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World War I

Moltke: the fallen chief of staff

Caught between euphoria and incredulity: How did the Germans experience the outbreak of World War I? DW takes a look at the hearts and minds of Germans 100 years ago. This week, General Helmuth von Moltke.

"We are ready, and the sooner the better." Two months prior to the start of World War I, the Chief of the German General Staff voiced these words in preparation for a pre-emptive conflict. Helmuth von Moltke, together with his colleagues, set the tempo for the German course in the summer of 1914: a mobilization was to take place as swiftly as possible - one to render even stronger enemies no match - and one that would force the German government into war. And Moltke was well aware that this would engender a world war without any foreseeable outcome: "How will it all end? At this point, nobody knows."

Helmuth von Moltke bore a name which carried considerable importance. He was the nephew of Field Marshal Count Moltke, who led Germany to victory against France in 1871. In 1906, Wilhelm II appointed Moltke to chief of staff, but the general only accepted the offer on one condition - that the emperor not intervene in military affairs. Relations between Moltke and Wilhelm remained distant through the years leading up to the war, and they were severed completely on the day the conflict began, when Wilhelm issued the order to halt the mobilization against France and send all units to Russia - a move Moltke himself would soon reverse.

Helmuth von Moltke

Moltke's health deteriorated rapidly at the outset of the war

The initial advances on the Western Front in the summer of 1914 couldn't assuage Moltke's premonitions; he viewed the amount of prisoners and arms that had been seized with due skepticism, surmising that "the French have withdrawn according to plan and order," in order to prepare a counterstrike. "The worst still awaits us," he prophesied on September 4, 1914, exactly one day before the French and British began what would become the Battle of the Marne. The Germans were forced to retreat, which effectively ended their plans for a quick advance through French territory and forced them into a war on two fronts.

Moltke was responsible for the failure, a blow that garnered him further disapproval from the emperor and one that would eventually cost him his career and his health. The 66-year-old suffered a mental breakdown, and six weeks after the outbreak of war, Germany lost its top commander. Against his wishes, Moltke was replaced by the Minister of War, Erich von Falkenhayn. Officially, he was relieved due to complications with his liver and gall bladder. However, even the German propaganda apparatus wasn't able to veil the disaster that had visited the army just two months into the war. The failure of the chief of the staff, as well, simply couldn't be cloaked. Two years after his release, Helmuth von Moltke died of a stroke.

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