1st Place – The Historiography of Postwar and Contemporary Histories of the Outbreak of World War I

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

– Article 231, Treaty of Versailles, 1919

There is something fundamental in the human need to find the origin of tragedy: to find someone to blame in order to rationalize it. World War I is not exempt from this axiom. The literature surrounding the question of who is to blame for the outbreak of the War arguably began with the passing of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and continues to the present day. Readers are no less interested in the distant past now than they were when it was in living memory; in fact, with the upcoming centennial of the outbreak of the War, they may be more interested than ever in finding a party to blame.

The Treaty of Versailles easily set Germany up to be the object of the world’s contempt. As time wore on, and another World War came—and this time very obviously because of German actions—Germany remained at the center of almost all histories of the outbreak of the First World War, if not as the guilty party, then as a key instigator of prewar brinksmanship. A wave of arguments about the outbreak of war in 1914 hit the bookshelves in the post-WWII era. From this time and throughout the Cold War historians trained their eyes on Germany—understandably as it was ground zero for the physical developments of the Soviet-American relationship for half a century. In addition, German sources were becoming available for scholarship as archives were gradually opened up by the Western powers. It is only recently that there has been a shift in the literature about the outbreak of the First World War. Arguments no longer revolve around German war aims, as if in a vacuum, but rather center on a complex and dynamic system in which Germany and the other countries of the world were all involved. Specifically, the center of gravity has shifted to the East and South: to Russia, Turkey and Serbia, now that those archives are open, too. What can account for this wider focus? I argue a two-pronged answer to this question: first, historians now analyze sources that were novel in the postwar era, namely the archives of major powers, in new ways, and are presented with new sources from other countries, like Russia, Turkey and Serbia. Second, the historians context has changed drastically—it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to sustain arguments from the 1950s in today’s globalized and transnational world. New context necessitates new histories. Specifically, in our time, an expanding European Union requires an expanding view of European history and its main actors.

While this particular trend of redefining Europe is unique to the present day, the general tendency for history to change in the face of changing contemporary contexts is not; in fact it is integral to the study of historiography. In 1961 the Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s old tale of “slithering into war” in 1914 seemed naïve, and required reexamination. In today’s world, the old tale of a German war is too simple for a developing European Union of countries in an age of transnational history. Historians have responded to changing times, and built off of old arguments to tell these old tales in new lights. 

Postwar Arguments, 1956 – 1981

A historiographical discussion about contemporary outbreak literature must begin with an investigation into previous arguments. This examination will provide the framework with which to properly observe the developments and changes that have recently occurred in the genre. Though only three authors are discussed, there are hundreds among their rank of leading postwar historians of World War I. I choose to only discuss three below, Gerhard Ritter, Fritz Fischer and Volker Berghahn, in order to give a wide breadth of answers to the following four questions, which must be kept in mind when wading through postwar arguments. First, there is the question of inevitability of war: did Europe slither into it, or did some guilty party will war into being? A part of this question also has to do with the scale of war: did this party want a Balkan war, but not a European war? A European war but not a world war? Second, was Germany or were all of the European powers to blame? Third, regarding the actors themselves, there are multiple questions: how divided was the society of the blameworthy country? Did the whole of German, French and or British society have a hand in going to war, or was it just the upper echelons of the military, civilian or royal factions of society? Were these actors rational or irrational in the final months of peace? And finally, if it was Germany, as many of the following authors conclude, around which the July Crisis and ensuing War revolved, is there continuity in German history? Or, more bluntly put, was the same militarism that was seen in 1939 in the invasion of Poland also seen in 1914 in the invasion of France? It is, in my opinion, the answer to this question that necessitates the authors to answer the previous three in the ways that they do. Since this was the question on everyone’s mind in the aftermath of the Second World War, our investigation must begin here.

Gerhard Ritter, 1956

Gerhard Ritter, the eminent nationalist German historian, published a small book in 1956 entitled Der Schlieffen Plan, Kritik eines Mythos. Published in English in 1958, this short book focuses on the Schlieffen Plan, and specifically is a critique of the myth surrounding it: rather than being a masterpiece of strategic planning, the risk in the plan itself was the magic that would carry it to success.

Ritter’s argument separates the military planners from every other faction of German society in the prewar Wilhelmine era. The plan itself was “a strictly-guarded secret in the safes of the Great General Staff.”[1] And so separated was the General Staff from the rest of the Wilhelmine government. The Plan, in its 1905 form, “resulted from purely technical considerations… Non-technical considerations—particularly political ones—played no part in its development.”[2] Schlieffen “does not seem to have worried unduly about the grave political consequences.”[3] This complete isolation of the German General Staff, and of Schlieffen himself, was toxic: “When the long-expected crisis broke in July 1914, Germany had prepared nothing diplomatically… She had nothing but a plan for a military offensive, whose rigid timetable robbed her diplomacy of all freedom of maneuver.”[4]

In Ritter’s argument, “the outbreak of war in 1914 is the most tragic example of a government’s helpless dependence on the planning of strategists that history has ever seen.”[5] And the lead role in this tragedy is Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, who “was almost crushed by his heavy responsibilities and the difficulties which were mounting on all sides against his policy of peace and mediation.”[6] Moreover, this argument is not only featured within this small book: Bethmann Hollweg appears in the third and fourth volumes of Ritter’s magnum opus, Staatkunst und Kriegshandwerk, in which he is also portrayed as the tragic hero of the nation.[7] It is clear that the political leaders of Germany did not want war—and Ritter attests that Schlieffen did not either: in his various memoranda, “[Schlieffen] nowhere demands an opening of hostilities at the favourable [sic] moment.”[8]

In answering the questions regarding the postwar authors, we can conclude that Ritter believed the pure separation between military and diplomatic planning was at the center of the outbreak of war. This conception negates all blame that could be thrown at Schlieffen or any other leaders of Wilhelmine Germany, and undermines the conclusion that National Socialist war aims had any foundations in those of 1914. The German people did not want to go to war, the Kaiser did not want to go to war; war came, in the end, because the country’s leaders allowed themselves to be drawn into a state of dependence on pure military strategy, as there was a complete lack of dialogue between civilian and military leaders.

Ritter’s sources shed some light on the nature of his argument: 1956, the publication date of the German edition of his book, was the first year when the Allied governments opened the archives of West Germany.[9] The Schlieffen memoranda were unearthed prior, in 1953, and were “published for the first time in their entirety” in Ritter’s book.[10] [11] His close analysis and argument in this small book provides an important step in the building of his larger analysis, found in Staatkunst und Kriegshandwerk, especially the second and third volumes.

However Ritter’s argument is perhaps more illuminated when seen in the light of its immediate historical context: in 1956 the German economy was still struggling to rebuild itself; the deutschmark was introduced in 1948 as a new currency. However, in order to gain traction in an international economy, it needed support from the Western currencies, especially the reserve currency of the dollar. Moreover, 1955 marked the beginning of German rearmament.[12] This contentious process necessitated arguments that disproved any continuity in the trend of German aggression: rearming a nation that had aggressive war in its DNA would not sit well with Western nations and their populations. It became necessary, both for the revitalization of the German economy, and in order to quell any fears of the Western populations, for German history to accommodate German assimilation. This necessity existed for Ritter on a personal level as well. Having lived through both world wars, and fought in the first, it would have perhaps been too much to conclude that what he had seen was at all intrinsic to German society at large.[13] Ritter was one of the historians that took up the charge of clearing Germany’s name, on international, national and personal levels: by using newly available sources, including the entirety of Schlieffen’s documents, he attempted to argue Germany’s way back into Western society. 

Fritz Fischer, 1961

One man in particular foiled Ritter’s attempts. Fritz Fischer published Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961, though its English translation was not available until 1967. In complete opposition to Ritter’s arguments of German relative innocence, Fischer argues that Wilhelmine Germany intended to go to war, for the same reasons that National Socialist Germany went to war in 1939: imperialist expansion with racial undertones. A direct translation of the German title would give readers this impression; though its English publication title is innocuously German War Aims in the First World War, the German is more directly translated into “snatch” or “grasp” at world power, which preempts Fischer’s controversial argument. Although his narrative stretches from the prewar era into 1918, this discussion will center on his arguments about prewar aims and actions of military and political leaders.

The “Fischer Thesis” reads that German leaders, the military, Bethmann Hollweg and even the Kaiser, had shown expansionist tendencies since the mid-1890s. They saw the July Crisis of 1914 as the perfect time to act on those tendencies, and by military force, expand to achieve their ultimate goal of a Mitteleuropa and a Mittelafrika.[14] Unlike Ritter, Fischer does not separate the German people from the actions of the politicians and military strategists. In fact, he shows “how strongly the German government felt itself constrained by public opinion, by the parties and associations.”[15] Fischer claims that each faction of German society, military, political, royal and even civilian, had reasons to go to war, and these reasons were founded in their desire for world power status. And, unlike in Ritter’s argument, England and the rest of the great powers in Europe played vital roles in the German decision to go to war in 1914.

World War I, the “crisis of German imperialism” that ensued after various German attempts to lay claim to its world power status, was allowed to happen under the construction of the Wilhelmine constitution, which allowed diplomatic actions without the knowledge of the government.[16] Fischer’s argument is starkly clear: “[Germany] took the risk of war with open eyes…and undisguisedly threaten[ed] the European powers with a major conflict if the Serbian question were not confined to Serbia and Austria.”[17] Consequently, “any limited or local war in Europe directly involving one great power must inevitably carry with it the imminent danger of a general war. As Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war and, in her confidence in her military superiority, deliberately faced the risk of a conflict with Russia and France, her leaders must bear a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of general war in 1914.”[18]

It can also be seen in the above that Fischer’s argument has a wider scope than that of Ritter. He draws attention to the vital role of the British in the German unleashing of war. British neutrality was of “cardinal importance to German foreign policy considerations.”[19] It is especially with Britain that Bethmann Hollweg concerned himself. Throughout his narrative, Fischer paints the Chancellor not as a tragic hero, but a calculating politician, whose war aims were no less expansionary and violent than those of the military leaders or the Kaiser. Bethmann Hollweg believed that “only a Germany reinforced by ‘Mitteleuropa’ would be in a position to maintain herself as an equal world power between the world powers of Britain and the United States on one side and Russia on the other.”[20] Fischer puts it quite bluntly, that the diaries of Kurt Riezler, “furnish irrefutable proof that…Bethmann Hollweg was ready for war.”[21]

Returning to our questions, we can summarize the discussion above with the following: Fischer argues the combined war aims of all factions of German society revolved around world power, and, specifically, the forging of a Mitteleuropa and Mittelafrika by force. Bethmann Hollweg, importantly, is not a tragic hero in this narrative, but rather an integral player in the outbreak of war, and a man whose diplomatic plans for world power fell around him as British neutrality proved to be a wild hope. All of Germany, therefore, was to blame for the outbreak of war, and the decision makers at the top acted with a cold-blooded rationality in their pursuit of a world power status. And the very same intentions for world power that can be seen in Fischer’s sources, it follows, can be seen in the National Socialist regime that came 20 years later.

The reason for the wild shift in interpretation lies in Fischer’s sources. Fischer spent years in the newly opened West German archives, but he did not stop there—he also examined those of Britain and Austria prior to the publication of his book, which accounts for the broader international view of his argument.[22] The most important source in Fischer’s analysis is the “September Programme,” a document from the West German archives. Authored by Riezler, and indirectly by Bethmann Hollweg, the Programme calls for the annexation of all of Belgium, Holland, and indeed most of Europe, East and West.[23] Taken alongside sources like the Riezler diaries and Austrian archival sources, the September Programme can easily be interpreted as annexationist. Though it has been largely discredited in the modern day, as there is no evidence that the Programme was ever implemented in policy, Fischer’s conclusion at the time was earth shattering.

The other part of the answer to the above question is Fischer’s age. He was born 20 years after Ritter, in 1908. He had come of age during the boom years of the goldene Zwanziger, and had lived through the Depression and the subsequent rise of National Socialism. Unlike Ritter, he had not seen the First World War. He did not need, for his own sake, to absolve Germany of any sins remaining from 1914. His findings do not need to play a role in the reintegration of Germany. In 1961, the year of publication, the Berlin Wall was erected by the Soviets.[24] Perhaps continuity in German history was an important, if unfortunate, point of unification between a country divided in two. Germany did not need to be whitewashed to fit the bill as a Western country, as it was not fully West. But it was also not fully East; it was not wholly anything because it was not whole. Fischer’s generation of historians, those who did not see World War I except through the archives, possess an odd sort of honesty and clarity because of their birthdates and because of what they lived through as adults, and a continuity in their own history that their predecessors cannot, and do not, share.

Volker Berghahn, 1973

For a twist on the Fischerite narrative, we turn to Volker Berghahn. The main premise in his book, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, is that the Wilhelmine governmental structures allowed the irrational choice to go to war to permeate the cadre of decision makers. To best show this, Berghahn analyzes the developments of the Anglo-German relationship, and finds that it is on that relationship that Bethmann Hollweg based his house-of-cards brinksmanship, and when it collapsed because of a failed link between the two powers, the Schlieffen Plan was all that Germany had to work with. This much of Berghahn’s argument can be considered Fischerite. However, he questions the cold-blooded rationality that Fischer so clearly sees in documents like the September Programme. “Can one really expect,” Berghahn asks, “a political leadership which suffered from a profound loss of reality…to plan a major war systematically and many years in advance?”[25]

Rather than a long narrative of militarism in German society and culture that led inexorably towards offensive war in 1914, Berghahn attests that the rationality with which Germany went to war in 1914 was much shorter-lived, and was plagued with the irrationality of its political leaders and brinksmanship in the prewar era. “The calculating element in German policy between 1912 and 1914…does not appear in the long-term preparation for a war to be started at a pre-set date, but in the assessment of the Reich’s advantage over the enemy.”[26] There was a balance in Berghahn’s argument between the irrationality and the rationality of going to war.

Berghahn’s Germany is stratified, like that of our previous authors, into political, military and civilian factions, but he introduces a new class to his analysis: the Junkers. He claims, “the fears of the Junkers and the military men coincide…when it becomes good to wage war for the protection of the status quo.”[27] Bethmann Hollweg did not share these fears, and so went on trying to find the sinews of diplomacy in an increasingly cramped system, in full knowledge of the risks of a local war.[28] It is this that Berghahn claims is irrational, as by this time it was abundantly clear, given archival evidence, that Britain was going to enter any European conflict.[29] By the time July 1914 came around, and the crisis broke, he had no choice but to risk that very war, in order to unite the increasingly fractured population of Germany.[30] Berghahn’s argument, and the nuance he introduces about the rationality of Germany’s decision makers, can be summed up with this powerful quote, which draws on the old Bismarckian classification of preventive war: “Germany went to war in 1914 in an act of suicide in fear of death.”[31]

Like his predecessors, Berghahn made use of the archives of all the major world powers: his bibliography includes the German Reichsarchiv, the French Document Diplomatiques, as well as British and Austro-Hungarian documents. Berghahn also drew from the personal writings of the major German leaders, like Bülow and Tirpitz, as well as soldiers. This all-encompassing bibliography is the first sign of a change in the nature of outbreak literature. It suggests that historians were beginning to think of history not as large movements of nation states and their leaders, but rather a conglomerate of the actions of political parties, diplomats, and everyday people. The aspect of social class that Berghahn introduces in his narrative, and is included in subsequent authors’ narratives, is also part of the shift towards transnational history: the history of trends not confined by national borders, but felt in every country. Berghahn’s attention to class can also be attributed to his age. Born in 1938, he did not truly come of age until well after the Second World War. Like Fischer, but to a greater extent, Berghahn did not, in his scholarship, have to come to terms with anything that he had done. The publication of his book in 1973 came just five years after the protests of 1968.[32] Tensions between classes were palpable while Berghahn was in the archives researching his book, both in Germany and abroad. It is in this context, the coming of a new age of transnational solidarity in protest, that we must see Berghahn’s book. And it is in this way that he may be called an early transnational historian. 

Contemporary Arguments, 2011 – 2013

We have seen how narratives of the outbreak of the war fluctuated during the Cold War, but never lost their Germanic moorings. The most recently published books on the outbreak are detached from the notion that World War I was a German war, and rather take a broader view of the outbreak of war, encompassing all of Europe. In these arguments of larger scope, there has also been a shift of focus from the Western European countries to the powers in the East: Russia and Turkey. It is as if historiography has reached a second turning point in war guilt literature. Just as Fischer felt no need to tiptoe around the question of German war guilt, authors today are no longer tied to explanations for the outbreak of war that involve just the major Western powers of the day. In fact they are compelled by the nature of our modern global societies, by current geopolitics and by globalization, to argue that the outbreak of war was not only the fault of the major powers of 1914, but also of the current emerging and established powers. The following will be a discussion of the three contemporary authors that have published works on the outbreak of war. Unlike the postwar arguments, these cannot be distilled into four questions; the narratives with which modern readers are presented rest on the consensus that a Fischer Thesis is somewhat heavy-handed, and that all countries had some sort of hand in the outbreak of war—though some more than others. These contemporary arguments are all examples of transnational histories, as well as both calls for and symptoms of a changing international system.

Sean McMeekin, 2011

The first of the contemporary authors presents an argument whose easterly shift is apparent just by reading the title: The Russian Origins of the First World War. McMeekin’s book is the clearest example of a Fischer-like turning point in outbreak literature, as he attempts to open up a new line of dialogue about the Russian involvement and clear warmongering in the prewar era. His argument has the basic shape of previous ones: a framework in the strategic landscape of the day, a detailed analysis of diplomatic documents, especially those between Russia and France, and finally a conclusion that cites, among other things, the odd nature of Tsarist government as the enabling factor in Russia’s own Realpolitik. As he powerfully states at the end of his introduction: “The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.”[33]

McMeekin’s argument rests on the fact that it was essential for the continued stability of the Russian economy, and indeed for that of the state itself, to keep the Black Sea Straits in friendly, or even better, Russian hands. “In economic terms, the importance of the Straits for Russia was stark and true.”[34] With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire clearly looming, Russia’s leaders understood that it would soon be in their best interest to act in order to finally get their hands on Constantinople and the Straits.[35] Having discerned this much, Russia’s military leaders and especially the Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, then manipulated their allies, Britain and France, into going to war on the continent against Germany in order to fulfill Russia’s own war aims. “France,” it seems then, “[fell] on its sword for Russia, not the other way around.”[36] These are bold claims. It is here we must pause and notice how minor players in the previous arguments, Russia’s strategists and Sazonov, are now the masterminds that led Europe into war. It is a transformation in narrative as great as that concerning Bethmann Hollweg as the tragic hero to Bethmann Hollweg as the cold-blooded strategist.

To understand the direction of McMeekin’s argument, we must look at Russia’s so-called “strategic imperative of 1914,” which I find to be the most interesting point of departure from postwar outbreak literature. McMeekin shows that Russia, not Germany, was the one to be concerned about encirclement in the 1910s: “The Romonov’s long and ragged borders butted up against no less than five powers, either actively hostile, [or] …recently hostile.”[37] Further, “Russia’s seemingly inexorable imperial expansion,” the one thing that Germany dreamed of, “had in fact been propelled largely by the self-perpetuating strategic problem of border insecurity,” and insecurity that was only matched by internal disputes and fissures.[38] [39] Given this strategic environment, conquering Constantinople only grew in its importance to the Tsar and Sazonov. “The strategic issue of the day was clear and unambiguous: Constantinople and the Straits.”[40] Though his plan for storming Constantinople was still nascent in 1912, Sazonov and the Russian strategists understood that “the shortest and safest operational route to Constantinople runs through Vienna…and Berlin.”[41] The way to get to Vienna and Berlin in the first place would be to “line up with the most favorable coalition possible” and then spur along a European war that would occupy the German power that lay alongside Russia’s exposed West flank, while it focused on it’s true aim, the Ottoman Empire.[42] [43]

It was imperative that the British and French publics did not see the expansionist nature of Russia’s war aims—they were even “slightly distasteful” to the diplomats from those allied countries who were aware of them.[44][45][46] It was Russia’s “shadowy pretensions” in the Balkans that beguiled the Allies and ignited a war.[47] Russia had not-so-small territorial aims in Eastern Europe. In fact, it had plans in the fall of 1914 to expand into Silesia and Galicia, claims to which “had been formulated long before the war of 1914…and thus Galicia and Turkey were intimately related in the minds of Russian policymakers… Russia’s annexationist war aims for Austrian Galicia and Turkey were broadly shared inside the Russian government.”[49] Throughout this prewar time, Sazonov is in charge, scheming, pulling the strings that hold Europe’s diplomacy in fragile balance, while Tsar Nicholas sits idly by, too powerless to act in the face of united diplomatic and military leaders.[50] One thing is clear from this narrative: “Russia’s designs on the Straits…were a matter of cold, hard national interest.”[51]

McMeekin fights an uphill battle against the prevailing narratives of German war guilt. Like Fischer, McMeekin scrutinizes newly available sources; like Fischer, McMeekin’s argument can, in a certain light, look too bold and conclusive to be supported by such sources. I see two forces driving McMeekin to his own conclusion: McMeekin himself, the sources he analyzes in his work, and the context surrounding the players in his narrative, namely Russia and Turkey.

McMeekin is a professor of history at Bilkent, a Turkish university. He has a Turkish wife, and though born and raised in America, is quite assimilated to Turkish culture.[52] It is not surprising that he finds the answer to a vital question of the past to be right on his doorstep in Istanbul. A Turkish perspective on the outbreak of World War I necessitates a discussion of the Russo-Turkish relationship, of which the Straits are an integral part. Another part, untouched in this discussion as of yet, is the religious divide between the two nations. Countless times in his narrative McMeekin references the “religious undertones” to all of Russian strategic goals.[52] [53] [54] [55] A war with Turkey was not only a strategic imperative, but also one from God: a final struggle between Islam and Christianity, of which Russia and its religion would be victor. Given the current religious climate, one in which Islam is tearing itself apart in the Middle East, and the Holy Lands are still a battlefield, it makes sense that McMeekin sees a religious backbone to war plans.[56] Rather than being grounded in nationalism, McMeekin’s argument centers around perhaps the first aspect of society that is not confined by borders: religion.

The impetuses, of both a positional and a religious nature, give way to a persuading argument only by the new sources that are available today. This fact accounts for the timing of the publication of McMeekin’s narrative. He gives a detailed account of the difficulty in gaining access to Russian archival sources in his introduction, citing it as a main reason for the “deep freeze” that has gripped the scholarship on the outbreak of war for much of recent history.[57] It is only recently that the Russians have opened their archives to historians, and the first full archive of World War I will not be available until 2015. McMeekin’s story in particular is told through the records of the Imperial Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Though these have been available since 1917, the deep freeze of the Soviet Era prevailed, and scholars were compelled by the prevalent debate, Germany’s vital importance in the postwar years, and by the complete bipolarity of the Cold War, to train their eyes on Germany and Germany alone.[58] Russia was closed to any scholarship. It is a lucky combination of McMeekin’s positioning in Turkey and the religious conflicts of the present day that allow these sources to be finally analyzed to the result that McMeekin presents modern readers.

A final factor compels McMeekin to write this narrative today: Turkey’s position in modern international politics. Since its inception, Turkey has straddled two continents, often to its great profit, and often to its despair. In today’s world, however, Turkey is vying towards its European side: it has applied for a position in the European Union, and put forth many applications to host world sporting events. Turkey has shown itself to be a powerful economy, with a powerful democracy, as seen by the demonstrations just this past summer.[58] At the publication of McMeekin’s book, this was no less apparent; indeed its application to the EU has existed since 1987. But if Turkey enters the EU, then what is the EU? It faces an identity crisis on the question of Turkey. By including Turkey as a vital player in European history, McMeekin is at once supporting its inclusion in modern Europe, and imploring the world to see that it does belong in Europe given its vital role. McMeekin is thus responding to the current geopolitical situation in which Turkey finds itself and demanding a change to that situation in the very publication of his argument.

Christopher Clark, 2012

Christopher Clark’s title is eye catching: rather than starkly pointing the finger at a blameworthy party, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, seems to sap all agency from the actors in the prewar era. His argument, however, does anything but. Clark does not employ the trope of a sleepwalker in a Lloyd George sort of way that suggests Europe did not really intend to go to war it just slithered into it. Clark presents a more nuanced approach in his argument of agency, which draws attention to smaller actors, like Serbia, and does not find a guilty party in the end.

He could not summarize this in a clearer way than in his introduction:

“The key decision makers…walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps. The outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of decisions made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgments they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand.”[59]

He continues by saying that the large trends of militarism, armaments and nationalism all played roles, but the true nature of the outbreak becomes evident when decisions are seen in the context of those trends. The European decision makers are given agency in this narrative, rather than being shaped by forces beyond their control. The subtlety in Clark’s argument comes with his distinction of causality that enabled war to happen and inevitability of that war. The actions of the decision makers could have easily also led to peace, and Clark even describes the war as “improbable.”[60]

There are two specific aspects that distinguish Clark’s book from other outbreak literature: first, is the heightened role that Serbia plays in this narrative; second, the escape from the ubiquitous blame game. Clark’s narrative opens in Serbia, in 1903, with the assassination of Alexander of Serbia by the Black Hand, the very group that organized the assassination of Franz Ferdinand eleven years later.[61] This framework immediately pulls his argument South, to the Balkans, and even touches on Italy’s actions; but rather than loosing sight of the actions of the other main powers, Clark draws them in to his discussion on the Balkans. Clark’s argument has a broad scope from the very beginning. But rather than getting hunkered down in the timeline of assassinations and talks between Austria Hungary and Serbia in the years before the war, Clark also pays attention to the geopolitical aspects to war, namely the changing alliance system, which “did not cause the war…but structured the environment in which the crucial decisions were made.”[62] (p. 123) The second and most crucial part of Clark’s argument: that there is no one party to blame. In fact, Clark’s narrative runs so broadly and deeply that it is hard to pick out familiar names out of the multitude of characters he presents as having some hand in the outbreak of war.[63] As he says, “Do we really need to make the case against a single guilty state, or to rank the states according to their respective share in responsibility for the outbreak of war? … Such arguments are not supported by the evidence.”[64] He continues: “There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character… The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture.”[65] These conclusions are supported by the wide breadth and careful framing of Clark’s narrative. In one so broad, and at the same time dense, as his, it is impossible to find just one man, or even a cadre of men in one nation, on whom blame should rest. This represents quite a departure from previous literature, but one that can be explained by Clark’s sources and the immediate context in which he is writing.

Clark himself brings up these two issues in his introduction and conclusion. He cites the “oversupply of sources” as one of the main hurdles that historians must jump in order to get at the precise nature of the outbreak of war in 1914.[66] Each belligerent nation has many volumes on the outbreak of the war—Germany’s alone is 57 volumes.[67] But this marks a palpable shift in the sources of postwar authors and McMeekin. Rather than archives just being opened, and new sources becoming available, as was the case for the postwar authors, Clark is presented with all of the archives of every nation. The familiarity of these sources might be one reason for the inclusion of all of them in Clark’s narrative: instead of focusing on one, fresh archive, Clark has every archive open to his analytic disposal.

The prevalence of source material may have enabled the broad focus of his narrative, but it a symptom of a larger global trend. Much like McMeekin’s narrative, which both was compelled by an expanding Europe and demanded a reimagining of that very Europe, Clark’s both forces a new view of the continent and Union, and is urged along by the Eurozone’s prevailing economic and political climate. As Clark clearly states, “The last section of this book was written at the height of the Eurozone financial crisis.”[68] He draws direct comparisons between the men of 1914 and the actors in the Eurozone crisis, both of whom knew the possible catastrophes that could come from their policies, and exploited those shared possibilities for their own specific, national advantages. By directly connecting these two groups of decision makers, Clark thrusts the history of World War I into the present day. Seen in the light of the global financial crisis, an argument that finds no blameworthy party is comforting, as it suggests that there is no one guilty for our present crisis.

I would take Clark’s own connections to the present day further and say that his assertion that the Balkan question led to war (p. 558, p. 559, p. 99) and the subsequent Southern shift in the center of gravity of his narrative can also find their explanations in the present day politics of the European Union: namely, the question of Western Balkan EU membership.[69] [70] [71] In 2003 a Council was held that was going to spearhead the preparation of the Western Balkan states to be candidates for EU membership. Many Western Balkan countries adopted foreign policy with the end goal being membership. Just this last July, Croatia became the 28th member of the Union.[72] EU enlargement has for the past decade largely been concerned with the West Balkan states. It seems only fitting that, as most of them are still vying for positions in the Union, Clark’s narrative should draw them back into the fold of the continent’s most seminal crisis.

The broad nature of Clark’s argument may seem contradictory to the general trend of transnational history in a global age. I rather see it as a different approach at transnational history: by framing his argument in such a way that gives decision makers agency in a world in which trends such as nationalism and militarism crossed borders, Clark is giving a narrative of international relations a transnational base. He does not evoke the voice of the masses in his argument, in a way that the postwar authors did—this day and age does not call for it. There were, at the time of publication, no popular uprisings in any European country, and the memory of the 68-ers has faded. Rather, the trends that Clark explicitly summons are palpable, in their own subtle ways, in our world today: terrorism; militant societies in a tumultuous Middle East; forces that exist to shape the decisions leaders of all countries make in the face of crises. It is this universality that makes Clark’s work, though one that often focuses on the geostrategic thinking of Europe’s decision makers, one of transnational history.

Margaret MacMillan, 2013

The final and most recent author we encounter is Margaret MacMillan, whose one volume history of the outbreak of war, The War that Ended Peace, is explicitly transnational. This interpretation can be immediately discerned from her title, which is ostensibly focused not on the fact that war happened, but that it ended peace, that universal state of calm, which pervaded Europe in the decades before the war. MacMillan opens her narrative with the Paris Exposition of 1900, a venue in which the world powers flaunted their power, and tensions were visible, but where the prevailing climate was one of marvel at the general prosperity that peace had brought to Europe.[73] [74] Like Clark, MacMillan attests, “any explanation of how the Great War came must balance the great currents of the past with the human beings who bobbed along in them but who sometimes changed the direction of the flow.”[75] In her narrative, too, the leaders of Europe are given agency. But it becomes apparent throughout the book that there is an emphasis also on the “forces, ideas, prejudices, institutions, conflicts.”[76] Her argument, indeed, opens with the major cultural event of the new century, and diplomatic or political meaning is then assigned to it.

It is MacMillan’s emphasis on the alternative, on peace in place of war that gives her argument its clear transnational focus:

“There is a danger in so concentrating on the factors pushing Europe towards war that we many neglect those pulling the other way, towards peace. The nineteenth century saw a proliferation of societies and associations for the outlawing of war…The world’s labor movements and socialist parties organized themselves into the Second International, which repeatedly passed motions against war…”[77]

Further, Europe’s people “were linked to each other and the world through speedier communications, trade, investment, migration and the spread of official and unofficial empires.”[78] It is the crossing of boundaries that let Europe flourish, and the nationalism, Social Darwinism and “its cousin militarism,” that closed borders and allowed Europe to be led into war. Even when looking at the actors themselves, Bethmann Hollweg, Tsar Nicholas II, she emphasizes their personalities rather than nationalities.[79] Though she does attest to believing that some actors, notably Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia, deserve a larger slice of the blame, she is predominantly concerned with the question of peace.

Much of the explanation of MacMillan’s argument can be found in her sources: they are, for the most part, secondary. Unlike McMeekin, she employs predominantly secondary sources, with the occasional diary or memoir of a world leader of the time—the nations’ archives are less put to use.[80] What does this mean for the nature of her argument? First, it suggests a broad argument that can cover many bases with substantial proof, instead of inferences made about society and trends from primary state documents. A mix of secondary and primary sources allows MacMillan to be broad but at the same time deft in her analysis: she can tackle international relations, diplomacy and preparations for war alongside “hopes, fears, ideas and unspoken assumptions,” which is, incidentally, the title of one of her chapters.[81]

MacMillan’s sources also reveal something about the environment in which she is writing. We have reached a point in our current literature where historians can build off the work of previous ones, not just by disagreeing and debating them, but by working with their conclusions to produce new ones. MacMillan’s work is a perfect example of this trend: though she sometimes has a seemingly Fischerite angle in her implication of Germany, the use of secondary sources does not blind her to the other arguments that exist in today’s world.[82] Her wide array of available secondary sources allows her to build a narrative that, though it has echoes of arguments past, is wholly unique in its mélange.

2013 is not very separated from 2012 in the general global mood—the financial crisis still rages in much of the world, Europe continues to expand South and East, and occasionally powers like Russia flex its muscles in such a way that calls attention to its proximity to Europe. MacMillan herself identifies, rather than a prevailing mood, the present’s palpable roots in the past: her introduction plainly states that “the Great War still casts its shadow both physically and in our imaginations…because so many of us have family connections to it.”[83] Family, and moreover, family in the face of mass death and grieving, is the mood that she identifies to give her argument relevance in the present day. As another sign of relevance, she also cites globalization, the prewar variant of which “has been matched only by our own times since the end of the Cold War.”[84] MacMillan gives her readers these two general connections to the prewar era, imbibing her entire narrative with pertinence in the present day. But in deriving the nature of her argument in present day international relations and transnational forces, I have reached a separate conclusion from my previous ones: MacMillan’s narrative is one that suggests a change in the nature of the study of the history of World War I. Its attention to detail across all countries, its analysis of the large movements in the international power structure, as well as its awareness of the transnational forces that existed at the time, all point to a new kind of narrative that builds off previous ones, and realizes that the job of historians is not assign blame in the face of crises, but to understand how they occur. MacMillan is, for now, the final brick on a road that has led a long way from Article 231 and arguments that find a guilty party. An attempt at objectivity is what comes from a history understood transnationally. 


From the framework of this discussion, I hope one truth can be discerned: that history is both a cause for and a symptom of shifting transnational forces and international relations of the time in which it was written. Indeed, that is the main basis for the study of historiography. The double-edged nature of history is perhaps most salient in the literature surrounding the outbreak of World War I, and the assigning of responsibility. As shown, from Ritter in the immediate postwar era, to Fischer, to Berghahn to Mommsen, the postwar and Cold War-era historians all were effected by the time in which they were writing, and the sources that became slowly available that enabled their analyses. A shift occurred in the focus of their arguments: while Ritter and Fischer trained their eyes on Germany and the upper echelons of decision makers, Berghahn casts a wider view on the prevailing forces of the prewar era. However, even given the small glimmers of transnational history that are vaguely present in Berghahn’s arguments, they are still quite German-centric.

By the time we arrive at the present day, the nature of these arguments has fundamentally changed. Rather than focusing on Germany, the arguments completely shift the focus East to Russia and Turkey, as McMeekin does, or widens the focus to include all of the European powers, their leaders, political, diplomatic and royal, and their populations. These one-volume histories cite the archives of all of the major European powers, the speeches and correspondence of most of the diplomats and political leaders of each country, and the public records of the nations, now that they are all fully available. They exist on a different level than their postwar predecessors, as they implicate every major power with the outbreak of war in 1914. This is no longer a German story; the arguments of contemporary literature cannot be summarized in four questions. It is a global story, which exists only in the age of globalization and transnational history.

Out of this discussion, readers can also understand that the Great War is far from over. It still rages today—perhapsnot on the battlefields, but in academic discourse and popular memory. This is not likely to end anytime soon. There is a snowballing effect, briefly mentioned in the above section on MacMillan, in the recent tendency to analyze secondary as well as primary sources, that will prevent the war from ever really ending. It is a genre that is hemophilic in nature: a cut unable to scab. The causes of the war will forever be unanswerable, as with every reading of every primary source comes a secondary source. The multitude of these that flow through the bookstores today can be combined and analyzed in their own right, and so the genre multiplies.

Another aspect of this is the fact that scholars, for the most part, do not argue anymore on the subject—they accept that there can be different interpretations, and the flow of new literature on the outbreak of the war will keep being built off of previous arguments. Christopher Clark recently published a book review in the London Review of Books, which summarizes and lauds the works of McMeekin and MacMillan that were discussed in this paper.[85] There is no bristling opposition to their arguments, as there was when Ritter reviewed Fischer’s work in 1962—with the rather scathing title Eine neue Kriegsschuldthese?, or A New Theory on War Guilt?[86] Rather, it seems that historians have come to a sort of consensus that there can and will always be new arguments on the outbreak of war, and each will have its own nuances regarding inevitability, culpability, and prevailing intangible moods of the age, but will rest on the same general archives, and a similar, although broad, constellation of previous arguments.

But we must not ignore the basic tenet of historiography that history is shaped by the time in which it was written. Throughout this discussion, I have measured the effect of the present day on the analysis of history. And though it is done with the help of hindsight for the postwar authors, it continues to be a viable tenet in today’s literature as well. What insights can be gained from the historiography of this contemporary literature? That World War I is as salient an issue now as it was in 1919? That goes without saying. As Clark notes, the nature of our current geopolitics more closely resembles that of pre-1914 Europe than the balance of power during from the years 1919–1991, (Clark p. xxvii) and while we don’t flinch with every crisis, nor do we teeter on the edge of a world war, there exist in the same way as did in 1914 transnational forces of which our leaders are only peripherally aware.[87] But it is also necessary to note that while the field of transnational history still supports the arguments of these contemporary authors, they are beginning to expand beyond this framework. The result is narratives that pay homage to the national moorings of previous arguments, with portrayals of general strategic landscapes, and diplomatic actions, but also analyze every state system, every leader, and every society, as depicted in that country’s archives. This is not the absence of transnational history, but rather the development of it to suit our modern times: times in which the strategic landscape is ever more important as unipolarity fades; in which the truly universal trend that crosses national borders is a shared history, of which we are all aware given the abundance of information in our time.

A final insight regards the European Union, and is perhaps, by now, evident. Over the past 20 years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe has faced somewhat of a conundrum regarding expansion: given the economic benefits and prestige associated with membership, an increasing number of countries wish to join the Union.Just like Russia’s inexorable expansion in McMeekin’s narrative, the EU seems to be uncontrollably increasing in size. Simply put, an expanding Europe requires an expanding history of Europe. As the Union creeps eastward toward Russia and Turkey, and South toward the Balkans, it becomes ever more necessary to note these countries’ contributions, both positive and negative, to European history, and in so doing, introduce them into the modern dialogue regarding Europe and the EU.

No matter how far away in time we might get from the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and Article 231, the question of war guilt and the mystery of the outbreak of World War I will be relevant as a marker for trends, national, international and transnational, of the present day. All we must do is look to those of the past to understand those of our present, and our position in the face of an unknown future will become clearer.

Tess McCann (’15) is a History major in Saybrook College.



Berghahn, Volker. Germany and the Approach to War in 1914. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Berghahn, Volker R and Martin Kitchen, eds. Germany in the Age of Total War. London: Croom Helm, 1981.

Berghahn, Volker. Militarism: The History of an International Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1981.

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914. New York: Harper, 2012.

Fischer, Fritz. German War Aims in the First World War. Translated by C. A. Macartney. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1967.

Fischer, Fritz. Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegszielpolitik des Kaiserlichen Deutschland (1914 – 1918). München: Drost, 1961.

Herwig, Holger and Richard F. Hamilton, eds. The Origins of World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Laquer, Walter and George L. Mosse, eds. 1914: The Coming of the First World War. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.

McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Origins of the First World War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace: the road to 1914.New York: Random House, 2013.

Mombauer, Annika. Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Mombauer, Annika. The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus. New York: Longman, 2002.

Ritter, Gerhard. Der Schliffenplan. München: Verlag R. Oldenbourg, 1956.

Ritter, Gerhard. The Schlieffen Plan, a Critique of a Myth. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958.

Ritter, Gerhard. The Sword and the Scepter: The Problem with Militarism in Germany. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1972.

Winter, Jay and Antoine Prost. The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies 1914 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


1 Gerhard Ritter, Der Schlieffen Plan: Kritik eines Mythos (München: Verlag R. Oldenbourg, 1956), translated into English as The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), p. 66.

2 Ibid., p. 45-46.

3 Ibid., p. 79.

4 Ibid., p. 89.

5 Ibid., p. 90.

6 Ibid., p. 90.

7 Gerhart Ritter, Staatkunst und Kriegshandwerk: Das Problem des Militarismus in Deutschland, 4 vols. (Verlag R. Oldenbourg, 1968), vol II, p. xiv.

8 Ritter, Der Schlieffen Plan, p. 102.

9 Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus (New York: Longmans, 2002), p. 119.

10 Ritter, The Schlieffen Plan, p. 11.

11 Mombauer, Origins of the First World War, p. 121.

12 Ibid., p. 118.

13 Peter Paret, ‘Gerhard Ritter, 1888 – 1967,’ Central European History, vol. 1, no. 1 (March 1968), p. 100-102.

14 Fritz Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegszielpolitik des Kaiserlichen Deutschland (1914 – 1918) (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1961), translated into English as German War Aims in the First World War by C. A. Macartney (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1967).

15 Ibid., p. 119.

16 Ibid., p. 46.

17 Ibid., p. 63.

18 Ibid., p. 88.

19 Ibid., p. 81.

20 Ibid., p. 101.

21 Ibid., p. 91.

22 Ibid., bibliography.

23 Ibid., bibliography.

24 John Moses, ‘Fritz Fischer,’ The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historian Writing, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999), p. 387.

25 Volker, Berghahn, Germany and the Approach to War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993),p. 167

26 Ibid., p. 168.

27 Ibid., p. 185.

28 Ibid., p. 191.

29 Ibid., p. 190.

30 Ibid., p. 192.

31 Ibid., p. 167.

32 <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/people/staff_index/berghahn/>. Accessed December 1, 2013.

33 Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 5.

34 Ibid., p. 28.

35 Ibid., p. 17.

36 Ibid., p. 79.

37 Ibid., p. 13.

38 Ibid., p. 14.

39 Ibid., p. 26.

40 Ibid., p. 35.

41 Ibid., p. 26.

42 Ibid., p. 72.

43 Ibid., p. 72-73.

44 Ibid., p. 40.

45 Ibid., p. 72.

46 Ibid., p. 97.

47 Ibid., p. 28.

49 Ibid., p. 95-96.

50 Ibid., p. 74-75.

51 Ibid., p. 28.

52 Christopher Hitchens, ‘From Berlin to Bin Laden,’ The Atlantic (March 2011). Published online at <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/03/from-berlin-to-bin-laden/308369/>. Accessed December 1, 2013.

52 McMeekin, Russian Origins, p. 28.

53 Ibid., p. 94.

54 Ibid., p. 114.

55 Ibid., p. 243.

56 Sean McMeekin, ‘On the Importance of the Ottoman Straits,’ The Montreal Review (June 2011). <http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/On-the-Importance-of-the-Ottoman-Straits.php>. Accessed December 1, 2013.

57 McMeekin, Russian Origins, p. 2.

58 Ibid., p. 4.

58 <http://www.economist.com/topics/turkey>. Accessed December 1, 2013.

59 Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 (New York: Harper, 2012), p. xxix.

60 Ibid., p. xxxi.

61 Ibid., p. 7.

62 Ibid., p.123.

63 Harold Evans, ‘On the Brink,’ New York Times (May 9, 2013). <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/books/review/the-sleepwalkers-and-july-1914.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0>. Accessed December 1, 2013.

64 Clark, The Sleepwalkers, p. 561.

65 Ibid., p. 561.

66 Ibid., p. xxiii.

67 Ibid., p. xxiv.

68 Ibid., p. 555.

69 Ibid., p. 558.

70 Ibid., p. 559.

71 Ibid., p. 99.

72 <http://europa.eu/index_en.htm>. Accessed December 1, 2013.

73 Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 3.

74 Ibid., p. 7.

75 Ibid., p. xxvi.

76 Ibid., p. xxvi.

77 Ibid., p. xxxii.

78 Ibid., p. xxxii.

79 Ibid., p. xxxiv.

80 Ibid., p. 691.

81 Ibid., p. 245.

82 Ibid., p. 108.

83 Ibid., p. xxv.

84 Ibid., p. xxxii.

85 Christopher Clark, ‘The First Calamity,’ London Review of Books, vol. 35, no. 16 (August 2013), p. 3-6. <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n16/christopher-clark/the-first-calamity>. Accessed December 4, 2013.

86 Historische Zeitschrift, Bd. 194, H. 3 (June, 1962), p. 646-668.

87 Clark, The Sleepwalkers, p. 87



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