Sleepwalk to Suicide

Hubris no greater than America’s led Europe to World War I.

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Perhaps no war has been treated more tendentiously—and in recent decades more inappropriately—than World War I. Since the 1960s, a fixed view of that conflict has developed in academic and journalistic circles that places the blame almost entirely on one side. The German government, led by an evil, authoritarian emperor and his bellicose general staff, unleashed a struggle that cost more than 30 million lives and wrought untold destruction on the European continent.

According to the scholar Fritz Fischer—who became the German Left’s darling, despite his background as a loyal Nazi—the war was planned and initiated by a Germany bent on world domination. What other belligerents did to get the ball rolling in 1914, Fischer suggests in his 1961 book Germany’s Bid for World Power, was inconsequential. The rest of Europe was pulled into a struggle that Germany had planned for decades, a conflagration its antidemocratic ruling class and ultranationalist public happily initiated.

Defenses of the Fischer thesis and other versions of the outbreak of the Great War stressing exclusive German or Austro-German responsibility have been driven by moral and ideological considerations. Unfortunately, there are facts that historians until recently tried studiously to avoid. As critics of Fischer’s position were already showing in the early ’60s, his singling out of his own country, already burdened with Nazi crimes, for starting an earlier Euro- pean war was based on questionable investigative methods.

Fischer and his followers ignored what other European countries did to provoke the Great War, unfairly blackened the reputation of German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg—who tried earnestly to iron out differences between England and his country for at least three years before the war started—and misquoted key German actors in the conflict, such as the Kaiser and the chief of the German general staff.

In recent decades those who write non-prescribed histories dealing with the outbreak of the First World War typically ignore Fischer and like-minded interpreters. Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War, Konrad Canis in his massive three-volume German work on the failures of German diplomacy leading to the “abyss” in 1914, Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers, and Sean McMeekin in The Russian Origins of World War One have all produced estimable studies about the Great War that are clearly incompatible with Fischer’s stress on exclusive German guilt.

All the Great Powers behaved rashly, and to their credit the most scrupulous historians do not spare any of the actors on the Allied side. The avoidable disaster of 1914 teaches us, according to Christopher Clark, how the Great Powers “sleep-walked” their way into a war from which European civilization never recovered. Russia in its drive to dismantle Turkey and control the Dardanelles; Britain in its efforts to reduce a rival’s power even at the risk of encircling the German Empire with hostile alliances; Serbia in its attempts to split apart the Habsburg Empire; and France in its desperate desire to punish the Germans for defeat in the Franco-Prussian War all helped stir the pot.

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