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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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2.1 Centenary debates

By the 1980s, the Fischer controversy had run out of steam, and many of Fischer’s claims, once so controversial, had found their way into mainstream history books in Germany as well as elsewhere. Historians moved away from their focus on Germany and examined the actions of other governments to explain this international crisis. By the time the war’s centenary approached, it seemed as if this 100-year controversy had run its course.

However, the centenary became the occasion for old arguments to come to the fore, as revisionist approaches gained popularity again. In this context, the work of historian Christopher Clark stands out. His publication, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, had almost as great an impact as Fischer’s work had all those decades ago. Clark (2012) argued for more responsibility to be attached to France, Russia and Serbia. His interpretation is more lenient towards Germany and Austria-Hungary. He rejects the idea of ‘guilt’ altogether and asks: ‘Do we really need to make the case against a single guilty state, or to rank the states according to their respective share in responsibility for the outbreak of war?’ (Clark, 2012, p. 560). In this, he went against the long-established views that highlighted German responsibility. Even though he argues that we should not ‘minimize the belligerence and imperialist paranoia of the Austrian and German policy-makers that rightly absorbed the attention of Fritz Fischer and his historiographical allies’, he argues that ‘the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia.’ Rather, the crisis of 1914 ‘was the fruit of a shared political culture’ (Ibid, p. 561).

The centenary brought a somewhat unexpected revival of the debate on the origins of the war, and the topic was once again of public interest, particularly in Germany where Clark’s thesis enjoyed great popularity. Many Germans took from Clark that Germany had not been the main culprit and that the slate had been wiped clean following the publication of The Sleepwalkers.

Activity 3 Accessing review articles

Timing: Allow up to one hour

Using your JSTOR personal registration (see Session 5 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ), access a review article that will give you an overview of the debate during the centenary and bring you up to date with more recent scholarship.

Examples include:

  • Andrew G. Bonnell (2015) ‘New Histories of the Origins of the First World War: What Happened to the “Primacy of Domestic Politics?”’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 61 (1), pp. 121–7.
  • Annika Mombauer (2015) ‘Guilt or Responsibility? The Hundred-Year Debate on the Origins of World War I’, Central European History, 48, pp. 541–64.
  • William Mulligan (2014) ‘The Trial Continues: New Directions in the Study of the Origins of the First World War’, English Historical Review, 129(538), pp. 639–66.

If you want to spend more time on this activity, you could also access, via JSTOR, some book reviews of the most relevant recent publications. Good starting points would be:

  • Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
  • Sean McMeekin, Russia and the Origins of the First World War
  • T.G. Otte, July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914

A useful recent summary of the arguments can be found in the revised and updated edition of Joll and Martel, The Origins of the First World War, fourth edition (London, 2022). Joll’s classic text has been updated by Gordon Martel and is one of the best overviews of the topic and suitable for students. For an up-to-date discussion of the historiographical debate, see Annika Mombauer, The Causes of the First World War. The Long Blame Game (London, 2024).


Hopefully you have found and read a review article that relates to the centenary debate. In this activity we’ve suggested some articles for you; in Session 5 you will look at strategies for finding secondary sources, including literature reviews.

In the next section, you will explore the opposing arguments of two leading historians on this topic: John Röhl and Christopher Clark.