The Schlieffen Plan in WW1: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:04 Introducing the…
  • 1:14 Opening Shots
  • 2:01 The Plan in Action
  • 3:39 Execution of the…
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Almeria

Chris has a Master of Arts in International Relations.

In this lesson, we will explore the Schlieffen Plan, an operation for the German invasion of France and Belgium during World War I, carried out in August of 1914. At the end of the lesson, test your newfound knowledge with a brief quiz on the Plan and its execution.

Introducing the Schlieffen Plan

The Schlieffen Plan was an operational plan used by the Germans to take over France and Belgium and carried out in August 1914. It was devised by and named after German Field Marshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen, who served as Chief of the Imperial German General Staff from 1891 to 1905. In his last year as chief, he developed a plan to ensure Germany could fight and win a major war in continental Europe. This plan was quite ambitious, as Germany was surrounded by powerful nations considered potential enemies.

In fact, Germany believed that Russia was eventually going to attack, as the Russian war machine surpassed anything the Germans could muster at the time. Russia's principal ally in the west, France, would make this an impossible war to win, squeezing Germany in on both sides.

Rather than fight a prolonged two-front war, Schlieffen argued that Germany could knock out the French first. He argued this could be done by avoiding its major defenses massed on the French-German border by going up and around them. This meant invading smaller, weaker, neutral Belgium as the pathway to victory.

Opening Shots

On August 2, 1914, Germany's ambassador to Belgium handed over a request (a demand, actually) that the forces of Kaiser Wilhelm II be allowed safe passage through Belgium on the way to attack France. Not ready to violate his nation's proud independence and neutrality that was guaranteed by the Treaty of London of 1839, King Albert I of Belgium replied the next day to the Kaiser: I rule a nation, not a road.

The very next day after receiving Belgium's answer, Germany invaded Belgium heading for the first major objective city of Liège. Thus, the opening phase of the Schlieffen Plan was in effect: the calculated use of maneuver and surprise to fight and win a major conventional war against the other major European powers.

The Plan in Action

This was the crux of his plan: make a bold, decisive and unexpected move to remove a powerful combatant from the field, thus clearing a major threat from one side. This would allow Germany to focus on one front, presumably the Russians coming from the east, greatly enhancing Germany's path to victory in the advent of war. It depended on a quick defeat of France, no more than six weeks, so that those forces could then be rapidly re-deployed to fight the Russians in the east. The quick and total defeat of France would also serve to deter Britain from entering the war, as a rapid victory would leave no room for the British to intervene.

The fact that this maneuver would violate the neutrality of Belgium was of little consequence to Schlieffen. The overall focus of the plan was to secure a German victory, so respect for neutrality and international treaties was of no regard. It is helpful to remember the state of affairs in Europe at this time. The Triple Alliance included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, while the Triple Entente included France, Britain, and Russia. Germany being sandwiched in on both sides by major powers, proved to be a constant source of worry to the point that the country was obsessed with striking first.

After Schlieffen retired in 1905, Helmuth von Moltke was his immediate successor and would be an enthusiastic follower of this plan. Schlieffen did not create this plan as a lone wolf or as someone who was on the outside of thinking. Many in the German leadership thought the same way. The plan was a written codification of the overall line of thinking that would lead to Germany's behavior during World War I.

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