The War Over World War I

Who started the First World War? As the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the war, the answer to this question is more important than ever.

Just like the war itself, this story begins with an assassination. The target was Kurt Eisner, the radical socialist prime minister of Bavaria.

Eisner saw his death coming. Just months earlier, he told a friend, “By making this speech, I have probably signed my death warrant.”

His crime? Eisner had leaked official German documents proving, at least in his mind, that Germany was responsible for starting World War i. He declared Germany’s guilt to the world and promised that he had more incriminating material to reveal.

These declarations had already killed his political career. On Feb. 21, 1919, Eisner was on his way to Bavaria’s parliament to resign.

He didn’t make it. Standing in a doorway was Count Anton von Arco-Valley, a young aristocrat and officer in the Bavarian Army. Once Eisner walked by, Arco-Valley stepped out behind him and put two bullets in the back of his head.

There are conflicting accounts of Arco-Valley’s motivation. Some reports state that he had just been rejected from the Thule Society, a German far-right group, because he had Jewish blood. In murdering the Jewish Eisner, who was discrediting Germany before the world, Arco-Valley was trying to prove himself.

But other accounts talk of a wider conspiracy. The night before, the New York Times reported, the Bavarian Life Guards Regiment held a party in their club rooms. “Champagne flowed freely,” it wrote, but the real purpose of the party was “to designate the officer who was to shoot Eisner” (Feb. 26, 1919). Attendees rolled dice, and Arco-Valley was chosen.

Either way, the assassination made Arco-Valley immensely popular, gaining the praise of many on the right, and the admiration of the young Joseph Goebbels. Arco-Valley was shot by Eisner’s companions, but recovered in the hospital. Just under a year a later, he was put on trial. Here, even the state prosecutor praised him, saying, “If the whole German youth were imbued with such a glowing enthusiasm, we could face the future with confidence.”

Nonetheless, in 1920, Arco-Valley was found guilty and sentenced to death. But the next day, the sentence was changed to imprisonment. And so, three years later, in November 1923, he occupied one of the most comfortable rooms in Landsberg Prison, when he was moved out to a new cell to make way for another Austrian-born far-right agitator—named Adolf Hitler. Arco-Valley was released in 1925 and completely pardoned in 1927.

Meanwhile, the German judiciary that had treated both Arco-Valley and Hitler with such leniency continued the work that Arco-Valley started. In 1922, Felix Fechenbach, Eisner’s secretary, was brought to a rigged trial, along with a couple of newspaper journalists he was working with. He and his associates were found guilty of high treason for leaking German war documents to the press. The trial was such an obvious miscarriage of justice that the Reichstag gave Fechenbach early parole; but, unlike Arco-Valley, he was never cleared or pardoned. In 1933, he became one of the first targets of the new Nazi regime and was shot while being transferred to the Dachau concentration camp.

A Violent Controversy

It is no exaggeration, then, to say there is a violent controversy over the question of who started World War i. There are few other historical questions that people are willing to kill and die for. A century after the war began, Britain’s top leaders are writing columns in national newspapers arguing over why the nation fought the war and who started it. Germany has publicly agonized over its role for decades. No other question of history gets the attention of world leaders the way this one does.

Why? It is a conflict that defined the century. Winston Churchill saw the two world wars as one conflict separated by a 20-year truce. Even historians with differing views see that the two are intimately connected. World War i was the crisis that founded the modern world.

It is also a crisis that can be twisted to teach almost any lesson. Britain’s political parties argued over the war to advance their own more modern agendas. The Labor Party used it as part of its class warfare, painting the war as a needless waste of life—a conflict where Britain’s ignorant and uncaring upper classes sent hundreds of thousands of working-class boys to their deaths for no good reason. On the other hand, the governing Conservative Party would rather make the war’s centenary about a patriotic celebration of a just war.

But in Germany, the conflict over the war is more foundational. It has everything to do with Germany’s status in the world. If World War i was not Germany’s fault, then the world—and Germany itself—has little to fear from renewed German power. In that case, the rise of Hitler was an aberration, and Germany’s violent conquests of World War ii were a departure from a relatively blameless past.

But if Germany is to blame for World War i, a different pattern emerges. Under this interpretation of history, the state of Germany was born in the violence of the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars. Then Germany went on to start two world wars—the bloodiest conflicts the world has known—before being forcibly divided. Only in the last few years has a unified Germany been allowed to wield serious power and begin to think about using its military. If Germany is guilty of starting these wars, then the world has much to fear from a newly assertive Germany.

German historian Immanuel Geiss firmly believed in Germany’s guilt for World War i. He said Germany must “make do with the status of lesser powers in Europe” and forget about “all patriotic dreams of a German Reich.” Based upon this interpretation of German war guilt, Geiss warned that “any attempt to circumvent these political consequences, to squeeze past them, would inevitably lead to a third phase of German power politics, hence leading to a third world war initiated, once again, by Germany” (Spiegel Online, February 14).

This is why this question has taken on such importance in Germany right now. It’s not just the centenary. As discussed in the Trumpet’s April edition, Germany’s top leaders are calling for the nation to assume a greater role in the world—even a greater military role (

This makes German war guilt a modern concern. Can the nation trust itself once again with world power? Germany’s feelings on this question are changing rapidly.

History can be a powerful teacher—but only if we learn the right lessons. In this case, airbrushing the history could have disastrous results. Is Germany an innocent country marred by the hatred of Adolf Hitler and his followers—or is it a nation repeatedly guilty of starting wars?

A History of History

The irony is that most of the rest of the world has already cleared Germany of the blame. The one country where historians have consistently pinned the blame on Germany is Germany itself. Meanwhile, schoolchildren in Britain and America are taught that World War i was a big accident.

But this shift in perception about war guilt was a long, painful process for Germany. The Treaty of Versailles, which followed World War i, infamously put the blame of the war on Germany, forcing the nation to restrict its military and pay compensation to the victors. Germans bitterly resented this view of the war. Many felt Germany was the victim, unfairly scapegoated for the crisis. Challenging this view got Kurt Eisner shot.

Even after World War ii, this remained the prevailing opinion—until German history professor Fritz Fischer dropped a bombshell on Germany’s sense of history and identity.

In 1961, Fischer published Grasping for World Power: The War Aims of Imperial Germany. The book was later published in English, slightly abridged, as Germany’s Aims in the First World War. The war was no accident and Germany was no victim, he asserted. Instead, Germany had “a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of the general war.” The German elites behind the war, he argued, were the same elites who orchestrated Hitler’s rise to power. Germany pursued the same racist goals and expansion of power in both world wars, he concluded.

These were incendiary accusations. But Fischer backed them up with proof after proof after proof.

And so the controversy turned violent again. Fischer’s publisher’s office was fire-bombed. The German Foreign Office tried to stop Fischer from traveling to America for a lecture series. Franz Josef Strauss, one of Germany’s most influential conservative politicians, denounced Fischer’s views in the parliament, and called on the government to do all it could to “combat and eradicate the habitual, negligent and deliberate distortions of German history and Germany’s image today.”

But Fischer won the battle. His research was so compelling that Germany’s unwilling academic establishment was forced to accept it. Fischer’s arguments appeared across the German press. Fischer himself defended his research on television.

In 1964, German historians gathered to debate Fischer’s thesis in Berlin. “During this debate, the essentials of the case for German war guilt were established beyond doubt, and in time accepted even by most of his critics,” wrote historian Paul Johnson. Because of Fischer’s work, “it is impossible to maintain today … that World War i was all a ghastly mistake, unintended by any of the parties,” wrote Philip Bobbitt, another historian. The Encyclopaedia of Historians and Historical Writings called Fischer arguably “the most important German historian of the 20th century,” concluding that “his findings have stood the test of time and succeeded in showing that both the Keiser Reich and the Third Reich were dominated by capitalist elites who shared the same anti-Western, racist and imperialist consciousness.”

Fischer’s school of thought has remained the consensus in Germany for 50 years. It made a splash in the West too.

Now, however, those waves have receded. Once again, the view of the war as a big accident is the prevailing one.

But not in Germany itself. Only now is Germany’s historical establishment starting to change its mind over war guilt.

At the forefront of this change is a new book, The Sleepwalkers—How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, an Australian who teaches history at Cambridge University.

Sleepwalking to War

Clark’s book has been hailed around the world. It has received rave reviews from just about every literary magazine. It is now considered the book on the war’s origin.

Clark does not agree with Fischer. The German historian states that the nation “took the risks of war with open eyes.” Clark concludes that “the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers.”

Clark’s book is having the biggest impact in Germany—mainly because the rest of the world has already accepted his opinion that the world stumbled blindly into war. Now, in Germany, Clark’s book, having been translated into German, is replacing Fischer’s thesis of German guilt.

German historian Herfried Munkler is having a similar impact with his lengthy volume Der Grosse Kreig (The Great War), which also argues against German war guilt. Die Welt described the works of these others, and more, as a “long … paradigm shift,” hailing “the enormous success of the book by Christopher Clark.” Suddeutsche Zeitung called The Sleepwalkers “a total stunner,” saying that “the most important overall result of this examination of the history of the First World War … is probably that you can actually say goodbye to the virtually sacrosanct theory that the superpower ambitions of Germany primarily pushed Europe into the abyss” (Nov. 20, 2012).

The reign of Fischer is over. Germany is deciding, for the first time since the 1960s, that it was not to blame for World War i.

Given all this praise, you would have thought that Clark has comprehensively demolished Fischer’s ideas. But he has not. His book does not even confront them. Clark completely ignores Fischer’s most damning evidence. On the rare occasions that Clark does acknowledge another point of view, he often ignores the most convincing proofs that support it. Instead, he tears into secondary pieces of evidence of little importance, while giving his reader the impression that they are the foundation of his opponents’ opinions and that he has destroyed them. In these brief debates with unnamed critics, the logical fallacy of straw men abound. Clark refutes arguments that Fischer and others who believe that Germany is guilty for the war have never made.

This makes the book appear to be a tour de force—a complete routing of any alternative view, when really it is little more than a rehashing of outdated arguments, freshened up with some high-quality research and engaging narrative.

To be fair to Clark, he did not set out to refute Fischer, and so is under no obligation to disprove every one of the German historian’s arguments. He even makes a half-hearted effort to avoid conflict with Fischer: Rather than arguing that Germany is not to blame, he maintains that the question of guilt is irrelevant and unimportant. It is really the global press and historians that are making claims for Clark’s book that it simply does not fulfil.

Nonetheless, it leaves Germany and the world with a dangerously incomplete view.

Clark even admits that “at no point did the French or the Russian strategist involved plan to launch a war of aggression against the central powers.” Then he has to spend several pages making excuses for Germany’s clear plans to launch a war of aggression. Ultimately, even with all his reasons and excuses, Clark cannot get away from that basic fact: France, Russia and Britain did not launch a war of aggression—but Germany did.

Startling Omissions

Clark argues that Germany’s role in the war was the same as Russia’s, France’s or Britain’s—that it was a nation afraid of its enemies plotting against it and therefore searching for a way to ensure the war would be started in the most favorable way possible.

Clark neglects to mention that Germany’s fears revolved around racial policies that sound more like something out of World War ii. German Kaiser Wilhelm ii wrote that “no further conference can smooth” the “Germanic people’s fight for their existence against Russo-Gallia.” Why? “It is not a question of high politics, but one of race,” he wrote. This view was not confined to the famously eccentric Kaiser. It was shared by the whole ruling class. Chief of German Staff Helmuth Moltke, for example, wrote that “a European war is bound to come sooner or later, and then it will, in the last resort, be a struggle between Teuton and Slav. It is the duty of all states who uphold the banner of German spiritual culture to prepare for this conflict.”

These theories of racial destiny and social Darwinism that would continue on into Hitler’s Germany are ignored in Clark’s book. So too is Germany’s express desire to carve out a “Mitteleuropa,” a Central European empire of puppet states economically dependent on Germany. This empire became the primary goal of Germany in World War i. Its leaders hoped this empire would make the German Empire the premiere world power. The Kaiser even talked about a “United States of Europe.” But the key to this empire, as German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg said, was a European war.

Clark’s baffling omissions continue when it comes to the immediate cause of the war. After Serbian terrorists assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria’s response became the critical question. In the end, Austria sent a series of harsh demands to Serbia in an infamous ultimatum and refused to be satisfied by the Serbs meeting it part-way. Austria declared war, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Clark’s account of this time paints Germany as a mere bystander—only watching while Austria presented its harsh demands. Fischer, on the other hand, quotes German authorities pushing Austria to war—warning the country that Germany would end its alliance with Austria if the latter did not begin a conflict. Germany’s ambassador to Austria told the Austrians that the German emperor “stated most emphatically that Berlin expected the [Austro-Hungarian] monarchy to act against Serbia, and that Germany would not understand it if … the present opportunity were allowed to go by … without a blow struck.”

And so, at Germany’s insistence, Austria prepared a hard ultimatum for Serbia. At this point, Clark writes that “the Germans were no better informed of the precise contents of the forthcoming Austrian ultimatum than their Entente opponents.” Interpreted narrowly, this statement is true. Germany did not receive the final text of the ultimatum until July 22—a day before it was presented to Serbia—so it did not know the precise contents. But the overall impression this sentence gives is entirely false. Germany knew what the general content would be: a list of demands calculated to appear as reasonable as possible while being completely unacceptable to Serbia. Fischer quoted a wealth of documents showing that Germany knew what was going on. Clark sidesteps all of this with a strictly true statement that gives a very misleading impression.

As Austria geared up for war, Britain proposed a negotiated solution. Clark refers to Germany passing this offer of mediation along to Austria as evidence of Germany’s peaceful intentions. He does not quote the telegram Germany sent to Austria along with Britain’s proposals, which stated that “the German government … is … decidedly opposed to consideration” of Britain’s offer. The telegram explained that Germany was only passing it on to try and make Germany appear a peacemaker in an effort to keep Britain out of the war. But rather than pushing for peace, Germany deliberately sabotaged Britain’s efforts, delaying, for example, so that a crucial message would arrive too late for Austria to do anything about it.

These are just some of the omissions in a book that, according to the Suddeutsche Zeitung, is a “watertight” refutation of Germany’s war guilt (Nov. 12, 2012).

Learning From History

So now, as Germany publicly debates whether to become a major power once again, it is embracing a distorted view of its own history. The warning that history gives is thus muted.

Meanwhile, the West no longer views Germany’s past as dangerous. It is more enthusiastic about German military power than the Germans themselves are.

When Fischer first advanced his thesis in the 1960s, Spiegel newsmagazine endorsed his conclusions and wrote, “A mine has been placed against the good conscience of the Germans.”

Today, this history, regardless of the blame placed on Germany, does not have the same impact on the German conscience. Nonetheless, it makes the intellectual case that Germany can safely move on from its period of abasement after World War ii.

But the rapturous reception of Clark’s book, and others like it, is also an effect, rather than a cause. It is a symptom of the German intellectual class’s willingness to move on. Thirty, 20 or perhaps even 10 years ago, these books would not have received the applause they are getting today.

One man who never demonstrated any uncertainty as to the causes of World War i was Winston Churchill. He plays a minor role in Clark’s book as a junior member of a clique of British “Germanophobes.” (Clark seems to deliberately cast him in an unflattering light.)

But it was Churchill’s understanding of history, especially this history, that meant he alone saw the rise of the Nazi menace in Germany during the 1930s. The rest of the world drew the wrong conclusions from history, so it did not hear the warning.

Within Germany and without, the same thing is happening again. Today, Churchill’s simple black-and-white view of the war is very much out of fashion. It is far more intellectual to view World War i as a complicated event with no simple lessons.

The Trumpet often gives warnings of world events based on the Bible. But history alone also gives a powerful warning to today’s world. Instead of heeding it, most of the intellectual world has twisted it into the shape that is most intellectually satisfying.

The history of Germany, France and Central Europe does indeed give a powerful warning to us today. The European Union is combining in a way very similar to the “Mitteleuropa” about which German elites of World War i dreamed. A correct understanding of history warns us to beware this rising Central European power.

This history goes back far beyond World War i. It is a history that sounds a clear and vital warning to anyone who will hear. To learn what history teaches us about the dangers of a new power in Europe, request our free booklet Germany and the Holy Roman Empire.