Let’s not be beastly to the Germans

27 September 2012

The question of how Europe stumbled into the horrific abyss of  the First World War, the catastrophe which The Economist once called ‘the greatest tragedy in human history’ is obviously of much more than purely academic interest. (Though it is chiefly academics who have been arguing about it ever since). As we approach the centenary of the conflict’s outbreak, one of them, Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, has written a magnificently detailed study of the diplomatic dance that led the continent up to and over the edge. The Sleepwalkers should be required reading for politicians and decision-makers fumblingly steering the world in our own age, an epoch perhaps even more dangerous than the era of 1914.

As Clark repeatedly emphasises, the literature on the war’s origins is immense and would take much more than a single historian’s lifetime to digest thoroughly, although the indefatigable Clark has made a pretty good fist of having done so. Hardly had the guns stopped firing when the combatant nations turned the battles of shot and shell into a new war of words. All of them published multi-volume official histories and white papers clamouring to justify their role in the war. Germany alone published almost 16,000 documents in 57 varieties of volume, dealing with 300 separate subject areas relating to the war. Interestingly, however, none of the official apologia issuing from Berlin included the smoking guns revealing how the war was actually the result of design, rather than accident – and a design with Made in Germany written all over it.

It was left to a straggle-bearded, bespectacled Jewish revolutionary, Kurt Eisner, a coffee house anarcho-socialist who found himself the unlikely leader of a red revolution in Munich – of all places – as Germany collapsed in 1918 to blurt out at least part of the truth about Germany’s role in the events of 1914. Propelled, blinking, into power, the idealistic Eisner, in the short time before he was gunned down by an outraged nationalist, arranged for the publication of secret papers he had found when he got his hands on the Bavarian state archives, proving that Germany had been quite prepared – indeed happy – to use the Austro-Serbian crisis of July 1914 to launch a pre-emptive strike against France, before turning the full might of its aggressive war machine upon France’s ally Russia. (Keeping fingers firmly crossed that Britain, as it had during the century since Waterloo, would stay out of a continental conflict).

Eisner’s confirmation of Germany’s ‘war guilt’ earned him a death sentence from a frenzied German Right and was drowned out in the subsequent self-pitying campaign against the war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty whipped up by the Nazis. So successful was this campaign of denial – not only in Germany but in the wider world, especially Britain – that the dominant, accepted narrative about the origins of the First World War was what we might call the ‘We were all guilty’ thesis: the idea that the conflict had been the result of rivalry between two European power blocs, leading to an arms race and an inevitable explosion. Essentially, it is this thesis of a Europe blindly stumbling into war more or less accidentally which Christopher Clark so eloquently reasserts.

In the long interim between Eisner and Clark, however, this thesis was comprehensively demolished, and once again by a German. In 1961 the historian Fritz Fischer published his seminal study ‘Deutschland’s Griff Nach der Weltmacht’ (literally ‘Germany’s Grab for World Power’ though the abridged British translation bore the far blander title ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’). For the first time, Fischer opened archives in both West and East Germany to prove that Germany had used the crisis triggered by the pistol shots in Sarajevo quite deliberately to spark a war. Irresponsibly, indeed monstrously, Germany’s ruling elite, urged on by its unstable and bombastic Kaiser, had gambled with the lives of millions to engineer a conflict that it hoped to win in weeks. As we know, things did not quite turn out like that.

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Fischer was furiously assailed by Germany’s ultra-conservative historical establishment as a ‘Marxist’ and even a ‘traitor’ for demonstrating the culpability of Wilhelmine Germany so conclusively, and showing that Hitler’s road to war, far from being one madman’s aberration, was merely a continuation of traditional German foreign policy by more robust means. Despite the attacks on Fischer’s integrity, the evidence for his thesis was so overwhelming that it gradually found acceptance among virtually all serious historians of the period, both outside Germany and within it, where, according to one of Fischer’s followers, Imanuel Geiss; ‘The old innocence thesis from 1914-60 is dead. The retreat to the position of “we-all-slithered-into-war” is finally blocked. The predominant part of the German Reich in the outbreak of the First World War and the offensive character of German war aims is no longer debated and no longer deniable’.

To be fair, Clark does not deny it. He gets around the tricky question of German war guilt by the novel expedient of virtually ignoring it throughout almost all the 700 pages of his mighty tome. But when he finally deigns to notice Fischer and Geiss in his conclusion they are swatted away like irritating insects, on the surprising grounds that responsibility for the war is neither here nor there: ‘Do we really need to make the case against a single guilty state, or to rank the states according to their respective share of responsibility for the outbreak of war?’ Clark asks rhetorically, inviting the answer ‘No’. But I would answer with a resounding ‘Yes!’. Historians are not shy about saddling Hitler’s Germany with prime responsibility for causing World War Two, so why should they shrink from pointing the finger at Wilhelmine Germany for the outbreak of World War One?

Clark is, as his brief author’s biography makes very clear, such a Teutonophile that I am surprised that he doesn’t deliver lectures to the Cambridge History Faculty wearing a Pickelhaube. He also holds the ‘Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany’, although he doesn’t say whether this comes encrusted with diamond clusters and oak leaves. Clark even makes the case for Tirpitz’s aggressive expansion of Germany’s High Seas Fleet to challenge the Royal Navy – while admitting, a trifle wistfully I felt, that it never had a hope of success. In short, there is nothing here that would have displeased a denizen of the Kaiser’s Wilhelmstrasse – Germany’s equivalent of Whitehall – and it all fits very neatly into Germany’s traditional plea that all countries were equally guilty of launching the world war.

Equally guilty? Well, not quite. The nation at the heart of Clark’s narrative is not mighty Germany but a tiny, landlocked Balkan state, which had recently freed itself from centuries of domination by Ottoman Turkey, only to come under the palsied grip of the new sick man of Europe: the decaying empire of Austro-Hungary. If any country did in the old European order, in Clark’s view, it was this one: conveniently newly demonised all over again for its part in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, step forward into history’s dock little Serbia.

Clark’s case is a persuasive one. In his opening chapters he presents a brilliantly intimate portrait of Belgrade politics at the dawn of the 20th century as half comic operetta – Lehar’s The Merry Widow for choice – and half gangster soap – The Sopranos, say. In vividly telling detail, and gruesome vignettes, he demonstrates that Serbia was a near-barbaric gangster state whose officer class, to Europe’s horror, had just demonstrated their standards of civility by hacking to pieces their unpopular monarchs King Aleksandr and Queen Draga in a slaughter that would have put the worst French revolutionaries to shame. (I owe to Clark the grisly detail, first encountered by me in a Dennis Wheatley novel read in childhood and dismissed then as fiction, that one of the officers concerned carried round Draga’s severed breast in a suitcase, presumably producing it as a conversation piece at parties).

A secret society established by these savage regicides, the melodramatically named Black Hand, armed and financed the idealistic young Bosnians who shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, touching off the terrible sequence of events exploited by Berlin which brought the old order crashing down and ushered in the new age in a storm of steel that no-one had intended. Although I feel that Clark lets his German friends off rather too lightly for the lion’s share of responsibility for subsequent disasters, even dragging poor, well-meaning Sir Edward Grey into the dock alongside them, there is no gainsaying that this is a superbly written book, alive with telling insights, dramatic scenes and sparkling pen portraits of the protagonists. The whole demonstrates huge learning and a grasp of the sources that is truly breathtaking. Rarely for an academic, Clark writes like an angel too, and if I were in the dock of history like the Kaiser, it’s him I would choose to defend me.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark (Allen Lane. £30.00.697pp)

Nigel Jones is writing a study of 1914 for Head of Zeus publishing

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Show comments
  • Fergal O’Shea

    Nigel Jones, getting around the tricky question of Serbian state-sponsored terrorism by virtually ignoring it throughout almost all the lines of his mighty review.

  • matchmaker

    The Germans to blame for WW1? Possibly. Possibly they did seek to exploit the assassination of the Archduke to start a war. But for Germany war was unavoidable since everybody was “out to get” them. So their reasoning was…lets start when we are ready and not wait until our enemies are ready.
    Personally I blame the Russians. There was no need to leap into the Balkan crisis with both feet. Of-course the Hapsburgs wanted revenge (who could blame them). The Russians had more than one Czar assassinated by anarchists in the 19th C so they should have sympathised with the reaction of the Hapsburgs…but they didn’t. Which is odd. Why would the Romanovs side with anarachists? And what good did it do them. Their misguided sympathy with their slav brothers saw them loose everything and for what? So that France could get back Alsac Lorraine. Was it worth it Russia?

  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • Lily Alldub

    German propaganda. Blatant and crude.
    Funny that Clark doesn’t even hide his German Collaborator’s Medal.
    Didn’t Bertelsmann just buy the book’s publisher?

  • John l

    I have to say that as someone who has made aprettydetailed study of Serbian history, Christopher Clark comes to the same conclusions as me about the culpability of Serbian and theserbian government. That the assassination of the heir to the throne was a monstrous attack on a neighboring state, that Serbia was cocka hoop after winning two Balkan wars and ready for another. Am reading on to find out what he says about the rejection of Austrian participation in an investigation.

  • Robert Taggart

    Lets be beastly to the Europeans – of the ‘continental’ sort – period !

  • Noa

    Thank you for a writing such a fascinating review and post.
    In challenging the ultimate conclusion of Professor Clark’s work you yet acknowledge its interest and erudition, most particularly as it touches on the distorting, often subjective and even disreputable role of historians in the interpretation of history.
    Was WWI inevitable? It always seems so when we consider it in retrospect: with a powerful expansive Germany led by an aggressive Kaiser and successful military playing the playground bully.
    The consequence in Germany, and the reaction elsewhere in Europe, was then to form the strongest alliances possible and prepare the minds of all the people of Europe for what seemed to be, and so became, the inevitable showdown.
    It was essentially, the gunfight at the OK corral reprised on the world’s stage. If the assassination in Serbia had not been the trigger some other excuse would have been identified. And Germany was always going to draw first.
    For me, this was encapsulated in Massie’s ‘Dreadnought’, his excellent history of the arms race between the Great Powers. There he recounts a story of Admiral Fisher accurately predicting to the month the start of the war, based on the opening of the Kiel canal and Germany’s consequent ability to rapidly deploy its fleet out into the North Sea.

  • Wessex Man

    I have somewhere, lost in my house move but not thrown away a document The something addresse drawn up be quite a few Academics and Scientists in Germany in 1916, in which they dicuss “living room for Germans to the East and removal of inferior races.” not a million miles away from the Nazis.

  • Asmodeus

    The alliance between France and Russia effectively encircling Germany also played its part.Once Russia began to mobilise in 1914 Germany was faced with either climbing down or fighting a two front war.With hindsight we can see they made the wrong choice but at the time a repeat of 1870 against France probably seemed a good bet to the Germans.

  • Gibbon

    I don’t know the current state of play of historiography. Finding evidence that Germany wanted war is the stuff of history. So is finding evidence that the evidence was buried. But when did history of assigning moral guilt or exculpation for the instigation of war begin? When did moral history begin and can it be extricated from nationalist narratives? Being warlike – and an implacable foe and a conqueror of territory – was a source of national pride from Joshua’s days until, I suspect, after the Second World War, when the world, stunned at the genocide of the Jews, tried to criminalize war and empire. (And, with bitter irony, on that precedent, the state of Israel.) Moral history employs parodies of legal process – establishing intent – in order to pronounce judgement of guilt upon a nation, or exculpate. Propaganda. Narrative. TV drama. Which is not to say that an historian cannot properly express his personal sense of shame, or pity, or that there were not bad men.

  • Frank Sutton

    “Britain, as it had during the century since Waterloo, would stay out of a continental conflict”
    Doesn’t the Crimean count as a European war? Just asking.

  • john cronin

    Good article. The German war aims in 1914 were not that different from those of 39. Apart from the genocidal anti-semitism (the Kaiser was just normally anti-semitic for a German: didn’t much like the Jews, but didn’t want to kill em) WW2 in Europe was basically a re run of WW1. Germany wanted to knock out France forever as a great power, take it’s industrial capability and its coal in the North East, then annexe as much of Russia as possible, for its resources and for lebensraum. Look at the terms of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. For a year, Germany had the Ukraine. Were it not for the US intervention on the Western Front, they would still hold it.

    Were it not for the Schlieffen Plan taking in Belgium, and violating their neutrality, the UK would probably have stayed out of the war, and Germany would have beaten France pretty quickly. Would have been a rerun of the Franco Prussian War. I have always been puzzledfrom a realpolitik point of view as to why the Germans did invade Belgium in 1914. They did not really need to do so.

    • Nigel Jones

      I think it was for strategic reasons, John.Schlieffen originally envisaged invading the Netherlands too to give his all-important right wing room to manoevre in a gigantic right hook to envelope Paris.
      Moltke, Schlieffen’s successor as Chief of the German General Staff ( that’s him pictured on the horse with the Kaiser) tinkered with Schlieffen’s scheme, defying the old man’s order to ‘keep the right wing strong’, weakened the right and so squidged it in that by the time the armies neared Paris, they had to step-dance to the left to keep pace, thus exposing their flank to an allied counter-attack: the Marne.

  • LB

    And will we get the same today? Nope. There won’t be war between states in Europe (UK included), when the governments can’t pay their debts (pensions included).

    Instead we will have a choice of two scenarios.

    1. Disorder, as the victims of fraud look to steal what was looted from them by the state, from others.

    2. Fascist dictatorial states – most likely from the left, as always. e.g. We’re all in it together, so we will steal from you to pay for state workers. PS MPs are key workers. Or they decide, we managed in the war with a central controlled economy, it has to work now. Ignoring the facts that its central control that got us into the mess.

    So its state versus the citizen that is new war.

    After all, how does sending the gunboats (what gunboats) work?

  • andagain

    Does he mention the goals of the countries involved in this “diplomatic sleepwalk”? It sounds to melike he does not.

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