Moltke, Helmuth von

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MOLTKE, HELMUTH VON (1800–1891), Prussian/German army officer and architect of the Wars of German Unification.

Born in 1800 in Parchim, Mecklenburg, Helmuth von Moltke stands alongside Otto von Bismarck as a symbol of Prussia/Germany's emergence as a Great Power. He is also generally recognized as the first master of modern industrial war: the administrative aspects epitomized in the general staff system and the technological elements manifested in the railroads.

Moltke, who began his military career in the army of Denmark, transferred to Prussian service in 1822—still a common pattern for officers from small states seeking wider professional opportunities. Graduating from the Prussian War Academy in 1826, he first made his mark in the embryonic general staff as a cartographer, simultaneously establishing a reputation as a freelance writer and translator. In 1835 he was seconded to the Turkish army, where he exercised the only field command of his career: of the sultan's artillery in a losing battle.

Returning to Berlin in 1840, Moltke served in a series of staff appointments that exposed him to the technological developments reshaping the face of war in Europe. As early as 1841 he served on the board of directors of a proposed Berlin–Hamburg railway line and put most of his assets into company stock: entrepreneurial behavior setting him apart from many of his Junker counterparts. He continued to evaluate and cultivate railroads' military prospects, particularly for integrating rail transport into local maneuvers. He also paid attention to the tactical and operational implications of rifled weapons, with their increased range and firepower.

Appointed chief of the general staff in 1857, Moltke worked to improve Prussia's mobilization system as a counterweight to the state's exposed geographic position. He developed the general staff as the brain and nervous system of the Prussian army, providing centralized planning and decentralized control. He cultivated positive relations with civilian ministries whose functions influenced mobilization: war, commerce, and interior. And he worked to increase harmony with Bismarck, appointed minister-president (prime minister) of Prussia in September 1862.

From the beginning of his career Moltke was concerned with reestablishing the limitations on war that had been so profoundly challenged during the revolutionary/Napoleonic era. The mass armies created in those years were heavy, blunt instruments increasingly unable to decide either battles or wars. Moltke believed decisive victories were still possible, but only by combining systematic, comprehensive operational planning with effective use of the railways that enhanced strategic mobility—and synergizing both with state policy.

Moltke was anything but a nuts-and-bolts technocrat. For example, the precondition of his operational plan in 1866 for the Austro-Prussian War was guaranteed French and Russian neutrality, thereby obviating the need to secure Prussia's eastern and western frontiers. The chief of staff's often-cited insistence that once war broke out, its conduct must be determined by military considerations is best understood in the context of his conviction that the Prussian army best served Prussia's interests by winning battles convincingly enough to compel its foes to sue for peace. And at that point by Moltke's own logic the soldier in turn withdrew in favor of the statesman.

Moltke's emphasis on the importance of limits to war making was even more clearly demonstrated during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). France's initial victories left it without a government willing to negotiate peace on terms acceptable to Prussia. Instead the revolutionary Republic extended the conflict to a point at which the equally newly created German empire was desperate to find an exit from the resulting domestic and international problems.

A frustrated Moltke called briefly for the complete destruction of France—an objective he never took seriously. Instead, between 1871 and his resignation in 1888, Moltke concluded soberly that Germany's geostrategic position, sandwiched between France and Russia, worked against fighting any future wars to total victory. He correspondingly understood that the cabinet wars that had made his reputation were becoming obsolete. Governments might initiate wars; now citizens sustained them.

In that environment any protracted conflict ran the risk of becoming general—the kind of war most contrary to Germany's interests. Even preemptive war offered such limited prospects that Moltke came to stress deterrence as preferable to conflict. The next war, he declared in 1890, might last for thirty years, and "woe to him who sets Europe ablaze."

Unfortunately, Moltke did not impose this realism on either the general staff or the army at large. Instead he presided over a system that increasingly sought strategic salvation in developing a technical and bureaucratic orientation that eventually led to the kind of all-or-nothing gamble he sought to avoid. Ironically, Moltke's own creation escaped his control as Germany careened down the road to total war.

See alsoArmies; Austro-Prussian War; Bismarck, Otto von; Franco-Prussian War; Germany; Military Tactics.


Bucholz, Arden. Moltke and the German Wars, 1864–1871. Basingstoke, U.K., 2001.

Meyer, Bradley J. "The Operational Art and the Elder Moltke's Campaign Plan for the Franco-Prussian War." In The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War, edited by B. J. C. McKercher and Michael A. Hennessy, 29–49. Westport, Conn., 1996. This is a model case study of Moltke's greatest campaign.

Showalter, Dennis. The Wars of German Unification. London, 2004.

Dennis Showalter