Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War

Author: Annika Mombauer

Mombauer writes much about Germany's military before 1914, the title of the first of her five chapters: "Military decision-making in Wilhelmine Germany." And she describes the ins-and-outs of the German military's Schlieffen Plan, modified in 1911, for executing the next war. The part of the book that interests me is the German military's responsibility for the Great War of 1914 -19.

The man in charge of Germany's military in 1914 – the Chief of the General Staff - was Helmuth von Moltke. He and other German generals cannot be blamed for wanting the best performance for Germany's military. Whatever Annika Mombauer writes about von Moltke regarding the Schlieffen Plan, von Moltke didn't get close to producing the of performances by Germany's military. He was out of touch as were other generals across Europe in believing that an attack was the best defense. Germany's military would have performed better if it had waged a defensive war in 1914. But back to the point that interests me most: the decision whether to go to war.

Mombauer repeatedly describes von Moltke as wanting a war sooner than later, while Germany was stronger vis-à-vis its potential enemies. In 1908 von Moltke wanted war and did not get it then because he did not have the power to get it. And he lacked that power in 1914. When the Russians mobilized, it put the issue of Germany defending itself military above other issues. The German Kaiser's attempt to avoid war with Russia was over. The war, in effect, had begun. If von Moltke was instrumental in provoking Russia, as opposed to Austria-Hungary provoking Russia, then he can be said to have had some responsibility in creating the war. Mombauer does not make the case that von Moltke was responsible for provoking Russia. Von Moltke wanted war, and he responded to the opportunity that the Russians and his German superiors gave him to do his job, but this does not make him instrumental in creating the war. Von Moltke was not among those who had the power to choose whether to go to war. It was what was in their minds that made the difference between war and peace, not von Moltke's mind.