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Bernard von Bothmer

Fritz Fischer, L.C.F. Turner, and V.R. Berghahn on the Origins of the First World War

I. Introduction

The debate over the origins of the First World War has been perhaps the most contentious

historical issue of the past century. Since the war ended there has been a constant struggle over

trying to prove who, if anyone, was at fault over its start. As Eric Hobsbawm observed,

“Probably more ink has flowed, more trees have been sacrificed to make paper, more typewriters

have been busy, to answer this question than any other in history perhaps not even excluding

the debate on the French Revolution.” 1

It is an interpretation that has been constantly changing. Certain periods, however,

witnessed more rapid changes than others. The years between 1961 and 1973 were a particular

rich period of scholarship. Fritz Fischer‟s 1961 groundbreaking text Germany’s Aims in the First

World War opened up a flurry of scholarship concerning the war‟s origins. This essay will begin

by examining Fischer‟s thesis, and will then briefly discuss the arguments of his critics and

supporters. Two other texts will then be contrasted to Fischer, L.C.F. Turner‟s 1970 Origins of

the First World War and V.R. Berghahn‟s 1973 work Germany and the Approach of War in


From these books it can be determined that much of the controversy over the causes of

the First World War revolves around whether one lends primacy to either events within

Germany, as Fischer and Berghanh do, or to event outside of Germany, as Turner does.

Supporters of an internal outlook blame Germany for the war‟s start and believe that the war

could have been prevented had only Germany acted differently. Turner, however, finds this view

overly simplistic, and implies that events moved with such speed that decision makers simply

were unable to keep up with them, and thus made poorly informed choices. The war appears to

have been more inevitable to those who disagree with Fischer and his school. While neither

side‟s arguments are entirely satisfactory, in the main those who believe that Germany was the

primary cause of the war appear to offer the more convincing arguments.

II. The Causes of World War I - A Brief Overview of the German Position

While the historiography of the causes of World War I is the lengthiest in all of European

history, it is possible to make some broad generalizations about the scholarship. Right after the

end of the war, German historians sought to make their country look like victims. Much of this

was generated as a response to article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, the so-called “war guilt”

clause. Germany thus had an enormous stake in how the war was interpreted.

Initially, German historians tried to show that all countries in Europe shared equal

responsibility for the war. Their efforts were largely successful, as by the late 1930s few openly

blamed Germany for the start of the war. “In the Weimar period it was regarded as the duty of

German historians to work for the revision of the war guilt clause,” notes Wolfgang Mommsen.

“…These efforts on the whole appeared to be successful.” 2 The myth that Germany was the

victim had begun.

In the next several decades two major camps in the attempt to portray Germany‟s

innocence formed. Some argued Germany was not strong enough to have done the massive arms

buildup it was accused of, others that they were too peace loving to have started the war. Other

interpretations abounded as well. Karl Kautsky wrote in the 1920s that the war had economic

roots, a Marxist approach to the problem, and later argued that France and Russia, rather than

Germany, were the expansionist powers.

During the 1930s a consensus view emerged that the war was due to mere foolishness, as

historians argued that the various European leaders had acted with such shortsightedness and

ignorance that they embarked upon a course of war. During this period, a shift occurred as to who

in their past Germans compared themselves to, as the Nazis specifically sought to contrast their

regime with that of the Weimar republic rather than Germany under William II.

Enormous suppression of criticism occurred during the 1930s, and a host of German

writers were hired, in Imanuel Geiss‟s words, as “part-time propagandists” 3 to challenge the war

guilt charge. An unofficial group was also involved with attacking critical works, and even









Hindenburg helped


strengthen the myth of German innocence. Many have blamed academia for not probing the issue

further. Geiss argues that “the contribution of professional German historians to a rational

analysis of the causes of the war had been fairly slight.” 4

The defeat of Germany in 1945 provoked a flurry of work designed to explain not only

the causes of the First World War, but also the second. Following World War II, many Germans,

eager to view the recent conflict as an aberration of German history, began to look nostalgically

to the period preceding the war. After 1945, German historians wanted to show that there was

absolutely no link between William II and Hitler. While accepting that Hitler was the cause of

the war, they also wished to distance him from earlier events in German history. After the war,

Germany‟s primary challenge was to gain acceptance among her western neighbors. In light of

this, an orchestrated effort was made to rehabilitate the reputations of both Emperor William II

and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, as Germany was eager to enter NATO. German politicians

and intellectuals felt that the image of a warmongering Germany would hurt their current

standing in the international community.

During the Cold War, the West had an ideological motivation to show discontinuity

between Hitler and earlier regimes. The East, however, was eager to imply a linkage between

them, and was fearful that were the idea of discontinuity to take hold in the popular imagination,

it could undermine the idea of a separate East German state. During this period, East Germany

viewed West Germany as an aggressive power, but countries in the West did not blame Germany

in part because they needed them as an ally against the Soviets. Due to the perceived threat from

the East, works critical of Germany were treated with enormous hostility. In the early 1950s, for

example, Ludwig Dehio‟s Germany and World Politics in the Twentieth Century, which wrote of

connections between Hitler and Prussian Militarism, provoked outrage among both scholars and

the German government and was soon censored.

The very terminology used during the 1950s reflected beliefs about the war‟s origins.

Scholars spoke of the “unleashing” of World War II, as opposed to the “outbreak” of World War

I, implying that the former was provoked by a single cause, whereas the later was caused by

many different forces. During the post World War II era, critics of this approach charged that

“the German public remained dependent on the meager fare offered by professional historians in

articles, textbooks, and short chapters or sub-chapters in a number of more general works.” 5 The

time was thus ripe for a challenge to the view that Germany played no part in starting the war.

III. The Fischer Thesis

Of all the war‟s interpretations, by far the most radical and controversial was that offered

by Fritz Fischer‟s 1961 Germany’s Aims in the First World War. Fischer‟s work single-handedly

overturned years of scholarship and provoked an outcry from both within and beyond Germany,

the scope of which has rarely, if ever, been seen before for a work of history. His conclusions

demonstrated a marked departure from previous thinking about the war, and unleashed a ten-year

storm of controversy. Until Fischer the conventional view, as summarized above, had been that

all the countries were equally at fault, that forces beyond any single nation were at the heart of

the war‟s origins. The standard accepted version of the war‟s start was that Germany felt

surrounded by enemies, and thus viewed war in purely defensive terms.

But Fischer claims that the guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles was correct. He argues

that the guilt for the war should lie squarely on the shoulders of Germany, as Germany both

planned for the war and was eager for it to occur. Fischer changed the argument concerning the

war‟s causes while revolutionizing the very study of history. “Fischer‟s arguments provoked not

only a re-evaluation of current views, but also a shift in emphasis from diplomatic and political

history to a concern with social and economic history,” notes Annika Mombauer, “…The focus

on foreign policy was replaced in many quarters by an increased interest in domestic policy as the

underlying cause for an expansionist and aggressive foreign policy.” 6

Fischer did detailed work in newly opened archival material. “Extensive document-based

research was in any case largely impossible until 1956,” writes Mombauer, “when the Allies

began to return German documents they had seized in 1945.” 7 The Italian scholar Albertini‟s The

Origins of the First World War was the basis for his book. As Geiss points out, Fischer‟s

challenge to conventional wisdom was initiated “just by picking up Albertini and reading the

documents published since 1919.” 8

In many intellectual circles, Fischer‟s conclusions were considered nothing short of

scandalous, and he was viewed as a threat to the establishment. As Geiss notes, “German

innocence or at least relative innocence for the outbreak for the 1914 war had for decades

been something that could not be questioned in Germany.” 9 As a result of Fischer‟s book, the

German Minister Gerhard Schroder even initially withheld funds for a speaking tour that Fischer

was to take to the United States. And for years Fischer was accused, among a variety of things, of

being a Marxist, of being too moralistic in his judgments, of ignoring the sins of other nations,

and, most troubling to many, of setting off a firestorm that would make future German

unification enormously difficult. The fact that it was a German scholar that had overturned years

of scholarship only added fuel to the fire.

There has been perhaps more discussion and disagreement over Fischer‟s thesis than that

of almost any other modern European historian. The years between 1961 and 1969, the

publication dates of Fischer‟s two major books, were filled with discussion over his claims. The

arguments were not restricted to the world of academe, but spilled over into newspapers and

television as well. As Mombauer notes, by “1977 Fischer already spoke of more than 300

reviews and articles on the subject. Today, books and articles which address the controversy are

beyond reading for a single historian.” 10

Fischer‟s work yields enormous insights into the not only the origins of the war and

Germany‟s response to it, but also the politics that govern the historical profession. What

emerges most clearly from the controversy surrounding his book is that Fischer‟s particular thesis

is as much a product of its times as anything else. Fischer‟s book caused the stir it did in part

because of how his findings meshed with the particular political climate of the 1960s, as

Germany was now ready to look back on its past with a more critical eye. Fischer‟s work

appealed to a younger generation of historians, eager to challenge the accepted orthodoxy

concerning the war‟s origins.

The book is mostly concerned with wartime decision-making, and focuses on the

character and actions of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg. Before Fischer, the Chancellor was

viewed as a peace seeker who bravely stood up the military‟s demands for a more aggressive

policy. But Fischer portrays him as aggressive and eager for war. The Chancellor was good at

balancing competing interests, but, swept along by the tide of events, did not offer any critiques

of war plans. Bethmann Hollweg was thus much more responsible for the war‟s start in Fischer‟s

analysis than he was in previous works.

One of the groundbreaking achievements of the book, and one of the most controversial,

was Fischer‟s discovery of the “September 9, 1914 memorandum,” which demonstrated to him

that Germany‟s intention was to defeat France permanently, disrupt Russia, diminish British

influence, and establish German control over Europe. To Fischer the September Programme was

anything but defensive, as he argues that in the war Germany wanted to take 90,000 square

kilometers and between 5 and 6 million people. He concludes that Germany had a much more

aggressive policy than the other powers and had no other intention but to conquer them. “The

realization of this programme,” he writes, “would have brought about a complete revolution in

the political and economic power relationships in Europe.” 11

Fischer thus also argues that the war was not fought in vain, as it prevented a nightmare

scenario from taking place, namely German domination of the continent and beyond. According

to Fischer, Germany was trying to dominate England for mastery of the continent, and wanted to

create a German dominated middle Europe, or Mittleleuropa. One of the primary causes for the

war in Fischer‟s formulation was that Germany was eager to become a world power. Imperialism

did not stop in 1914, he implies, but was continued by Germany in order to catch up with the

United States, Russia, and Britain.

Crucial to Fischer‟s interpretation is his analysis of German battle strategy. Germany did

not revise their plans after the Battle of the Marne, he stresses. And regarding their military

objectives, Fischer writes that the German high command, its political leaders, and the general

public supported war in three general directions. First was the expansion into both Russia and

France, specifically its northeast corner. Implicit in this analysis is that a preemptive war was

sought with Russia. A second area of expansion involved central and East Africa. Here we see

Germany‟s desire to compete primarily with England and Portugal in the area of overseas

colonies. Annexing Belgium, for example, would give Germany the Congo, and make Britain

negotiate with Germany. Fischer also contends that Germany wanted to expand in the Middle

East all the way to Persia, perhaps to even threaten England in India. Germany also wished to

form an alliance with the Ottomans, he claims.

And according to Fischer, both academia and industry pushed for imperialism in pre-war

Germany. Both were intent upon expansion, he argues, and her policies reflected such an

outlook. Fischer points out that Germany refused to renew her treaty with Russia in 1890, came

up with the idea of the Schlieffen plan, built a large navy, and constructed railways to extract

resources of foreign lands. Furthermore, he contends that she aggressively sought an alliance

with Austria-Hungary and pushed a reluctant Austria-Hungary into battle with Serbia after the

assassination of Francis Ferdinand. The war aims of Germany, he stresses, preceded the outbreak

of the war.

Key to Fischer‟s analysis is his notion that the war was not caused solely by the generals

and aristocracy, but was eagerly supported by the government and the German people. He does

not see much of a difference between the military and civilians‟ goals for the war, arguing that

there was not great disagreement, as earlier studies had argued, between moderates and

extremists. To him industry, finance and the middle classes sought expansionism even more than

the conservatives did. But conservatives were at the heart of the conflict‟s timing, according to

Fischer, as they saw war as a way of stopping socialism at home. War was an opportunity, and

they did not want to delay it. Crucial to his argument is his belief that German society was overly

authoritarian, which allowed the military to achieve control.

One of the most controversial aspects of the book is that Fischer sees a direct connection

between Germany‟s goals before both World Wars. Hitler‟s policies on both the Eastern and

Western fronts had their origins, he implies, in the policies of Germany during World War I. He

also suggests that Hitler was not an aberration. For example, Fischer sees signs of racism in 1914

in Germany‟s plans for the “resettlement” of Poles and Jews living on the German/Polish border.

Furthermore, Fischer implies that both in 1937 and in 1914 Germany wanted an early war.

Fischer also saw tremendous similarities between Hitler‟s Germany and that of William II. For

one, the idea of lebensraum had been in place since the 1890s. Both leaders also planned to seek

some sort of agreement with England, he argues, attempting to agree to her demands if they did

not interfere with Germany on the continent.

Finally, Fischer‟s work also attacks the historical profession at large. He argues that

historians had an anti-Weimar Republic bias, and that they felt more at home with the more

authoritarian era of William II. In sum, Fischer‟s work was a critique of almost all segments of

German society. As a result, Fischer quite quickly made a great many enemies.

IV. Fischer’s Critics

Critics viewed Fischer‟s research as not being objective and overly colored by his view of

World War II. Both of the world wars were breaks with the past, according to those who disagree

with Fischer, who also suggest that Germany‟s imperialism was inconsistent and no worse than

her enemies. Many also take issue with Fischer‟s contention that there was overwhelming

civilian support for German policies, arguing that most Germans were not in agreement with

government policy.

To these critics Fischer had certain conclusions that he wished to show, and then went in

search of evidence to support them. They also disagree that the September Programme was a

blueprint for world power. Fischer was also accused of offering an exaggerated view of

Bethmann Hollweg, of misinterpreting documents, and of suffering from the fatal flaw of

attempting to prove that one could actually find historical “reality.” And many also argued that

Germany‟s already low self-esteem would be damaged further by his work. “Fischer‟s views

were considered threatening,” notes Mombauer, “because they were seen to lend credence to the

East German view that a division of Germany was justified.” 12

Fischer‟s most persistent critic was his fellow German Gerhard Ritter. Arguing that

Germany was forced into the conflict, Ritter believes that Germany was acting in a defensive

fashion in 1914. Ritter also formulates that German policy was taken over by extremists, and,

unlike Fischer, sees a distinction between the actions of civilians and the military. Ritter‟s

research also emphasizes the tensions that existed between the political leaders and the military,

and also disagrees with Fischer over Belgium, justifying Germany‟s efforts to acquire some of

her land. Both Fischer and Ritter accused the other of bringing in their own personal views into

their scholarship. Ritter argued that Fischer was racked by guilt, which colored his scholarship in

an overly anti-German bias, while Fischer suggested that Ritter was afraid of honestly facing the

past, and thus overly defended Germany‟s actions in the war. 13

Fischer faced other challenges as well. Mommsen notes that Marxists were also quite

critical of Fischer, primarily because they argued that “Fischer does not place the whole burden

of responsibility for Germany‟s far-reaching war aims on the shoulders of the so-called ruling

and upper middle classes, especially the big industrialists, and this does not fit into the Marxist-

Leninist pattern.” They also felt that Fischer did not stress enough “the opposition of the extreme

left to the imperialist policy of the „ruling classes.‟” Most importantly, Fischer‟s conclusion that

Germany bears primary responsibility for the war was “in contrast to the Marxist view, in which

all capitalist states are inexorably driven to war.” 14

Mommsen himself is highly critical of Fischer‟s ideas, claiming that according to Fischer

all the Reich leaders wanted “to extend Germany‟s power at the expense of each one of her

enemies, that this resolve was faithfully, fully, and above all unbrokenly pursued during the

whole course of the war, and that in view of this basic agreement the numerous conflicts between

them are of secondary importance.” 15 But Mommsen finds such an analysis “as mistaken as the

earlier ones, since it once again reduces the whole question of Bethmann‟s war-aims policies to a

matter of „political attitudes,‟ to a purely personal, patient, and unremitting effort to enhance

Germany‟s power both eastwards and westwards.” 16

To Mommsen, Fischer “reaches his conclusions by assessing attitudes and virtually

disregarding differences of circumstance.” 17 Furthermore, according to Mommsen, “Fischer

shows no interest in the greater or lesser differences of attitude hidden behind the positions













personalities.” 18 As a result “Fischer is bent on producing not so much a narrative of events or

reconstructing the chain of cause and effect, as a continual stream of new evidence for the sole

purpose of proving his main theme – Germany‟s will to unlimited world power.” 19 Mommsen

concludes that “Fischer‟s tendency to ignore power-political concepts to the point of denying

them altogether, and his measurement of German war-aims policy by the standard of a complete

territorial status quo ante, make nonsense of the history of the late Wilhelmian era.” 20

V. Fischer’s Defenders











intellectuals were with honestly confronting its past and with merely even raising the issue of

Germany‟s guilt. Klaus Epstein offers an excellent and especially evenhanded rebuke of Ritter‟s

arguments. Acknowledging that Ritter “succeeds in the lesser task of showing…that Fischer

tends to exaggerate the purposiveness, continuity, and consistency of „Germany‟s drive for world

power,‟ and that he misunderstands the complex figure of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg,” 21

Epstein notes that for Ritter to argue that the Russians, French, and British were just as interested

in annexation as were the Germans neglects the fact that these countries‟ expansions “did not

threaten the European equilibrium with the intolerable hegemony of a single power, whereas the

expansion of an already too powerful Germany did.” 22

To Epstein, Ritter ignores both the essential character of German society, as well as her












acknowledging that Ritter‟s view of Bethmann Hollweg “is by all odds the best that we possess –

it is certainly truer to life than Fischer‟s picture of an unbending and inflexible annexationist who

consistently adhered to the extreme war-aims programme he had drawn up on September 1914,

before he understood the significance of the Marne debacle,” 23 he then notes that “It is

unfortunate that he pays such disproportionate attention to Bethmann as an individual, to the

comparative neglect of an analysis of the basic political, social, and economic forces whose

constellation reduced any particular personality even that of Chancellor Bethmann to virtual

historical insignificance.” 24 Most distressing to Epstein is that Ritter “does not adequately trace

the historical roots of militarism back into the over-lauded Bismarkian era,” and that he does not

“stress sufficiently the social factors behind the triumph of militarism factors which are much

more important than the condition of Bethmann Hollweg‟s soul.” 25

Fischer answered his critics in World Power or Decline. Responding to issues raised by

his initial study, he argues that the war‟s outbreak caused no discontinuity, that Germany

provoked the war, and that the ambitious September 1914 war program provided the blueprint

for Germany throughout the war. He also reiterates his contention that German policy was not a

response to her opponents, but was rather a consistent commitment to expansion, and that the

mass of people shared these assumptions. Finally, Fischer writes that a military victory was seen

as a way of keeping conservatives in power.

Part two of this text briefly argues that differences in methodology account for much of

the criticism he received from his major detractors, Egmont Zechlin and Gerhard Ritter. Fischer

writes that “In contrast to Zechlin, I would insist that we cannot understand German policy if we

first set out to show that it was characterized by a conscious lack of planning and if we then

interpret this lack of planning as fate, ineptitude, bewilderment, hope, anguish, and response to

outside pressures.” 26 Fischer is even more dismissive of the arguments posed by Ritter, writing

that he “makes no effort at all to be objective. For Ritter, the historian is still the self-appointed

and committed national censor.” 27

Imanuel Geiss was one of Fischer‟s most vocal defenders. Geiss, Fischer‟s star pupil,

found even more damaging evidence to support Fischer‟s claims. Geiss suggests that another

myth that needed to be challenged was the one that aggressive enemies encircled Germany.

“Since the world war was developed out of a local war, then of a continental war, the major share

for causing it lies with that power which willed the local and/or continental war,” he contends.

“That power was clearly Germany.” 28 Geiss also reiterates Fischer‟s point that Germany

encouraged Austria to attack Serbia, while arguing that, though each contributed to the war in her

own way, “Russia, France, and Britain tried to avert continental war.” 29 He concludes that “The

share of the Entente powers is much smaller than Germany‟s, for it consisted mainly in reacting –

not always in the best manner – to German action.” 30




A. Moses‟ 1975


The Politics


Illusion: The Fischer

Controversy in German Historiography offers an especially strong defense of Fischer. Arguing

that Germans had been taught to look at war as a form of progress, he praises Fischer for

showing the flaws of the old Germany and for his attempts to help shape a democratic Germany,

expressing tremendous respect for Fischer‟s courage in attempting to honestly deal with the past.

Because of Fischer, he writes, one can now “see even more clearly than ever before what a

central, and in the event, disastrous political-pedagogic role the academic historian used to play

in Germany before 1945.” 31 To Moses, “the fact that Fischer and his school now „survive‟ is

eloquent commentary on the state of democracy in West Germany.” 32

VI. Turner’s Challenge to the Fischer Thesis

Those who challenge Fischer (and Epstein, Geiss, and Moses) believe that the war‟s

cause is found in conditions external to Germany, and in a mindset and outlook that was not

unique to Germany. One of the most influential is L.C.F. Turner‟s 1970 Origins of the First

World War, which challenged a many of Fischer‟s conclusions. Turner argues that Fischer holds

an inflated view of Germany‟s strength and self-confidence before the war, misunderstands the

strength of the alliance system, incorrectly views industry as hawkish, and falsely believes that

their diplomats acted rationally, that she had frustrated ambitions, that Bethmann Hollweg was

overly aggressive, and that she courted war to realize the September Programme. To Turner,

Fischer‟s scholarship is overly colored by events since 1914, while also demonstrating little

interest in military issues.

Turner believes that the war was caused not by German policy but by miscalculations by

the army and politicians of all the powers, as they were unable to understand the more technical

issues associated with mobilization. Turner describes the period between 1911 and 1914 as one

when “statesmen perceptibly lost grip of their ability to direct events.” 33 War aims are not the

main issue to Turner, as they are to Fischer. Instead, he blames leaders on all sides for their lack

of grasp of the essential issues of the day. “Whatever war aims they proclaimed during the

conflict,” he notes, “none of the rulers of the Great Powers really new what they were fighting

about in 1914.” 34

According to Turner there was simply too little time to adequately understand what was

taking place, as “the calculations of statesmen were overwhelmed by the rapid succession of

events, the tide of emotions in the various capitals, and the inexorable demands of military

planning.” 35 As a result, “leading political figures soon lost contact with reality.” 36 While Fischer

sees a pre-war German policy that was “well prepared diplomatically,” 37 to Turner, German

policy was inconsistent, vacillating, and shortsighted, as he argues that “German foreign policy in

1914 failed to pursue a definitive course.” 38

Turner writes that Fischer is correct to point out that German behavior since 1896 was














“miscalculations rather than any bid for „world power‟ had forced what Fischer calls „an iron ring

around German.‟” 39 Turner contends that, among other factors, the German steel industry was

reliant upon consistent naval contracts, which fueled the desire for Germany to create such a

large navy.

To Turner, the war was started not by internal German behavior but by events that did not

concern Germany at all. He places much of the blame for the war‟s start on the Bosnian crisis,

noting that “in its initial phases the Bosnian crisis had nothing to do with Germany.” 40 He also

emphasizes that international relations were breaking down in the decade before 1914. Turner

views this breakdown, more than any German desire for European or even world power, as the

primary cause of the war‟s start.

Turner also aggressively challenges Fischer‟s view that Germany had a “will to world


Germany was not a super-militarized state. For many years she had been conscripting

barely fifty per cent of her manpower of military age, while France was conscripting over

eighty percent and also drawing heavily on North African manpower. In spite of their

great superiority in population…the Germans could only count on a slight numerical

superiority over the French Army and had to reckon with Russia as well. 41

While Fischer views Germany‟s May 1912 decision to increase the size of the army by

27,000 men to 651,000 and to add two new army corps as evidence of her desire to start a new

arms race, Turner interprets it simply as a rational decision to deal with her military weakness

respective of the other European powers. And to Turner, Germany should also have paid much

more attention to their diplomatic efforts in the years preceding the war. German diplomatic

errors, rather than any specific desire for world power, played a much greater role to him in

creating the seeds for conflict.

The Anglo-German naval arms race is an important part of Turner‟s analysis. He

contends that Germany should have backed down in this competition, as not only was the British

force far superior and likely to remain so for quite a while, but also because “a policy of restraint

and caution…might well have led to an Anglo-German rapprochement and a dissolution of the

Anglo-French entente signed in April 1904.” 42 Germany‟s threat over Morocco served only to

drive England and France even closer together.

Turner‟s Germany is much less confident and arrogant that that portrayed by Fischer. For

one, Germany was quite worried about England‟s strength on the land. And whereas Fischer

believes that Germany was not in fear of the British Expeditionary Force at the start of the war,

Turner writes that Schlieffen and Moltke‟s memorandums indicate that they believed England

could “block the line Antwerp-Namur,” and that not only would they become involved in the war

















underestimated.” 43 The possibility of British intervention was a serious concern for Germany,

according to Turner.

Turner returns to this point later in the text. “Fischer‟s thesis hinges on the basic

assumption that Germany reckoned on being able to deal militarily with Russia and France,” he

argues; “in fact the German general staff was far from confident about the balance of forces.” 44

Turner also believes that Moltke was not confident about Germany‟s military superiority over

either the French or the Russians. Turner contends that the facts support Moltke‟s pessimism

about Germany‟s military, noting that “Britain‟s naval preponderance over Germany in 1914 was

very substantial.” 45

Turner does not see an aggressive, confident Germany, eager to strike in all directions.

While the Fischer school argues that Germany tried to provoke Russia by encouraging “an

Austrian Blitzkrieg in the Balkans,” Turner calls this “nonsense,” arguing that Moltke realized

that if the Russians intervened while Austria was fighting in the Balkans, Germany would be at a

tremendous military disadvantage. 46 Again, Turner‟s Germany is a much more wary power than

that portrayed by Fischer.

This disagreement is crucial to Turner‟s argument. In his conclusion he contends that

“Fischer and Geiss have paid inadequate attention to military and strategic problems,” and that

“their lack of interest in military issues has led them into grave misinterpretations.” 47 Throughout

the text, Turner is relentless in his attacks upon Fischer‟s understanding of military issues.

Turner also accuses Fischer of misunderstanding the alliance system. Whereas Fischer

argues that Germany expended enormous efforts to create ties with Turkey to prevent an

Ottoman pact with France, Turner writes that “It is an illusion to believe that Germans were

thirsting for an alliance with Turkey in 1914.” 48 While Fischer views this effort at friendship as

further evidence of Germany‟s expansionist goals, Turner later notes that “There seems to be no

justification for Fischer‟s contention that frustrated economic ambitions in southeastern Europe

were driving Germany into war.” 49

Crucial to Turner‟s analysis is his challenge of Fischer‟s view of the mood of German

industry regarding war, writing that Fischer‟s deductions in this area “are alarming in their

simplicity.” Turner believes that German industrialists “were ardent advocates of peace,” and that

“these industrialists appreciated that, if Germany could postpone a conflict, the advantages would

all be in her favor.” 50 Turner emphasizes that peace sentiments were strong in all of the European

capitals. Whereas Fischer argues that the pressure of business interests pushed Germany into war,

Turner believes that “in Germany there was no irresistible drive to war and many economists and

industrialists wanted peace.” 51

Turner also adamantly disagrees with Fischer‟s contention that an aggressive Chancellor

caused the war. “While they were very dangerous forces at work in Germany in 1914,” he writes,

“it is hard to see the Kaiser or Bethmann Hollweg as ruthless militarists eager to assert

Germany‟s claim to world power.” 52 Turner also disagrees with Fischer in that “there is little

evidence for the assumption that Germany deliberately went to war in order to realize the policies

set out in the September Programme and similar documents.” 53 Ant to Turner, actions expressed

during the war, on both sides of the alliance system, did not necessarily reflect ideas that were

planned well in advance of the war‟s start, as Fischer contends. And in an indirect rebuke to

Fischer, Turner writes that “historians would be wise not to allow the course of events since 1914

to affect their treatment of the origins of the conflict.” 54

Ultimately, Turner blames the war on events far removed from any so-called German

desire to dominate Europe. “Looking back at the origins of the war as a whole, the story seems to

be dominated by the consequences of 1870 and racial tensions in Eastern Europe,” he concludes.

“Granted wise leadership in Germany, these questions need not have exploded in major

conflict.” 55 To Turner, “In the final phase, military considerations were of decisive importance;

they accelerated the whole tempo of events and confirmed the truth of Count Metternich‟s

dictum: „When the statesmen has to yield to the soldier in peace or war, a people is usually

doomed.‟” 56

VII. Berghahn and the Primacy of Domestic Changes

Turner raises many important differences with Fischer, and his conclusions have stood

the test of time. But it is not the whole picture, as clearly something was occurring domestically

in Germany that was unique to that country alone. The most persuasive argument about the war‟s

cause thus comes from those who, like Fischer, also stress the primacy of domestic politics in

Germany‟s desire to start war. One such approach is found in V.R. Berghahn‟s 1993 second

edition of his 1973 work Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, which clearly blames

Germany for the start of World War I.

The book was a response to a growing emphasis in the early 1970s on diplomatic history,

itself a reaction to the primacy on domestic politics that Fischer placed in 1961. This emphasis

on domestic politics, as opposed to diplomatic relations, was first put forth in the 1920s by

Eckart Kehr. Fischer argues that Germany‟s rulers wanted war in order to divert attention from

pressing domestic problems. Berghahn goes even further, blaming the domestic situation in

Germany as the primary cause for war.

Rather than investigating Germany‟s geopolitical situation in relation to other European

countries, as Turner does, Berghahn examines the war‟s social history, to a much greater degree

than him, or even Fischer. Much of this is due to the availability of sources into the lives of

everyday German citizens that became available during the 1960s, the “new social history.” In

order to understand why Germany went to war, he contends, one must first understand the state

of affairs in German society at the time. Enormous changes had taken place in Germany since the

1890s, and the question Berghahn seeks to answer is how well prepared Germany was to deal

with both the speed and magnitude of those changes.

He suggests that they were woefully ill prepared to handle such turmoil. Domestic politics

are thus the key to Berghahn‟s analysis. He notes that the Prussian-German establishment felt

threatened by the Social Democrats. To counter this perceived threat, the monarchy aggressively

pursued an armaments policy, and then planned for war in the desperate hope of fending off the

liberal opposition.

Berghahn‟s essential argument is that a host of problems, primarily “German anxieties

about the country‟s deteriorating international and domestic situation” fed “upon each other, with

armaments policy acting as the hinge.” 57 The main disruptive force to Germany before 1914

came from within rather than from outside Germany, for “the self assertion of the nationalistic

associations was an element in the progressive deterioration of the monarchy‟s domestic position

in the years before 1914.” 58 Germany was “a rapidly diversifying society whose political system

found it progressively more difficult to solve the problems that were coming to the surface under

the impact of social, economic, and cultural change,” he writes. “By 1913/14 that system had

reached an impasse.” Though politicians were marked by “paralysis at home and abroad,” they

“still had enough constitutional powers to take the step into a major war.” 59

Berghahn is concerned with how German politics became more and more polarized

before the war, especially regarding taxation and internal reform. The key to this polarization to

him is “the all pervasive influence of armaments,” as “it is the special function of armaments

which places German domestic and foreign policy into a category of its own.” 60 Germany was

encircled, he contends, because the monarchy turned to the armaments industry in order to solve

the constitutional crisis it faced at home.

But for Berghahn the monarchy welcomed this result, as it helped solidify unity at home.

“The isolation of the Reich had helped to foster a fortress mentality inside the country,” he

concludes, “which, in turn, had a useful integrating affect on a society whose political system

was…beginning to show serious cracks.” 61 But once the monarchy made this choice, they were

locked into an expensive arms race, the abandonment of which would only lead to further chaos

on the domestic front.

In light of this emphasis on armaments, military leaders play an important role in

Berghahn‟s work, as do the political elites of German society, for they played a disproportionate

role in shaping the German people‟s perceptions. To Berghahn this sense of social confusion

created a crisis for the monarchy in which war was seen as a way of “not only of settling accounts

with hostile Great Powers and of breaking out of the country‟s international isolation, but also of

overcoming domestic gridlock.” 62 The army thus became the final weapon of preserving the

status quo.

To Berghahn these elites overestimated Germany‟s strengths at the turn of the century, yet

then underestimated her condition in the period before the war. As a result, there existed a “gap













miscalculations.” Thus the problems that the monarchy faced from the many social, political and

economic changes of the period were “compounded by its exaggerated perception on the part of

those who were determined to defend the status quo to the hilt and to whom gradual reform was

not an option.” 63

By 1913,


felt that time was running out, he argues,

and therefore

“conservative elites became increasingly tempted to use their superior powers before it was too

late.” 64 Feeling that they were encircled, which Berghahn clearly says was the result of their

disastrous armaments policy, conservatives “found themselves on the defensive cornered and

desperate. War was nothing immoral to them, but a legitimate means of carrying out political

conflict.” 65 War was thus seen as a solution to the problems they faced but, as Berghahn points

out later in the text, Bethmann Hollweg wanted a specific type of war: one that was short, and

that would not come immediately.

Thus regarding the war‟s start, whereas Fischer contends that the decision to go to war

was made at the War Council of December 1912, to Berghahn “it was only the setbacks to

German foreign and domestic policies in 1913 and 1914 that tipped the scales in favor of a pre-

emptive war in July 1914.” 66 Berghahn thus also disagrees with Fischer over the July Crisis, as

he believes, unlike Fischer, that the Central Powers never wanted a world war, only a localized

one. But, most importantly, Berghahn agrees with Fischer one a crucial point, that the July 30,

1914 “Tsar‟s mobilization order was the last straw only because the Central Powers were by then

bent on waging a European war and were, for domestic reasons, merely waiting to be given a

pretext for starting it.” 67 Berghahn thus astutely observes that Russia‟s actions actually helped the

Chancellor‟s cause, because now the war could be framed in defensive terms.

Returning to the primacy of domestic issues, Berghahn stresses in the end that the war

could not reverse or even retard the various social, political, and economic changes that had been

taking place in Germany since 1890. “In the long run, not even the emergency situation of a war

was able to arrest the disintegration of the Prusso-German Constitutionalism,” he concludes. “In

1919 a parliamentary republic was established in its place. Its first president was a Social

Democrat.” 68

VIII. Conclusion

Where has the debate over the war‟s start proceeded since the publication of the above

scholarship? By the late 1980s, it appeared that the quest to understand its origins had run out of

steam. What could possibly match James Joll‟s 1984 The Origins of the First World War? And

on the surface, it appeared that there would be little future debate over the issues brought on by

the Fischer controversy, as the profession has generally accepted so much of his thesis. “In the

main Fischer‟s theses have been accepted,” concludes Mombauer, “with the notable exception of

his views on German war aims.” 69

But the Cold War‟s end brought renewed interest in the topic, as historians began to look

at the 20 th century as the “short” century, lasting from 1914 to 1991. Just when one thought

nothing more needed to be said, the war began to be viewed with even more importance, as the

era it spawned ended with the events of 1989-1991. With that finish clearly marked, its beginning

took on renewed importance. The controversy continues to raise important questions, concerning

both the events of 1914 as well as the historical profession. Much of the recent literature

regarding the question of the war‟s start is thus perhaps more complicated than what adherents of

the Fischer school would initially lead one to believe.

In recent years, Niall Ferguson has offered bold challenges to conventional thinking about

the war. In a 1994 article, he argues that “Germany could and should have spent more on defense

before 1914, but that domestic political factors prevented it, and in that sense can be seen as a

root cause of the war.” Had “Germany been more militaristic – spending more on defence, and

therefore less strategically insecure,” he states, “the First World War might have been less

likely.” 70 While noting that “The notion that the First World War had domestic origins…has

lately acquired the air of an idea whose time has passed,” 71 Ferguson suggests that despite her

economic strength Germany in 1914 was a country in “relative military decline,” and that “it

therefore does seem legitimate to continue speaking of the war‟s domestic origins…even at the

risk of drawing the paradoxical conclusion that increased military spending by Germany would

have reduced the chances of war in 1914.” 72

Ferguson‟s controversial 1999 book The Pity of War blames the war on England, arguing

that not only did the war not have to become a world war, but that it could have been avoided

altogether. Poor British decision making, rather than any sense of inevitability, caused the war,

he argues. “It was the British government which ultimately decided to turn the continental war

into a world war,” he writes, “a conflict which lasted twice as long and cost many more lives.” 73

England entered the war based on naïve assumptions about Germany‟s aims, he claims, and

caused it to become world war.

And because England entered the war, he contends, Germany‟s military ambitions

became even greater. Regarding pre-1914 Germany behavior, he suggests that Germany did not

pose a great enough threat to England to justify war, and that they had ample reason to fear both

Russia and France. Furthermore, he argues that German militarism was actually in decline at the

start of the war, and that this decline may have been what caused them to begin the war, rather

than any excessive militarism. Ferguson‟s main point is that Germany was destined to play a

large role in European affairs, and that war was simply a needless bloodbath that merely

attempted to prevent the inevitable.

The topic of who started the World War is I thus still a vibrant and important topic.

“Hundreds of books and articles have been published on the subject over the decades, thousands

of documents have been unearthed in archives and made available to historians,” notes

Mombauer, “but nonetheless key issues are still far from resolved, and publications on the First

World War and its origins continue in abundance.” 74 Ferguson‟s work is clear evidence of this


What conclusions can be drawn from the above texts? Both Fischer and Berghahn,

focusing on internal German conditions, offer extremely convincing arguments that Germany is

to blame for the war‟s start. But it is important to keep in mind that England was also fearful of

not retaining its world power status, that Serbia too had expansionist goals, that France was eager

to retrieve the lands lost in the Franco-Prussian war, and that Russia also sought to divert

attention from its own domestic problems. And one must remember that the war began when

Austria, fearful of the decline of its empire, attacked Serbia. As Turner, and even Ferguson,

reminds us, there appears to be plenty of blame to go around.

What emerges most clearly from any analysis of the causes of the war is how difficult it is

to arrive at an objective study. As John Moses observes, history is “a dangerous subject both for

the writers and those whom they try to influence. Always it demands the highest degree of

critical understanding, honest skepticism and commitment to human, as distinct from exclusively

nationalist values.75

Perhaps the only certainty in the debate over the origins of World War I is that it

demonstrates a connection between scholarship and ideology. For example, Fischer was above all

hoping that his book would make a “better Germany.” Issues regarding post 1945 democracy

were always at the heart of the controversy over his book. Fischer was afraid that the German

experiment with democracy could be undermined by continued nostalgia for the Germany of

William II.

Thus an essential part of his argument was Fischer‟s own hopes and dreams for the

German political system. But it is the very uniqueness of Germany‟s tragic past that makes a

judgment on that past, as well as on the dreams for its future, so painfully difficult. As Mommsen

notes, “The debate on German war aims is itself a symptom of the fact that the Germans, because

of the crises and upheavals in their history since 1918, have not yet found their way back into an

undivided historical consciousness.” 76

Thus how one views the war‟s origins reflects the times in which one‟s research is done.















“Historiography is without doubt related to national politics. Indeed, the historiography of a

particular country is a sensitive barometer to the political pressures within that country.” 77 And as

Mombauer points out, “History is not an objective, factual account of events as they occurred,

and historical events have to be read with a clear understanding of their provenance.” 78 Fischer,

Turner, Berghahn and even Ferguson‟s scholarship are as much products of their own time and

place as they are of any “conclusive” factual reality.

And sadly, an analysis of the causes of World War I unfortunately remains very relevant

in our own times, with the Unites States poised to begin an attack on Iraq in the coming weeks.

The similarities are indeed striking. Many of the same forces that propelled Europe into war seem

to be at play here in 2003. And some argue that talk of war is nothing more than an effort by the

United States‟ government to distract the public from pressing domestic needs. Perhaps the

United States is merely engaging in the same type of deception that critics of Germany argue that

country did in 1914. Others point out that the United States is merely using an attack as a pretext

for more adventuresome military engagements in the future. Amid all the talk by the media of

this war being “inevitable” (a belief shared by 75% of Americans), 79 will future historians argue

that, much as in 1914, the war was not stumbled into as a result of the terrorist attacks of

September 11, 2001, but was instead a conflict planned out well in advance?



Berghahn, V.R. Germany and the Approach of War in 1914. New York, St. Martin‟s

Press, 1973.

Ferguson, Neil. The Pity of War. New York, Basic Books, 1999.

Fischer, Fritz. Germany’s Aims in the First World War. London, Chatto & Windus, 1967.

World Power or Decline – The Controversy Over Germany’s Aims in the

First World War. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1974.

Joll, James. The Origins of the First World War. Harlow, England, Pearson Education,


Mombauer, Annika. The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus.

Harlow, England, Pearson Education, 2002.








Historiography. New York, Barnes & Noble, 1975.






Turner, L.C.F. Origins of the First World War. New York, W.W. Norton and Company,



Epstein, Klaus. Gerhard Ritter and the First World War. Journal of Contemporary

History, V. 1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), 193-210.

Ferguson, Neil. Public Financing and National Security: The Domestic Origins of the

War Revisited. Past and Present, V. 0, Issue 142 (Feb., 1994), 141-168.

Geiss, Imanuel. The Outbreak of the First World War and German War Aims. Journal of

Contemporary History, V. 1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), 75-91.

Hale, Frederick. Fritz Fischer and the Historiography of World War I. The History

Teacher, V. 9, Issue 2 (February, 1976), 258-279.

Mommsen, Wolfgang. The Debate on German War Aims. Journal of Contemporary

History, V. 1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), 47-72.

Taylor, A.J.P. Fritz Fischer and His School. The Journal of Modern History, V. 47, Issue

1, (March 1975), 120-124.


1 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914. New York, Vintage Books, 1987, p. 309.

2 Wolfgang Mommsen, The Debate on German War Aims. Journal of Contemporary History, V.

1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), p. 47.

3 Imanuel Geiss, The Outbreak of the First World War and German War Aims. Journal of

Contemporary History, V. 1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), p. 76.

4 Ibid., p. 77.

5 Ibid., p. 78.

6 Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus.

Harlow, England, Pearson Education, 2002, p. 120.

7 Ibid., p. 123.

8 Imanuel Geiss, The Outbreak of the First World War and German War Aims. Journal of

Contemporary History, V. 1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), p. 79.

9 Ibid., p. 75.

10 Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus.

Harlow, England, Pearson Education, 2002, p. 143.

11 Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War. London, Chatto & Windus, 1967, p.


12 Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus.

Harlow, England, Pearson Education, 2002, p. 137.

13 See Ritter‟s Sword and the Scepter: The Problem of the Military in Germany The Tragedy of

Statesmanship: Bethmann Hollweg As War Chancellor, 1914-1917. Miami, University of Miami

Press, 1972.

14 Wolfgang Mommsen, The Debate on German War Aims. Journal of Contemporary History, V.

1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), p. 71.

15 Ibid., p. 54

16 Ibid., p. 55.

17 Ibid., p. 56.

18 Ibid., p. 56.

19 Ibid., p. 56.

20 Ibid., p. 57.

21 Klaus Epstein, Gerhard Ritter and the First World War. Journal of Contemporary History, V.

1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), p. 195.

22 Ibid., p. 199.

23 Ibid., p. 200.

24 Ibid., p. 202.

25 Ibid., p. 210.

26 Fritz Fischer, World Power or Decline – The Controversy Over Germany’s Aims in the First

World War. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1974, p. 112.

27 Ibid., p. 113.

28 Imanuel Geiss, The Outbreak of the First World War and German War Aims. Journal of

Contemporary History, V. 1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), p. 90.

29 Ibid., p. 91.

30 Ibid., p. 91.

31 John A. Moses, The Politics of Illusion: The Fischer Controversy in German Historiography.

New York, Barnes & Noble, 1975, p. xi.

32 Ibid., p. 131.

33 L.C.F. Turner, Origins of the First World War. New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 1970,

p. 1.

34 Ibid., p. 112.

35 Ibid., p. 112.

36 Ibid., p. 112.

37 Ibid., p. 71.

38 Ibid., p. 70.

39 Ibid., p. 5.

40 Ibid., p. 6.

41 Ibid., p. 29.

42 Ibid., p. 2.

43 Ibid., p. 64.

44 Ibid., p. 74.

45 Ibid., p. 75.

46 Ibid., p. 93n.

47 Ibid., p. 113.

48 Ibid., p. 66.

49 Ibid., p. 72.

50 Ibid., p. 70.

51 Ibid., p. 115.

52 Ibid., p. 73.

53 Ibid., p. 113.

54 Ibid., p. 113.

55 Ibid., p. 114.

56 Ibid., p. 115.

57 V.R. Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914. New York, St. Martin‟s Press,

1973, p. 2.

58 Ibid., p. 6.

59 Ibid., p. 9.

60 Ibid., p. 13.

61 Ibid., p. 76.

62 Ibid., p. 23.

63 Ibid., p. 14.

64 Ibid., p. 174.

65 Ibid., p. 177.

66 Ibid., p. 9-10.

67 Ibid., p. 217.

68 Ibid., p. 219.

69 Ibid., p. 224.

70 Neil Ferguson, Public Financing and National Security: The Domestic Origins of the War

Revisited. Past and Present, V. 0, Issue 142 (Feb., 1994), p. 143.

71 Ibid., p. 141

72 Ibid., p. 168.

73 Neil Ferguson, The Pity of War. New York, Basic Books, 1999, p. 461.

74 Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus.

Harlow, England, Pearson Education, 2002, p. 3.

75 John A. Moses, The Politics of Illusion: The Fischer Controversy in German Historiography.

New York, Barnes & Noble, 1975, p. xvii.

76 Wolfgang Mommsen, The Debate on German War Aims. Journal of Contemporary History, V.

1, Issue 3, 1914 (July, 1966), p.72.

77 John A. Moses, The Politics of Illusion: The Fischer Controversy in German Historiography.

New York, Barnes & Noble, 1975, p. xiv-xv.

78 Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus.

Harlow, England, Pearson Education, 2002, p. 223.

79 Time, February 17, 2003, p. 24.