Book Review: The Real German War Plan, 1904-14


by Terence Zuber

Stroud, Gloucester/Charleston, SC.: The History Press, 2011. Pp. ii, 190. Maps, notes, index. $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0752456644

In 2002 Zuber, a retired U.S. Army officer with a doctorate in history, gave us Inventing the Schlieffen Plan, which has proven one of the most important and controversial recent works on World War I, arguing persuasively that Germany had no “Schlieffen Plan” in the popularly understood sense of a single master plan for a quick victory in a war with France and Russia.

The Real German War Plan, Zuber examines Imperial Germany’s strategic dilemma in the period leading p to World War, giving the reader an analysis and comparison of the various prewar mobilization plans in conjunction with contemporary strategic military intelligence assessments. This was a difficult period due to the to the French Army’s unexpected introduction of massive numbers of quick-firing guns, the famous “75”, which gave them a temporary, but critical superiority in artillery which made a German invasion obviously impossible, because it required several years for Germany to develop its own quick-firing guns and produce them in large quantities.

This led Schlieffen, chief of the Great General Staff, to develop various more or less notional plans, looking to the future, for his proposed right flank wheel through Belgium to Paris, culminating in his final grand memorial that included twenty-four non-existent divisions, an increase of 35 percent over historical strength, and arguably was an appeal for an enlarged army, likely essential if anything like the Schlieffen “Plan” was feasible.

Zuber is persuasive that that German mobilization plans were much more flexible and opportunistic than previously believed. He argues that the 1914 plan as initially implemented by Moltke the Younger was well within the parameters of past plans, but failed due to Moltke’s unfocused implementation of his own plan and plain lack of sufficient forces, not to mention excessive assumptions about what the enemy might do.

This book’s shining value, though, is Zuber’s thorough, scholarly, and readable explanation of the strategic context underlying all German war planning over the twenty years prior to World War One.  Many interesting details are also presented, such as the importance of the prodigious French use of 75mm artillery ammunition during in the 1914 Battle of the Marne, which actually caused shortages during later operations.

Zuber’s careful “net assessment” also illuminates Germany’s relative strategic position vis a vis France and Russia over a long period.   He points out that Russian industrial development accelerated sharply after the defeat by Japan in 1905 and the subsequent revolutionary disorders in the country, with ominous strategic consequences for Germany, though he also contends that Germany’s strategic position was weak in 1913-14 compared to then-expected immediate future developments.  The latter contention is based to a significant degree on Germany’s belated effort to implement Schlieffen’s final request by significantly expanding the number of reserve divisions and corps shortly just before the onset of World War One.  The three major continental powers (France, Germany, and Russia) all had significant under-utilized trained reservists who could have been formed into organized units, but weren’t due to budget-related equipment issues and, perhaps, negative attitudes toward reservists by professionals.  Schlieffen’s requested extra twenty-four reserve divisions could easily have been paid for by the money invested in Germany’s unsuccessful and enormously expensive naval race
with Britain, and budget authority for this expansion had just started when war broke out.

Zuber’s several volumes on the question of German military planning in the period leading up to the Great War has sparked a great deal of scholarly debate.  The on-line journal, War in History has been the principal forum for the discussion of the Zuber’s thesis that there was no one “ Schlieffen Plan” as such.  Most recently, the July2011 has a not very convincing rebuttal to his premise.  This academic acrimony, should detract from the greater, strategic context, which makes this book an excellent study of recent developments in study of the onset of World War One and continental
mobilization plans.

The book’s greatest value, however, lies in Zuber’s presentation of the relationship between the German General Staff’s analysis of Germany’s strategic position and its development of appropriate military strategies, a methodology that merits emulation.


Reviewer: Tom Holsinger   

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