Drawing of German people rejoicing as the Kaiser lifts his son, thanking for ovation.

1914: Then Came Armageddon

Germany Mobilizes for War

“I no longer see different parties, all I see is Germans.”

Kaiser Wilhelm II, 4 August 1914

German Mobilization

Image of crowded Berlin on the first day of mobilization outside the guard office
Supervision of the main guard on the first day of mobilization.

In the 1880s, as the major European powers began to clash over the partition of Africa, many states considered the possibility of a continental war. Among those was Germany, which established conscription requiring young men to join the army before remaining in the reserves for 20 years with annual summer training. Through conscription, extensive training, and advancements in artillery, Germany developed a lethal army that could be called upon in a moment’s notice.

On 22 July 1914, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg said, “If war comes, it will be the consequence of a Russian mobilization undertaken in the heat of the moment, that is, ahead of any preliminary negotiations. In that case negotiations would hardly be possible, because we would have to attack immediately.” After Austria-Hungary and Russia mobilized their armies at the very end of July 1914, Germany mobilized on 1 August 1914. That same day, Germany declared war on Russia. German plans called for quick action to avoid a two-front war in the East and West. Fearing France would honor her alliance with Russia, Germany declared war on France two days later on 3 August 1914. In a famous speech on 4 August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II proclaimed to the German nation, “I no longer see different parties, all I see is Germans.”

The Schlieffen Plan

In 1905, while the rest of Europe continued to prepare for mobilization, Alfred von Schlieffen authored his namesake battle plan. The Schlieffen Plan outlined how Germany could wage a successful two-front war against their perceived enemies, France and Russia. Inspired by the Battle of Cannae (216 BCE) in the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), Schlieffen modeled his strategy after the activities of Carthaginian General Hannibal, who defeated the much larger Roman force with a double envelopment before turning on the Roman army flank and destroying them. Schlieffen believed that a modern enemy could be defeated in the same way, making a massive flank attack the crux of his plan.

The geographic distance between France and Russia meant that their alliance could not be strengthened through joint training. Schlieffen believed the Germans could eliminate France while keeping Russia in check before turning the brunt of their forces to the East. Aiming to mimic Hannibal, Schlieffen wanted to provoke an Entscheidungsschlacht, or “decisive battle,” through massive force with a large army, to bring about a swift and conclusive victory through a singular battle. To defeat France, Schlieffen proposed four army groups pass through neutral Belgium and the militarized Franco-German border to engage the defenders of Paris while encircling the capital from the North and East. The Germans would simultaneously concentrate one group on the southeast of France, defending the Swiss border and blocking potential French counterattacks. While confident in this plan, Schlieffen created tables looking into possible French responses, ultimately determining Germany capable of defeating France within six weeks. 

When war broke out in 1914, Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth von Moltke, heavily modified the Schlieffen Plan, eliminating the need for a mass army. This change stunted the German ability to ensure a quick victory, allowing the Allies to regroup in response to German advances within France and Belgium. Despite not being followed as Schlieffen intended, the Schlieffen Plan was blamed as the ultimate, flawed cause of defeat in 1918. As the Allies examined the Schlieffen Plan at the end of the war, they utilized such planning as proof of German aggression against neutral countries, becoming the grounds for war guilt and reparations. 

Galvanizing the German People: Depictions of the War Effort