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General-Fieldmarshal Graf Helmuth von Moltke

General-Fieldmarshal Graf Helmuth von Moltke was closely associated with a memorable phase of modern history, perhaps so far as Europe is concerned, the most important of the nineteenth century. This was the ascendency of Prussia, of her king and of her people, culminating in the unification and the consolidation of most of the German states into one great empire, with all its realization of military and political powe. Moltke was born at the threshold of the century the history of which he so prominently helped to shape, on October 26, 1800, at Parchim in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. On his father's side he descended from a family of the North German gentry which had come to various degrees of prominence in some German as well as Scandinavian states.

In the year 1164 Henry the Lion, Duke of Bavaria, conquered the Obotrites, a tribe which lived in the region now known as the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg. He founded there the Bishopric of Schwerin, and instituted judges and knights-who, of course, were not chosen from the conquered heathens, but from his own victorious men. As early as the year 1246 we find the name of Matheus Moltke mentioned in the records, which are still in existence, as one of the " knights," a proof that his family was neither Wendish nor Danish, but German. Not much later than this, however, we hear of the Moltkes in Sweden, and again in Denmark, where - as we gather from important documents and state treaties signed by them - they held high and influential positions in State and Church. There were four branches of this family, who went abroad in the short space between 1290 and 1330. In three instances the eldest sons in the main line left their homes, and their descendants did not return.

After Helmuth von Moltke's family had moved to Holstein, where his father failed to make a success of an agricultural undertaking for which he seems to have lacked fitness, young Moltke entered the Royal Danish Military Academy as a cadet, and there passed his lieutenant's examination with distinction; but he sought and found a commission under the Prussian eagle. He entered the eighth grenadiers at Frankfort-on-the-Oder. A year later, in 1823, he was sent to what is now called the War Academy in Berlin.

Becoming a first lieutenant in 1832, a captain in 1835, ahead of many of his comrades, he served exclusively in strategical positions. During the four years, 1835-39, he, with some comrades, was in the Turkish dominions for the purpose of organizing and drilling the Turkish Army. After his return to Prussia he became chief of the General Staff of the Fourth Army Corps. In 1841 he married Mary Burt, a young relative who was partly of English extraction. Various commands led him to Italy, Spain, England, and Russia as adjutant of Prussian princes.

In the autumn of 1857 he was appointed chief of the General Staff of the Prussian Army - the institution which he shaped into that great strategical instrument through which were made possible, from a military point of view, the glorious successes of the three wars - 1864, 1866, 1870-71 - and which has become the model of all similar organizations the world over. In the successful wars with Denmark, 1863-4; with Austria, 1866, and France in 1870-1, Von Moltke's strategical powers were of the greatest service to the side he served. He not only sketched the plan of these campaigns, but assisted in carrying them out. For his services against Austria in 1866, especially in holding the chief command at the decisive battle of Badowa, he was decorated with the order of the black eagle. His title of count was given him in 1870, the same year in which he was decorated with the order of St. George, the highest military decoration of Russia. The year following, 1871, the Emperor of Germany conferred on him the grand cross of the order of the Iron Cross and made him chief marshal of the German Empire.

Side by side with the overtowering political achievement of Bismarck and the more congenial life work of Roon, the minister of war, Moltke's service to his country and his king stands unchallenged in historical significance. He indelibly inscribed his name on the tablets of history as one of the world's greatest strategists.

Von Moltke was a very tall, thin man, with light yellowish hair, and a sallow, beardless, wrinkled face, out of which shone a pair of stony gray eyes. He never had a child, and his nearest relations, with the exception of a nephew and niece, seem to have been kept at a distance by him. He was known as Moltke the Silent, and his appearance was so mysteriously quiet and cold, that he seemed to be the incarnation of concentrated thought. No one, it is said, ever saw Count von Moltke excited, not even at Sedan, where the greatest victory of modern times decided the fortunes of the two most powerful empires of the Continent. On the battlefield his cold, clear eye passed slowly from one point to the other, and his cold, clear mind weighed the chances of victory and defeat with the intensity and serenity of a mathematician pondering over the solution of some grave problem.

He did not lay down his work until extreme old age; in 1888, as he so simply put it in his request for relief from duty, he resigned his office, because he "could no more mount a horse." He, however, still remained president of the Commission of National Defense and his last speech in the German Reichstag, of which he had been a continuous member since its establishment, he delivered on May 14, 1890. He died on April 24, 1891 [his wife died some years earlier]. The nation felt that one of its great heroes had passed away.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:10 ZULU