The Prussian soldier Count Helmuth Karl Bernard von Moltke (1800-1891) was the military architect of the wars of German unification. He served as chief of the Prussian general staff from 1857 to 1888.
Helmuth von Moltke was born on Oct. 26, 1800, in Parchim, Mecklenburg, to German-Danish parents impoverished by the Napoleonic Wars. Educated in the Copenhagen Royal Cadet Corps (1811-1817), Moltke began Danish service in 1819 but in 1822 transferred to Prussia as an infantry lieutenant. He did little regimental duty, attending the Berlin Kriegsakademie from 1823 to 1826 and working in the general staff’s topographical office from 1828 to 1831. Moltke wrote technical studies, histories, translations, and fiction in attempts to advance his career, which in 1829 he diagnosed as suffering from his own weakness of character. In 1833 he became a first lieutenant in the general staff and in 1835 a captain.
In September 1835 Moltke became an adviser to the Turkish army, which he joined for the calamitous 1839 campaign in Syria. Moltke’s maps, sketches, and watercolors of the Near East all showed versatility. After his 1840 reentry into Prussian service, the 1841 publication of his Turkish Letters established him as an author of some popularity.
Domestically happy in his childless marriage (1842- 1868) to an English wife, Marie Burt, Moltke served on the Coblenz staff and the transport section and general staff at Berlin, then briefly headed the Magdeburg staff. Royal unwillingness to use the Prussian army during the Revolution of 1848 briefly caused Moltke to consider migrating to Australia as a farmer. However, service as adjutant to Prince Henry in Rome, and later to Crown Prince Frederick William, gave Moltke diplomatic experience, more rapid promotion, the material for more ‘‘travel books,’’ and the soubriquet of ‘‘the man who knows how to be silent in seven languages.’’
Chief of Staff
On Oct. 29, 1857, Maj. Gen. Moltke became chief of staff. He changed little in staff organization but emphasized modern technology in all sections. General strategy and a two-front war plan produced in 1860 occupied much of Moltke’s personal attention.
The Austro-Prussian attack on the Danes over Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 was so mismanaged by Baron F. H. E. von Wrangel’s chief of staff, Eduard Vogel von Falckenstein, that the latter was superseded by Moltke, who soon brought the Danes to terms. This promotion to a field post was then accounted the climax of Moltke’s career, as well as a triumph of ‘‘staff’’ over ‘‘regulars.’’
In the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 King William I and Minister-President Otto von Bismarck entrusted the deployment of forces to Moltke, who telegraphed laconic ‘‘general directives’’ from Berlin for the rapid convergence of 85 percent of the Prussian army against Austrian and Saxon forces in Bohemia. In the July 3 battle of Sadowa (Königgrätz) King William relied entirely on Moltke’s judgment through a closely contested, but finally decisive, engagement. The Austrian infantry was routed and demoralized, and the Hapsburgs hastened to agree to Bismarck’s terms. This blitzkrieg campaign made Moltke famous.
In the 1870-1871 war against France, Moltke detrained the 2d Army on the Rhine, expecting to win a defensive battle there before marching on Paris. The conversion of this deployment into a German invasion of France was a measure of Prussian staff capacity, Moltke’s confidence and adaptability, and French strategic passivity. The German army units cohered in a general advance, while the French units collapsed into pockets of local resistance. The surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan (Sept. 2, 1870) and Marshal Achille Bazaine at Metz (Oct. 28) opened the way to a siege of Paris. Moltke attended the proclamation of the German ‘‘Reich’’ (Jan. 18, 1871), followed by the January 28 armistice and May 10 Treaty of Frankfurt. In June 1871 ‘‘der Grosse Schweiger,’’ or ‘‘the Great Silent One,’’ as Moltke was called, was promoted to field marshal.
As chief of staff, Moltke consistently discounted the chances of complete success in a two-front war. A defensive victory on the Rhine or Vistula, followed by an offensive and a negotiated peace, was the essence of his strategy for conflict against France and Russia. Moltke’s view that ‘‘perpetual peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful one’’ must be set against his opinion that ‘‘a war, even the most victorious, is a national misfortune’’ to begin to grasp the breadth of his military thinking. After his retirement in 1888, he took an increasingly critical view of Kaiser William II. Moltke continued to be politically active, however, until his death in Berlin on April 24, 1891.
The lank, bewigged, half-Danish Moltke has been called a ‘‘general on wheels’’ as distinct from his military predecessors on horseback. This expression grasps only the particular form—railway deployment—most salient in Moltke’s emphasis on modern technology as part of the totality of a military enterprise. It was the breadth and versatility of his mind that gave dimension to Moltke’s personal motto: ‘‘First weigh, then wage.’’ Moltke thus considered every strategic problem ‘‘simply common sense,’’ but his method of analysis was so demanding that Paul von Hindenburg accounted Moltke ‘‘unlike all the other German generals.’’ If the German general staff proved unable to inherit Moltke’s strategic system, the German army for a time was inspirited by his motto for its officers: ‘‘Be more than you seem.’’
Further Reading A primary source for Moltke’s life is Moltke: His Life and Character, Sketched in Journals, Letters, Memoirs, a Novel, and Autobiographical Notes, translated by Mary Herms (1892). Further biographical information is in William O’Connor Morris, Moltke: A Biographical and Critical Study (2d ed. 1894); Friedrich August Dressler, Moltke in His Home (trans. 1906); and Frederick Ernest Whitton, Moltke (1921).