march not only further and faster, which defied probabilities, but to do so along the same roads as those occupied by the corps already existing, a simple impossibility.

It is not surprising therefore, to find buried in the text of the Great Memorandum its author’s admission that “we are too weak” to bring the plan to a conclusion and, in a later admission, “on such an extended line we
shall still need greater forces than we have so far estimated.” He had run into a logistical impasse. Railways would position the troops for his great wheel; the Belgian and French roads would allow them to reach the
outskirts of Paris in the sixth week from mobilisation day; but they would not arrive in the strength necessary to win a decisive battle unless they were accompanied by eight corps – 200,000 men – for which there was no
room. His plan for a lightning victory was flawed at its heart. It was pigeonholed for use nonetheless.

In the original 1956 edition of Gerhard Ritter the maps are in the back of the book and of low quality. I have placed them in appropriate parts of the text and added coloured lines for better following the argument.

The problem of the plan, as it lies before us, is its interpretation. After Terence Zuber (former US Army officer and historian in Würzburg) argued from 1999 on in various publications that the plan is just a memorandum, and there was no indication that it ever was the true basis of manoeuvres or even a comprehensible technical discussion  – on the contrary – documents were found in the 1990s at the archives of the former GDR on the actual exercises that his successor Moltke held until 1914. Naturally, there was a great outcry of  established historians, who believed their livelihoods threatened. See Zuber, Terence, “The Real German War Plan 1904-14,” The History Press 2001, ISBN 978-0-7524-5664-5.

International conferences have swiftly been convened to stop the heresy, but Zuber’s critique, whose cornerstones are perhaps best read in the English Wikipedia article on the plan, makes perfect sense. The problem is that, if it were a real plan, one would have to assume that the German Chief of Staff was devoting himself to planning – until 1905 – for a single-front war against France, which was completely out of the question following the Franco-Russian alliance after the non-prolongation of the Reinsurance Treaty in 1890. There would be no single-front war, as Terence Holmes pointed out. Hew Strachan, perhaps the dean of World War I history, tends to accept many of Zuber’s conclusions.

The counter-criticism also argues that the memorandum incorporates the brief military weakening of Russia after the catastrophe of the Russo-Japanese War. This seems, however, rather irrelevant, as in this war, the main losses of Russia related to their fleet, which did not interest the German Navy much – the High Seas Fleet prepared against England. The main problem of the present counter-criticism is that it argues the events of 1914 – not the memorandum of 1905.

In 2007, the German Military History Research Office (MGFA) published “The Schlieffen Plan: Analyses and Documents“, edited by Michael Epkenhans, Hans Ehlert and Gerhard P. Gross. Wiki informs us that “This volume contains a copy of Schlieffen’s 1905 Memorandum misfiled in the German Military Archives at Friedberg, and German deployment plans from the year 1893/94 to 1914/15, most of which had been lost otherwise. These documents, not yet available in English translation, are said to strongly support the traditional ideas of a “Schlieffen Plan” that Zuber disputed.”

First impression [Update 05.06.2019]: The problem of the book probably lies in the organization of the conference from September 30 to October 1, 2004, that gave rise to ist existence. The reason for convening the conference in the first place had been the fundamental criticism of Terence Zuber – see above. In the implementation of the conference, this was, however, not made the order of the day, but various participants were given the opportunity to present their own theses to the “Schlieffen Plan” – but not, as mentioned above, in response to the memorandum of 1906, but to announce their own, previously unpublished opinions about the developments of the German deployment plans from 1905 to 1914 or about the events of 1914.

There is a need for differentiation: When Zuber called the Schlieffenplan a “myth” after 2000, he did not mean that the plan did not exist – the memorandum lies plainly in our sight – but he pointed to the incongruity of the memorandum (see John Keegan’s analysis of its tactical impracticability and the use of “Ghost Divisions”) with the legend developed after 1918 – that Schlieffen had presented a perfect plan that the younger Moltke did not understand, or “watered down” by changes to the plan.

Hew Strachan

This blog entry does refer to the memorandum of 1905-6, as stated above, not the events of 1914 or the preparations and possible plans under Moltke. However, such was not the topic of the conference. Annika Mombauer develops theses concerning something she calls the “Moltke Plan”, i.e. a possible history of the still unknown actual war plan of 1914. Other contributions deal with the military situations, plans and political realities in Austria-Hungary (Günter Kronenbitter), France (Stefan Schmidt ), Russia (Jan Kusber), Great Britain (Hew Strachan), Belgium (Luc De Vos) and Switzerland (Hans Rudolf Fuhrer and Michael Olsansky). Regardless of the qualities of these contributions, the question of their relevance for the plan at hand arises.

Zuber’s core thesis was, and is, that the “Schlieffen Plan” (in the form of the Great Memorandum of 1905/6) was not an actually feasible plan and that there are no indications that it actually formed the basis for 1914 planning.

There is much work left for subsequent updates, but another striking example of the tactical impracticability of the plan (which John Keegan probably omitted for lack of space) would be the encirclement of Paris, as planned by 1st Army (v. Kluck, and the six non-existent Ersatzkorps). If we imagine a ring  encircling Paris in a line Compiègne – Pontoise – Plaisir – Orsay – Évry – Brie-Comte-Robert – see picture below – we are faced with an additional front length of over 400 kilometres (in a two-sided enclosure front as in Alesia) without any flank protection or backing – which would all but invite the Allies to a catastrophic encirclement of the western part.

Siege-ring around Paris …
… and possible Allied counter-attack …

The continuation of this article and analysis of a few newly available documents you will find on:

The Real German War Plan 1914


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Real German War Plan 1914

German Military History Research Office Edition 2007

This post is an update of the original post Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan, which gave an introduction to the subject and remains the basis for this extended version. The original post solely discussed the Schlieffen Plan of 1905/1906 – now we shall consider the actual developments of August and September 1914 until the Battle of the Marne and the developments arising thereof.

Various newly discovered historical documents regarding 1914 will be translated into the English language and presented here for the first time, so hang on!


Before discussing the plans of Schlieffen, the “Schlieffen Plan”, and the real German war plan of 1914 in any detail, we must first familiarize ourselves with the geography of the battlefield. A common border between France and Germany exists only in the south, between Switzerland and Luxembourg, along the Vosges Mountains west of Mulhouse and Strasbourg, and the high terrain of the Lorraine between Donon and Thionville, through the upper half of which flows the Moselle River via Metz to the Rhine. These stretches of mountains respectively highlands are in general territory where the lay of the land favours the defender and hence were fortified by both sides. France built four principal modern fortresses in a north-westerly oriented line, from Belfort near the Swiss border, to Epinal, Toul/Nancy and Verdun at the Meuse River, which forms the main defence line in the north-western quadrant of the region.

The principal defences on the German side of this stretch ran along the ridgeline of the Vosges opposite the Upper Rhine and were strengthened by a fortified fallback position at Strasbourg. The highlands stretching out between Donon, Sarrebourg, Morhange and Metz had been fortified only weakly, for it was thought that a flexible defence in this area offered a good chance of mounting a counterattack. Along the Moselle river, from Metz to Thionville (Diedenhofen) near the border to Luxembourg, ran the “Moselstellung”, the ‘Moselle Position’, the main fortified German area, which was considered impenetrable. The good defensive perimeters on either side ensured that, once French attacks during the opening Battle of the Frontiers in the first weeks of August had been repulsed, and the Germans blooded their noses in attacking at the Grand Couronne de Nancy, the whole Franco-German border saw little action until late in 1918.

The middle part of the western theatre consisted of the independent Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest, a high plateau that stretches from northern Luxembourg about thirty miles on each side of the German- Belgian border into the respective countries, almost to Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle) and Liège (Lüttich). The strategic pièce de résistance on this part of the front is Verdun, for an outflanking of Verdun from the north-west along the Meuse in south- eastern direction would outflank the whole French fortress belt.

But it was the northernmost part of the Franco-Belgian-German borderlands that received the most attention of military strategists, for the plains of Flanders and in particular a path following the northern bank of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers, along Liège and Namur in Belgium to Maubeuge at the Franco-Belgian border, offered a convenient route for an army crossing from northern France into western Germany or vice versa, presenting a good opportunity to outflank the enemy. It could thus not surprise anyone that Belgium fortified the areas of Liège and Namur, and France did the same with Maubeuge. Still, the opportunity provided by the plains loomed large in the minds of continental generals, and, as Gerhard Ritter explains, it was taken more or less for granted that the roads would be used. By whom, remained a topic of discussion.

We know that the idea of forcibly raising the Belgian frontier barriers played a great part at the height of the French struggle for hegemony under Napoleon III. After his fall there could be no thought of a French offensive for many decades. But when French chauvinism flared up again under Boulanger in 1887 and there seemed to be an immediate threat of a Franco-German war, European public opinion was not at all certain that Belgian neutrality would be respected by either belligerent, since both had secured their positions on the Lorraine front by strong fortresses.

In England there were uneasy memories of the obligation assumed in 1839, and renewed in 1870 by treaties with France and the North German Bund, to guarantee Belgian neutrality. British diplomacy at first assured Brussels that the obligation would be honoured; but soon it was advising the Belgians not to count on effective British help, for which there were too few military resources, but to try to defend their border on their own.

At the same time there appeared in the semi-official press some very strange articles, obviously inspired by the Foreign Office, which can only be regarded as “kites” to sound public opinion on the question of neutrality. They discussed whether, in the event of a German march through Belgium into northern France, England could not accept the situation provided Bismarck gave his word not to infringe Belgian sovereignty and only to use a “right of way” through the country. The question was answered in the affirmative.

Other newspapers, too, gave warnings against going beyond paper protests – an indication of how much the Liberal England of that day disliked being drawn into Continental quarrels. Furthermore it was clearly noticeable that Lord Salisbury regarded France, not Germany, as the country threatening European peace, and that his sympathies were far more on the German side. …

This was the time, in 1887, when the German General Staff, too, was discussing the possibility of the French Army being able to outflank the German position in Lorraine through Belgium. But Count Moltke was not in the least disturbed by this, as one sees from his great strategic plan of 1887:

“On the right our position could only be outflanked at any distance by a violation of neutral countries, Luxembourg or Belgium. This would result in an entirely changed military situation which we need not discuss here, but which would obviously develop unfavourably for the French. However poorly one may estimate the military resistance of these countries, the invasion would be weakened by the need to keep watch on their troops and hold their populations in check.

The whole operation would come to a standstill on the Rhine, while we ourselves would advance in mass from the south. If, incidentally, anything could spur England into action, it would be the occupation of Belgium by the French Army. For all these reasons, the whole enterprise seems highly unlikely.”

This fitted in with the declaration Bismarck had caused to be published in the semi-official “Post”; the British reflections were not only premature but also groundless. Germany would never open a war with the violation
of a European treaty. If one supposed that the German General Staff was bound to contemplate a breakthrough via Belgium, it had to be pointed out that this far from exhausted the ingenuity of the German General Staff. It was furthermore an error to suppose that the conduct of German policy was subject to the views of the General Staff. (26)

As long as Bismarck was responsible for Germany’s policies, nobody doubted that he exercised control, not the generals. But after his retirement in 1890, German foreign policy quickly acquired a vacillating quality – the subsequent chancellors Caprivi and Hohenlohe were not only ignorant of foreign relations but made no efforts to improve their expertise. Soon the situation Bismarck had toiled all his life to avoid came to pass – détente between France and Russia. The spectre of a two- front war first raised its head.


Perhaps the most famous – and most misinterpreted military document in world history – but not, as is often claimed, the blueprint for 1914 – is the so-called “Great Memorandum” (also known as the “Schlieffen Plan”), written by German Field Marshal and Chief of Staff Alfred Graf von Schlieffen – dated 1905, the year of his retirement, but probably completed in 1906. It was simply a memorandum – a military-political statement that repeatedly addressed the issue of (in Schlieffen’s opinion) a much-needed expansion of the German army at a time when much of the budget went to the Navy. It was not a current deployment, let alone a mobilization plan. Link to the PDF – File

In 1914, the axis of the German attack is clearly EAST of Paris, not WEST of it …

The “Schlieffen Plan”, like any other document, must be seen in the historical context in which it originated. Two arguments seem to be particularly valid here: (1) The plan arose from a certain tradition – that of the Prussian General Staff to plan and carry out rapid campaigns for limited objectives, which had worked so well in 1866 and 1870/71, and (2) no one had an alternative. Holger Herwig – with whom this author does not necessarily agree on everything – argued in 2003 in the anthology “The Origins of World War I,” Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-81735-8, p. 155:

But Schlieffen’s critics lacked a viable alternative. Their vision (or fear) of a ‘peoples war’ lasting anywhere between seven and thirty years was unacceptable – to Kaiser, generals, parliament and nation. The Second Reich was not the Third; total mobilization for total war was anathema to one and all. Thus, simply to reject Schlieffen’s blueprint of a short war for limited aims – a strategy deeply rooted in Prussian military annals – was to deny the very viability of what the historian Gerhard Ritter called „Kriegshandwerk“. Put bluntly, to concede that the vaunted Prussian General Staff could no longer conduct short wars of annihilation was to admit that war had ceased to be a viable option by the start of the twentieth century. There were few takers in Germany for such a radical notion.

Hence, war it had to be. After having lost the Great War, however, in various post-war works of German officers Hermann von Kuhl, Gerhard Tappen, Wilhelm Groener and Reichsarchiv (Imperial Archives) historians directed by former Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) Wolfgang Förster, a thesis or narrative was developed that held:

I. That in the years leading to 1905, the former Chief of the German General Staff, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, had conceived a development and operations plan for a two-front war against France and Russia that all but guaranteed victory, and

II. that it was the failure of 1914 Chief of Staff Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Helmuth von Moltke the Younger to follow and execute the plan properly that led to Germany’s loss of the World War.

The story had to be taken on faith, because the famous plan was not made available – not a snippet of it was published to support the allegations. Yet in principle – so much was known – the plan prescribed an attack on northern France through Belgium and an encirclement and subsequent siege of Paris, which should force a French capitulation – more or less like shown in the West Point Map below:

After most German military archives were destroyed in the subsequent Allied bombings of World War II, the plan was believed lost, that is, until in 1953, German monarchist historian Gerhard Ritter found a copy of Schlieffen’s Memorandum of 1906 (backdated to 1905) at the National Archives in Washington. Indeed it appeared that the original memorandum had not been stored in the ministry of defense at all but at his home and was found much later in the estate of his daughter. In 1958 he published the paper in English, with a foreword by B.H. Liddell-Hart, under the title “The Schlieffen Plan – Critique of a Myth” at Praeger, New York (the original German version appeared 1956 at R. Oldenbourg, Munich). [No ISBN Number or Library of Congress Card available] It is available here as a PDF File – please read carefully.

THE GREAT MEMORANDUM by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Great German General Staff 1891 – 1902. Often called the blueprint for World War I, although on closer inspection one might develop severe doubts. Why?

A few hints: The Memorandum describes war solely against France – not a two-front war including Russia. The plan employs 94 divisions plus 12 non-existing “Ersatz”-Divisions all in all – a number which never existed (Moltke had to do with 68 divisions in 1914, of which a few had detached duties at the North Sea Coast and around invested cities like Maubeuge and Brussels) – but most crucial are logistic and spatial impossibilities. John Keegan analysed them in “The First World War”, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, and the author hopes to be forgiven for quoting Keegan’s analysis at length:

The Great Memorandum - Author's Copy
The Great Memorandum – Author’s Copy

[Schlieffen’s] midnight pettifoggery had as its object an exact adjustment not of German numbers to those that the French could deploy, but to what the Belgian and French road network could carry. Such calculations were
the groundwork of staff-college training: students, transferring from prepared tables the length of a marching column – twenty-nine kilometres for a corps, for example – to a road map, could determine how
many troops could be pushed through a given sector at what speed.
Since thirty-two kilometres was the limit of a forced march, that would be the advance of a corps on a single road; but the tail of a column twenty-nine kilometres long would remain near or at the marching-off point at
the day’s end. If there were twin parallel roads, the tails would advance half the distance, if four three- quarters, and so on. Ideally, the units of a corps would advance not in a column but in line abreast, allowing all
of it to arrive at the day’s end thirty-two kilometres further on; in practice, as Schlieffen admitted in one of his amendments, parallel roads were at best to be found one to two kilometres apart.

As his great wheeling movement was to sweep forward on a front of three hundred kilometres with about thirty corps, however, each would have only ten kilometres of front on which to make its advance, in which
there might be at best seven parallel roads. That was not enough to allow the tails of the columns to catch up with the heads by the day’s end. The drawback was serious in itself; more seriously, it absolutely forbade any
attempt to crowd more troops into the radius of the wheeling movement. They would not fit, there simply was not room.

Here we come to the question how the six (non-existing) Ersatz-Corps that the attentive reader will see appearing out of thin air in Map 3 could have made their way to Paris?

It is at this point that a careful reader of the Great Memorandum recognises a plan falling apart: Map 3 in no way shows how the new corps are to advance or to invest Paris, the central strongpoint of the “great
fortress” that was Schlieffen’s France. The corps simply appear, with no indication of how they have reached Paris and its outskirts. The “capacity of the railways” is irrelevant; railways, in Schlieffen’s plan, were to carry the attackers no further than the German frontier with Belgium and France. Thereafter it was the road network that led forward, and the plodding boots of the infantry that would measure out the speed of
advance.

Schlieffen himself reckoned that to be only twelve miles [just under twenty kilometres, ¶] a day. In the crisis of August and September 1914, German, French and British units would all exceed that, sometimes day after
day – the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment averaged sixteen and a half miles during the great retreat from Mons to the Marne, 24 August – 5 September, and covered twenty-three and twenty-one miles on 27 and 28 August respectively – but Schlieffen’s mean was not far short of the mark. Von Kluck’s army on the outer wing of the great wheel achieved a little over thirteen miles a day between 18 August and 5 September, 1914, over a distance of 260 miles.

For the “eight new corps,” needed by Schlieffen as his plan’s clinching device, to arrive at the decisive place of action, they would have actually needed to march not only further and faster, which defied probabilities, but to do so along the same roads as those occupied by the corps already existing, a simple impossibility.

It is not surprising therefore, to find buried in the text of the Great Memorandum its author’s admission that “we are too weak” to bring the plan to a conclusion and, in a later admission, “on such an extended line we shall still need greater forces than we have so far estimated.” He had run into a logistical impasse. Railways would position the troops for his great wheel; the Belgian and French roads would allow them to reach the outskirts of Paris in the sixth week from mobilisation day; but they would not arrive in the strength necessary to win a decisive battle unless they were accompanied by eight corps – 200,000 men – for which there was no room. His plan for a lightning victory was flawed at its heart. It was pigeonholed for use nonetheless.

In the original 1956 edition of Gerhard Ritter the maps are in the back of the book and of low quality. The present author has placed them in appropriate parts of the text and added coloured lines for better following the argument.

The problem of the plan, as it lies before us, is its interpretation. After Terence Zuber (former US Army officer and historian in Würzburg) argued from 1999 on in various publications that the plan is just a memorandum, and there was no indication that it ever was the true basis of manoeuvres or even a comprehensible technical discussion  – on the contrary – documents were found in the 1990s at the archives of the former GDR on the actual exercises that his successor Moltke held until 1914. Naturally, there was a great outcry of established historians, who believed their livelihoods threatened. See Zuber, Terence, “The Real German War Plan 1904-14,” The History Press 2001, ISBN 978-0-7524-5664-5.

International conferences have swiftly been convened to stop the heresy, but Zuber’s critique, whose cornerstones are perhaps best read in the English Wikipedia article on the plan, makes perfect sense. The problem is that, if it were a real plan, one would have to assume that the German Chief of Staff was devoting himself to planning – until 1905 – for a single-front war against France, which was completely out of the question following the Franco-Russian alliance after the non-prolongation of the Reinsurance Treaty in 1890. There would be no single-front war, as Terence Holmes pointed out.

The counter-criticism also argues that the memorandum incorporates the brief military weakening of Russia after the catastrophe of the Russo-Japanese War. This seems, however, rather irrelevant, as in this war, the main losses of Russia related to their fleet, which did not interest the German Navy much – the High Seas Fleet prepared against England. The main problem of the present counter-criticism is that it argues the events of 1914 – not the memorandum of 1905.

In 2007, the German Military History Research Office (MGFA) published “The Schlieffen Plan: Analyses and Documents“, edited by Michael Epkenhans, Hans Ehlert and Gerhard P. Gross. Wiki informs us that “This volume contains a copy of Schlieffen’s 1905 Memorandum misfiled in the German Military Archives at Friedberg, and German deployment plans from the year 1893/94 to 1914/15, most of which had been lost otherwise. These documents, not yet available in English translation, are said to strongly support the traditional ideas of a “Schlieffen Plan” that Zuber disputed.”

First impression [Update 05.06.2019]: The problem of the book probably lies in the organization of the conference from September 30 to October 1, 2004, that gave rise to ist existence. The reason for convening the conference in the first place had been the fundamental criticism of Terence Zuber – see above. In the implementation of the conference, this was, however, not made the order of the day, but various participants were given the opportunity to present their own theses to the “Schlieffen Plan” – but not, as mentioned above, in response to the memorandum of 1906, but to announce their own, previously unpublished opinions about the developments of the German deployment plans from 1905 to 1914 or about the events of 1914.

There is a need for differentiation: When Zuber called the Schlieffenplan a “myth” after 2000, he did not mean that the plan did not exist – the memorandum lies plain in our sight – but he pointed to the incongruity of the memorandum (see John Keegan’s analysis of its tactical impracticability and the use of “Ghost Divisions”) with the legend developed after 1918 – that Schlieffen had presented a perfect plan that the younger Moltke did not understand, or “watered down” by changes to the plan.

Hew Strachan

This blog entry originally only referred to the memorandum of 1905-6, not the events of 1914 or the preparations and possible plans under Moltke. However, such was not the topic of the conference. Annika Mombauer develops theses concerning the “Moltke Plan”, i.e. her own possible history of the actual war plan of 1914,. Other contributions deal with the military situations, plans and political realities in Austria-Hungary (Günter Kronenbitter), France (Stefan Schmidt ), Russia (Jan Kusber), Great Britain (Hew Strachan), Belgium (Luc De Vos) and Switzerland (Hans Rudolf Fuhrer and Michael Olsansky). Regardless of the qualities of these contributions, the question of their relevance for the plan at hand arises.

Zuber’s core thesis was, and is, that the “Schlieffen Plan” (in the form of the Great Memorandum of 1905/6) was not an actually feasible plan and that there are no indications that it actually formed the basis for 1914 planning.

There is much work left for subsequent updates, but another striking example of the tactical impracticability of the plan (which John Keegan probably omitted for lack of space) would be the encirclement of Paris, as planned by 1st Army (v. Kluck, and the six – or eight – non-existent Ersatzkorps). If we imagine a ring  encircling Paris in a line Compiègne – Pontoise – Plaisir – Orsay – Évry – Brie-Comte-Robert – see picture below – we are faced with an additional front length of over 400 kilometres (in a two-sided enclosure front as in Alesia) without any flank protection or backing – which would all but invite the Allies to a catastrophic encirclement of the western part.

Siege ring around Paris …
Allied counter-attack …

[Update July 4, 2019] What then, was Moltke’s plan in August 1914?

These tactical and strategic impossibilities of the 1905/1906 Plan by Schlieffen were clear to his successor, the Younger Moltke. With only 38 corps (23 active, 11 reserve, 4 cavalry) available against the French, British and Belgian armies in the Western Theatre (4 corps and 1 cavalry division remained in East Prussia and 2 divisions guarding the coast), any attempt to follow Schlieffen’s Plan was simply suicidal. Schlieffen had used 94 divisions (= 47 corps) plus 6 non-existing “Ersatz”-Corps against France alone in his plan, and had still called for a further expansion of the army.

The idea of the double encirclement including the gigantic siege of Paris, as envisioned by Schlieffen, remained a pipe dream, as John Keegan’s operational analysis, the relative strength of the armies and geography prove. What did Moltke have in mind then? His full plan has never been published, but some of the underlying documents have seen the light of day since the German Reunification of 1990, which made available some documents from Eastern German sources long believed to be lost. Let us first have a look at the deployment plan for 1914, the underlying assumptions and Moltke’s initial orders.

Original German deployment plan and general intentions in the Mobilization Calendar 1914/15

(To be translated into the English language for the first time, coming in the autumn of 2019)


Quotations:

(26) Ritter, Gerhard, The Schlieffen Plan – Critique of a Myth, Oswalt Wolff Publishers, London 1958, pp. 79 – 81


Updates on the way … (© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Luigi Albertini and the Outbreak of the War

Luigi Albertini
Luigi Albertini

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019 – Book Three “Risico” (PDF) of “The Little Drummer Boy” contains in chapters XIII to XVII a 150-page summary of Albertini’s findings.)


For everybody who is concerned with the causes of the First World War, the research of Luigi Albertini (19 October 1871 – 29 December 1941) , long-time editor of the famous Italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera“, is the foundation of factual knowledge. He was able to talk or correspond to many witnesses while they were still alive – even to some of the conspirators of Sarajevo. He published his findings in The Origins of the War of 1914. The last available edition by Enigma Books may still be found at discount stores or flea markets (regular market prices start at $250 for used specimens, but one can get lucky – book store link – or borrow from a library).

In the words of John Keegan:

The bedrock of all discussion remains L. Albertini’s The Origins of the War of 1914… which provides a detailed chronology of the crisis and excerpts from the most important documents.” [The First World War, ISBN 0-375-70045-5, p. 450]

At 2120 pages (in the Enigma-Books Edition pictured above) the work presents not only reproductions of many original documents – diplomatic cables, treaties, memoranda and newspaper articles, Albertini and his German-speaking co-author Luciano Magrini interviewed many of the true protagonists of the drama – from ambassadors, politicians, fellow journalists, university researchers up to a few of the actual conspirators and perpetrators of the Sarajevo assassination and their puppet-masters or svengali.

Although many statements of the involved are – naturally – of self-serving character, they do provide fascinating insights. The lecture of Albertini is the principal homework for every writer aspiring to close in on the difficult subject – one must observe with dismay that some aspriring “historians” refrain from the burden.

The circumstances of the period of his writing were – contingent on the imbalance of available documents (many German and Russian documents were unavailable due to the revolutions in their homelands, the Austrians, as usually, misplaced a lot, a good portion of others – especially French and Italian ones – proved doctored) to some extent coined by “anti-German” and especially “anti-Austrian” sentiments – quite understandably – but his reasoning is always impeccable and his judgements just – as far as the sources allowed.

Albertini took over the Corriere della Sera in 1900 and in the following 25 years developed it into the most modern, widely read and respected newspaper of Italy. He was sacked by the owners in 1925 due to his anti-Fascist views as a life-long liberal. Between 1914 and 1922 he was a member of the Italian Senate.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019 – Book Three “Risico” (PDF) of “The Little Drummer Boy” contains in chapters XIII to XVII a 150-page summary of Albertini’s findings.)

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