When writing my dissertation, I was forced to confront Terence Zuber’s claims that Wilhelm Groener and others had “invented” the Schlieffen Plan, and I wrote a section on the issue. The debate has continued since that time, with new evidence and articles emerging, but I have not seen any significant reason to alter my basic conclusions. Thus, I feel the section I wrote still has value for anyone trying to understand this debate. I mention that here and make the dissertation freely available because some of the most important scholarship is locked behind the pay walls of professional history journals. That is fine for those of us with access to well-stocked university libraries, but not everyone is so fortunate. Zuber himself has been canny about this limitation of modern scholarship, which so often engages other scholars but does not reach out to the general public. He has rehearsed his arguments in an affordable book for the mass market called The Real German War Plan (The History Press, 2011). While this will not earn him points in academia, it serves the useful function of engaging the public, which more of us should do.
Zuber’s ideas are important because he insists on taking Schlieffen’s military thought seriously at a very practical level, instead of accepting that the German ideas of war we commonly hear about were almost insane, informed by marked hubris, or naive and foolish. Zuber looks at the military documents themselves and submits them to a reality test. How could this have worked? Why did Schlieffen write something with so many internal contradictions? Unfortunately, Zuber overreaches the power of his sources and gets things wrong. He also seems to conflate doctrine with strategy. Drawing on his own undoubtedly superb training and extensive experience as a U.S. infantry officer who reached major, he sees things from the perspective of a staff officer or possibly a commander on the battlefield. That is useful, but he forgets what such an officer cannot see, unless he has risen to the very highest levels.
I was reminded of this weakness today in a combative piece he published in German called “Der Mythos vom Schlieffenplan” . In the very last paragraph, he writes, “Krieg und Kriegsvorbereitung sind eine durch und durch nüchterne, praktische Angelegenheit. Es geht um Doktrin, Ausbildung, Truppenstärke, Beurteilung der Feindlage, zur Verfügung stehende Zeit sowie Gelände und Wetter.” I hesitate to translate an American’s thoughts back into English with quotation marks around them, but his basic point is that war is a fairly straightforward thing. Its core elements are doctrine, training, troop strength, assessment of the hostile forces as well as basic factors like time, terrain, and weather. That sounds like a perfect description of war conceived at the purely operational level, which is the only, albeit important level he examines. But what about strategy? What about politics and economics?
It might seem uncollegial to bring up Zuber’s military background, since he is also a trained historian, but he has made a lot of his military profession, which he uses in ad hominem attacks on his history colleagues. In the same piece I just quoted, for example, he dismisses Annika Mombauer’s important findings on Helmut von Moltke the Younger with the remark that she does not understand the terminology and has no military background, whereas he served twenty years in the army.
There’s a reason why U.S. officers (and other officials) attend the War College before they enter the highest ranks of service. They need to expand their vision to the strategic level, which will include politics, economics, and more. Zuber’s own military background cannot have provided him with these insights, although his historical training should have. Indeed, I expect he has plenty of knowledge about such issues, but he refuses to engage the problem of German war planning at that level, instead insisting on the sole relevance of the factors quoted above.
That is unfortunate. To make any real progress in the Schlieffen Plan debate, we need to expand the scope of the discussion to include images of war, ours and those of our historical subjects. Without a firm grasp of such matters, we will talk past each other.
Postscript, February 12, 2012
A useful article on the Schlieffen Plan debate that I managed to miss when I was finishing my dissertation is Annika Mombauer, “Of War Plans and War Guilt: The Debate Surrounding the Schlieffen Plan,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28, no. 5 (2005): 857–85. She, too, points out Zuber’s apparent disdain for those without significant military experience.
Regarding the notion of making progess in the dabate, a great deal has been made, of course, and Annika Mombauer might be right to consider Zuber’s challenge over and done with as far as serious scholarship is concerned. (See her article in the Journal of Strategic Studies cited in my previous comment.) But we haven’t got to the point where a general consensus has been reached. And I suspect the great number of publications by Zuber will continue to sow confusion for a long time to come, as he insists on the primary value of his limited source base and his narrow conception of war. After all, academic historians do not have a monopoly on the interpretation and telling of history in the public sphere.
I have lightly edited this piece for clarity and added a header image (source: Zeit Online).