Who Should Groener’s Schlieffen Plan Matter To?

As I try to write an article about Groener’s understanding of war, which led him to write about Schlieffen’s supposed “recipe for victory”, I have to keep asking myself, so what? I don’t mean this is in a negative way. I haven’t tired of this topic. But I’m not always sure why it should matter to other people.

If I look at the Schlieffen Plan debate carried out mainly in the pages of War in History, it is clear that Groener’s perspective has something to offer that audience, because the man who initiated the debate, Zuber, accuses him of having “invented” the Schlieffen Plan. That is reason enough to bring up the issue, at least for those interested in the military planning that helped cause and shape what George F. Kennan once called “the great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century.

When I shift my perspective to understanding the German military’s role in the outbreak of World War One, I find the more nuanced perspective of German military thinking worthwhile for its own sake, but the basic story line of an inflexible plan that offered no diplomatic wiggle room and helped to ensure that Germany played the role of aggressor remains the same. So why should anyone but a specialist in military history care? Why should it matter to a general historian of modern German or European history?

The answer to this question seems to relate to our image of German history and World War I more generally. Do we blame that war on elites wedded to outdated notions about war? Do we turn them into alien “Others” who are impossible to understand in anything but stereotyped terms along the lines that we see for Britain in the wonderful comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth (but not as well-meaning, if callous fools, but instead with nefarious intentions)?

Or do we open our eyes to a less comfortable thought? What if World War I was not an aberration, but rather part and parcel of European (and Western) modernity? And what if the officers who developed and later justified Germany’s war plans were not defenders of a premodern monarchical system nor simply protecting their own reputations after Germany’s defeat, but instead were modern military professionals whose attitudes and efforts might have relevance for our understanding of modern militaries far beyond 1914?

The latter point of view could make the question of Groener’s Schlieffen Plan relevant for modern militaries and, therefore, interesting for a readership like the Journal of Strategic Studies has. But does this story only have something to tell scholars of military history and strategic studies? What about historians of Imperial Germany? I think an answer could relate to the modernity of the officer corps, the Great General Staff, and the war itself. It might also help us to understand a story whose chronological boundaries transcend political regimes, insofar as this one reaches from Wilhelmine Germany until close to the end of the Weimar Republic, if not further.

As I think along these lines, however, I see a journal article grow into something too big for the format. I would like to keep thinking about why Groener’s Schlieffen Plan might matter to general historians of Germany, but maybe I first need to concentrate on a narrower, more specialized audience. I have to write a lot more before I can know.