Helmuth von Moltke the Younger

For the German military strategist of the 19th century, see Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. For the German resistance figure of the Nazi era, see Helmuth James Graf von Moltke.
Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke
Nickname(s) Moltke the Younger
Born (1848-05-25)25 May 1848
Biendorf, Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Died 18 June 1916(1916-06-18) (aged 68)
Berlin, German Empire
Buried at Invalids' Cemetery
Allegiance  Kingdom of Prussia
 German Empire
Service/branch Prussian Army
Imperial German Army
Years of service 1868–1916
Rank Generaloberst
Commands held 1st Guards Infantry Brigade
1st Guards Infantry Division
Chief of the General Staff
Battles/wars Franco-Prussian War
World War I
Awards Pour le Mérite
Order of the Red Eagle
House Order of the Wendish Crown
Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order

Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (German pronunciation: [ˈhɛlmuːt fɔn ˈmɔltkə]; 23 May 1848 – 17 June 1916), also known as Moltke the Younger, was a nephew of Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke and served as the Chief of the German General Staff from 1906 to 1914. The two are often differentiated as Moltke the Elder and Moltke the Younger.

Early life

Helmuth von Moltke was born in Biendorf, Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and was named after his uncle, Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke, future Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) and hero of the Unification of Germany. During the Franco-Prussian War, Moltke served with the 7th Grenadier Regiment and was cited for bravery. He attended the War Academy between 1875 and 1878 and joined the General Staff in 1880. In 1882 he became personal adjutant to his uncle, who was then Chief of the General Staff. In 1891, on the death of his uncle, Moltke became aide-de-camp to Kaiser Wilhem II, thus becoming part of the Emperor's inner circle. In 1898 he became commander of the 1st Guards Infantry Brigade and in 1902, being promoted to Lieutenant General, received command of the 1st Guards Infantry Division.[1]:47–49 In 1904 Moltke was made Quartermaster-General; in effect, Deputy Chief of the General Staff. In 1906, he became chief on the retirement of Alfred von Schlieffen. His appointment was controversial then and remains so today. The other likely candidates for the position were Hans Hartwig von Beseler, Karl von Bülow and Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz.[1]:68 Critics charge that Moltke gained the position on the strength of his name and his friendship with the Kaiser. Certainly, Moltke was far closer to the Kaiser than the other candidates. Historians argue that Beseler was too close to Schlieffen to have succeeded him, while Bülow and Goltz were too independent for Wilhelm to have accepted them. Moltke's friendship with the Kaiser permitted him a latitude that others could not have enjoyed. Goltz, at least, saw nothing wrong with Moltke's performance as Chief.[1]:71

Marne campaign

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War and the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, Moltke was called to the Kaiser who had been told by Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky that the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey had offered French neutrality under guarantee of Great Britain.[2] At this news, the Kaiser, seeing that a two-front war could be avoided, told Moltke to reverse the western front forces to the eastern one against Russia. Moltke refused, arguing that such a drastic alteration of a long-planned major mobilization, could not be done without throwing the forces into organizational chaos and the original plan now in motion must be followed through. Years later, General Hermann von Staabs, head of the German railway division, would disagree in a book detailing a contingency plan that the German army had for such a situation.[3]:93–94 Although Grey's offer turned out to be a wishful misinterpretation by Lichnowsky[3]:92 and the Kaiser told Moltke to proceed as originally planned, the general's health broke down as a consequence of this clash and on 25 October 1914, he was succeeded by Erich von Falkenhayn.[4]

It is a matter of debate whether the "failure" of the Marne Campaign can be placed at Moltke's feet. Some critics contend that Moltke's weakening of the Schlieffen Plan led to German defeat. The records show that Moltke, who was concerned about Russia, moved 180,000 men east before the war.[5] Many thousands more men were transported from the crucial right wing to the left wing facing France in Alsace and Lorraine. Most controversially, on 28 August, Moltke sent two corps and a cavalry division to reinforce Ludendorff and Hindenburg, just before the epic victory at the Battle of Tannenberg. The series of moves has been viewed by some historians as responsible for much of the strategic failure of the Schlieffen Plan as enacted in 1914. A number of historians, notably Zuber and S. L. A. Marshall, contend that the failure of Alexander von Kluck's 1st Army to keep position with Karl von Bülow's 2nd Army, thus creating a gap near Paris that was exploited by the French, is a more direct cause than any planning foibles on Moltke's part. The Schlieffen School disagrees and argues that Moltke lost control of the invading armies during the month of August and thus was unable to react when the First Battle of the Marne developed in September. While Moltke had lost touch with his field commanders, German operational doctrine had always stressed Auftragstaktik (personal initiative) on the part of subordinate officers, more so than in other armies. Other historians argue that the multitude of strategic options Moltke faced and the danger of the Russian invasion of East Prussia clouded Moltke's judgement.[6]

Although earlier in the campaign, German generals and the press had been proclaiming the campaign as good as won, on 4 September, Moltke was found despondent that the lack of prisoners meant that the Germans had not yet really won a decisive victory.[7]:186–7 Moltke may well have been overly preoccupied with the unsuccessful German offensive in Lorraine, and he issued no orders to the First, Second and Third Armies between 2 and 5 September whilst the Battle of the Marne was in progress.[7]:192

Following the German retreat from the Marne, Moltke allegedly reported to the Kaiser, "Your Majesty, we have lost the war."[8]

Whether General von Moltke actually said to the Emperor, "Majesty, we have lost the war," we do not know. We know anyhow that with a prescience greater in political than in military affairs, he wrote to his wife on the night of the 9th, "Things have not gone well. The fighting east of Paris has not gone in our favour, and we shall have to pay for the damage we have done".

Later life

Grave of Helmuth von Moltke in the Invalids' Cemetery (Invalidenfriedhof), Berlin (restitution stone from 2007)

After being succeeded by Falkenhayn, Moltke was entrusted in Berlin with the office of chief of the home substitute for the general staff (Der stellvertretende Generalstab), which had the task of organising and forwarding the reserves and of controlling the territorial army corps, corresponding to those at the front. Moltke's health continued to deteriorate and he died in Berlin on 18 June 1916, during the Staatsaktes (memorial state ceremony) for Marshal Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz. He left a pamphlet entitled Die 'Schuld' am Kriege (The Blame for the War), which his widow Eliza intended to publish in 1919. She was dissuaded from doing so because of the problems it might cause. The pamphlet was designed to show the "chaotic" nature of events leading up to the war, to counter Allied accusations of warmongering by Germany. Army chiefs and the German foreign ministry were disturbed by its contents. General Wilhelm von Dommes was sent to advise Eliza von Moltke against publication. Having read the pamphlet he confided to his diary that it "contains nasty stuff". Instead, Eliza published the more bland Erinnerungen, Briefe, Dokumente, a collection of her husband's letters and documents. Other material was archived. Some was later destroyed in World War II and the original pamphlet has not been accessible since.[1]:10

Personal life

At sixty-six Moltke was one of the older commanders of 1914 and in poor health, having suffered a stroke shortly before the outbreak of war.[10] These factors impacted negatively on his determination under stress.[11] His personal interests included music, painting and literature. While often assertive in manner his character was assessed by the historian Barbara W. Tuchman as being essentially that of a self-doubting introvert.

Moltke was a follower of theosophy, which taught that humanity was an endless, unchanging cycle of civilizations rising and falling. Historian Margaret MacMillan connected his personal beliefs with his resigned approach to the possibility of a general war in the leadup to the First World War.[12]


  1. 1 2 3 4 Mombauer, Annika (2001). Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-79101-4.
  2. The Historical Journal, 37, 4 (1994), pp. 885–889, Cambridge University Press
  3. 1 2 Tuchman, Barbara (1962). The Guns of August. Ballantine Press.
  4.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Moltke, Helmuth von". Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.
  5. Crowley, Robert (September 1, 2001). "The What Ifs of 1914". In Crowley, Robert. What If?. Penguin Group. p. 275. ISBN 9780425176429.
  6. "Who's Who - Helmuth von Moltke". Firstworldwar.com. Retrieved 2007-01-02.
  7. 1 2 Terraine, John (1960). Mons, The Retreat to Victory. London: Wordsworth Military Library. ISBN 1-84022-240-9.
  8. "Majestät, wir haben den Krieg verloren" in Otto Ernst Schüddekopf, Der Erste Weltkrieg, Bertelsmann Lexikon-Verlag (1977) p. 18. referenced at: http://jellepeters.com/16-new/56-germany-had-already-lost-world-war-i-before-it-began#sthash.4W86ucly.dpuf
  9. Churchill, Winston. The World Crisis, 1911–1918, Free Press, 2005, ISBN 0 7432 8343 0, p.168.
  10. Ian Summer (2010). The First Battle of the Marne 1914. Osprey. p. 14. ISBN 978 1 84603 502 9.
  11. John Keegan (1998). The First World War. pp. 176–77. ISBN 0-09-1801788.
  12. MacMillan, Margaret (2013). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. New York: Random House. p. 258. ISBN 978-1-4000-6855-5.


External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Count Schlieffen
Chief of the General Staff
Succeeded by
Erich von Falkenhayn
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