The development of a corps of full-time military professionals, working in peace and war on all aspects of operations and logistics planning, was the outgrowth of experience on the battlefield in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Before the nineteenth century, success on the battlefield was largely the result of the military competence of whichever king was in power. While Frederick the Great brought success in battle to Prussian arms, his successors did not have his talent, and this led to an inevitable decline in the generalship of the Army. Without competent operational and logistical planning, no amount of individual soldierly discipline or battlefield bravery could save the army from the combination of superior generalship and staff work of a talented adversary. Reformers in the army began to write and lecture on the need to preserve and somehow institutionalize the military talent that had brought martial glory to Prussia. For a small group of reformers, critical decision making had to be removed from arbitrary winds of chance and placed in the hands of institutionalized military excellence. The country could no longer afford to wait until a war started to gather military staff talent. One carefully selected professional staff would do the work of planning logistics and training the Army in peace as well as in war.
From the last years of the eighteenth century, it became the practice to assign military experts to assist the generals of Prussia's Army. This was largely at the instigation of comparatively junior but gifted officers such as Gerhard von Scharnhorst and August von Gneisenau. Nevertheless, such measures were insufficient to overcome the inefficiency of the Army, which was commanded by aged veterans of the campaigns of Frederick the Great, almost half a century earlier.
In 1806, the Prussian Army was defeated by French Emperor Napoleon I at the Battle of Jena, and in the aftermath of this defeat, the Prussian Army and state largely collapsed. After the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, King Frederick William III appointed Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Prime Minister Baron vom und zum Stein and several promising young officers to his Military Reorganization Commission. Although Prussia's military strength and freedom of action was severely restricted by the peace terms imposed at Tilsit, this Commission nevertheless acted as a General Staff to plan and implement the reconstruction of the Prussian Army.
As part of its measures, introductory military schools in Berlin, Königsberg and Breslau, and the Academy for Young Officers (later the Kriegsakademie), open to all applicants of merit, were founded for the intellectual training of staff officers. In most non-Prussian military academies of the time, the emphasis of the training syllabus was the preparation of junior artillery and engineering officers, not strategic planners.
Although Prussian commanders of forces were still appointed by rigid seniority or royal patronage, each Army, Korps and Division commander had a staff-trained officer assigned as his Adjutant. Scharnhorst intended that they "support incompetent Generals, providing the talents that might otherwise be wanting among leaders and commanders". The unlikely pairing of the erratic but popular Field Marshal Blücher as Commander in Chief with Lieutenant General von Gneisenau as his Chief of Staff showed this system to its best advantage.
After the defeat of Napoleon, the General Staff was formally established. Entry to it followed completion of a course at the Preußische Kriegsakademie, the Prussian War Academy, an early staff college. One of the early directors of the Kriegsakademie was Carl von Clausewitz, a Reformer on the Military Reorganization Commission. From his studies and experiences of the Napoleonic Wars, he provided a syllabus which became the central doctrine from which the staff worked. This standardisation of doctrine (which itself was an attempt to grasp the philosophy underlying warfare, rather than a narrow prescribed set of rules such as those laid down by Henri Jomini) was one of the distinguishing features of the Prussian General Staff model.
In 1816, the Reformer Karl von Grolman organised the Staff into the Eastern (Russia), Southern (Austria) and Western (France and possibly West German states) Divisions, which continually planned for likely and unlikely scenarios. As early as 1843, when Europe had been largely at peace for nearly thirty years and most major nations had no plans for war, observers noted sheaves of orders at the Prussian War Ministry, already made out to cover all foreseeable contingencies and requiring only a signature and a date stamp to be put into effect.
The General Staff was always a small, elite body, numbering only fifty or so officers on its establishment and rarely exceeding one hundred officers. Only one or two officers were permanently assigned to the General Staff, described in official returns as des Generalstabs ("of the General Staff") at any time; most were attached to the General Staff from their parent regiments, although usually for several years at a time, and were listed as im Generalstab ("on the General Staff"). When the General Staff was required to take the field during major campaigns, it remained a small but effective body. During the Franco-Prussian War for example, the portion of the Staff which accompanied the headquarters of the King (as commander-in-chief) and was responsible for the direction of armies which totalled 850,000 men, consisted of the Chief of Staff himself, a Quartermaster-General and an Intendant-General whose duties were not directly concerned with military operations, three heads of departments, eleven other officers, ten draughtsmen, seven clerks and fifty-nine other ranks (orderlies, messengers etc.).
Nor was there ever a large pool of officers to draw upon to perform General Staff duties. In 1871, there were only 375 officers fully qualified to serve on the General Staff, even after an emergency expansion during the Franco-Prussian War. In 1914, there were 625 General Staff-qualified officers.
In 1857, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a widely travelled officer who was a confidante of King William I, was appointed Chief of the General Staff. Under his control, the existing staff system was expanded and consolidated.
Each year, the Prussian Army's top 120 junior officers were selected by competitive examination to attend the Kriegsakademie. The academic standards at this institution were so high that fewer than half the entrants graduated successfully. From this elite, Moltke selected the best twelve for his personal training as General Staff officers. They attended theoretical studies, annual manoeuvres, "war rides" (a system of tactical exercises without troops in the field) under Moltke himself, and war games and map exercises known as Kriegsspiele.
Although these officers subsequently alternated between regimental and staff duties, they could be relied upon to think and act exactly as Moltke had taught them when they became the Chiefs of Staff of major formations. Moltke himself referred to them as the "nervous system" of the Prussian Army. In the victories which the Prussian Army was to gain against Austrian Empire and France, Moltke needed only to issue brief directives to the main formations, leaving the staffs at the subordinate headquarters to implement the details according to the doctrines and methods he had laid down, while the Supreme Commands of his opponents became bogged down in a mountain of paperwork and trivia as they tried to control the entire army from a single overworked headquarters.
Moltke's wide experience also prompted the General Staff to consider fields of study outside the purely military, and rapidly adapt them to military use. Immediately upon his appointment, he established the Abteilung (section or department) which studied and promoted the development of railway networks within Prussia and incorporated them into its deployment plans. He also formed telegraphic, and other scientific and technical departments within the General Staff and a Historical division, which analysed past and current conflicts and published accounts of them and lessons learned.
The General Staff reformed by Moltke was the most effective in Europe, an autonomous institution dedicated solely to the efficient execution of war, unlike in other countries, whose staffs were often fettered by meddling courtiers, parliaments and government officials. On the contrary, the General Staff itself had a powerful effect on Prussian, and later German, politics.
The Second Schleswig War (1864), the political origins of which lay in Denmark's conflict with Prussia and Austria over the Schleswig-Holstein Question, vindicated Moltke's concepts of operations and led to an overhaul of the command arrangements of the Prussian Army. Moltke envisaged a rapid attack to prevent the Danes falling back behind water obstacles which the Prussian Navy could not overcome. A rigid system of seniority placed Friedrich Graf von Wrangel, widely regarded as being in his dotage, in command. He ignored all of Moltke's directives and his own staff's advice, and by allowing the Danish Army to withdraw at its leisure he prolonged the war for several months. The resulting post mortem was to ensure a better (though not infallible) system for appointing commanders.
The War between Prussia and Austria (1866) became almost inevitable after the end of hostilities with Denmark. Many Prussians regarded the war as a sad necessity. Moltke, describing his reasons for confidence to War Minister Albrecht von Roon, stated, "We have the inestimable advantage of being able to carry our Field Army of 285,000 men over five railway lines and of virtually concentrating them in twenty-five days ... Austria has only one railway line and it will take her forty-five days to assemble 200,000 men." Although there were inevitable mistakes and confusion on the battlefield, Moltke's pre-war calculations were proved correct, and the Austrian army was brought to battle at Königgrätz and destroyed.
In contrast to the Prussian staff, Austrian staff officers gained their posts either by membership of the Austrian nobility and a desire to avoid tedious regimental duties, or after uninspiring training which made them into plodding, rule-bound clerks. In all aspects of preparation, planning and execution, their muddled efforts compared badly with that of their Prussian counterparts.
Prussian staff analysis and army improvements
In reviewing Prussian deficiencies against the Austrians, the General Staff made several improvements to increase the strategic and tactical proficiency of the King's army. Cavalry would no longer be held in reserve, but would actively screen the army's movements at all levels, make first contact with the enemy, and constantly observe hostile activities. Newly developed rifled artillery would no longer be placed in the rear of the order of march for employment behind the infantry; instead, a significant detachment would travel with the advanced guard of the leading corps or other major element, and the remainder would march with the front of the main body, providing immediate artillery coverage of the advanced guard on contact and of the main body during subsequent deployment on the field. A renewed emphasis was placed on maintaining contact with subordinate and superior commands, so that commanders always were informed of units' locations on the battlefield, reducing the "fog of war" effect. Finally, the introduction of the breech-loading infantry rifle marked a revolution in weapons effect, so that Moltke made the following analysis in 1865:
The attack of a position is becoming notably more difficult than its defense. The defensive during the first phase of battle offers a decisive superiority. The task of a skillful offensive will consist of forcing our foe to attack a position chosen by us, and only when casualties, demoralization, and exhaustion have drained his strength will we ourselves take up the tactical offensive.... Our strategy must be offensive, our tactics defensive.
The government of Napoleon III of France was undoubtedly startled by the Prussian victory over Austria, and urgently sought to reform their army to face the conflict with Prussia which seemed inevitable and imminent. Their senior officers entirely failed to grasp the methods of the Prussian General Staff. The Chief of Staff of the French Army, Marechal Edmond Leboeuf, fatuously stated in 1870 that the French Army was ready for war, "down to the last gaiter button." In the event, at the outset of the Franco-Prussian War, 462,000 German soldiers concentrated flawlessly on the French frontier while only 270,000 French soldiers could be moved to face them, the French army having lost 100,000 stragglers before a shot was fired through poor planning and administration. (Most of these were reservists who had not been able to join their units before the units were hastily dispatched to join the armies forming up near the frontier.)
During the war, there were again the inevitable mistakes due to the "fog of war", but German formations moved with a speed and precision which French staff officers, accustomed only to moving battalion-sized punitive columns, could not match. In the French (and British) armies of the time, there was an anti-intellectual prejudice in favour of brave and unimaginative regimental officers over intelligent and well-trained staff officers. The French Army paid dearly for this bias in 1870 and 1871.
The end result of strategic preparation by Moltke and diplomatic overtures by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was the unification of all the independent German states and the creation of a German Empire under Prussian control. King Wilhelm I was proclaimed "German Emperor" on 18 January 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles following the Prussian victory. This victory surprised many military professionals around the world, since France had been considered a great military power, while Prussia was widely considered a lesser power, despite its military successes under Friedrich Wilhelm III, in 1813–15 over Napoleon, and more recently over Austria during the Seven Weeks' War of 1866. Most states hastened to adopt Prussian staff methods and structures, with mixed success.
Concurrently, Moltke pushed for reassessment and self-improvement of Prussian military units to maintain tactical superiority relative to other nations' units, introducing his concept of Auftragstaktik or mission-oriented tactics, to promote initiative as a well-defined leadership doctrine at all levels of command, written into every Prussian tactical manual published after the Franco-Prussian War:
A favorable situation will never be exploited if commanders wait for orders. The highest commander and the youngest soldier must always be conscious of the fact that omission and inactivity are worse than resorting to the wrong expedient.
With unification the Prussian General Staff became the Imperial German General Staff, with seconded general staff officers from Saxony, Württemberg and Bavaria, and was responsible for military planning for the whole German Empire. They began preparing for what seemed to be another inevitable war with France, which was intent on revenge and recovery of the provinces annexed by Germany. Bismarck's continuing diplomatic intrigues prevented any hostile European coalition forming against Germany, but with his departure in 1890, France eventually gained Russia as an ally.
Germany then was at risk of being at war on both Eastern and Western fronts. To meet this threat, Chief of Staff Alfred von Schlieffen drew up and continually refined the Schlieffen Plan to meet this eventuality. The plan has been accused of being too rigid. Manuel de Landa, in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), argued that the Prussian army now favoured the Jominian theory, which gave preeminence to the Army and to its autonomy, compared to the civilian control advocated by Clausewitz. Thus, centralization of decision was preferred over decentralization allowing local initiative. Already in Prussia under Moltke, the General Staff had achieved a special political significance. Since 1883, its head (and the commanding generals and commanders-in-chief) had the right of access to the Emperor, and it could therefore effectively make military decisions without the oversight of the Chancellor or the Reichstag. This was one of the seeds of the mass destruction of the First World War, as military planning was not subject to political control. Thus, the Schlieffen Plan developed into the only war plan and into a kind of dogma, without many of the leading politicians being informed. Nor was the German Navy's high command informed.
To an extent, the General Staff became obsessed with perfecting the methods which had gained victory in the late nineteenth century. Although he maintained an icy formal demeanour, Moltke the Elder had been a flexible and innovative thinker in many fields. Schlieffen, by comparison, was a single-minded and narrow military specialist. The Schlieffen Plan committed Germany to an early outright offensive against France while Russia was still mobilising, and also required an unprovoked invasion of neutral Belgium, to make it possible to rapidly surround and annihilate the French army. The rigidity of the plan, based around a minutely detailed mobilisation schedule and railway timetable, prevented any political moves which might have averted hostilities, as Kaiser William discovered on the eve of the war when he considered not invading France in order to avoid Great Britain joining Germany's enemies. Additionally, it failed to take adequate account of logistics and the inability of horse-drawn transport to supply troops far from railheads.
Nor had the General Staff, before the war, considered the use of potential allies such as Turkey, or dissident factions within the French, British and Russian empires, to distract or weaken the Allied war effort. "A swift victory over the main armies in the main theatre of war was the German General Staff's solution for all outside difficulties, and absolved them from thinking of war in its wider aspects."
The General Staff thought that Japan would most likely not win the First Sino-Japanese War.
The General Staff was divided between the central Großer Generalstab in Berlin and the general staffs of the corps and division HQs. The head of the Großer Generalstab was the "Chief of the General Staff" and was also the technical superior of all general staff officers. The Chief of the General Staff's chief deputy held the title of Generalquartiermeister. Beneath them were the five Oberquartiermeisters, who supervised the heads of the General Staff departments. The Railroad Department had the largest number of officers assigned, while the Second Department was the most important.Chief of the General Staff
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As per pre-war planning upon mobilisation in August 1914, most of the General Staff, including the Oberquartiermeisters, were reassigned to the headquarters of the Armies and Corps. The remaining core became the "General Staff of the Field Army", part of the Oberste Heeresleitung (Supreme Army Command). Under the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger and Generalquartiermeister, Hermann von Stein, the streamlined General Staff was now divided into only three departments; Operations, Intelligence and Political Affairs.
The General Staff under Schlieffen, and subsequently under Moltke, did not compensate for logistic flaws nor provide contingencies in case of the failure of their original plan to achieve quick success. Although superior German staff work at division, corps and army level throughout the First World War contributed to their continuous run of successes until very near the end of the war, the German nation collapsed under the strain. Thus the German General Staff lost the war of attrition against the Entente cordiale formed by France and the United Kingdom, in part due to logistical reasons. Focusing exclusively on military aspects of the war, the General Staff ignored political needs, which were to be discovered during the war itself, for example with the women on the home-front.
A consequence of wartime attrition was the premature deployment of Kriegsakademie students to army and corps general staffs, some of them before reaching their second year curriculum. Later, standards for General Staff assignment were altered due to the closure of the Kriegsakademie, to allow examined officers to serve on staff apprenticeships, raising concerns that these new General Staff Corps officers were not evaluated or trained at the level of those they were replacing.
When Germany was defeated in 1918, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles specifically forbade the creation or recreation of the General Staff. Despite this, the German officer corps led by Hans von Seeckt, the chief of the Weimar Republic's army, carefully set about planning the next war in a camouflaged general staff hidden within the Truppenamt ("troop office"), an innocent-looking human-resources bureau within the small army permitted by the peace accord. The Kriegsakademie had also been abolished, but training of General Staff Officers continued, dispersed among the Wehrkreise (Military District) headquarters but overseen by tutors from the Truppenamt. A new Kriegsakademie was established in 1935
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, all he had to do was to follow the Truppenamt/General Staff plan to build up the Nazi war machine. However, the General Staff advised Hitler that the German Army would be fully modernised and ready for war by 1944 or 1945 only. As a result, most artillery pieces were still horse drawn at the outbreak of war in 1939. Throughout the war, the German industry was unable to furnish small arms in sufficient quantities, forcing the Army to rely heavily on older weapons, prizes of war, and adaptations of former designs produced in conquered countries, thus producing an arsenal filled with an array of incompatible pieces, unlike the smaller number of standard small arms used by the Allies.
The Army's leaders retained a generally conservative political outlook, and had an ambivalent attitude towards the Nazi party. They did fear that the Army's leading role as the defenders of Germany might be challenged by the unruly SA, the party's political militia, and when Hitler suppressed the SA in the Night of the Long Knives, they stood aside and effectually acquiesced in the extrajudicial murders involved. While the General Staff welcomed Hitler's expansion of the army, they were opposed to many of his wilder schemes and continually urged caution. When several of Hitler's early moves such as the Occupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria and the occupation of the Sudetenland succeeded despite advice from the General Staff that these might bring about a premature war with France and Britain, Hitler was further convinced that his intuition was superior to the General Staff's intellectual analysis.
Hitler curtailed the Army's traditional independence early, by the fortuitous disgrace of the commander in chief of the armed forces, Werner von Blomberg, and false accusations of homosexuality against the commander in chief of the army, Werner von Fritsch. (The combined scandals were known as the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair.)
The armed forces command structure was changed by Hitler in 1938, with an Armed Forces HQ (the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, usually contracted to OKW) placed over the army command (Oberkommando des Heeres or OKH) and the other service commands and almost entirely displacing the Reich War Ministry.
Towards the end of the War of 1914 to 1918, the General Staff had almost wholly usurped the political power of the state. At the beginning of World War II, by contrast, its influence was less than it had been at the outset of the First World War and actually declined during the war.
In part this was due to the increasing pre-eminence of the other branches of the German armed forces, in particular of the Luftwaffe. The commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, Hitler's friend and political colleague Hermann Göring, always had personal influence with Hitler which no Army leader had. Another was the increasing tension between OKH and OKW. While the need for a joint headquarters to coordinate the work of all the services was desirable in theory, for example to determine industrial and manpower priorities and avoid duplication of effort, OKW was increasingly used as an alternate Army planning staff by Hitler. At the same time, OKW failed in its task of overseeing the overall war effort, resulting in wasteful diversion of resources to several competing and unregulated forces (such as the SS) responsible only to themselves or to Hitler alone.
After 1941, OKH was largely responsible for operations on the Eastern Front only (and administration of the army as a whole), while OKW directed operations on the other fronts. There were now effectively two general staffs, often competing with each other, with arbitration of all disputes in the hands of Hitler, further increasing his personal power. Finally, in late 1941, Hitler dismissed Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander in chief of the Army, and assumed direct command of the Army himself. From this time onwards, neither OKW nor OKH could independently plan or conduct operations, but merely implemented Hitler's often flawed commands.
At a lower level, training of General Staff officers continued, but the course was still almost as long, intense, and exclusive as in peacetime. Properly-trained staff officers became increasingly scarce, and in some cases newly qualified staff officers lacked the dedication or moral courage of their predecessors.
Before and during the early part of the war, some General Staff officers, notably the Chief, Franz Halder, considered a coup d'état to remove Hitler from power, and avoid what they believed would be a disastrous and premature war. They planned a coup as response to Hitler ordering war on Czechoslovakia to seize the Sudetenland, when Britain and France were opposed. But France and Britain capitulated at Munich, which removed the danger of war and justified Hitler's policy; the dissidents let the matter drop. In November 1939, Halder, still fearing the war would end in disaster, discussed a coup with Army C-in-C von Brauchitsch and Carl Goerdeler of the Schwarze Kapelle, but finally decided Hitler was untouchable until Germany met a "setback".
Opposition to Hitler nevertheless continued, including among the General Staff officers of the Ersatzheer ("Replacement Army"), which had charge of all new troops being organized in Germany for the field army. They set up Operation Valkyrie, in which Ersatzheer detachments would take control of Germany. On 20 July 1944, the conspirators tried to kill Hitler, thought they had succeeded, and initiated Valkyrie. But most line officers and the bulk of the General Staff refused to obey the Valkyrie plotters; when Hitler was known to be alive, the coup collapsed entirely.
However, many General Staff officers were clearly implicated in the plot, and the General Staff was revealed as a center of dissent. In the months after 20 July, several dozen General Staff officers were arrested and in most cases executed. Also, Luftwaffe, SS, or "National Socialist Leadership Officers" were appointed to positions normally occupied by General Staff officers in new or rebuilt formations.