At the turn of the 20th century, Imperial Germany was a dominant force in thinking about military strategy with a focus on land warfare commensurate with its geography. Prussian strategists agreed with most of their French colleagues that war would involve mass armies, and that their strategy had to be offensive.
Three Prussian strategists of land warfare were particularly influential in shaping the thinking that guided the Imperial German Army’s conduct in the First World War: Colmar von der Goltz, Alfred von Schlieffen and Friedrich von Bernhardi. Controversial in different ways and rivals with one another, they nevertheless exerted a strong influence on the conduct of land warfare, and on thinking about harnessing society in total war in which anything was permitted (the primordial violence and hatred in Clausewitz’s terms).
In this episode of Talking Strategy, Professor Stig Förster from the University of Bern joins hosts Professor Beatrice Heuser and Paul O'Neill. Professor Förster discusses the controversies surrounding the German strategists, the horrors spawned by the ideas of von der Goltz and Bernhardi, and how war does not work to the timetable envisaged by von Schlieffen in his ‘Schlieffen Plan’, which set out how Imperial Germany would fight in the First World War.
Colmar v.d.Goltz, Das Volk in Waffen, Decker, 1899 [UniBw]. Translated as The Nation in Arms, trans. Philip A. Ashworth, Hugh Rees, 1906.
Colmar v.d.Goltz, Krieg- und Heerführung (2nd edn), R.v. Decker’s Verlag, 1901. Translated as The Conduct of War: A Short Treatise on its most important Branches and Guiding Rules, trans. Major G.F. Leverson, Kegan Paul, 1899.
Friedrich v.Bernhardi, Deutschland und der nächste Krieg, Cotta, 1912. Translated as Germany and the Next War, Longmans & Green, 1914.
Friedrich v.Bernhardi, Vom heutigen Kriege, Mittler, 1912. Translated as On War of Today, trans. Karl von Donat, vol. 1, Hugh Rees, 1912.
Carl Alexander Krethlow, Generalfeldmarschall Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz Pascha. Eine Biographie, Ferdinand Schöningh, 2012. (Not translated, this is the definitive biography on von der Goltz)
Robert Foley (ed. & trans.), Alfred von Schlieffen's military writings, Frank Cass, 2002.
Gerhard P. Groß, Mythos und Wirklichkeit, Geschichte des operativen Denkens im deutschen Heer von Moltke d. Ä bis Heusinger, Ferdinand Schöningh, 2012. (In German only, this is an excellent general analysis of strategic thinking in the German army from the 19th century to the early Bundeswehr.)
Senior Associate Fellow
Director, Military Sciences