On the Nature of War by Helmut Moltke (the Elder)
- 1 [In this letter to the international law expert, Johann Kaspar Bluntschli (1808-81), Count Helmuth von Moltke expressed his philosophical views on the necessity of war. Moltke was born in Mecklenburg, served the King of Denmark and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire before returning to Prussia in 1839. From 1858 until his resignation in 1888, he served as Chief of the General Staff from which position he planned the successful wars of unification against Denmark, Austria, and France. He was also a member of the Reichstag, 1871-91. Source: Harry Pross (ed.), Die Zerstörung der deutschen Politik: Dokumente 1871-1933 (Frankfurt, 1959), pp. 29-31. Translated by Richard S. Levy.]
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- 4 FOR FURTHER READING
[In this letter to the international law expert, Johann Kaspar Bluntschli (1808-81), Count Helmuth von Moltke expressed his philosophical views on the necessity of war. Moltke was born in Mecklenburg, served the King of Denmark and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire before returning to Prussia in 1839. From 1858 until his resignation in 1888, he served as Chief of the General Staff from which position he planned the successful wars of unification against Denmark, Austria, and France. He was also a member of the Reichstag, 1871-91. Source: Harry Pross (ed.), Die Zerstörung der deutschen Politik: Dokumente 1871-1933 (Frankfurt, 1959), pp. 29-31. Translated by Richard S. Levy.]
December 11, 1880
You have kindly sent me the handbook published by the Institute for
International Law and would like my acknowledgment of the same.
First, I find the humanitarian striving to lessen the sufferings
that come with war completely worthy. Eternal peace is a dream
--and not even a beautiful one. War is part of God's world-order.
Within it unfold the noblest virtues of men, courage and
renunciation, loyalty to duty and readiness for sacrifice--at the
hazzard of one's life. Without war the world would sink into a
swamp of materialism. Further, I wholly agree with the principle
stated in the preface that the gradual progress in morality must
also be reflected in the waging of war. But I go farther and
believe that [waging war] in and of itself--not a codification of
the law of war--may attain this goal.
Every law requires an authority to oversee and administer its
execution, and just this force is lacking for the observation of
international agreements. What third state would take up arms
because one or both of two warring powers had violated the law of
war [loi de guerre]? An earthly judge is lacking. In this
matter success is to be expected only from the religious and moral
education, the sense of honor and respect for law, of individual
leaders who make the law and act according to it, so far as this is
generally possible to do in the abnormal conditions of war.
Indisputably, humanity in the waging of war has in fact followed
the general mitigation of morals. Only compare the savagery of the
Thirty Years' War with the battles of the modern era.
In our day, an important step toward the attainment of the desired
goal has been the introduction of universal military service, which
has enlisted the educated classes in the army. Certainly, the raw
and violence-prone elements have remained, but they no longer, as
formerly, constitute the general complement.
Two further and effective means lie in the hands of the governments
to avoid the worst excesses: military discipline, established and
managed in peacetime; and the carefully administered provisioning
of troops in the field. Without this precaution, discipline can be
maintained in only limited fashion. The soldier who suffers sorrow
and deprivations, exertion and danger, can do so only in proportion
to the resources of the nation (en proportion avec les ressources
du pays); he must take all that is necessary for his existence.
We cannot expect him to be superhuman.
The greatest good deed in war is the speedy ending of the war, and
every means to that end, so long as it is not reprehensible, must
remain open. In no way can I declare myself in agreement with the
Declaration of St. Petersburg that the sole justifiable measure in
war is "the weakening of the enemy's military power." No, all the
sources of support for the hostile government must be considered,
its finances, railroads, foodstuffs, even its prestige.
With this sort of energy, and yet with greater moderation than ever
before, the recent war in France was waged. The campaign was
decided after two months, and only after a revolutionary government
continued the struggle for four more months, to the ruination of
its own country, did the battle take on an embittered character.
I gladly acknowledge that, better than in previous attempts, the
manual recognizes the necessities of war in clear and concise
sentences. However, even though governments recognize the rules
[in the manual], that does not ensure their execution. It is a
long-time usage of war that a parliamentarian should not be shot.
Nevertheless, we have seen it violated several times in the last
No paragraph (no. 2 and 43) learned by rote will convince soldiers
who are in fear of their lives every moment of the day and night
that an unorganized civilian who picks up a weapon of his own free
will is to be viewed as anything but a regulation enemy.
Individual demands of the manual may not be feasible, e.g.,
establishment of the identity of the fallen after a great battle.
Consideration should be given to the insertion of modifying phrases
such as, "circumstance permitting," "if possible," or "if
necessary." Without such elasticity, the bitter seriousness of
reality will burst the bonds laid upon [soldiers].
In war, where everything tends to be comprehended individually,
only those paragraphs directed essentially at the leaders will, I
believe, be effective. Among these are the what the manual wants
to establish with regard to the wounded, the sick, doctors, and
medical supplies. Universal recognition of even these principles,
as well as those concerning treatment of prisoners, would already
represent substantial progress toward the goal which the Institute
for International Law strives toward with such praiseworthy
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FOR FURTHER READING
Arden Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning (New York, 1991)