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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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2 The counter argument

Fischer’s view that Germany had designed and deliberately started the First World War attracted many critics who were quick to counter his ‘heretical’ claims. Among them was the eminent German historian Gerhard Ritter who was Fischer’s most critical and outspoken opponent. Ritter, who had himself fought in the First World War, summed up his reaction to Fischer’s first publication:

I could not put the book down without feeling deep melancholy: melancholy, and anxiety with regard to the coming generation.

(Quoted in Joll, 1984, p. 31)

For Ritter, the war was:

... one of the most important historical conditions of our current life’, and the question of responsibility for its outbreak was particularly stirring for us Germans, because if it was caused solely or primarily by the excessive political ambition of our nation and our government, as our war-opponents claimed in 1914, and has recently been affirmed by some German historians, then our national historical consciousness darkens even further than has already been the case through the experiences of the Hitler times!

(Cited in Mombauer, 2002, p. 138)

Ritter had fought in a war that he, like most other Germans, had ardently believed to have been a defensive war. Seeing another German argue that Germany had been the aggressor in 1914 appeared like a national and personal attack to Ritter – as indeed it did to many other veterans who did not share Fischer’s views.

Ritter might have worried about the next generation because there was already so much guilt attached to German history – accounting for the crimes of Nazi Germany was enough of a burden for future generations without adding further to this charge sheet.

In many ways, the Fischer controversy says as much about Germany in the 1960s as it reveals about imperial Germany. Fischer’s book appeared in 1961, the year that saw the building of the Berlin Wall and the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The new West German state was a vulnerable outpost on the front line of the Cold War and was deeply troubled by its Nazi past, with which it was having to come to terms.

The debate on the causes of the war has always been fuelled by current political concerns, in the immediate aftermath of the war as much as in the 1960s when Fischer published his first book on the subject. After 1919, as you have seen, the main driving force behind wanting to change the current view on the causes of the war (for historians, but particularly for German governments) was the desire to revise the Treaty of Versailles. In the 1960s, the Fischer controversy occurred at the height of the Cold War, with Germany only very recently divided. Against this background, the German political establishment tried to discredit Fischer. The debate intensified against the background of the trials of Auschwitz guards and while the fledgling Federal Republic was at the mercy of its allies, blaming Germany for the origins of both wars put West Germany’s western European integration in jeopardy.

Activity 2 Finding historiographical information online

Timing: Allow up to one hour

The database 1914–1918 Online [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] is an excellent resource for studying the First World War. It includes biographical information about many individuals and longer articles on a huge range of topics, including the historiography of the First World War. It is overseen by a large editorial team of historians and articles are of high quality. They include useful bibliographies and are an excellent starting point for researching any topic on the First World War.

To learn more about the historiographical debate discussed in this section, you could explore 1914–1918 Online and read the article by William Mulligan: ‘The Historiography of the Origins of the First World War’.


Hopefully you found this article useful and also took time to explore some other articles in the encyclopaedia. It is a useful source for recent authoritative summaries on most topics relating to the First World War and a great resource for your students.

In the next section, you will explore the renewed debates on the centenary of the outbreak of war.