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Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke the younger, as Chief of the Great General Staff from 1906 through 1914, was a persistent advocate of war. Moltke, being chief of staff, had the disposition and direction of the German forces at the outbreak of the war, but after several months was displaced and a little more than a year afterward was in his grave. He was four years older than his French antagonist, Joffre, and looked what he was, a typical product of German militarism, his face like a mask, rigid, formal, official.

Moltke was born in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and at the outbreak of the Great war was in his sixty-seventh year. Moltke was often called "Count," but that title, conferred on his unple in 1870, on the day Metz fell, was inherited by his elder brother, General Count Wilhelm von Moltke, and had ceased with his death a few years before the war began. As a young man during the Franco-Prussian war he had won an Iron Cross. He had served as adjutant to his distinguished uncle from 1881 until the old man'a death. When his uncle, the famous Field-Marshal, died in 1891, he became aide-de-camp to the Kaiser. While the Field-Marshal was being taken to his grave, Emperor William had informed the younger Moltke that he had decided to elevate him to the rank of personal aide-de-camp, and in that position he had served for five years. Moltke also held regimental and divisional commands in the Guards.

In 1902 he was made a Lieutenant-General, and in 1904, when the Emperor created the position of Quartermaster-General on the General Staff, a place that formerly had been filled only in wartime, he designated Moltke for the post. On 01 January 1906, General von Moltke succeeded Count von Schlieffen as chief of the General Staff. He succeeded Count Von Schlieffen as Chief of the General Staff. When appointed to succeed Schlieffen, men in the army and in civil life said he owed the prize primarily to the Emperor's passion for the picturesque, to a desire to have the magic name of Moltke at the head of the army.

He was known as a "Kaiserman," that is to say, he was, and for many years had been, a favorite, holding his position by a combination of favor and ability - although rumor had several times declared that his star at court had grown dim and only the Kaiser's inability to find a suitable successor had kept him where he was. When first appointed to the post they had distrusted and ridiculed him, but the vigorous way in which he put through revolutionary ideas about "preparedness" forced them to change their minds.

The younger Moltke did not show himself a great military genius. Many believed him less able than others in the German Army, among them von der Goltz. His promotion as Chief of Staff caused a good deal of unfavorable comment, which, however, disappeared with time after he had given evidence of being able to do an extraordinary amount of work. Probably he owed his capture of "the blue ribbon" more to possession of a great name than to eminent military abilities. It well might have flattered the Kaiser's martial pride to have another Moltke at the head of his army, but many writers felt that really able soldiers had been displaced in order to make room for him. Although he had Bismarckian bulk, he was never genuinely popular with army officers because of an alleged softness in his nature. German martinets preferred a man with square head and bulldog physiognomy, such as Hindenburg, that idol of East Prussia, who once said he had never wasted an hour on light literature and ascribed his prowess to the fact that his mind had never been poisoned by anything so corrosive as poetry and romance.

F.W. Wile, writing in the London Daily Mail, said he could testify to the literal accuracy of a piece of history which identified Moltke with a military clique in Berlin which on August 1, 1914, induced the Kaiser to abandon all his remaining doubts as to the wisdom of declaring war. On the afternoon of that fateful Saturday, Moltke's wife paid a visit to a certain home in Berlin "in a state of irrepressible excitement." "Ach! what a day I've been through," she said to Mr. Wile's informant. "My husband came home just before I left, almost the first I've seen him in three days and nights. He threw himself on a couch, a complete physical wreck, and said he had finally accomplished the hardest task of his life. He had helped to induce the Kaiser to sign the mobilization order."

The rapidity and smoothness of the German mobilization at the beginning of the war was largely credited to him. He was held responsible, however, for the retreat of Kluck's army from before Paris, altho many believed the blame should have been laid elsewhere. A cloud of mystery pervaded the question as to why the German army retired as it did.

During the fall of 1914 there had been repeated announcements of Moltke's illness, and it was said that he had been removed. These reports proved for the time false, but in December 1914 he actually retired, failing health having prevented him from returning to the front. Falkenhayn was appointed in his place in the following January 1915.

The dismissal of Moltke, which was officially announced early in November 1914, produced a significant effect on Berlin. Nobody believed he had left his post on account of ill-health, as the authorities declared. There had been a rupture between him and the Kaiser. His illness, perhaps, was not wholly a myth, but the true reason for his dismissal probably lay in court intrigues and disputes, including a desire by the Crown Prince to act on his own initiative, and to the autocratic ways of the Kaiser. Recent failures in theaters of war had contributed in no small degree to the Kaiser's decision. Moltke, after his fall, still retained the confidence of the German people. Moltke died of heart disease or apoplexy during a service of mourning in the Reichstag for von der Goltz.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:09 ZULU