Germany's Declaration of War on Russia & France

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  • 0:02 Background
  • 0:56 German Plans
  • 2:03 Early Successes
  • 2:39 Stalemate
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

In 1914, Germany was faced with the prospect of a two-front war with Russia and France. This lesson explains how Germany got into that situation, as well as how the German army planned on winning the war.


Since the formation of the German Empire at the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 1871, much of Europe was wary of what this new power would mean for the continent. Two countries that were especially wary were France and Russia, both traditional foes of the largest state in that empire, Prussia. As a result, the two countries signed a treaty of alliance in the 1880s that guaranteed that if one went to war with Germany, the other would run to its defense.

This arrangement left Germany with large, hostile nations on both its eastern and western borders. While the two countries would attempt to modernize their economies and armies in an attempt to be able to take on the powerful Germans, it was clear that unless Germany came up with a plan, there would be little chance that it could survive a two-front war, even from two weaker countries.

German Plans

Germany had no intention of sitting by and watching its borders be threatened by two large countries. Instead, the German General Staff, the branch of the army in charge of strategy, went to work to find a solution. The one they found was named for the officer who developed it, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, and made a few rational assumptions about how the French and Russians would attack.

First, it assumed that the real danger from France was the speed with which they could attack, whereas the Russians were only dangerous if they could be given the time to bring their army to full potential. Acknowledging this, the Schlieffen Plan required that the majority of the German army be sent east to defeat the Russians early. Meanwhile, the western armies would fight to hold back the French. Once the Russians were defeated, the German army in the west would retreat slightly. Knowing the French would pursue, the plan then called for the larger force that had previously been on the eastern front to take trains across Germany and strike through Belgium, in effect closing a gate on the whole French army.

Early Successes

The time for the plan came in 1914, when deteriorating conditions between Austria-Hungary and Russia meant that much of the continent was preparing for war. As soon as war was declared, the plan went into effect. There were some worries that the Russians were mobilizing their forces quickly, so the balance of forces between east and west started to get out of proper alignment. In the east, at places like Tannenberg, the Germans were able to win major victories over the Russians. However, tactical mistakes meant that the Russians were defeated, but not destroyed.

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