Count Alfred von Schlieffen, mastermind of the Schlieffen Plan, served as Germany’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1891 to 1905. It was Schlieffen’s plan that was used for the August 1914 attack on France that was to trigger World War One.
Alfred von Schlieffen was born in Berlin on February 28th, 1833. As the son of a Prussian army officer it would have been natural for Schlieffen to have joined the army, which he did in 1854. He participated in the wars (Austro-Prussian of 1866 and Franco-Prussia of 1870-71) that were to unite the numerous states that made up ‘Germany’ into one united country that was dominated by Prussia and by Bismarck. In 1891, Schlieffen was promoted to Chief of the German General Staff.
Schlieffen was greatly perturbed by Germany’s geographic position with regards to Russia and France. In particular, he feared a joint attack on Germany by both nations as he was sure that Germany would not have been able to cope with a war on two fronts. The fact that Europe was effectively dividing into two camps convinced him that he had to view Russia and France as serious and potential enemies. It was for this reason that he formulated the Schlieffen Plan in 1905 – an attack on France (while Russia mobilised her army) followed by an attack on Russia. The plan meant that Germany could place the bulk of her military might on one frontier and then move it to another.
In 1906, Schlieffen retired from the army. His plan was revised and refined up to the outbreak of war. However, the weakening of the right flank of the attack on France by von Moltke, Schlieffen’s successor, may well have contributed to its failure.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen died on January 4th, 1913. However, his influence continued after his death – and after the end of the war in 1918. His treatise, ‘Cannae’, was translated into English and distributed to military students at Fort Leavenworth. The idea of the bold military sweep had its supporters in World War Two on both the Allies and German sides.