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The Plan that Broke the World

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The Plan that Broke the World: The “Schlieffen Plan” and World War I
by William D. O’Neill (ISBN: 978-1-4819-5585-0)

Germany went to war with a master plan in 1914 to secure the future peace and prosperity of its Empire for generations. The result was the most destructive war in history, defeat, followed by a second and even more destructive world war, and the end of the European empires. How could (in the author’s estimation) the foremost planning organization of the day, the Prussian Great General Staff, have been so wrong?

William O’Neill shows, in fact, the idea of a plan created by a military genius that would have worked except for its flawed execution by less capable hands was a mythology that arose only after Germany’s defeat. Count von Schlieffen of the “Plan” was a pre-war chief of the GGS who as a thought experiment in a memo (and, perhaps, as a thinly veiled bid for greater military expenditures) explored how a much larger German Army might go on the offensive and defeat France early in a conflict. It was never fully developed into a plan for battle and the actual strategy that unfolded at the start of the war bears little resemblance. Where Schlieffen’s ideas proved most useful was not in the waging of war but in explaining away defeat. A plan crafted by a (dead) genius but fumbled by a select few successors (all of whom were dead at war’s end) absolved the incumbent generalship. The story gained currency in the postwar years as a political counterweight to the despicable explanation promoted by extreme right-wing elements of supremely capable German armies that had been “stabbed in the back” by a toxic cabal of decadent liberals, war profiteers, and Jewish conspirators.

What I found most interesting is the exploration of how through neither malice nor incompetence such a smart and capable leadership - Imperial Germany’s “best and brightest” - could make such a catastrophic miscalculation. German political leadership under the misdirection of Kaiser Wilhelm II pushed the Empire to the brink of war but - in a moment of doubt when Wilhelm moved to pull back from the brink - his military chief forcefully declared that the war machine was in motion and could not be stopped. The nominal head of state offered no further pushback and events swiftly moved past the point of no return. It is true that hindsight has a powerful lure but it was clear to well-placed observers in the summer of 1914 that Germany was taking an incredible gamble for a dubious prize. The swift recovery of France following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War demonstrated that even German victory in its stated war aims would not deliver a lasting and secure peace. The danger of waging a two-front war with France and Russia and the necessity of avoiding such a scenario was recognized early and at the highest levels. The violation of Belgian neutrality practically guaranteed British intervention and a naval blockade imposed by the world’s largest navy would ruin Germany.

As the author states, what were they thinking? He draws on a lifetime of experience as a program manager for both the American military and private defense contractors to explore how technologies are developed, forces outfitted, and war plans drafted and executed. Germany suffered from a weak political leadership that proved unwilling to push back and challenge an insular military culture, a culture that settled on an offensive strategy and failed to consider a range of lower-risk alternatives. The German experience underlines the importance of powerful outsiders who exist to challenge convention. There is a thin line that separates institutional wisdom from institutional myopia.