Profile: Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke’s German army fought for four years. The commander of the armed forces, a key figure in Berlin’s decision to go to war, lasted six weeks.

On August 1st, 1914, the senior general predicted correctly that the war Germany had just entered "will expand to a world war. . . how it will end, no one knows".

It ended for Moltke with a nervous breakdown on September 14th after neutral Belgium had the audacity to resist the invading German army, slowing its advance on France and throwing the general's war plan into disarray.

Despite his sensitive disposition, von Moltke had been calling for a preventative war with Britain, France and Russia since at least 1912. He served as a lieutenant in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and was nephew of Helmuth von Moltke the elder, a legendary field marshall, military strategist and, for three decades, chief-of-staff of the Prussian armed forces.


On his uncle’s death, von Moltke the younger became aide-de-camp to Wilhelm II, entering the young emperor’s inner circle. This relationship and his famous name, critics suggested, were behind the rise through the military ranks more than strategic talent. As army chief-of-staff from 1906, he tinkered with the so-called Schlieffen plan, named after his predecessor, which proposed a two-front war to reorder Europe along German lines: marching west to conquer France quickly before tackling Russia to the east.

With that in mind von Moltke co-authored a pamphlet in December 1912 demanding an increase in military spending and greater army recruitment. His wishes were granted and, 18 months later, he even got his war.

Shortly before the outbreak of hostilities the Kaiser was informed that Britain had offered to remain neutral if France was not attacked. The Kaiser demanded that western front forces be pulled back and concentrate on the eastern front against Russia, but von Moltke refused saying it would cause chaos. When the British embassy in Berlin denied the report, the Schlieffen plan went into effect despite von Moltke’s reported doubts about it.

His doubts of a swift victory over France were confirmed in the first battle of the Marne. Even before it ended in defeat for the Germans, halting their advance westward, von Moltke announced: “Majesty, we have lost the war!” Two days later he ordered a retreat and, on September 14th, he suffered a nervous collapse.

For decades military historians have debated his order to retreat: one camp believes the move cost Germany the war, another say it prevented the army being surrounded and annihilated.

With morbid fascination for war, von Moltke predicted in 1914 the conflict he had just helped trigger would cause the “mutual laceration” of European states and “destroy the culture of almost all of Europe for centuries to come”.

He didn’t live to see if his prediction would come true, dying a broken man in 1916.