Strategic Limitations of the German General Staff

It has become common for those who study business organizations to embrace military analogies and military models when they think about strategy and organizational complexity.1 This is a good thing; cross-disciplinary approaches can offer new perspectives and help seed new ideas. However, limited knowledge of the subject matter can lead to overly optimistic interpretations of historical examples and restrict our ability to learn from them. This is particularly true in the case of the German General Staff (GGS) in general and Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) in particular.

Moltke is considered one of the greatest military minds of the nineteenth century. He was appointed chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857 and led the Prussian Army through the wars of German Unification, including victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71). Those who believe in flexibility, learning, and adaptability in the face of uncertainty find appeal in his famous quote about the nature of war: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”2

Moltke built the Prussian Army—and later the German one—on this assumption about the nature of war. Rather than issuing detailed instructions, Moltke stressed adaptability and flexibility. Officers were given high-level objectives and guidance. They were expected to develop specific plans based on the circumstances of the moment, without consulting higher headquarters for approval. This allowed Moltke’s armies to shorten their decision cycle. In modern business terms, Moltke’s armies lowered the cost of decisions by placing authority to make those decisions at lower levels. They got inside the “decision cycle” of their opponents.

There are extremely salient lessons to be gained from this experience. Distributing decision-making more broadly throughout the organization is an effective reaction to increased complexity and uncertainty. Education, training, and practice will give better results in the field of knowledge work than detailed instructions that become obsolete at the first unanticipated circumstance. However, if we consider this one aspect of Moltke’s approach worth emulating, we must also be conscious of his limitations.

The most effective critique of the GGS and its approach springs from another Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, and his famous dictum, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.”3 This concept has been interpreted numerous ways, but there is no escaping its fundamental essence, and that is that nations (and would-be-nations4) wage war to achieve political ends.

Moltke would have agreed with this, and the political objective of his famous victories is readily apparent from their name, the “Wars of German Unification.” It is unfortunate that in our praise for Moltke, the essential political side of these wars is often forgotten. The political side was dominated by the Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck. Without Bismarck’s skill and acumen, it is unlikely that Moltke’s battlefield victories would have achieved lasting fame.

This is primarily because Moltke’s battlefield emphasis was the encirclement and destruction of the opposing army. Moltke focused on crafting the quintessential military victory: the annihilation of the enemy forces. The approach worked for two reasons. First, the era of total war, where nations mobilized their entire economies in pursuit of victory, had not yet come. Military victory could, in such an environment, deliver political victory. Second, the circumstances that allowed the Prussian state to achieve battlefield success—the delicate management of alliances, the choice of the right moment in time, and the selection of willing allies—had been put in place by the diligent Bismarck. His deft hand provided the context for Moltke’s triumphs.

The necessity of an effective interplay between military and political spheres is illustrated by what happened after Moltke and Bismarck retired. Moltke left the GGS in 1888; Bismarck retired in 1890. The delicate balance of alliances Bismarck had brokered for Germany’s benefit fell apart. France and Russia, long potential enemies, entered into an Alliance in 1892. This left Germany in a difficult strategic position, with powerful opponents to the east and the west.

This challenge required a balance of political and military thinking, but the voids left by Moltke and Bismarck were filled by less-capable individuals. By the time of the time of the Franco-Russian Alliance, Alfred von Schlieffen had assumed leadership of the GGS. Schlieffen was not a politically astute individual; he had less influence over other governmental departments than Moltke. Rather than seeking to collaboratively develop a solution to Germany’s strategic dilemma, Schlieffen, “responded to this challenge… by focusing inward on areas he could control and influence.”5 The result was a purely military solution to Germany’s strategic problem, the infamous Schlieffen Plan.

The Schlieffen Plan was a reckless attempt to use military means to achieve political ends while ignoring the political consequences of those means. Schlieffen—and his successor, the younger Helmuth von Moltke (cousin of the elder Moltke)—embraced the approach of the elder Moltke and placed an emphasis on quick battlefield victories. They expected to defeat France with a huge flanking movement that would enter northern France through neutral Belgium. Germany’s eastern border would be secured by a small force; Russia’s mobilization was expected to be slow and cumbersome. The delay would allow the bulk of the German Army to defeat France before turning eastward and defeating Russia. As the world witnessed in the fall of 1914, it didn’t work.

There were numerous flaws in the plan; two were crucial. First, the violation of Belgian neutrality made Germany a global pariah and brought Great Britain into the war on the side of France and Russia. While there is some question as to whether Britain would have interceded anyway, the military plan guaranteed this political result. Second, the plan assumed that swift military victories were still possible in an era of national mobilization. This was no longer the case. The elder Moltke and the General Staff had gotten evidence of this in the latter stages of the Franco-Prussian War, when new French armies appeared after the initial German triumphs. Schlieffen and the younger Moltke both had sufficient evidence to anticipate these flaws. That they did not is a weighty indictment of the approach of the GGS, and through it, the legacy of the elder Moltke.

When we praise Moltke for developing a potent framework for overcoming uncertainty and developing high performance on the dynamic environment of the battlefield, we praise his work within the German Army. But it is essential to remember that Moltke’s framework was successful because of the political circumstances Bismarck brokered. The two of them, along with a broader supporting cast, created the system in which Moltke’s battlefield triumphs brought political success. Without that broader system, Moltke’s work—while impressive—does not guarantee victory. The example of Germany’s performance in World War One proves that point.

What lessons then should the modern student take from Moltke? His system of decentralized decision-making is laudable, certainly, and has been a model of effective military leadership for over a century. However, if we adopt such an approach, we need to ensure that the end goals remain at the forefront. Too often, like Schlieffen, we seek to optimize the work within the spheres we can control, and ignore the challenges outside of them.

The end goal for the GGS should have been political victory for Germany. Instead, it became victory on the battlefield. The two were not the same thing. A more modern example would be a software team that makes its end goal the creation of features, and ignores the process of validating that those features are ones that will solve their customers’ business problems. Moltke was like a software manager, who, having developed an effective rapport with his peers, focused on optimizing the work of his software team. After his departure, his successors continued to optimize and refine their work, but lost the rapport, and in the process, lost the system that allowed their work to be valuable. This is the great lesson we should take from the elder Moltke.

Further Reading:

German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, Robert T. Foley, (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

The Principles of Product Development Flow, Donald G. Reinertsen, (Celeritas Publishing, 2009)

On War, Carl von Clausewitz, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton University Press, 1989)

Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning, Arden Bucholz, (Berg Publishers, 1993)

The Marne, 1914, Holger H. Herwig, (Random House, 2009)

The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision-Making and the Disasters of 1914, Jack Snyder, (Cornell University Press, 1984)


1. Perhaps the most effective example of this is Don Reinertsen’s The Principles of Product Development Flow, (Celeritas Publishing, 2009). See Chapter 9, p. 243-266

2. Moltke’s Wikipedia entry is a good starting point to learn more.

3. Clausewitz Wikipedia entryOn War, Carl von Clausewitz, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton University Press, 1989)

4. It is useful to think of the terrorist network of Al Qaeda and its affiliates this way.

5. Robert T. Foley, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 64