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Grosser Generalstab [Great General Staff]

In Germany the great General Staff was the organ of strategy or generalship. The War Ministry [Kriegsministerium] was the organ of administration and supply. The differentiation and division of these two branches is the vital condition of the adequate working of either.

By the articles of the constitution the whole of the land forces of the empire form a united army in war and peace under the orders of the emperor. The sovereigns of the chief states were entitled to nominate the lower grades of officers, and the king of Bavaria reserved to himself the special privilege of superintending the general administration of the three Bavarian army corps; but all appointments were made subject to the emperor's approval. The emperor was empowered to erect fortresses in any part of the empire. It was the almost invariable practice of the kings of Prussia to command their forces in person, and the army commands, too, are generally held by leaders of royal or princely rank. The natural corollary to this is the assignment of special advisory duties to a responsible chief of staff.

The Prussian "Great General Staff" had existed since the beginning of the great peace, having been organized in 1816. Those of other countries have been formed on its model though with slight modifications. The Grosser Generalstab [Great General Staff] was housed in a building outside the Victory-crowned Brandenburg Gate, within a hundred yards of Unter den Linden, and on the north side of the Thiergarten. The building in which the General Staff is installed has a principal and two side facades, enclosing a large court, with ample room in the rear for the extension of the edifice, which, though only occupied since 1871, was already found too small for its intended purpose.

Although generals have always provided themselves with aides-de-camp and orderlies, the only official corresponding to a modern staff officer in a 16th or 17th century army was the " sergeant-major-general " or " major-general," in whom was vested the responsibility of forming the army in battle array. The principal contribution made by Napoleon to the development of staff organization was the thorough establishment of the principle of corps and divisional autonomy. Corps and divisions to be self-contained required, and they were furnished with, their own staffs. The general staff officer's functions as strategical assistant to his chief were non-existent. It worked worst of all in various wars of the 19th century in which the self-contained great general was not forthcoming. The general staff became a mere bureau, divorced from the army. Thus on the French side in 1870 Marshal Bazaine so far distrusted his general staff that he forbade it to appear on the battlefield, and worked the army almost wholly by means of his personal staff. Thus the latter, the mere mouthpiece of the marshal, issued sketchy strategical orders for movements, and so reduced the rate of marching of the army to five or six miles a day; while the former, kept in the dark by the commander-in-chief, issued either no orders at all or orders that had no reference to the real condition of affairs and the marshal's intentions. The army at large distrusted both staffs equally.

The Prussian general staff was as different from this staff of bureaucrats and amateurs as day from night. Even before 1806 Massenbach had added the preparation of strategical plans to the work of the quartermaster-general's staff, obtaining thus at the expense of the adjutant-general's side the powers of a general staff in the modern sense. That he was incapable of using these powers is shown by the mournful history of Jena. But another quartermaster-general in the war of 1806, Scharnhorst, took up his work and in a very different spirit.

The first to realize that the complexity of modern warfare rendered a good commander at the front a poor adviser at headquarters was Napoleon's old adversary, Prussian General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst. To him goes historic credit for establishing the first general staff and setting up a War Academy to train its members. In Scharnhorst's first instructions of 1808 it was laid down that an accurate knowledge of troops and a general knowledge of country were essential to a staff officer. Another very important feature of the Scharnhorst system was the periodical return of all general staff officers to regimental duty. The circulation of staff officers made it possible to educate the regimental officer in the approved doctrines of strategy and tactics.

The establishment of the General Staff included such officers as were not employed with the different military commands, and was presided over in the 1870s by Count von Moltke. It was perfectly distinct from the War Office, or that department which answers to the Horse Guards. Count von Moltke had nothing whatever to do with promotions or appointments in the army, or with any patronage or routine work. He was Chief of the General Staff, and, as such, the Emperor's principal adviser in time of war ; but he in no way controled the army. Indeed, it would be wholly impossible for him to work out the great questions and problems submitted to him if he did. Nor had he anything to do with the troops except the Railway battalion, a sort of nucleus for railway studies in peace. Of this battalion Count Moltke was Inspector.

In 1888 Count von Waldersee was promoted to this eminent position as successor of General Field-marshal Count von Moltke, to whose genius the army owed the splendid organization of this training-school for superior army officers. In February 1891 General Count von Schlieffen succeeded von Waldersee as the Chief of the Great General Staff of the army.

At the offices of the General Staff information of every kind was received, digested, and applied to the steady improvement of the military system ; here plans were prepared for offensive and defensive campaigns against every nation in Europe ; here the brightest wits and hardest workers of the army came together and work out the grand principles of war, and here also they were being trained to become first-rate Generals, capable of handling, not tens of thousands only, but hundreds of thousands of men. "In this vast factory," said M. Victor Tissot, "war is prepared just like some chemical product ; within these walls all the various directing strings that regulate the German army are made to meet in order to be under the control of one master-hand, so that the troops in fact scarcely march a step, explode a cartridge, or fire a cannon shot without orders from here, while not so much as a military gaiter button can be sewn on anywhere in Europe without a note being taken of it."

Attached to the General Staff was the Accessory Staff, composed of officers employed in the strictly scientific work allotted to this department, their appointments being of a permanent nature ; these officers, as a .rule, do not participate in the advantage of rapid promotion enjoyed by the officers belonging to the active staff.

The General Staff also occupied itself with the preparation of printed reports on foreign armies for distribution to staff officers not employed upon the establishment. It also undertook the training of officers for Staff purposes, to which end young officers who had passed the prescribed three years at the Military Academy are attached for a year to the different sections. Here they were employed in drawing up reports on strategical and tactical questions, critical reports on the military events of past eras, descriptions of the ground embraced in military operations, and of the military organization of foreign countries. Whenever the foregoing essays appear to be of special value, they were brought beneath the notice of the Chief of the Staff.

The great value of the institution of the General Staff was due to the composition of its official corps, and to the thorough examination to which the men whom were considered worthy of a prominent position in this body of picked men. The officer who thought himself fitted to enter the General Staff must be not only blameless in his military capacity, but possessed of a large store of positive knowledge. Moreover, he had to learn by degrees every branch of the science of war in these various offices, and to show distinct activity in all of them before he would be promoted a single step. And between times he was ordered on active service to give proof of his capacity in commanding a battalion or a regiment. There was no patronage or nepotism here ; only the best man is advanced. Throughout the army the most capable men are sent to this High School of the Science of War, while the least valuable were weeded out again and transferred to ordinary military service.

Some of the best scholars of the War Academy, were annually chosen to work on the Staff, but with them there were always other Officers recommended by Colonels of regiments. No pupil, leaving the War Academy, knew whether he would be one of the ehosen. All return to their regiments, and those selected were afterwards summoned to Berlin, where, together with the Officers sent up from regiments by their Colonels, they were placed for a year with tasks to perform such as were the usual work of the Great General Staff. After the year they all returned to their regiments. A few months elapse and then the best of them receive the rank of Captain on the Staff, putting on Staff uniform for the first time. Some of them are allotted to the corps or divisions, others to the Great General Staff at Berlin. In all cases the chosen ones are employed on real Staff duties. The Staff Captains, wheihcr attached to the Great General Staff at Berlin, or to corps and divisions, are kept perpetually engaged either in surveying, reconnaissance, acquisition and arrangement of information, or in duties having direct reference to the conduct of troops in the field.

Here is how the well-known military theoretician, Samuel Huntington, describes the role of the German General Staff in his famous work on military professionalism, The Soldier and the State:

" The First World War witnessed the complete destruction of the imperial balance in military-civil relations. By the end of the war the General Staff was running the German governmentWar turns generals into heroes. Heroes turn into politicians. The result is that military people lose their professional restraint and caution.

" The General Staffs interference in politics began during von Falkenheims tenure as Chief of the General Staff from the fall of 1914 through August 1916. A slow but continuous expansion of the power and influence of the military took place in this timeframe. However, this was only the prelude to the virtually absolute power that Hindenburg and Ludendorff wielded in the final two years of the war, when the former replaced Falkenheim and the latter became the first Quartermaster General.

" The fundamental basis for this monstrous expansion of military control was the unprecedented popularity that the victor at Tanennberg - Hindenburg - enjoyed with the German populace. He became a national idol, who, the German people fervently believed, would secure victory for them. The intensity of the adoration that came to surround Hindenburg far surpassed anything that any other politician in all of German history had enjoyed, including Moltke and Bismarck. Thus, he proved to be the ideal lever with whose help Ludendorff and the General Staff expanded their influence on the entire government. The mere threat of dismissal was insufficient for control of the Kaiser.

"By way of demonstrating this weapon, Ludendorff succeeded in forcing the emperor to support the views of the military in most of the conflicts between the General Staff and civilian officials. In the summer of 1917 he managed to have Betmann-Hollweg removed as chancellor and replaced by Michaelis, whom the military regarded as acceptable from the standpoint of their own interests. Several months later Michaelis himself showed his inability to function in a way that satisfied his military masters. He was removed and on the recommendation of the High Command replaced by Count von Hertling. Subsequently, in January of 1918, Hindenburg and Ludendorff managed to get the Chief of the Emperors Civilian Cabinet removed. In just the same way all the remaining military institutions ended up subordinate to will of the General Staff."

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the German General Staff was abolished. The army was limited to 100,000 personnel and the navy to a force of 15,000. Aircraft, tanks, submarines, and other offensive weapons were prohibited. The left bank of the Rhine was demilitarized. The Allies intended that the civilian government of the postwar Weimar Republic (1918-33) completely control the military and that the destruction of the General Staff epitomize the end of Prussianism. Nevertheless, a general staff continued to function under the sobriquet "Troop Office," and its leaders took advantage of the weak civilian government to reassert their privileged positions. When Hindenburg was elected president of the republic in 1925, the general staff officers regained their influence in the government.

The results of the activities of the German General Staff can be briefly summed up with the words of the German General von Schnaich who stated in 1924 that: We owe our downfall to the supremacy of military powers over civil powers. Therein lies the essence of militarism. German militarism actually committed suicide.

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Page last modified: 16-01-2016 19:25:17 ZULU