Helmuth von Moltke the Younger

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Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (1848-1916) was a leading general in the army of Imperial Germany, often referred to as Moltke the Younger to distinguish him from his also-famous uncle, Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke ("Moltke the Elder"), who played a vital role in the unification of Germany in the 1860s and '70s. Moltke the Younger was chief of the German General Staff from 1906 to 1914, making him the effective head of the German Army, and in that capacity led it during the initial actions of World War I. His actions surrounding the German decision to go to war, and his implementation of the Schlieffen Plan, continue to be debated by historians.

Early Life

Moltke was born on May 25, 1848, at Biendorf in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (now part of the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), the son of Adolf von Moltke, a prominent Prussian bureaucrat and the younger brother of Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, for whom he would be named. He was the second of six children; his one older brother, Wilhelm Adolf von Moltke, was the grandfather of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, a notable opponent of the Nazi dictatorship.

Slated for a military career from an early age, the young Helmuth von Moltke was formally inducted into the Prussian Army in 1869 as an officer and served in the 7th Grenadier Regiment during the Franco-Prussian War, during which he received the Iron Cross, Second Class for bravery. After the war he transferred to the 1st Guards Regiment (Foot) at Potsdam, serving with it until 1880, when he entered the German General Staff, acting as an adjutant to his more famous uncle for much of that time. Following Moltke the Elder's death in 1891, he became an aide-de-camp for Kaiser Wilhelm II, and later a military attaché for the German embassy to Austria-Hungary. Upon returning to Germany, he led the 1st Guards Division from 1902 to 1904.

In 1878, Moltke married a distant relative, Eliza von Moltke-Huitfeldt (1859-1932). They had no children.

Chief of the General Staff

In 1904, Moltke was transferred back to the General Staff and appointed Quartermaster-General, making him in effect the Deputy Chief and the likely successor to its head, Count Alfred von Schlieffen. Sure enough, upon Schlieffen's retirement on January 1, 1906, Moltke succeeded him as Chief. His appointment to the post was controversial at the time, as several other qualified generals had been proposed for the slot, and it was felt in some quarters that he had gained it only by virtue of his family name and his connection to Wilhelm II, with whom he had been close since Moltke had served as his aide-de-camp. Moltke was considered a capable staff officer in his own right, though, and his appointment was accepted by the other army generals.

Outbreak of War

It has often been debated what part Moltke played in the German government's decision-making surrounding the outbreak of World War I. In December 1912, he expressed to the Kaiser the opinion that if Germany was going to fight a war with the powers of the Triple Entente, it should do so sooner rather than later; within a few years, he believed, Russia would be too great an industrial power to handle in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan left to him by his predecessor (and on which German war plans still depended). This was, however, also the opinion of other German military and civilian leaders, including Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent "July Crisis" of 1914, Moltke firmly supported going to war in support of Austria-Hungary. Though he had instituted some minor adjustments to the timetable and other operational details of the Schlieffen Plan, he still adhered to its basic elements, including a quick and preemptive offensive into France via neutral Belgium, before throwing the bulk of the military against Russia. On August 1, following war declarations between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and Russia, Wilhelm II, acting on reports that France and Great Britain might remain neutral, ordered Moltke to halt the Staff's plans for the invasion of Belgium and instead redirect all forces eastward for operations against Russia. Moltke refused, stating flatly that a last-minute alteration of plans on such a scale "cannot be done." The clash between the two drove Moltke close to a nervous breakdown, and though the reports of possible Western neutrality were soon proven false, leading the Kaiser to allow the invasion to continue as planned, Moltke was severely shaken by this incident at the opening of hostilities, saying later that he "was never the same thereafter."[1]

The Marne Offensive

Since the overwhelming majority of German troops were massed in the west, Moltke kept his headquarters close to that front, transferring from Berlin to Koblenz in mid-August, then to Luxembourg City, Luxembourg at the end of the month. Though he had maintained the essentials of the Schlieffen Plan, Moltke made two significant alterations as it unfolded: first, he shifted troops from his right wing, advancing into Belgium, to his left wing, fighting a defensive action against the French in Alsace-Lorraine; and second, upon learning of a faster-than-expected Russian mobilization, he detached several corps from the Western Front and sent them to East Prussia to shore up German defenses there. These decisions have been the source of considerable debate among historians, with some arguing they were reasonable moves in the chaotic unfolding of military operations, and others contending they doomed any chance of the Schlieffen Plan achieving its goal of a quick defeat of France and a subsequent concentration against Russia.

Until the beginning of September, it appeared to Moltke and to other observers that the offensive into France, if modified, was nonetheless succeeding; German armies were rapidly advancing south and west, and it seemed possible that they might encircle the bulk of the French army and capture Paris. A quick response by the French and their British allies, though, enabled them to launch a counteroffensive on September 5, resulting in the First Battle of the Marne. Although the battle itself was inconclusive, a review of the positions of the individual German armies led General Staff officers to recommend a limited withdrawal. Moltke himself, who had issued relatively few orders to his subordinates in the prelude to the battle, appears to have become despondent as it progressed, and acquiesced in his staff's decision.

According to one report, around the time of the end of the battle and the decision to withdraw, Moltke, realizing that the Schlieffen Plan would not be realized and that Germany faced a lengthy contest on two fronts, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II, "Your Majesty, we have lost the war." It is not clear whether he actually said this or not. However, it does appear the strain of events once again drove him to the edge of a breakdown. After ordering the retreating German armies to halt along the Aisne River in northeastern France and begin erecting a defensive line, he was relieved of command on September 14, replaced as Chief of the General Staff by General Erich von Falkenhayn.

Later Life

After his departure as Chief of the General Staff, Moltke was appointed chief of the home substitute for the general staff in November 1914, with responsibility for organizing and forwarding reserve army units to the front lines. His health rapidly deteriorated, and he died of an apparent heart attack in Berlin on June 18, 1916, during the funeral for Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz (one of the other candidates for the post of Chief of the General Staff in 1906). Some of his letters and documents were published in 1919 by his widow, Eliza.

Moltke was buried in the Invalids' Cemetery (Invalidenfriedhof) in Berlin.


  1. Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962), p. 94-97.