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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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1.2 The developing debate

The Allies’ desire to punish Germany did not last long, for several reasons: new enemies threatened Europe, in particular the Soviet Union, and Germany became important as a future ally rather than a former enemy. But, even more significantly, following vociferous protest from within Germany and much work from the German governments and historians to prove German innocence with countless publications and propaganda initiatives, a new revisionist interpretation became dominant. Rather than blaming one country, it was now held that that the war had been an accident.

This comfortable interwar consensus remained largely unchallenged until the 1960s, with the exception of the Italian historian Luigi Albertini, whose three-volume study The Origins of the First World War was published in Italy in 1942–3 but only translated into English in 1952. Albertini puts the main responsibility for the outbreak of war squarely on Germany’s shoulders. However, there had been little interest in his work and certainly nothing to suggest a huge debate might soon erupt on this topic.

The most important challenge to the established post-war consensus that the war had been an accident came from a German professor at Hamburg University, Fritz Fischer. He challenged the revisionist orthodoxy and started an unprecedented historiographical controversy. Fischer suggested not only that Germany had caused the war, but that its policy makers had been motivated by war aims similar to Hitler’s in the Second World War. In his view, the outbreak of war had been no accident; rather, it had been designed and deliberately brought about by Germany’s decision makers.

His first book on the subject, published in Germany in 1961, marked the beginning of the so-called Fischer controversy. Fischer asserted:

As Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war and […] deliberately faced the risk of a conflict with Russia and France, her leaders must bear a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of the general war in 1914.

Fischer, 1961 (citation from English translation 1967, p. 88)

This, arguably, was not that dissimilar to the Allies’ view at Versailles in 1919.

Fischer argued that Germany embarked on the war with clearly defined and wide-ranging war aims. The so-called ‘September Programme’ of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and his private secretary, Kurt Riezler, was one of the key documents to come to light in his work. Fischer claimed that it showed Germany’s aggressive foreign policy aims.

In a second major publication in 1969, Fischer argued even more forcefully that Germany’s leading decision makers were willing to seize the opportunity offered by a crisis in the Balkans, such as the one provoked by Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.

This book included another set of new documents related to the so-called ‘War Council Meeting’ of December 1912. Fischer argued that this new evidence showed that the German government considered going to war at that time – but decided to postpone the war for around 18 months – which is, of course, exactly when war did break out. You will return to this point later in the course.

For Fischer and others who argued for German responsibility, this decision to postpone the war was no coincidence but pointed to long-term planning and a deliberate desire to unleash a war when the opportunity presented itself. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was the perfect opportunity, given that it ensured that Austria would be involved in a war (after all, it was the wronged party!) and that all European governments were outraged at the murder of the Archduke.