The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

012 Helmuth von Moltke and the work of Ahriman

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

German high command yields under pressure

It is Sunday 13 September 1914. It is the 12th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Russian general Pawel von Rennenkampf has to withdraw in East Prussia after the Battle of the Masurian Lakes.

German admiral Maximilian von Spee reaches Samoa with his East Asian flotilla.

At the top of the Russian army Yakov Zhilinsky is replaced by Nikolai Ruzsky.

The Belgian army takes cover in Antwerp, while American president Woodrow Wilson welcomes a Belgian delegation.

South African troops prepare for battle in the German territories of South West Africa.

In an estuary near Cameroon the German gunboat Nachtigall makes a vain attempt to sink  the British gunboat Dwarf.

Japanese land at Qingdao in China.

British and French succeed in crossing the river Marne after which their advance gets bogged down.

The British Expeditionary Force, instructed by Sir John French, starts digging trenches near the river Aisne.

And the Battle of the Marne becomes too much for German chief-of-staff Helmuth von Moltke.

When the tragedy of the river Marne has taken place for the Germans, Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke is at his wits’ end. He is at a loss. Gazes at the maps. Physically and mentally a broken man, also filled with self-pity, he has to report to the emperor that he does not expect any good to come of it. Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn, who is not very tactful, takes Von Moltke’s place at the front. Or rather behind the front, for Von Moltke has not been very close to the fire for the past month. Falkenhayn will position his headquarters a bit closer to his troops first.

Of all the characters presented by the First World War, Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke is one of the most enigmatic. In various publications one can read that he had a tender soul. He played the cello, liked to paint and knew his Goethe. The emperor himself called him der Traurige Julius. But Von Moltke not only had a tender soul. He was also in delicate health. When at the end of July the leaders of Europe were approaching the abyss, 66-year-old Helmuth von Moltke was taking a cure in Carlsbad.

What surprises most is his close relationship with the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, who was born in present-day Croatia. Even now Steiner is honoured as a visionary at Waldorf schools and biodynamic agricultural enterprises. Steiner is the man who advocates the merger of the individual and the cosmos. And Von Moltke is the general who buried soldiers in the earth. What in the world did these two have in common? Perhaps Mrs von Moltke. She floated first towards Steiner. After that also her husband, the highest ranking officer of the Empire, had hungrily served the interests of Rudolf Steiner’s elevated thoughts. Ten days before the Battle of the Marne the two met near headquarters at Koblenz. Steiner convinced Moltke with his observation that guided by the Spirit the people ‘bears light out of the battle into the heart of Europe for the healing of mankind’.

Whatever spiritual influence Steiner had on Von Moltke, he has not turned the general into a pacifist. On the contrary. Von Moltke is the man who works on the emperor in the years before 1914: the war, which will come anyhow, had better break out as soon as possible. Russia is a giant about to wake up from his sleep before long. When the evils of the lost war against Japan have disappeared, Russia will stand up. And then the German empire will have a major problem both in the west and the east. Before the siege is final, Germany has to break free. Behold the passionate plea of Helmuth von Moltke, a social Darwinist, for whom a people’s right to exist had to be proved on the  battlefield.

This is how to many he has become the embodiment of German aggression. Von Moltke may have thought that he could keep the war down to a single enemy, but he certainly has not avoided the risk of a blaze. Others again have pictured him as the man who squandered German opportunities by fiddling with the famous Schlieffen Plan. Especially Wilhelm Groener, who was to succeed Paul von Hindenburg after the war as chief of staff of the German Army, pinned botching the Von Schlieffen strategy on Von Moltke. Afterwards the nazis did their best to preserve the myth of the ingenious Schlieffen plan.

The fact is that Von Schlieffen saw fewer dangers than Von Moltke, who may pass for a realist because of this, though this scion of an old Mecklenburg family was most of all a fatalist. With the French walking across the Alsace and the Russians flowing over East Prussia, Von Moltke had every reason to believe the consequences for Germany completely disastrous. He anticipated a long and devastating war that had to be won on several fronts simultaneously. Already in 1905 he had warned the emperor for this: ‘Our people will be completely exhausted, even if we should triumph.’

As far as the war was concerned his pessimism also concerned the financial flexibility of the German nation. ‘Our enemies are arming more vigorously than we, because we are strapped for cash.’ That certainly had an element of truth in it. Historian Niall Ferguson shows that a possible cause of the Great War could be contained in Germany’s financial limitations. Ferguson also quotes Von Moltke on this. The latter argued in March 1913 that ‘war should be worked up to in such a way that it will be considered a release from the big armaments, the financial burdens and the political tensions.’ On close analysis war is a foreign venture for the sake of domestic peace.


He had the appropriate name. Wilhelm II absolutely wanted ‘my own Moltke’. Helmuth’s uncle of the same name had created the great German Empire alongside Bismarck in one or two glorious battles. Particularly arch-enemy France had been no match in 1870 for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who was to appoint his nephew years after that as his aide. After that Wilhelm II preferred him as his first man in the army as successor of the famous strategist Von Schlieffen.

From the very start this appointment proved to be controversial. And it must have kept Von Moltke himself awake. He had little faith in the emperor. It must have been abhorrent to a Prussian aristocrat like Von Moltke to have a commander-in-chief who blew off military exercises when rain started to fall. What was to become of Germany with such a monarch at the helm? Von Moltke preferably kept Wilhelm out of the military plans that were ready to be executed. Steiner asserted that he had asked Von Moltke why. The general must have answered that the emperor would most certainly have started to chatter about the military plans.

Von Moltke’s despair about the emperor really hits home in the days before the actual outbreak of the war. At the eleventh hour Wilhelm II does not want to mobilize in the west. He thinks and fervently hopes that, thanks to British neutrality, the battle can only be fought in the east, against the Russians. Von Moltke is desperate. He is appalled at the thought that his wonderful mobilisation machine should be put in reverse all of a sudden. He worked on Der Tag for ten years, first as Von Schlieffen’s assistant, after that as his successor.

Eventually the emperor will give Von Moltke the green light, so that the latter can stick to his mobilisation schedule in the west. Von Moltke’s planners have selected the Luxembourg town of Troisvierges – the three virgins of Faith, Hope and Love – for the first border crossing, on the first day of August 1914. Von Moltke’s Der Tag has come. ‘We have certainly advanced through Belgium with brute force’, he writes on 5 August. ‘But we are fighting for our lives, so whoever gets in our way should accept the consequences.’ He tries to direct his armies from a distance for a month. His most controversial decision is moving troops from the west to the east, where the Russians are penetrating East Prussia. That is not what Von Schlieffen had in mind.

On 14 September a new day begins for Von Moltke, the day of his nervous breakdown. Von Moltke succumbs to the heavy responsibility which he has taken in the first month of the war. Helmuth von Moltke was a defeatist type of person. In his own words: ‘I am too melancholy, too cautious, too conscientious, if you please, to be a general in a war.’

At headquarters they make him play second fiddle to keep up appearances. Both the German people and high command of the Austro-Hungarian ally are kept in the dark about the changing of the guard. The lists of losses of the battle of the Marne are not published either. Von Moltke feels his degradation, presented as a period of leave, as a big injustice. ‘Your Majesty, nobody is telling me anything!’, he cried out to the emperor. To which the latter must have answered that the same went for him.


Von Moltke will live another two years to repair the injustice done to him, but he will not be granted a role on the main podium of the First World War any more. On 18 June 1916 he goes to church in Berlin to add lustre to a memorial service for Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Von Moltke holds a speech in which he speaks highly of the deceased. He says that history has repeatedly shown that heroism and tragedy are closely linked. The congregation must feel that the speaker is not only referring to the person who has just ascended into heaven, but is also implying himself. When the Turkish ambassador is in the middle of his eulogy for Von der Goltz, Von Moltke, who has a heart condition, collapses. He dies at the age of 68.

Whatever way you look at it, this was too early for historians, for after the war Von Moltke could have explained one thing and another about the path he took with Germany towards the war. His wife published letters and his memoirs in 1922, but she appears to have made quite a mess of the contents. The diaries Von Moltke kept were burnt by his son Wilhelm in 1945, just before the Russians captured Berlin.

What can have possessed Von Moltke? How could this floating general reconcile his spiritual search for universal love with the careless moving about of cannon fodder across his topographic maps? Rudolf Steiner must have had some idea. After Von Moltke’s death the two kept in touch in the great beyond. Rudolf Steiner Press published an account of this esoteric exchange, entitled Light for the New Millennium.

Helmuth von Moltke sent the following message to the earth in December 1921: ‘The events on the Marne! Everything would have turned out differently, if I had not been accompanied by the mistrust of those around me. I traveled to the front in a cloud of mistrust.’ Eventually it had all been the work of Ahriman, the ‘Prince of Darkness’. As far as Wilhelm II is concerned, Von Moltke left us this explanation from above: ‘The Kaiser was actually quite weak due to the forces working in him from his previous life.’

Next week: Otto Weddigen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)




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