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The First World War - Who Done It?

The German historian Joachim Radkau, writing in Die Zeit (January 9th), is reviewing several titles from the Kriegsbücherflut (tide of war books) that, in Germany as in Britain, has accompanied the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. History, national history, is - unsurprisingly - taken seriously in Germany, and the bitterness that sometimes divides opposing camps of historians is even greater than that not inconsiderable bitterness that seems to divide “revisionists” and “anti-revisionists” in Ireland.

The Historikerstreit (historians’ dispute) of the later 1980s divided left-wing historians and intellectuals (including Jürgen Habermas) from those on the right over the questions of how much blame Germany could be expected to bear for Nazi atrocities ‑ and for how long it could be expected to bear it. Those on the left tended to argue that German history had at an early stage taken a special path (Sonderweg) which led, almost inevitably, to Nazism. The philosopher and historian Ernst Nolte, on the other hand, argued that it was the fear of Bolshevism that drove the Germans to Nazism and that the Holocaust therefore was “a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original”.

Much of this was an echo of an earlier dispute of the 1960s over responsibility for the First World War. The historian Fritz Fischer (b 1908) argued in 1967, in a book later translated into English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War, that the war was largely a project of the German elite, which hoped to block demands for more democracy at home by facilitating territorial expansion. Fischer’s ideas were bitterly opposed by the historian Gerhard Ritter (b 1888), who personally had first supported and then opposed Nazism (as indeed had Fischer) but who sought to defend a conservative, nationalist and basically anti-democratic vision for Germany (European states must be prepared to go to war to advance their interests; it was not elites but democracy that produced Hitler). Did he go too far in (successfully) lobbying to deny government funds to allow Fischer to travel to the United States in 1964 to prevent him from spreading his “anti-German” poison there?

Joachim Radkau was raised in the school of Fritz Fischer but he remarks that the pure Fischer position (which explains the Great War as having resulted from a long-planned German act of aggression) has not survived unscathed the many attacks on it. He characterises Fischer's view of responsibility for the war and his analysis as a peculiarly Germanocentric one, and one that was perhaps understandable at the time at which it arose. It is now possible to see that Berlin was not the only place in 1914 where militaristic elites eager for war were hard at work; the German consensus now is for  "Fischer light". Thus Radkau remarks that the Australian historian Christopher Clark’s recent study The Sleepwalkers (reviewed by John Swift in the drb ‑ http://bit.ly/1dSoPpe), which advances a thesis not a million miles removed from Lloyd George’s view that Europe had slipped or stumbled into war in 1914, has provoked little opposition in Germany from Altfischerianen.

Much effort is expended from time to time to argue (as Max Hastings has done most recently ‑ http://bit.ly/1il1Gz2) that the beastly Huns started the war; or alternatively the overbearing English, unwilling to share sea power; or the autocratic Russians, bent on expansion; or archaic and weakened Austria-Hungary, dying and damned if it wouldn’t pull down Europe along with it. Less because I know so much about it (I don’t) and more because I am suspicious of agendas that are particularly comforting to national self-regard – or indeed to settled prejudice against particular nations ‑ I have for some time been attracted to what might be called the Murder on the Orient Express theory of responsibility. Please don’t ask which of them done it. They all done it.