German General Staff: Wikis


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The German General Staff (Großer Generalstab, literally Great General Staff) was an institution whose rise and development gave the German military a decided advantage over its adversaries. The Staff amounted to its best "weapon" for nearly a century and a half.

In a narrow sense, the General Staff was a full-time body at the head of the Prussian and later, German Army, responsible for the continuous study of all aspects of war, and for drawing up and reviewing plans for mobilization or campaign. It existed unofficially from 1806, and was formally established by law in 1814, the first General Staff in existence. It was distinguished by the formal selection of its officers by intelligence and proven merit rather than patronage or wealth, and by the exhaustive and rigorously structured training which staff officers undertook.

The Prussian General Staff also enjoyed greater freedom from political control than its contemporaries, and this autonomy was enshrined in law on the establishment of the German Empire in 1871. It came to be regarded as the home of German militarism in the aftermath of the First World War, and the victors attempted to suppress the institution. It nevertheless survived to play its accustomed part in the rearmament of Germany and the Second World War.

In a broader sense, the Prussian General Staff corps consisted of those officers qualified to undertake staff duties, and formed a unique military fraternity. Their exhaustive training was designed not only to weed out the less motivated or able candidates, but also to produce a body of professional military experts with common methods and outlook, and an almost monastic dedication to their profession. General Staff–qualified officers would alternate between line and staff duties but would remain life-long members of this special organization. As staff officers, their uniform featured distinctive double-wide carmine trouser stripes.

Until the end of the German Empire, while social and political convention often placed members of noble or royal households in command of its armies or corps, the actual responsibility for the planning and conduct of operations lay with the formation's highly trained Staff officers. For other European armies which lacked this professionally trained Staff Corps, the same conventions were often a recipe for disaster. Even the Army of the French Second Empire, whose senior officers had supposedly reached high rank as a result of bravery and success on the battlefield, was crushed in a campaign which highlighted their poor administration and planning, and lack of professional education.

The Chief of Staff of a Prussian formation in the field had the right to disagree, in writing, with the plans or orders of the commander of the formation, and appeal to the commander of the next highest formation (which might ultimately be the King, or Emperor, who would be guided by the Head of the Great General Staff). This served as a check on incompetence and also served for the objecting officer to officially disassociate himself with a flawed plan. Only the most stubborn commanders would not give way before this threat.

For these reasons, Prussian and German military victories would often be credited professionally to the Chief of Staff, rather than to the nominal commander of an army. Often the commander of an army was himself a member of the General Staff, but it was now institutionally recognized that not only was command leadership important, but effective staff work was a significant key to success in both pre-war planning and in wartime operations.



Early history

The development of a corps of full-time military professionals, in peace and war, working to assist the army on all aspects of operations and logistics planning was the outgrowth of experience on the battlefield the 17th and 18th Centuries. Prior to the beginning of 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.

In 1806, the Prussian Army was defeated by Napoleon Bonaparte 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 von und zum Stein, and several promising young officers to his Military Reorganization Commission [1]. 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 as well as the Academy for Young Officers (later the Kriegsakademie), open to all applicants of merit, were founded for the intellectual training of staff officers.[2] 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;[3][4] a notable British exception to the rule was the proposed Senior Department of the Royal Military College.[3]

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".[5] 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 shows 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 Karl 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 a philosophy, 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.

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; most were "attached" to the General Staff from their parent regiments, although usually for several years at a time. 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 [6], 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.

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, dispatch riders etc).[7]

Von Moltke the Elder

General Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the General Staff from 1857 to 1888

In 1857, Helmuth von Moltke, 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 severe that fewer than half the entrants graduated successfully. From this elite, von Moltke selected the best 12 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.[8][9]

Although these officers subsequently alternated between regimental and staff duties, they could be relied upon to think and act exactly as von 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, von 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.[10]

Von 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[11] and a Historical division, which analysed past and current conflicts and published accounts of them and lessons learned.

The General Staff reformed by von 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.[12]

War with Denmark

The Second Schleswig War, the political origins of which lay in Denmark's conflict with Prussia and Austria over the Schleswig-Holstein Question, vindicated von Moltke's concepts of operations and led to an overhaul of the command arrangements of the Prussian Army. Von 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 von Moltke's directives and his own staff's advice, and by allowing the Danish Army to withdraw at its leisure, prolonged the war for several months. The resulting post mortem was to ensure a better (though not infallible) system for appointing commanders.

Seven Weeks War

The War between Prussia and Austria became almost inevitable after the end of hostilities with Denmark. Many Prussians regarded the war as a sad necessity. Von 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, von 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 one of the six hundred aristocratic families which controlled the Austrian Empire's wealth and patronage, or after uninspiring training which made them into plodding, rule-bound clerks.[13] 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 corp 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 infantry rifle marked a revolution in weapons effect, so that von Moltke made the following analysis in 1865:[14]

"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."

Franco-Prussian War

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 (or mislaid) 100,000 stragglers before a shot was fired through poor planning and administration.[15]

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 von 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.[16] Most states hastened to adopt Prussian staff methods and structures, with mixed success.[17]

Concurrently, von 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 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 [18]:

"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."

From Unification to World War I

William II with his generals

With unification the Prussian General Staff became the Imperial German General Staff and began preparing for what seemed to be an 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.

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, von Moltke the Elder had been a flexible and innovative thinker in many fields. Von 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.[19]

Nor had the General Staff considered in advance of the war, 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."[20]

World War I

The General Staff under von Schlieffen, and subsequently under von Moltke the younger, 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 engaged against the Entente cordiale formed by France and the UK, in part due to logistics 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 War Academy 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 War Academy closure 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.[21]

Between the Wars

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 the Weimar Republic's army chief Hans von Seeckt 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.

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 in 1944–45 only. As a result most artillery pieces were still horse drawn at the outbreak of war in 1939. Also, for all the duration German industry could not 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 a stunning array of incompatible pieces, unlike the smaller number of standard small arms used by the Allies.

World War II

Towards the end of World War I, the General Staff had almost wholly usurped the political power of the state. In World War II by contrast, its influence was less at the start than it had been at the start of World War I 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. Perhaps more important was the generally conservative political outlook of the Army's leaders, who had an ambivalent attitude towards the Nazi party (and the unruly SA, the party's political militia). While the General Staff welcomed Hitler's expansion of the army and his suppression of the SA, they were opposed to many of his wilder schemes and continually urged caution. 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 the 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, 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. While in theory a joint headquarters to coordinate the work of all the services was desirable, 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 by several competing and unregulated bodies responsible only to themselves or to Hitler alone.

While the traditional German staff administration and planning was to contribute greatly to the early German successes, many of these triumphs were presented as the result of Hitler's personal intervention and the initiative of comparatively junior officers who were opposed to the restraint of the General Staff.

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. As there were now effectively two general staffs, often competing with each other, arbitration of all disputes was in the hands of Hitler, further increasing his personal power.

Chiefs of the Prussian General Staff (1808–1871)

Chiefs of the German General Staff (1871–1919)

Chiefs of Troop Office (1919–1933)

Chiefs of Staff of the Army High Command (OKH) (1933–1945)


  1. ^ Dupuy, p. 20
  2. ^ Dupuy pp. 24–25, 28
  3. ^ a b RMAS: The story of Sandhurst
  4. ^ USMA Bicentennial
  5. ^ Boot, p.122
  6. ^ Dupuy, p. 38
  7. ^ Howard, pp.60-61
  8. ^ McElwee, p.67
  9. ^ Howard, p.25
  10. ^ McElwee, p.50
  11. ^ McElwee, p. 107
  12. ^ Wawro, 283–84
  13. ^ McElwee, p.54
  14. ^ Dupuy, pp. 88–92
  15. ^ McElwee, p. 46
  16. ^ Dupuy, pp. 77–88
  17. ^ Dupuy, pp. 113–114
  18. ^ Dupuy, p. 116
  19. ^ van Creveld, pp. 109–141
  20. ^ Liddell Hart, Basil (1930). History of the First World War. Pan. p. 45. ISBN 0-330-23354-8.  
  21. ^ Dupuy, pp. 186–187


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  • Mombauer, Annika. Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Overy, Richard (1996). Why the Allies Won: Explaining Victory in World War II. Pimlico. ISBN 9780712674539.  
  • Stoneman, Mark R. “Wilhelm Groener, Officering, and the Schlieffen Plan.” PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2006. abstract
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  • Wawro, Geoffrey. The Austro-Prussian War: Austria's War with Prussia and Italy in 1866. Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

See also

External links

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