FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: From the Archives: Fascism and World War II

German Strategy: 1914 and 1940

German trenches along the Aisne during World War I. Wikipedia Commons

ACOMMANDER-IN-CHIEF is not in a position to begin a war as a chess player may begin a game with a new gambit. He has to take over a play which has been opened by others, that is, the statesmen, and then carry it through according to the rules of the game. His strategical opportunities are thereby limited. In the long history of war more campaigns have been lost on account of a wrong political start than by subsequent strategical mistakes. More wars have been won by the élan, the passion, and the will to sacrifice of whole nations than by the genius of commanders.

It is in the political preparations and the use of political opportunities that we find the outstanding distinctions to be made between the strategical situation which faced Germany in 1914 and that which faced her in 1940. The German Army and German leaders of 1940 profited by mistakes of the past even more fully in the political field than they did in the field of purely military operations.

In 1914 the war began with the political odds against Germany. Close collaboration between the Chancellor and the Chief of the General Staff was needed urgently after the Bülow period, but it did not exist. The Chancellor, Dr. Bethmann-Hollweg, clung to the hope of reaching an understanding with England. The Chief of the General Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, had no such hope. He had no political imagination and he lacked the ability to foresee the psychological and political effects of his strategical manœuvres. He wavered between the fear that the Austro-Hungarian Empire might break up if the war were postponed and the fear that the German Army would not be ready for its superhuman task before 1916. He was perturbed by the shift of the French General Staff in 1911 from a defensive to an offensive strategy. His only idea of parrying this threat was to speed up mobilization and to plan to attack Liège on the fifth day after mobilization.

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