THE GREAT WAR REVISTED OR THE LAST GASP OF THE 'OLD HATS' ?
Yet this interpretation has recently been challenged by a wave of revisionism, exemplified by the astronomical success—especially in Germany, where it has sold many hundreds of thousands of copies—of the book The Sleepwalkers by our colleague Christopher Clark. He and the other revisionists largely exonerate the Kaiser’s Germany from responsibility for the First World War. While claiming to argue that war broke out by accident, with no one government more at fault than any other, in practice Clark places the blame to a large extent on little Serbia, followed by Russia, France and Britain in that order, presenting Austria-Hungary as doing its genuine best to avoid war and simply omitting altogether the evidence of any German intention to bring the war about. This is a revival of an interpretation expressed in Lloyd George’s dictum of the interwar years that in 1914 ‘the nations of Europe slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war’. By the late 1920s, the Churchillian belief that Britain had been right to enter the war to defend its vital interests and those of the rest of Europe from German aggression had given way in Britain to a mood of disillusionment fuelled by the writings of John Maynard Keynes, the war poets and Robert Graves’s book Goodbye to all that. It had all been a pointless waste, and the carnage had only gone on for four and a half years because no one had known how to stop it. In a tragic twist, this British mood accorded perfectly with the insistence of the German right in the Weimar Republic on a revision of the punitive Treaty of Versailles on the grounds that its claim that Germany had deliberately brought about war in 1914 was nothing but a Kriegsschuldlüge, a war guilt lie. An uneasy consensus emerged; but the consensus of the interwar years was based not on any research but on wishful thinking—pacifist on one side, revanchist on the other. Serious research into the causes of the Great War then became impossible with Hitler’s rise to power when critical books were burned, democratic historians forced into exile (and worse), and British historians—the tiny handful with knowledge of the language and the ability to decipher the German Schrift—lost all hope of gaining access to the German archives. As far as German intentions in and before 1914 are concerned, then, the new revisionism seems to me to be taking us back to the state of knowledge of the interwar period. Politically, of course, this is nowhere near as dangerous as was the campaign against the ‘war guilt lie’ which acted as a rallying cry of the nationalist right in the Weimar Republic, for Germany is today a stable and peaceful democracy. But in terms of scholarship I find the new revisionism dismaying, as it involves the sidelining or suppression of so much of the knowledge we have gained through painstaking research over the past 50 years....Is one interpretation as good as any other, the evidence to be used on a take it or leave it basis? Or is historical evidence more akin, say, to Galileo’s observation of the circular motion of the moons of Jupiter, incontrovertible proof, however faint, of a henceforth irrepressible truth? With this rather bold cosmological analogy I am referring, as you will realize, to the discoveries made in the archives in the late 1950s by the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer: discoveries that changed our perception of the First World War for ever—or so we thought.John C. G. Rohl, "Goodbye to all that (again)? The Fischer thesis, the new revisionism and the meaning of the First World War". International Affairs. (January 2015), pp.154-155.
Clark deploys his literary virtuosity to make two fundamental arguments, one implicitly at variance with the other. First, he declines to play “the blame game” concerning the 1914 slide into war. When nations have conflicting objectives, it is “meaningless” to call one enterprise more right or wrong than the other. All the same, Clark freely offers value judgments about other conflicts. Thus he has no trouble assigning guilt for the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 to Russia or in saying that in 1911 Italy launched an “unprovoked” war of conquest in Libya. He likewise waxes indignant over Serbian savagery against civilians in the follow-on Balkan Wars. Only in the outbreak of World War I does he principally see a signaling problem. Here we witness “rapid-fire interactions between executive structures with a relatively poor understanding of each other’s intentions, operating with low levels of confidence and trust.” That contention will appeal to political scientists who consider multipolar systems unstable because of a so-called security dilemma. Each actor tends to increase its armaments owing to threat perception. But no one feels more secure in the end. The 1914 scenario has contemporary relevance because we live again in an uncertain world with several power centers and terrorist movements controlled by none. Notwithstanding this theoretical stance, Clark conveys indirectly, through a description of personalities, where his fundamental sympathies lie. He displays estimable virtuosity in juggling developments in six major powers, yet sees them all from the vantage point of Berlin. An “economic miracle” had transformed the German economy. In a few decades, that country’s industrial output had forged ahead from one-fifth the size of England’s to a position surpassing the latter. Still, Germanophobes in the British Foreign Office had an “almost comical tendency” to view British imperialism as natural and expect the Reich to punch below its weight in world affairs. With the tightening of the Franco-Russian alliance, Germany found itself surrounded by jealous states, even though it had done nothing to justify formation of the hostile Entente in 1907.... In short, Clark’s account of the countdown to war reverses the current orthodoxy. A bitter controversy over war culpability erupted at the 1919 peace conference. The Versailles treaty included no war-guilt clause. To establish a predicate for reparations, however, John Foster Dulles of the American delegation drafted an article requiring Germany to accept civil responsibility for all damage imposed upon the Allies. The fledgling Weimar government reacted strongly to this stain upon its honor and perceived an opportunity to undermine reparations as well. It established a Foreign Ministry division to combat war guilt. During the 1920s, that unit published fifty-seven volumes of doctored diplomatic documents stretching back to 1871 and funded a panoply of scholars who deemed the Versailles imputation unfair. In 1930 the Nazi Reichstag delegation demanded the death penalty for anyone admitting war guilt. The official campaign proved wildly successful. Even following World War II, many serious people distinguished sharply between German aims in the two world wars. In 1961, after years of painstaking labor in East as well as West German archives, Fritz Fischer published his blockbuster, later translated as Germany’s Aims in the First World War, demonstrating Germany’s primary responsibility after all. At first Fischer’s findings elicited widespread outrage".Stephen Schuker, "Old wine in new bottles" [A review of Christopher Clark's the Sleepwalkers]. The New Criterion. (January 2015), pp. 83-85. In recent months there has been something akin to a concerted attack on much of the new scholarship concerning the origins of the Great War. John Rohl's and Stephen Schuker's articles having aspects of the opening up of a military campaign. Unlike Ferdinand Mount's recent piece in the London Review of Books, both gentlemen's opinions and criticism have a certain value (unlike say Mount's who has no credibility in the historical profession) 1. In the case of both RÖHL and Schuker the criticism of the new scholarship has the unfortunate tendency to almost completely ignore (not mind you brush aside or distort, but instead ignore) the findings that Christopher Clark, Sean Mckeekin and Stefan Schmidt among others. Clark's book in particular has been on the receiving end of most of the borderline ad hominen attacks. Which is of par for the course, given the fact that in the words of British historian William Mulligan in a recent review article in the English Historical Review:
"Mastering literature in six languages and drawing on archival and documentary sources for each belligerent, Christopher Clark represents the most complete international analysis of the origins of the war since Luigi Albertini's three volume study published in the 1940's"2.Unfortunately, neither Rohl nor Schuker care to be bothered with the ambidextrous nature, and wide scope of Clark's work. Instead one is merely treated to comments which are: a) completely absurd as in Rohl comments that the Reizler diaries, the document which perhaps more than any other provides us with the insight into the key actor of the entire July Crisis, German Reich Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, were (in his words):
"had obviously been rewritten by Riezler after Germany's defeat in 1918 to provide an apologetic gloss on Bethmann's policy". 3This despite the fact that Rohl's own protegee, Annika Mombauer, in her own recent compilation of documents on the Origins of the Great War, makes very extensive usage of the very same diary entries. 4; b) or borderline conspiratorial in nature, such as Schuker's nonsensical statement that what is perhaps the greatest source material for pre-war European diplomacy, Die gross politik, published by the Weimar German Foreign Ministry was made up of 'doctored' materials. Not surprisingly, Schuker makes no endeavour to either prove or cite any evidence for this statement. It is merely a sort of obiter dicta with no authority whatsoever 5. Underlying both Rohl's and Schuker's treatments is a reliance of extra-historical arguments to justify ignoring or belittling Clark's and the other new scholarship. With a particular emphasis on the fact that prior to 1939, it was German state policy to argue against the thesis that Germany was uniquely responsible for the war. Employing the very same logic of extra-historical argumentation, one may well argue that Fritz Fischer entire opus was merely a sort of channeling the guilt that Fischer felt for being a member of the National Socialist party. An argument which I for one find spurious but which au fond is no worse than those employed by Professors Rohl and Schuker. At bottom the 'arguments' made by Rohl & Schuker are the arguments of historians who singularly fail to grasp the insights provided by the recent scholarship of Christopher Clark, et. al. To make a more plausible, extra-historical argument, perhaps this refusal to deal with, or to engage in a honest fashion with the new scholarship is merely the fact that Rohl & Schuker represent an older generation of historians, born in the entre-deux-guerre period, and who came of age as historians in the 1960's at the height of the Fischer thesis, that Imperial Germany was as responsible for the Great War as Nazi Germany was for World War II. That fact is that the recent scholarship has not so much 'ignored' Fischer's original thesis as to put it in a larger perspective of the entire structure of Great Power relationships in the years prior to the Great War 5. With perhaps the greatest contribution of the recent literature as discussed previously in this journal in 2014, was the Balkanization of the Triple Entente. That whereas previously, the French and the British were reluctant to countenance the idea of becoming involved in a great power war over Russia's Balkan policies and ambitions, by 1912 onwards this was very much no longer the case. A point made recently by among other Annika Mombauer who quoted then French Premier Raymond Poincare, in September 1912, that:
"Poincare assured Isvolsky [Russian Ambassador in Paris] that should Russia be forced to become involved in a war against Austria-Hungary, 'the French government would recognise this in advance as a casus foederis [casus belli] and would not hesitate for one moment to fulfil the obligations which it has incurred in respect of Russia' " 6.In conclusion it is apparent to me that in these erroneous and I should add, unprofessional criticism we are dealing with a case of what a leading historian of 17th and 18th century British History, J. C. D. Clark, once characterised as arguments made by historians who we may label as a combination of 'Old Hat' and 'Old Guard' 7. AKA, historians from an older generation. And accordingly, I will quote from Professor Clark's own words as to how such arguments between different generations of historians usually are 'settled':
"The debate is one between generations; it will be resolved in the way all such debates have to be settled. Indeed, its general outlines have come into sharp focus only at a moment when the arguments of certain historians suddenly seemed no longer to be eternal truth, or even modern scholarship, but voices from the past - a surprisingly remote past." 71. Ferdinand Mount, "Easy-Going Procrastinators". The London Review of Books. (8 January 2015), pp. 17-20. 2. William Mulligan, "Review-Article. The Trial Continues: New Directions in the Study of the Origins of the First World War". English Historical Review. (June 2014), p. 658. See also on the mostly positive assessment of the new scholarship, Hew Strachan, "Review Article: The Origins of the First World War". International Affairs. (March 2014), pp. 429-439. The books referenced in the 'new scholarship' refers primarily to: The Sleepwalkers (by Clark), July 1914 & The Russian Origins of the First World War (both by McMeekin) and Frankreichs Aussenpolitik in der Julikrise 1914 (by Schmidt).
3. Rohl, op. cit., p. 161. 4. The Origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and military documents. Edited and Translated by Annika Mombauer. (2013), pp. 219-220, 222,234 and passim. 5. Shucker, op. cit., p. 84. Actually, as Mombauer, notes, it was the French, rather than the Germans who engaged the most in 'doctoring' documents. See, Mombauer, op. cit., p. 38. 6. Mombauer, op. cit. On the so-called failure by the new scholarship to deal with Fischer, see Stephen Schuker, "What Historians Get Wrong About World War I". Time Magazine. 1 August 2014, in www.time.com. On the discussion in this online journal of the recent scholarship, see: Charles Coutinho, "Sarajevo after One-Hundred years: A Comment". Diplomat of the Future. 1 July 2014, & The Great War after One-hundred years: A point of view". 5 August 2014 in www.diplomatofthefuture.blogspot.com. 7. J. C. D. Clark. Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (1986), p. 170.