Judging History: The Great War, Reconsidered

During the volatile confirmation hearings for secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel, Republicans asked the former senator for his judgment on the US “surge” in Iraq. Hagel responded: “Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out.”

Hagel is likely to be waiting a long time for that. History does not judge quickly or monolithically. What judgments are made about historical events appear, disappear, and reappear over time, always changing as the present sees its own image in the past. A good example is World War I. One hundred years ago, in June of 1913, Balkan countries went to war, for the second time in as many years. A year later, a Serbian nationalist, dismayed at the results of the Balkan Wars, assassinated the archduke of Austria-Hungary. Ever since, historians have been arguing over precisely why Europe was plunged into a four-year war that killed tens of millions of people. More than three thousand books exist on the subject and they have yet to reach unanimity. The hundred-year debate over the origins of the Great War illustrates that history is, more than anything else, an argument without a final judgment.

During the war itself, of course, the Allies blamed the Triple Entente for the war, and vice versa. When the Allies won, the latter were forced to accept blame. In signing article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles—the famous “War Guilt Clause”—Germany “and her allies” took responsibility for causing “all the loss and damage” they inflicted on the Allies, who had “the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

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Because it was a draconian treaty rather than a considered judgment, the Versailles peace fell apart, as Germany declared it unfair and the Allies were unwilling and unable to enforce its provisions. And so another view about responsibility for the war came to predominate, one that remains commonplace today. It was best expressed by David Lloyd George, the British prime minister during the conflict. “We muddled into war,” he wrote in his memoirs. According to this interpretation, nobody wanted a war—it resulted from a series of miscalculations, arrogant leaders, and intolerant nationalism, and it served no purpose. Bob Dylan would agree with this view when he later sang, “The First World War, boys / It came and it went / The reason for fightin’ / I never did get.”

This outlook was most widely disseminated in the United States by the popular historian Barbara Tuchman, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Guns of August. “The nations were caught in a trap,” she wrote. None wanted war, but all got it. In addition to being an enormous bestseller, Tuchman’s book had a profound influence on British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and President John Kennedy. JFK famously claimed to have applied its lessons of the importance of restraint and caution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But Tuchman did not know what we know now: in 1914, the German government began purposefully rewriting history in order to conceal its dominant role in starting World War I. As the historian Holger Herwig summarized in the journal International History in 1987, “By selectively editing documentary collections, suppressing honest scholarship, subsidizing pseudo-scholarships, underwriting mass propaganda, and overseeing the export of this propaganda especially to Britain, France, and the United States, the patriotic self-censors in Berlin exerted a powerful influence on public and elite opinion in Germany and, to a lesser extent, outside Germany.”

Herwig’s apt phrase “patriotic self-censors” refers to members of the German government, bureaucracy, and academy who conspired to conceal that Germany deliberately provoked the First World War. The historian Erich Hahn called this process “preemptive historiography”—the effort by the government to define Germany as the victim of aggression in order to consolidate support at home and abroad.


Germany’s preemptive historiography began as early as the day before the war. On that day, August 3, 1914, the imperial regime released a “colored book” outlining its perspective on the war’s origins. Later that month, the foreign secretary directed that another document be compiled and released, this one with the expressed theme that “the ring of entente politics encircled us ever more tightly.”

Four years later, the German regime brought to the Versailles peace negotiations carefully selected documents that were meant to prove the aggressive intentions of France, Britain, Italy, and, most importantly, Russia. Of course, this effort proved fruitless, and Germany had no choice but to sign the treaty. The government then moved to organize records stretching back to 1870 that it hoped would undermine the war-guilt clause and thus “make history”: if Germany was not as guilty as claimed, then the Versailles treaty was punishment rather than justice and could be either ignored or renegotiated.

To this end, between 1922 and 1927, forty volumes of official prewar records were published by government-picked “independent” historians that, in the words of one scholar, “established an early dependence of all students of prewar diplomacy on German materials.” However, all the files came from the former Foreign Office. All documents from the crucial planning departments—the General Staff, the War Ministry, the Navy Office, and the economics section—were exempt from publication. They, of course, were the most damning and influential regarding German intentions. What was published was misleadingly edited.

Nonetheless, the staggering amount of materials produced by these regime-approved scholars suggested by their very bulk that they were comprehensive. The German government spread the lie that these materials were exhaustive and that no contrary view was to be seen. During the Weimar Republic, tragically, these volumes played a vital role in spreading the pernicious “stab in the back” claim—that pacifists, communists, socialists, and Jews had intentionally sapped the German army’s will and ability to fight, in doing so seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. Adolph Hitler appropriated this claim to explain why only National Socialism had the internal strength to rebuild Germany and why the Jews needed to be confronted for their alleged perfidy. Continuing well into the 1960s, most Germans believed that their country had fought a defensive war from 1914 to 1918.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, another view of World War I began to surface. More than anyone else, the German historian Fritz Fischer discredited the traditional German perspective on the war—and led the way toward a reinterpretation of the war’s origins. Fischer was the first historian to examine the entire imperial German archives. His 1961 book Bid for World Power (published in English in 1967 as Germany’s Aims in the First World War) ignited one of the most controversial historical disputes of the twentieth century.

Fischer found that the war was not an accident, nor had the Germans been acting defensively. On the contrary, the German government had exploited the archduke’s assassination in order to realize its aggressive foreign policy ambitions. Germany was concerned with the growing strength of Russia, determining that if left unchecked the czar would soon have the power to dominate all of Eastern Europe, perhaps more of the continent.

For West Germans of Fischer’s time, declaring that the First World War was the fault primarily of Germany was akin to suggesting that Adolph Hitler’s desire for a German empire was not a tragic break with the continuity of German history but merely an extension of post-1870 German policymaking. As one historian explained in an obituary upon Fischer’s 1999 death, “If, as Fischer asserted, the twelve years of Nazi rule and the war aims of the Second World War were not an aberration in the course of twentieth-century German history, then the moral stance for demanding German reunification could be questioned.” Fischer received death threats; the government cancelled funds for his tour of American universities. Other historians would burst into tears discussing the shame they felt Fischer’s findings would cause Germany’s then-tenuous international image.

And yet now these findings have become the consensus. Fritz Stern, himself a great German historian, later said about Fischer’s book that “without it neither the history of modern Germany nor the First World War can be adequately understood.” In his prize-winning book The Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbitt wrote that after Fischer’s book, it was “impossible to maintain” that the war was a “ghastly mistake,” rather than the result of German orchestration.

Yet historical debate is not over even when it is over. Even now minority elements in academia refute Fischer’s thesis. Niall Ferguson’s 2000 book The Pity of War argues that England bears a large part of the responsibility for the war. As its title indicates, Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers revives the Lloyd George–Tuchman thesis about the war’s origins. So, if Chuck Hagel depends on history’s definitive conclusion to make decisions as secretary of defense, he will be waiting a very long time indeed.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.

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