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By Anonymous Mike, pseudonymously.

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Monday, November 26, 2007
Stale Post 1- Clowns in Spiked Hats

A few months ago El Gringo had a post about the need for a Ken Burns-style documentary regarding politicians and generals dealing with the great strategic and operational questions of WW II. I think that's a great idea, too many people who should know better think all such choices are no-brainers on the level of not getting involved in a land war in Asia. The subtitle of documentary could be either "When Smart People Make Bad Decisions" or "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time"

I think with some good production values and nifty writing, we could really come up with a great piece here. Allow me to suggest the first episode, though it doesn't deal with WW II but it has all the elements you need. It has a German general staff plotting, French military officers nervously smoking cigarettes, it has pickelhaubes, the Huns marching on Paris, and the promise of having the boys home by the time the leaves fall. Most of all, it has the Kaiser.

(As a side note, even the worst chick flick or drawn out Simpsons episode can be saved by an unexpected appearance of the Kaiser. More than 60 years after his death and the man just keeps on giving.)

I am talking about the Schlieffen Plan. What you want another one dealing with the Japanese and Pearl Harbor or the Germans invading Russia?

The Schlieffen Plan was an attempt by the German military high command during the 1900's to address how in the heck they were supposed to win a possible 2-front war against France and Russia. The plan was to exploit the difference in time it took the French and Russians to mobilize their armies; as it took Russia much longer to prepare for war, Germany would defeat France during this time and then turn its full might on Russia. Problem of a 2-front war solved, the fact that the Schlieffen Plan covered up a few decades of diplomatic bungling by the Kaiser and his ministers made the plan sound all the better. After all with the Schlieffen Plan in your back pocket, turning your historic ally Russia against you wasn't a diplomatic problem but an opportunity to win an even more glorious war.

In order to defeat France in the necessary 7 weeks, Germany would have to bypass the fortifications along the Franco-German border by invading neutral Belgium. Germans armies would then sweep down through the undefended northern border of France, encircle the French army in a 20th Century re-enactment of Cannae, and destroy it.

There were 2 big problems with the Plan:

1) To invade Belgium was to violate that country's neutrality and risk bringing Great Britain into the war.

2) The great encirclement of the French Army called for the right-most German soldier of the German line to touch the English Channel. The problem was what to do about Paris in this great turning movement. Paris was too strong of a fortress to be taken within the 7 weeks so it was to be bypassed. However if the Germans bypassed it to the west, they risked creating a gap between their armies. If they bypassed it to the east, they exposed their flank to a counter attack from the Paris garrison.

The solution to the first problem was that the Schlieffen Plan was supposed to win the war in 7 weeks, long before Great Britain could field an effective army.

The solution to second problem was to provide another 200,000 men to the German offensive so that Paris could be masked. However as historian John Keegan notes, the German General Staff could plan the mobilization of the army and its offensive operations down to the last detail, but they couldn't account for how these 200,000 men were to march across Belgium and northern France and magically appear in front of Paris. The road network in that area wouldn't support it and Keegan notes that Schlieffen knew it.

So what happened?

The Schlieffen Plan was wildly successful. The Germans invaded Belgium and brought Britain into the war. However the Germans cut the French Army to pieces and sent the remnants flying in retreat. As the Germans neared Paris, they turned to the east exposing their flank to the French counterattack from Paris and the Marne. The French launched a last ditch counterattack, the Miracle of the Marne. The Germans retreated, the trenches were dug, and Europe descended into 4 more years of slaughter.

Historians point to the weakening diversion of nearly 200,000 men from the west to counter an early Russian invasion of East Prussia as the reason for the German defeat but as mentioned above, Keegan saw no way for those men to be deployed in front of Paris. Schlieffen was doomed to fail from the start.

If it couldn't succeed then why was it ever adopted? Was it because it helped justify the diplomatic bungling of previous decades, acts which allowed Germany to become encircled by enemies? Was it because it fit the intellectual predisposition, the Weltanschauung, of the German General Staff?

Whatever the reason, the result was devastating for Europe. It created a stalemate on the Western Front, too many German gains for them to give up without concessions from the Allies, too many German soldiers on sacred French soil for the Allies to give concessions. If the Kaiser didn't have the seeming war winner of Schlieffen in his back pocket would he have given Austria its blank check to deal with Serbia in July 1914? Would he have tried a diplomatic opening to Russia? Would the troops ever had marched or would the crisis that followed the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand faded like so many others before it?

We don't know because in the end , Schlieffen remained on the books and with its false hope, the troops marched and the bloodbath of the 20th Century was born.