Helmuth von Moltke the Younger

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Graf Helmuth von Moltke the Younger
Generalleutnant von Moltke, der neue Chef des Generalstabs, 1906 (cropped).jpg
Moltke in 1906
Chief of the German Great General Staff
In office
1 January 1906 – 14 September 1914
Monarch William II
Preceded byAlfred von Schlieffen
Succeeded byErich von Falkenhayn
Personal details
Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke

(1848-05-25)25 May 1848
Biendorf, Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, German Confederation
Died18 June 1916(1916-06-18) (aged 68)
Berlin, Province of Brandenburg, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire
Resting placeInvalidenfriedhof
Eliza von Moltke-Huitfeldt
(m. 1878)
RelativesHelmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke (uncle)
Alma materWar Academy
Nickname(s)Moltke the Younger
(Moltke der Jüngere)
Military service
Allegiance North German Confederation
 German Empire
Branch/service Prussian Army
 Imperial German Army
Years of service1868–1916
Unit7th Grenadier Regiment
Commands1st Guards Infantry Brigade
1st Guards Infantry Division
Battles/warsFranco-Prussian War
World War I
AwardsPour le Mérite
Order of the Red Eagle
House Order of the Wendish Crown
Royal Victorian Order
Order of the Sword

Graf[a] Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke (German: [ˈhɛlmuːt fɔn ˈmɔltkə]; 25 May 1848 – 18 June 1916), also known as Moltke the Younger, was a German general and Chief of the Great German General Staff. He was also the nephew of Generalfeldmarschall Graf Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke, who is commonly called "Moltke the Elder" to differentiate the two.

Upon becoming the head of the General Staff, Moltke led the German Army from 1 January 1906 to 14 September 1914 during the opening months of World War I. His legacy remains a matter of controversy due to his involvement in Germany's decision to go to war and the execution of the invasion of France and Belgium culminating in the First Battle of the Marne.

Early career[edit]

Helmuth von Moltke was born in Biendorf, Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and was named after his uncle, Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke, future Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) and hero of the Unification of Germany. During the Franco-Prussian War, Moltke served with the 7th Grenadier Regiment and was cited for bravery. He attended the War Academy between 1875 and 1878 and joined the General Staff in 1880. In 1882 he became personal adjutant to his uncle, who was then Chief of the General Staff. In 1891, on the death of his uncle, Moltke became aide-de-camp to Emperor William II, thus becoming part of the Emperor's inner circle. In 1898 he became commander of the 1st Guards Infantry Brigade and in 1902, being promoted to Lieutenant General, received command of the 1st Guards Infantry Division.[1]: 47–49 

Rise to the General Staff[edit]

In 1904 Moltke was made Quartermaster-General; in effect, Deputy Chief of the General Staff. In 1906, he became chief on the retirement of Alfred von Schlieffen. His appointment was controversial then and remains so today. The other likely candidates for the position were Hans Hartwig von Beseler, Karl von Bülow and Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz.[1]: 68  Critics charge that Moltke gained the position on the strength of his name and his friendship with the Emperor (who liked to call him Julius[2]), with whom he was certainly far closer than were the other candidates. Historians argue that Beseler was too close to Schlieffen to have succeeded him, while Bülow and Goltz were too independent for William II to have accepted them. Moltke's friendship with the Emperor permitted him a latitude that others could not have enjoyed. Goltz, at least, saw nothing wrong with Moltke's performance as Chief.[1]: 71  In December 1911, Moltke lectured the General Staff: "All are preparing themselves for the great war, which all sooner or later expect."[3]

Marne campaign[edit]

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War and the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, Moltke was called to the Kaiser who had been told by Karl Max, prince Lichnowsky, that the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had offered French neutrality under guarantee of Great Britain.[4] According to the historian John Keegan however, the Kaiser believed that Britain would remain neutral if Germany did not attack France.[5] Whichever is true, the Kaiser, seeing that a two-front war could be avoided, told Moltke to divert forces from the western to the eastern front against Russia. Moltke refused, arguing that such a drastic alteration of a long-planned major mobilization could not be done without throwing the forces into organizational chaos and the original plan now in motion must be followed through. Years later, General Hermann von Staabs, head of the German railway division, would disagree in a book detailing a contingency plan that the German army had for such a situation.[6]: 93–94  Grey's offer turned out to be a wishful misinterpretation by Lichnowsky[6]: 92  and the Kaiser told Moltke to proceed as originally planned. Moltke's health, already stressed from this argument with his ruler, broke down as a consequence of German defeat at the first battle of the Marne, and on 14 September 1914, he was succeeded by Erich von Falkenhayn.

It is a matter of debate whether the "failure" of the Marne Campaign can be placed at Moltke's feet. Some critics contend that Moltke's weakening of the Schlieffen Plan led to German defeat. The records show that Moltke, who was concerned about Russia, moved 180,000 men east before the war.[7] Many thousands more men were transported from the crucial right wing to the left wing facing France in Alsace and Lorraine. Most controversially, on 28 August, Moltke sent two corps and a cavalry division to reinforce Ludendorff and Hindenburg, just before the epic victory at the Battle of Tannenberg. The series of moves has been viewed by some historians as responsible for much of the strategic failure of the Schlieffen Plan as enacted in 1914. A number of historians, notably Zuber and S. L. A. Marshall, contend that the failure of Alexander von Kluck's 1st Army to keep position with Karl von Bülow's 2nd Army, thus creating a gap near Paris that was exploited by the French, is a more direct cause than any planning foibles on Moltke's part. The Schlieffen School disagrees and argues that Moltke lost control of the invading armies during the month of August and thus was unable to react when the First Battle of the Marne developed in September. While Moltke had lost touch with his field commanders, German operational doctrine had always stressed Auftragstaktik (personal initiative) on the part of subordinate officers, more so than in other armies. Other historians argue that the multitude of strategic options Moltke faced and the danger of the Russian invasion of East Prussia clouded Moltke's judgement.[8]

Although earlier in the campaign, German generals and the press had been proclaiming the campaign as good as won, on 4 September, Moltke was found despondent that the lack of prisoners meant that the Germans had not yet really won a decisive victory.[9]: 186–7  Moltke may well have been overly preoccupied with the unsuccessful German offensive in Lorraine, and he issued no orders to the First, Second and Third Armies between 2 and 5 September whilst the Battle of the Marne was in progress.[9]: 192 

Following the German retreat from the Marne, Moltke allegedly reported to the Kaiser, "Your Majesty, we have lost the war."[10]

Whether General von Moltke actually said to the Emperor, "Majesty, we have lost the war," we do not know. We know anyhow that with a prescience greater in political than in military affairs, he wrote to his wife on the night of the 9th, "Things have not gone well. The fighting east of Paris has not gone in our favour, and we shall have to pay for the damage we have done".

— Churchill[11]

Later life[edit]

Grave of Helmuth von Moltke in the Invalids' Cemetery (Invalidenfriedhof), Berlin (restitution stone from 2007)

After Moltke handed over authority to Falkenhayn in September 1914, he was entrusted in Berlin with the office of Chief of the Home Substitute for the General Staff, which had the task of organising and forwarding the reserves together with controlling the territorial army corps while corresponding to those at the front. Moltke's health continued to deteriorate, and he died in Berlin on 18 June 1916 (aged 68) during the state memorial ceremony for Generalfeldmarschall Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz. He left a pamphlet entitled Die 'Schuld' am Kriege (The Blame for the War), which his widow Eliza intended to publish in 1919. She was dissuaded from doing so because of the problems it might cause. The pamphlet was designed to show the "chaotic" nature of events leading up to the war, to counter Allied accusations of warmongering by Germany. Army chiefs and the German Foreign Ministry were disturbed by its contents. General Wilhelm von Dommes was sent to advise Gräfin Eliza von Moltke against its publication. Having read the pamphlet, he confided to his diary that it "contains nasty stuff". Instead, Eliza published the more bland Erinnerungen, Briefe, Dokumente, a collection of her husband's letters and documents. Other material was archived. Some was later destroyed during the Second World War and the original pamphlet has not been accessible since.[1]: 10 

Personal life[edit]

At sixty-six, Graf von Moltke was one of the older commanders of 1914 and in poor health, having suffered a stroke shortly before the outbreak of the war.[12] These factors negatively affected his determination when he was under stress.[13] His personal interests included music, painting and literature. While often assertive in manner, his character was assessed by the historian Barbara W. Tuchman as being essentially that of a self-doubting introvert.[14]

Moltke was a follower of theosophy, which taught that humanity was an endless, unchanging cycle of civilizations rising and falling. Historian Margaret MacMillan connected his personal beliefs with his resigned approach to the possibility of a general war in the lead-up to the First World War.[15] Like many of his colleagues on the German General Staff, he was heavily influenced by Social Darwinism. His view of international relations as merely a struggle for survival led him to believe that the longer the start of the war was delayed the worse things would be for Germany.[16]


He received the following decorations and awards:[17]

German honours
Foreign honours


  1. ^ Regarding personal names: Graf was a title before 1919, but now is regarded as part of the surname. It is translated as Count. Before the August 1919 abolition of nobility as a legal class, titles preceded the full name when given (Graf Helmuth James von Moltke). Since 1919, these titles, along with any nobiliary prefix (von, zu, etc.), can be used, but are regarded as a dependent part of the surname, and thus come after any given names (Helmuth James Graf von Moltke). Titles and all dependent parts of surnames are ignored in alphabetical sorting. The feminine form is Gräfin.


  1. ^ a b c d Mombauer, Annika (2001). Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-79101-4.
  2. ^ Herfried Münkler - Irrtümer und Illusionen im großen Krieg, retrieved 2022-10-03
  3. ^ Hamilton, Richard F.; Herwig, Holger H. (2004-12-13). Decisions for War, 1914-1917. Cambridge University Press. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-521-54530-3.
  4. ^ The Historical Journal, 37, 4 (1994), pp. 885–889, Cambridge University Press
  5. ^ Keegan, John (1999). The First World War. London: Pimlico. p. 76. ISBN 0-7126-6645-1.
  6. ^ a b Tuchman, Barbara (1962). The Guns of August. Ballantine Press.
  7. ^ Crowley, Robert (September 1, 2001). "The What Ifs of 1914". In Crowley, Robert (ed.). What If?. Penguin Group. pp. 275. ISBN 9780425176429.
  8. ^ "Who's Who – Helmuth von Moltke". Firstworldwar.com. Retrieved 2007-01-02.
  9. ^ a b Terraine, John (1960). Mons, The Retreat to Victory. London: Wordsworth Military Library. ISBN 1-84022-240-9.
  10. ^ "Majestät, wir haben den Krieg verloren" in Otto-Ernst Schüddekopf [de], Der Erste Weltkrieg, Bertelsmann Lexikon-Verlag (1977) p. 18.] jellepeters.com
  11. ^ Churchill, Winston. The World Crisis, 1911–1918, Free Press, 2005, ISBN 0 7432 8343 0, p.168.
  12. ^ Ian Summer (2010). The First Battle of the Marne 1914. Osprey. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-84603-502-9.
  13. ^ John Keegan (1998). The First World War. pp. 176–77. ISBN 0-09-1801788.
  14. ^ Barbara W. Tuchman, page 99 "The Guns of August", Four Square Edition 1964
  15. ^ MacMillan, Margaret (2013). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. New York: Random House. p. 258. ISBN 978-1-4000-6855-5.
  16. ^ Biggar, Nigel (September 2013). "Why Britain Was Right To Go To War In 1914". Standpoint.
  17. ^ "Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke, der Jüngere". the Prussian Machine. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  18. ^ "Königlich Preussische Ordensliste (supp.)", Preussische Ordens-Liste (in German), Berlin, 1: 87, 105, 1895
  19. ^ Hof- und Staats-Handbuch des Großherzogtum Baden (1910), "Großherzogliche Orden", pp. 188, 892
  20. ^ "Verdienst-Orden Philipps des Großmütigen", Großherzoglich Hessische Ordensliste (in German), Darmstadt: Staatsverlag, 1914, p. 134 – via hathitrust.org
  21. ^ "Großherzogliche Orden und Ehrenzeichen". Hof- und Staatshandbuch des Großherzogtums Mecklenburg-Strelitz: 1915 (in German). Neustrelitz: Druck und Debit der Buchdruckerei von G. F. Spalding und Sohn. 1915. pp. 16, 27.
  22. ^ "Großherzogliche Hausorden", Staatshandbuch für das Großherzogtum Sachsen / Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach (in German), Weimar: Böhlau, 1900, p. 47
  23. ^ Sachsen (1901). "Königlich Orden". Staatshandbuch für den Königreich Sachsen: 1901 (in German). Dresden: Heinrich. p. 169 – via hathitrust.org.
  24. ^ a b "Königliche Orden", Hof- und Staats-Handbuch des Königreich Württemberg (in German), Stuttgart: Landesamt, 1907, pp. 61, 134
  25. ^ "Ritter-Orden", Hof- und Staatshandbuch der Österreichisch-Ungarischen Monarchie, 1916, pp. 46, 64, 109, 196, retrieved 9 April 2021
  26. ^ Bille-Hansen, A. C.; Holck, Harald, eds. (1912) [1st pub.:1801]. Statshaandbog for Kongeriget Danmark for Aaret 1912 [State Manual of the Kingdom of Denmark for the Year 1912] (PDF). Kongelig Dansk Hof- og Statskalender (in Danish). Copenhagen: J.H. Schultz A.-S. Universitetsbogtrykkeri. pp. 13–14. Retrieved 30 April 2020 – via da:DIS Danmark.
  27. ^ https://journaldemonaco.gouv.mc/var/jdm/storage/original/application/e6b5203284da6a19b9f8bf4f7bc7534a.pdf[bare URL PDF]
  28. ^ Sveriges statskalender (in Swedish), 1915, p. 674, retrieved 2021-04-09 – via runeberg.org
  29. ^ Shaw, Wm. A. (1906) The Knights of England, I, London, p. 440

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by Chief of the General Staff
Succeeded by
Preceded by Quartermaster-General of the German Army
16 February 1904 – 31 December 1905
Succeeded by