German enthusiasm, 1914 (wikimedia)

“If it is true […], it is so terrible that I am unwilling even to believe it” – The Fischer Dispute on Germany’s responsibility in the First World War

Gerhard Ritter, the doyen of German historians, a First World War veteran, burst out as cited in the title, when Fischer Fritz presented his thesis stressing the responsibility of Germany in the First World War, harshly criticizing the foreign policy of the Second Empire in the 1964 Congress of West German historians. Not many works of historical science aroused such a debate as Fritz Fischer’s book, published 1961 – in the tense atmosphere of the Eichmann Trial – about the German war aims during World War I, entitled Griff nach der Weltmacht /Grab for World Power/. Two German generations were shocked by the fact that the heavy burden of breaking out the Second World War was not enough, but Germany had to take the worldwide heat of the Great War as well.

No other country and people were discredited by such a short period of history as much as the Germans had to feel ashamed for the twelve years of National Socialism and the unimaginable horrors committed in that period: since the topos says that death camps were created by Europe’s number one “culture nation”. So that Germans do not have to walk with their head bowed throughout the world, the German acceptance of their past after 1945 – at least in the FRG established in 1949 – used the strategy to consider German history discontinuous, cutting out and quarantining the period from 1933 to 1945. In this sense, German social-political development was “normal” until “political bandits” – National Socialists – came to power as a result of the global economic crisis, forcing – but at least putting – the deceived German society into the already mentioned horrors.

However, after the convicts were convicted and punished in the Nuremberg trial, there is no obstacle for the Germans to become esteemed “Europeans” again – this was the memory policy master plan of the Adenauer era. The West Germans managed to rehabilitate themselves with great efficiency indeed: the FRG became the Football World Cup Champion in 1954, it was admitted to NATO in 1955, and Adenauer signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community in 1957. Owing to the German “economic miracle”, it seemed that billions of marks achieved what weapons did not manage to in the Second World War: Europe (at least its Western part) under German “domination”. Some leftist intellectuals, like Sebastian Haffner were concerned about the increasing German self-confidence and aggressive voices from Bonn, leading to the conclusion that the FRG would even risk the outbreak of a war – of course, with American, British and French support – in order to achieve German reunion (in addition to the integration policy, it was the Hallstein doctrine, the non-recognition of the GDR that provided the essence of the foreign policy of the Adenauer era). However, suspicious people were told not to worry, since “National Socialism” was only a “work accident”.

It was at that time when the more than 700 pages long work of a Hamburg-based historian, Fritz Fischer (1908–1999), entitled Griff nach der Weltmacht – Die Kriegspolitik des Kaiserlichen Deutschland, 1914–1918 exploded as a bomb. Since Mein Kampf, no other book had such an effect on German society than the Fischer monograph, breaking out one of the most significant historian disputes of the 20th century.

Fritz Fischer was though an old school historian free from journalism, who started his career as the representative of late historicism, the German national historiography established during Bismarck, finding the “small German” way of German unification the ideal one at the beginning of his career. He joined the National Socialist Party in 1938, later several anti-Semitic writings were found in his legacy. The turn of his career was caused by his captivity during the Second World War: by the time he was freed in 1947, he had already started to revise German history, he considered it to be a “failure story” instead of a “success story”, similarly to the greatest living master of German historicism, Friedrich Meinecke, who published his reinterpretation entitled Die deutsche Katastrophe in 1946.

The “scandal book” published in 1961 was based on the archived material carried away at the end of the second world war and returned from Moscow to Potsdam in the GDR in 1956. The most significant document found was the so-called “September program”, recording German war objectives on September 9, 1914 by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, stating that Germany aimed at expelling France from the Great Powers, invading Belgium, suppressing Russia, winning colonizable Eastern territories and organize Central Europe under German economic rule. For Fischer, who was also researching in the GDR, the “September program” meant a tangible proof that the view among German historians stating that Germany only pursued a self-defence war between 1914 and 1918 – after having been forced to do so by the tight circle drawn around the country by Great Britain, French and Russia – is indefensible.

Historians who were a generation older than Fritz Fischer, veterans fighting in the First World War, like Gerhard Ritter and Egmond Zechlin, took Fischer’s thesis as a personal insult, just like outraged readers who flood the editorial staff of Die Zeit and Spiegel with their letters. The President of Bundestag, the Christian Democrat Eugen Gerstenmaier raised a personal outcry against the statement of the historian, which implicitly included: it is not true that the development of the Third Empire was only a “work accident”, since the period of the Second Empire was also characterised by world power aspirations and aggressive militarism. The scandal was at its peak when the West German government did not allow the Goethe Institute to support Fischer’s American trip. Therefore the German historian finally travelled to the US on American money to present his thesis. His work was published in English in 1967.

The largest clash between Fischer and his opponents took place in the West German Congress of Historians in October 1964, in the great lecture hall of the Freie Universität in West Berlin, in front of two thousand spectators. Since Fischer’s thesis fully matched the ideological-political concept that identified the FRG’s NATO-membership as a threat (i.e. assumed a continuity between the Second Empire, the Third Empire and the FRG), an extensive conference report was published in Századok. It pointed out that during her unbiased research work, the West German “civilian historian” found results “that had only been heard from the FRG and the Socialist camp, and that made the ruling circle of the Bonn state feel deep”.

According to the conference report, to be read as a historiographic document: “Fischer presented his view summarized into seven points. He emphasized: the statement of his opponents claiming that German imperialism started the First World War without annexation plans is false. On the contrary: all that was sought between 1914 and 1918 was logically following the pre-war objectives of German politics, since the war itself was the continuation of the previous policy with other means. Consequently it was out of question that the German government was innocent in the outbreak of war. To the contrary! The Sarajevo assassination and Austria-Hungary’s conflict with Serbia was deliberately used by the German state to provoke a war between the Central Powers as well as Russia and France so that this war opens Germany’s road to world power. The question of whether or not the German Imperial Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg thought of a war with England too was left open by Fischer. Should it also be proven, his judgement on Bethmann-Hollweg would probably be even tougher.

Fisher strongly opposed belittling Bethmann-Hollweg’s own war objectives program of September 1914. To the contrary, this was the basis for the German government’s entire First World War objective policy. This program was entirely characterised by the spirit of the imperialist expansion: in addition to the outright annexation of the French iron ore basins in Briey and Longwy, the foundation of Belgian and Dutch satellite states and Russia’s suppression to the East, it also envisaged a Central European economic union like the European Common Market, which should have, under German leadership, included at least French, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Hungary and Poland. It is obvious that such a war objective could have only been achieved through military victory, and that it forced Western powers to finally resist. It is noteworthy in this regard that the Central European economic union that the German government considered and intended to achieve would have probably included England as well and that this union was regarded as a counterbalance to the ever-growing North American United States.

Finally Fischer strongly opposed to the historians concentrating all their attention on Bethmann-Hollweg. In his view, the starting points shall be the economic forces and concepts of the intellectual world that Bethmann-Hollweg was the exponent of, but against which he himself could hold on only until he acted in agreement with them. Fischer warned against giving too much importance to the internal sighs and personal scruples of the Imperial Chancellor, stating that the decisive standard of value of a politician shall be the politics pursued. However, it was characterised by the pursuit of world power in terms of foreign policy, and Prussian German conservaticism in terms of domestic policy.”

Fritz Fischer moved forward later on, and while in his 1961 book he stated that Germany had the greatest responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War, in his 1969 book entitled Krieg der Illusionen (War of Illusions), he already stated that Wilhelm’s Germany did prepare for the world war and broke it out deliberately. Though Fischer’s above claim is found to be an exaggeration by researchers of the First World War today, the professor, being harshly critical to his country, essentially established the new democratic German historiography. That’s how a stately, old school, quite conventional lecturer became a hero of the long-haired, bearded, jeans-wearing 1968 youth who wanted to break up with the German past.

Ernst Breisach: Historiográfia. Budapest, 2004.
„Egy bombaként ható könyv” – Beszélgetés Konrad H. Jarausch történésszel a kizárólagos német felelősség tézise körüli vitákról = Az első világháború. A 20. század őskatasztrófája. Szerk.: Stephan Burgdorff – Klaus Wiegrefe. Budapest, 2010.
Fritz Fischer: Germany‘s Aims in the First World War. New York, 1967.
Romsics Gergely: A Harmadik Birodalom hosszú árnyéka. A hitleri örökség feldolgozása a demokratikus Németországban = Rubicon, 2005/4–5. 4-17.
Dr. Joachim Petzold: A nyugat-német történészkongresszus vitája az első világháborúbeli hadicélokról = Századok, 1965. 1259-1262.

Written by: Csunderlik Péter