Written by Malak Seoudi
Germany has a long history of wars and conquest, both as the German Empire and as the German Republic. It was one of the main belligerents in both World Wars, which is to say the First World War from 1914 to 1918 and the Second World War from 1939 to 1945. In both cases, it found itself in the defeated camp. However, the outcomes of both these Great Wars are not of interest to us. Our objective, throughout this essay, is to determine how similar (or different) the German way of war was during the World Wars.
Thereby, we will compare and contrast the strategies of the German military in the First World War in 1914-18 and the strategies of under Hitler in 1939-45. To determine such a thing, we will go through three points. First, we will talk about the pre-war conditions and previsions, and what their consequences were. Secondly, we will speak of the alliance system during both wars, what such a system entailed, and discuss the similarities and differences in both wars. Finally, we will talk about the tactics used in each war. Mainly the Schlieffen plan during the first world war and the Blitzkrieg plan during the Second world war, as well as the reason for their successes or failures.
I – Predictions Prior to the war
The hypotheses pre-1914 and the First World War had much influence on the strategies, tactics, weaponry and armed forces of the armies. As such, to understand the German strategies during both World Wars it is important to understand, not only the dynamics during the War but also the dynamics before the start of the war.
The most important predictions at the beginning of the First World War, shared by most if not all belligerent, was the thought of it being a short war. Therefore, preparations and strategies were thought with a short war in mind. Few were those who believed the war would last long, and they were not given a lot of credit. German officer corps all shared this belief, as an example “Bethmann is reported by Bilow to have predicted that the war would be only a “brief storm”. This prediction, shared by most belligerents, “was perhaps a precondition for decisions to resort to war in pursuit of prewar objectives”.
If not, it would have been deemed too costly a war for the objectives it pursued. Furthermore, “Although Schlieffen based his assumption of a short war on economic and political considerations, he virtually ignored them in his planning for war, as did his successor, the younger Moltke”. Indeed, because the war was assumed to be short, it was deemed unnecessary to study the economic implications of it. A choice that would prove to have its consequences during the longer than expected conflict.
The Second World War was mostly an ideological war. In this sense, it reminds of Clausewitz’s affirmation that the political aim is the matrix in which war develops. Nationalism was sweeping through Germany, mostly due to the anger against the Versailles Treaty that ended the First World War, and that Germans thought to be too punitive.
As we can see, the predictions of war and the prior-war context were very different before 1914 and before 1939. The idea that the First World War was going to be a short conflict led a few countries to become an actor of the war, had they known the truth they might have been less keen ton starting a war that costly. Whereas the Second World War had no such assumption, it was dulled by frustration, ideological beliefs and nationalism.
II – The Alliance System
The Alliance system was in force in both wars, with its benefits and its consequences. However, when it comes to the German Strategies and the Axis powers, it seems that the alliance system did more harm than good. Let us illustrate our point by examining what the system entailed for the Axis Power in both World Wars.
World War I
The relations between Austrians and Germans before the war, even if they were allies, were not based on trust nor respect. Indeed, Germans had quite an unbecoming image of their allies. Furthermore, even with the war approaching the two countries did not try to fix their relationship.
Indeed, “The last prewar meeting between Conrad and Moltke, held on 12 May 1914, did nothing to overcome the intentionally vague and even dishonest nature of the military planning on both sides”. Furthermore, at the start of the World War, the allies within the Axis Power broke their promises to each other, feeding a feeling of mistrust that would not be restored throughout the rest of the War. This mistrust resulted in other consequences.
Germany and its allies did not often communicate with each other and, pursued their own objectives within the alliance. For example,” between 1915 and 1917 the two allies Germany and Austria-Hungary] found themselves with widely divergent strategic viewpoints, and at times were not even at war against the same powers”. This later also translated in Germany not declaring war on Italy after it had declared war on Austria-Hungary, and the latter returning the favour with the United States of America. During the First World War, there had been thoughts and discussions about putting in place a combined command system, however, the little efforts that had been put into trying to implement such a system failed rapidly, due certainly to the problems we have enunciated previously.
World War II
The Alliance’s shortcomings that happened during World War I, were very much present during World War II as well. Indeed, secrecy played a big role in the relationship the Axis powers held. Furthermore, “Hitler’s chaotic government lacked any mechanism for combined planning”, and several of Hitler’s officers felt Germany didn’t hold many common interests with its allies. The personal campaigns within the Axis Alliance Campaign served as a hinder to the objectives of the Alliance as a whole and forced the others within the Axis Power to try and repair the wrongdoings of their allies.
Furthermore, troops at the front were not always motivated to fight, a factor Germans never took into account nor understood. Certainly, in 1941, Romania had fulfilled all of its political goals, continuing to fight was thus not in the interest of the Romanians. Another thing common to the two wars was the failure of combined planning or command. During the Second World War, Hitler never even tried to make such a system. He “preferred bilateral meetings between himself and a particular allied leader, often with a minimum of military advisers’ present”.
One notable difference between the two wars is that, during the Second World War, the Axis alliance had communicated more often with each other than during the First World War, although secrecy was still a big part of the agreement. For example, Hitler succeeded in monopolizing the weaponry construction.
A choice that and was much criticized by his allies who offered to build some of the weaponry themselves, for they were better equipped to do so, it is a decision that is nowadays still criticized by war strategy analysts. Indeed, “both Romanian and Hungarian industry were capable of building German tanks under license, but they could not afford the exorbitant prices demanded by the German army for the patents”. Another important factor a problem Hitler was faced with within the Alliance throughout the unravelling of the Second World War, “namely the almost constant threat of war between Romania and Hungary”.
Germany’s failure to establish an alliance based on real cooperation and trust before the outbreak of the two world wars proved to be the recipe for its failure. Concerning the Alliance’s and Germany’s relationship with its allies, we can deduce that Germany’s experience in both the First World War and the Second World War are quite similar. Both were quite chaotic in their organization; war aims and national strategies were fragmented. Moreover, the alliance failed its purpose (mutual aid towards success and against serious threats to each country within the alliance).
III- War plans, tactics and intelligence
World War I: Schlieffen
The German strategical plan during the First World War is the Schlieffen plan. It is the name given to the German invasion of France and Belgium on August 4th, 1914. It is named after the Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, the Chief of the Imperial Army German general Staff from 1891 to 1906. He had written about an offensive deployment plan, for a front line war against the French Third republic from 1905 to 1906.
It is sometimes called the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan because it was executed by Moltke (the Younger) in 1914. The Schlieffen plan was devised by Schlieffen as a counter joint attack, a German war plan against France and Russia. Originally, Germany though Russia would attack, Russia’s war materials surpassed the German ones, and Germany would be squeeze by the Russian’s Ally France. As such, Schlieffen argued that if Germany should knock out France first, but this meant violating Belgium’s neutrality to avoid their defence masses.
The Schlieffen Plan’s ultimate objective was the annihilation of the French army. Many criticize Moltke’s decisions for its failure. However, considering the German armed forces and the battles that were being fought at different fronts, (in siege operations and against the Belgian forces in their sanctuary of Antwerp), troops would have been lacking anyway. The Schlieffen Plan would have been successful at the Battle of the Marne only if another battle at another front had been sacrificed, which would not necessarily have been a better outcome for the Germans in the war.
German intelligence during the First World War was not highly efficient. It remained operated in the same way it had been used by the Imperial State. It was highly interested in domestic intelligence, to keep track of the population’s consensus to the war and enthusiasm. Furthermore, it relied heavily on civilian reports to high commanding officers who interpreted them as they wanted.
Additionally, “The intelligence system was partly militarized in the same way as the economy and politics, with similar consequences: a refusal to acknowledge the signs of collapse” – in other words, the “domestic intelligence may have been ‘militarized’ in who came to dominate the top of the surveillance system” but, the way it was gathered was not. Different reports suggest that different levels of authority within the German Military chose to validate certain parts of the reports they received (that suited their thoughts) and forgo the rest of the reports; “generally they went with their ideological preferences”.
This created a counter-result, as the reality of the domestic situation became less understood by the commanding officers. Another important factor of German intelligence during the First World War was that “’Hardly anyone bothered to ask how a given situation might appear from the perspective of the “other side”(H. Herwwog, )”. However, war always has multiple actors that were playing without trying to predict the other’s game plan which is a high risk to take.
World WarI I : Blitzkieg plan
The Central German Strategy during the Second World War is based on the Blitzkrieg strategy, which can be translated in English to the Lightning War. The Blitzkrieg was founded on war material production in width, and not in-depth. Meaning that the plan needed war material construction on a large scale, not a small scale of highly effective war material. Militarily, it also meant to constitute points of technical effort that would allow, in a war of movement, a local superiority.
However, one of the failures of Hitler in putting into action the Blitzkrieg plan was that he divided the high commands between the different military faction and failed to define precisely their missions, he found himself at the beginning of the war in 1939 with four Staff Generals (one for each faction: the navy, the air force, the army (on land or as called in French “ armée the Terre”, and of the different armies involved). The fact that these factions were not coordinated, and that Hitler kept his objectives and tactics hidden until the last minute represented in itself another kind of obstacles for the German side during the war. Indeed, throughout the progression of the war, Hitler found himself keener and keener on having control over the armies and the war objectives (his success can be debated because of his allies’ own endeavours).
If we discuss this plan with a Clausewitz perspective, we’ll see that it based itself on two principles that were the offensive strategy and the strategy of annihilation. Hitler’s strategy was to accomplish a series of objectives, deemed as superficial by his adversaries, that suppress the possibilities of reaction in the process of “la guerre a blanc” (white war) in a technique called “de l’artichaut” (of the artichoke), and that would lead to total annihilation as part of the Blitzkrieg Plan.
As we can see, when it comes to war tactics and intelligence, the German strategies during the First World War and the Second World War were quite similar. During the first World War, the Schlieffen Plan was put in place by Moltke Junior. The plan was to win against France before Russia would attack Germany, to prevent the country from being squeezed from both sides, violating Belgium’s neutrality in the process.
Moreover, intelligence gathering was interested in domestic intelligence and was not very efficient as it relied on civilian reports being interpreted to suit the top officer’s own ideological beliefs. Whereas during the Second World War, the German Strategy adopted the Blitzkrieg Plan or the Lightning War Plan. Its main objective was to win conflicts that are deemed as superficial by other belligerents, as to prevent them from reacting until the total annihilation of the enemy.
As we can see, the predictions of war and the prior-war context were very different before 1914 and before 1939. The prevision that the first world war would be a short war, led countries to participate in it not realizing how costly it would be. Whereas the Second World War had not such assumption, it was dulled by frustration, ideological beliefs and nationalism.
Germany’s failure to establish an alliance based on real cooperation and trust before the outbreak of the two world wars proved to be a recipe for its failure. Concerning the Alliance’s and Germany’s relationship with its allies, we can deduce that Germany’s experience in both World Wars is quite similar. Both were quite chaotic in their organization, with war aims and national strategies being fragmented. Moreover, the alliance failed its purpose (mutual aid towards success and against serious threats to each country within the alliance).
As we can see, when it comes to war tactics and intelligence, the german strategies during the World Wars were quite different. During the First World War, the Schlieffen Plan was put into action by Moltke the Younger. The plan was to win against France before Russia would attack Germany, to prevent the country from being squeezed from both sides, violating Belgium’s neutrality.
Moreover, intelligence gathering was interested in domestic intelligence and was not very efficient as it relied on the bias interpretation Commanding Officers made of civilian reports. Whereas during the Second World War, the German Strategy adopted the Blitzkrieg Plan whose purpose was to win conflicts that were deemed as superficial by other belligerents, as to prevent them from reacting, in order to achieve total annihilation of the enemy.
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- Buse, Dieter K., Pierre Domestic Intelligence and German Military Leaders, 1914-18”, Intelligence and National Security, vol.15, n.4, 2000, p.42-59.
- Clausewitz, Carl von, De la guerre, Livre VII, chapitre 3 “ La politique est la matrice dans laquelle la guerre se développe ; ses linéaments déjà formés rudimentairement s’y cachent comme les propriétés des créatures vivantes dans leurs embryons ?”, Midnight Edition, France, 1959.
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- Farrar jr., L., “The Short War Illusions. The Syndrome of German Strategy, August-December 1914”, MGM, vol.2, n.72, 1972, p.39-52.
- Holmes, Terence M., “absolute Numbers: the Schlieffen Plan as a critique of German Strategy in 1914”, War in History, vol.21, n.2, 2014, p.193-213.
Messerschmidt, M., “ la stratégie allemande (1939-1945): conception, objectif, commandement, réussite ”, Revue d’histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, 25e année, N.100, Presses Universitaires de France, Octobre 1975, p.1-26.
- , consulted on December 26th, 2017.