The latest scholarly view of a war that no one wanted Ruthless Criticism

Translated from GegenStandpunkt 4-2014

Speeches and interpretations on the centenary of the First World War – Part 2 [1]

The latest scholarly view of a war that no one wanted

The centenary of the First World War is a welcome opportunity for many historians to rethink the “mega-topic of public commemoration culture” (Spiegel 1/14). Already at the beginning of the commemorative year, a flood of over 150 new publications in Germany alone is enriching the market of interpretations. In order to appreciate their contribution to the contemporary refreshing of German historical consciousness, it is of course sufficient to limit ourselves to two great minds – an Australian historian teaching in Cambridge [2] and a historicizing political scientist from Humboldt University [3] – who have made it onto the bestseller lists with their new interpretations, most of which has been praised as ‘monumental’.

“The Spirit of 1914”: The historical derivation of the meaning of politics in general...

Right at the beginning of his work, the Australian scholar familiarizes his readers with the discovery that the political landscape in the run-up to the events of 100 years ago is not very different from today:

“Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces ... a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.” (C15)

The learned man has certainly not forgotten that the two power blocs indirectly mentioned were not concerned in their Cold War with “stability” on the globe, but rather that the one in the West was primarily concerned with destabilizing and eliminating the other in the East. It just doesn’t matter to him. What happens when two camps escalate their enmity to the point of planning a world war is not important to him because his attention is entirely focused on what they achieved by threatening each other with annihilation many times over. For whatever they may have intended in detail with their destructive machinations, in his view they achieved something extremely constructive for the world of states, namely an order that he considers extremely valuable, especially from the point of view of its durability and clarity. In this way, the subsumption of the whole world under the antagonism of two hostile camps dissolves for him into a “system” that has no other content, meaning and purpose than to remain the same as itself, and is therefore only a system of “stability” for the scholar who discovered it.

An image of states aligning themselves like iron filings in the magnetic field between two poles – that is roughly this thinker’s concept of the Cold War, and with that he bags almost everything there is to grasp about the post-Cold War era: Of course, the absence of the once firmly established order has to be noted when the two poles that provided it no longer exist, so that the order after the Cold War is given the interesting positive determination of being something like a non-order – an “array of forces” about which the only thing to be learned is that it is impossible to say anything more about it, especially not in advance. For him, the “state of affairs” is such that it “invites” him to make a comparison with the situation 100 years ago – and with this sentence, the comparison he has only announced will be drawn is already finished. The historian looks at a century of contemporary political history, but in such a way that, from the outset, the subjects of this history, the states with their policies, do not even appear. He refers to the ties and relationships that they enter into with each other, i.e. he takes as his subject the policies they pursue in their dealings – but again in such a way that the matter that concerns states is not the subject at all. He abstracts so thoroughly from both the subjects of politics and from everything that is their content and purpose that all that remains of the acts of states is simply the formalism of the order that they establish between themselves. The historian elevates this formalism – more precisely: the durability of the state of order, which he calls “stability” – to the main thing, to the actual meaning of the politics of states towards one another. In doing so, he spares himself any intellectual effort to somehow argue for his conviction that the political machinations of these subjects should be measured by the durability of the forms taken by their interactions. The man evidently considers his silly, empty idea that the preservation of power is an end in itself for states to be a self-evident fact and therefore moves on to a scientific appreciation of the efforts and achievements with which the state actors attempt to do justice to the historical task of staying alive as long as possible. It is obvious that setting up simple, easily calculable, i.e. sovereignly manageable conditions, is more advisable than the opposite. This view of a 100-year period of world politics, which is not justified by anything in the matter, but solely by his interest in “stability,” is the common third factor that makes it so easy to compare a Cold War with the “state of affairs” today and, in turn, just as easy to compare it with the situation a hundred years ago. Without needing to know anything at all about the policies that are being pursued today and were being pursued in the last century, we already know the problem that all politics revolves around, which is not at all historical but always the same. The “stability” that once existed no longer exists today as it once did, and that was already the case in the German Empire, which automatically leads to the task for today: It is a matter of obeying the requirements of the times and bringing about the “stable” conditions that states need for their policies.

... and the politics of the German nation in particular

When it comes to the art of abstraction, the German representative of the discipline is in no way inferior to his colleague: To identify the common third factor that encourages cross-epochal comparisons, he only needs one word: “structural” –

“At the beginning of the 21st century, Germany once again occupies a position that is structurally not significantly different from the one it held at the beginning of the 20th century.” (M787)

He is also above any attempt to use the policies of the German Emperor or today’s German Chancellor to show the extent to which both have to obey the same set of requirements. For him, this is clear from the fact that today’s Germany is once again as “central a power” in Europe as the German Empire was in its day:

“Since the 1990s, Germany has once again taken the position of a strong player in the center of Europe and has once again become the central power of Europe. This is a difficult position; the Germans could not cope with a comparably demanding role in the two decades before 1914.” (M768)

By characterizing Germany as a “strong player,” the academic places this nation, together with its political agents, in the middle of the unpredictable “array of forces” constructed by his colleague in terms of systems theory in order to derive the “role” of the German nation in the European concert of powers then and now, and this is fairly obvious. The concept of a “central power” is automatically associated with the idea of what this actor has to use its strength for: roughly for what the two poles managed to do so perfectly during the Cold War. As a big pole on its own, Germany has to ensure stable conditions in Europe, which in this case means permanently relating the periphery around it to itself as the center. This is what the historian calls the “burden of the geographical center” (M767) or, as in the quote above, “a difficult position” or “demanding role.” These very perceptive judgments about German politics then and now makes clear what the historical meaning of politics, in all its meaningless formalism, is good for. If it’s not anything that deserves to be called an insight, then at least it makes him and his readers see the German imperialism of the Kaiserreich, as well as the powerful work of today’s leading European power, as an attempt, undertaken with the best of intentions, to do justice to a higher mission that a power, especially a great one, naturally has in the eyes of a historian. This comes from a sphere that exists beyond all the power-policy calculations and consists in the historic mission called Europe which is so naturally linked to Germany that the historian can read it from the country’s geographical location alone: It is said to be the source of the timeless claims on which German leaders have had to prove their art of governing. So there is good reason for whatever they set out to do. German politics is by its very nature a service, German imperialism is the endeavor to honor the obligations that history has in store for the nation: Wilhelm Zwo could no more “stay out of conflicts and declare himself neutral” (M769) than the Chancellor can stay out of the internal affairs of her numerous partners today; both the Empire and the Republic had to, or must, in their own well-understood self-interest, ensure that nothing unstable is brewing around them. And even if the German leaders, surrounded by many forces, naturally had and still have many other national interests in mind, then as now: In pursuing these interests, they always fulfill “tasks of responsibility” for the peaceful and various functioning of the European whole around them. Without saying a single word about German politics then or now, the historian, with his discovery of the constant that makes 1914 so “relevant” today, gives German politics an ideal purpose that guarantees one thing in its sublime innocence: partisanship for the success of the good cause.

Making the World War into an important lesson for today: Successful pacification of the periphery ensures peace in Europe’s center

If, firstly, it is clear that the Kaiser was not really up to the task of helping Europe achieve the stability it needed to continue as a central power and, secondly, it is certain that after the end of the global stability system of the Cold War, Germany will have to shoulder the same task again, this time, of course, alone, then, thirdly, it is obvious to the historian that those in power today should do their duty better than their predecessors, if possible. A historical look back should help them do this: “The war from 1914 to 1918 has become interesting again as a field of political lessons.” (M10) For example, one should know that “unstable” situations can easily escalate into crises and wars and therefore call for cautious and forward-looking policies – which is precisely what the politicians responsible at the time were clearly unable to do and brought an entire empire to ruin. With the return of structural instability, a similarly catastrophic course of history is now looming, at least as far as the historical imagination is concerned, which is why academics are raising the question of whether the politicians of today are sufficiently “aware” of the inexorable causality of this historical pattern and whether they are “basing” their policies on these historical experiences. As experts in instructive mistakes that were made in the past and which they have discovered, they can contribute a lot to this and digest a four-year world war, including its prehistory, into a “compendium of everything that can be done wrong” (M776). After all, they know where history has led, so they can look back to the future, as it were: History shows which policies “had a future,” namely those same ones that proved successful over the course of time, and it also shows which policies proved to be hopeless endeavors, which can be determined with similar accuracy by determining their failure. With the blessings of today’s European conditions in mind, which have proved so successful for Germany in particular, and which have already been adequately conceptualized as a “peace order,” it is therefore crystal clear to these thinkers that even then German well-being could only have been promoted by means that today have peace-promoting effects:

“Germany had become increasingly stronger and more powerful during peacetime, and there were good reasons to assume that the beginning of the 20th century could be a ‘German century’.” (M781)

However, peace as the only vertical path to success is such a thing. Anyone who knows the subject has certainly not failed to notice the three wars that founded the German nation, but from the point of view of the idea he favors, and especially in comparison to “the Great War that soon broke out,” they are simply subordinate moments in a state of peace in which Germany became “increasingly stronger and more powerful.” For him, the cornerstone of this nation’s power does not lie in the battles with which it successfully constituted itself as a power and provided the material basis for the beautiful project of becoming “increasingly stronger and more powerful”: it lies in the period of peace between these small battles and the great battle of 1914 ff. In the light of the principles of today’s German path to success, peace thus became the only promising instrument of German politics, even in the German Empire. The historian measures Wilhelmine politics against this ideal of a ‘sensible’ policy, i.e. one that successfully increases Germany’s strength and power, extracted from the situation today – and the result of the measurement is correspondingly devastating: In the deviation of historical reality from today’s ideal, the historian grasps the concept of the events of that time, namely the failure of Germany – admittedly: of others too, more on this later – in relation to the task assigned to it, of always being concerned about increasing its own advantage and strengthening its own power in peaceful and peace-preserving ways in the confrontation between states. Seen in this light, the German Reich only superficially failed because of the superior strength of its opponents, but in reality because it failed to accomplish its actual task.

While the present functions in this way as a yardstick for interpreting events of the past, the interpretations of the past created in this way are in turn intended to provide benchmarks for assessing and advising today’s politics – and this is the circle by which the history of the past becomes “lessons” for today: In order to make the past “interesting” and “important” for people today, it is interpreted in the light of present-day standards, and this present-inspired interpretation of the past is then applied to present-day politics as a lesson in successful governance. Here, too, the man of science is quite above openly declaring his support for Germany and the political ways in which the nation is competing for success. History, or rather what he finds in it, is his argument, and in this argument his partisanship for the nation is twofold: the retrospective projection of its principles of success that apply today results in a concept of its past which qualifies it as a practical confirmation of these principles or a deviation from them, depending on the case – thus giving them the status of an unquestionable given because it transcends time and is therefore self-explanatory. And the second apology for the nation’s political status quo consists solely of the request to the responsible leaders and stewards of its destiny that they should learn lessons from history for the sensible use of their power: These consist only in the wish that they may succeed where their predecessors failed.

This is how it happens that the weighty wisdom that historians draw from history regularly corresponds with official pronouncements, just as, conversely, political office-holders like to quote the wisdom produced by historians to praise their governments. Nevertheless: the insights propagated by Gauck, Merkel & Co. about how beneficial today’s European institutions are for “peace in Europe” in general and for the prosperity of Germany’s central power in particular, and how much attention should be paid to their proper functioning, especially as a German statesman, and how the strength that arises from this proper functioning should be used in good time to eliminate disruptive crises and conflicts – arias of this kind are never simply repeated by historians. They always present it as an insight that a scholarly look at German history has opened up for them. And this back and forth between a prehistory of Europe viewed through the lens of today’s balance of power and forces and a Europe that has to take what is currently on its political agenda from its self-constructed path goes like this:

“Europe remains pacified as long as this (German-French) axis or this (German-French-Polish) triangle functions and the governments of these states have to constantly pay attention to and prevent conflicts on the periphery, both within and outside Europe, that they once again penetrate into the European center.” Ultimately – Sarajevo! – “the problems of the periphery led to the destruction of the center.” (M773, 770)

Here it becomes clear what affirmative political meaning is contained in the formalism of talk about a ‘central power’, a ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ of Europe. It is a hierarchy of powers that needs to be balanced to achieve a pan-European state of peace, and this balance consists of the supervisory regime that the stronger powers have to exercise over the states of lesser rank. To subject the periphery of Europe, but of course also the neighboring states around Europe, to its own control, i.e. to assert itself as a hegemonic power in Europe and in the neighboring areas – that is the “difficult position” that falls to Germany, in the eyes of the historian, simply because of its size. Asserting itself as a leading power in the competition between states and establishing itself in the long term – that is the secretly conceived, but never expressed, content of the “demanding role” that fell to the German nation with its founding act. And in order for the current claims of the European central power to lead the continent and to have a say in the tasks of global governance to be given the status of a historically authenticated mission, another parallel between 1914 and 2014 is also very helpful as a “lesson” – the layman does not even know how precisely the image of the spark in the Balkans and the powder keg that then explodes all over the world sums up the current global political situation:

“It began with a squad of suicide bombers... Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extraterritorial .... it was scattered in cells across political borders.” (C15)

The world might have been spared “catastrophe” if this archetype of today’s terror networks had been put to rest in time. The lesson for the nation today that emerges from looking back to 1914 is therefore obvious and also breathes new life into a much older doctrine – si vis pacem, para bellum was already the Roman motto for successful peacekeeping. Taking practical “responsibility for foreign policy” by deploying powerful troops whenever “conflicts” can’t be resolved in any other way: In the eyes of the historian, this is the obligation that arises for Germany from its difficult “role” as the European “central power,” and which he has taken from the events of 1914 as a message for today.

To take from the latter the obligatory commandments that the leaders of the German nation must heed today, to present them with a picture of their own history from which they can learn what to do for the future success of the nation: These historians are so serious about this ethos of their research that they sometimes continue their affirmative interpretation of German foreign policy then and now in such a way that they take it upon themselves to criticize the policy – namely, when they believe that too little attention is being paid to their important teachings. If they feel that the responsible authorities are not taking the responsibility historically imposed on the nation in the form of securing peace in Europe and beyond Europe’s borders seriously enough, then they explain it away by saying that the country’s leadership has simply not grasped its true obligation. They then explain this to themselves and everyone else like this:

“It is hardly possible to pursue responsible politics in Europe today if you have the idea that we were to blame for everything. ... When it comes to foreign policy, we tend to think: Because we are historically guilty, we don’t have to, or may not, participate anywhere in foreign policy; So we’d rather buy our freedom when it comes to stabilizing Europe on the edges of the crisis.” (Münkler, SZ, January 4, 2014)

A wrong relationship to their own past therefore prevents German politicians from assuming a leadership role in Europe that is commensurate with the weight of their nation. They do not trust themselves and are so scrupulous in terms of foreign policy because they are caught up in a view of their own nation’s history according to which it was to blame for the years 1914 and following – and this bias prevents them from seeing the real lesson to be learned from this period. And since it was not least representatives of their own discipline who ensured that this politically so unproductive guilty conscience was anchored in the German national consciousness, a small intermezzo for the final burial of unfruitful insights from the workshop of the historical mind is also part of clarifying the true “relevance” of 1914.

Coming to terms with the past within the guild to resolve the vexing “question of guilt”

The main concern of the new interpretations is to present an image of history free from all blame. For the purpose of developing a promising interpretation of the First World War in this light, the aim is to dismantle Fritz Fischer’s historical-theoretical account of the reasons for the war which has been authoritative since the 1960s. In the course of the legendary ‘Fischer controversy’, the Hamburg professor put an end to the ‘Schlitter thesis’ that had been standard until then and which explained the outbreak of the First World War as an accidental ‘slide’ into it by the European power. Prof. Fischer no longer wanted to hear the somewhat silly idea that everyone involved had spent four years fighting a war that none of them had ever wanted to fight and, as a convinced democrat, considered it appropriate to extend the process of coming to terms with the past, which at the time was being discussed with regard to the “Third Reich,” to the authoritarian-imperialist German Empire. After an extremely thorough study of the political strategy of the Wilhelmine leadership before and during the war, he came to the conclusion that the foolishly proud and militaristic (mis)appointment of the national leadership had staged a megalomaniacal “bid for world power” with its “war of illusions” – as the titles of his main works suggest – instead of promoting the national good within the framework of the order of the time and by productively and peacefully perceiving its own role in it. The leadership of the Empire thus lost the ‘reasonable’ sense of proportion of a responsible policy – and to empirically prove the scandal that the nation’s quite innocent interests had ended up in the hands of a negligent leadership, Fischer contributed kilos of archival documents from which one thing can at least be inferred: that the imperial elites wanted to wage the war, which they had prepared with an arms buildup with all types of weapons, strategic plans in all directions, and alliance agreements that served this purpose, and also pursued – in Fischer’s opinion, of course: “megalomaniacal”goals. For this historian and also for the mainstream of academic and public consciousness, the “decisive part of historical responsibility for the outbreak of universal war” thus lay with Germany.

The new interpretations convey that this one-sided shift in weight when it comes to the “question of guilt” was not appropriate, and one of the protagonists of the modernization of German historical consciousness reveals the kind of academic dialogue that has led to this conclusion. From the outset, Münkler has no intention of dealing objectively with Fischer’s view of things in any way, let alone proving that the author of the writings he incriminates is wrong in his thinking and thus justifying why they can be safely set aside. That kind of engagement with theories does not seem to be common in this discipline. What it is very good at is evaluating arguments from a functionalist point of view, as to how they can be used as a vehicle for forming ideologies. Fischer’s view of history may perhaps have been good for the moral appeasement of displaced persons and revanchists in the 1960s –

“If the Germans were to blame for the First World War, they were also responsible for everything that followed from it (meaning the Second World War), and then the loss of the eastern territories was not only a result of the war, but also a just punishment. ... Fischer’s theses helped Germans accept what was politically unchangeable." (SZ, June 20, 2014)

In any case, today Germans no longer need such ‘theses’, if only because history has shown, especially in their case, what a mistake it was from the outset to accept the loss of eastern territories as politically unchangeable.

Fischer has thus been dismissed as a fossil who has no place in a modern science that creates historical images, although we still have to deal with the dismissal of his claims. In his talk about the “war aims” that the German leadership pursued at the time, there is still something like an allusion to the political will of a nation, to the calculations that it pursues in its competition against others, and for which it first plans war as a means of asserting its interests and rights and then declares them to its imperialist competitors. So one still owes oneself a little proof, and this is provided by the interpretation that once and for all frees an act of war that was unanimously and enthusiastically supported by the people and the leadership from the suspicion that political will had anything to do with the “catastrophe” that it ultimately turned out to be. In a first attempt to disavow the thesis of the ‘German war aims’, one looks back to the beginnings of the four year slaughter, translates the failure of the plans of all the involved powers, which became practically evident on the battlefields, into the revelation of an objective futility that was established from the outset, which attests to the will to violently enforce their concerns – and then demonstratively grabs one’s brain: Surely no one could have pursued such a pointless outcome as a ‘war aim’ – “none of the prizes for which the politicians of 1914 contended was worth the cataclysm that followed.” (C717) And since we know from the outset that politics – even and especially in a so-called “age of imperialism” – is there to use its power to avoid such “catastrophes,” this removal of the war from all categories of advantage-disadvantage calculations, as are customary for nations and as they can be well understood, only reinforces the established finding: nobody could have wanted the war!

In order to carry out their self-imposed task of making their audience understand the First World War as one huge disaster, and to overcome the not exactly small contradiction of providing insightful reasons for a phenomenon that basically defies any comprehensible understanding, the scholars have everything they need in the inventory of their modern science: they have worked out how a voluntary-involuntary slide into a world war happens!

How a world war “could” and therefore “had to” happen: The scientific explanation of an inexplicable failure on the part of German and other political leaders

After political science, which the historian has used to derive the higher meaning of politics – ‘order’, ‘stability’ – he draws on the knowledge of other disciplines that have made a name for themselves by providing rational insights into the highly questionable rationality of human nature, in order to then steer his readers’ thoughts in the direction he wishes with the following irrealis in question mode:

“What would rational decisions have looked like with complete information, and what decisions did the inadequately informed and biased actors actually make?” (M15)

This comparison of real decisions that were made with those that ideally could have been much more reasonable in view of the results they brought about is intended to analyze the deeds of the rulers “with regard to their rationality” (M14), and the analysis is already underway with the question: If the warlords had been ‘fully’ aware of the situation, they would have made policy differently and better, that is, taking into account their responsible ‘role’ in the European system of powers and thus strictly avoiding a world war that was senseless in every respect. Because for these academics, war is from the outset a phenomenon that defies all rational explanation according to all the standards by which they are accustomed to attesting to the rationality of political decisions, it is clear to them that “irrationality” must have taken hold of the minds of the “actors” at the time. Accordingly, the only question that interests them is how this could have happened, and there is no doubt that this goes back to a highly irrational decision on the part of the questioners: what the politicians did back then is to be explained with reasons that are supposed to account for the fact that they did not bring about what the historian, in view of the fatal outcome of the events, thinks would have been the better choice and the policy that was actually due had he been in power at the time. The absence of the ‘rationality’ which the historicizing world spirit thinks he possesses is therefore supposed to positively clarify how the First World War came about (C13), and to overcome this aporia, the historian takes refuge in the “conditions” that made possible what he considers to be an impossibility – other “decisions,” namely those that the man of science favors, would also have been possible for the “actors.” However different they may be, these “conditions leading” to the world war have one thing in common: they thwarted all statesmanlike reason. So the new interpretations set out to prove under which fateful circumstances of the “situation” at that time politics deviated from a rational approach, i.e. should be recognized as “irrational” on the basis of all the criteria of political assessment approved today.

The subject of science is the “road to the First World War” (M785), which was paved with all kinds of “misjudgments” and “leadership errors” (M15), and the first thing that of course comes to mind is

the political “decision-making elites”

In order to investigate the historical reasons for their failed “decision-making processes” (C13 and M13), the researchers surely do not turn to the content of the respective decisions. They don’t even want to know what purposes they serve and what noble reasons they are owed to, because they don’t need to know anything about them: It has long been clear that they were “irrational.” What is of even greater interest to them is the genealogy of these decision-making processes, and in order to bring this to light, they invite their audience to empathize with the inner lives of those in power at the time – if you understand the subjects who wage a world war, you have also understood what a world war is:

“It is a central argument of this book that the events of July 1914 make sense only when we illuminate the journeys travelled by the key decision-makers. ... We need to understand how those events were experienced and woven into narratives that structured perceptions and motivated behavior.” (C19)

With the concept of “narrative,” which this time the Australian representative of the discipline borrows from the neighboring discipline of cultural studies, the historian translates political ideologies into a narrative mode of historical “experiences” typical of the time which, with their immanently meaningful contexts, control and distort the perception of political events. What the members of the ruling “decision-making elite” were convinced of and where the dividing line actually lies between those convictions that simply express the right of the political cause in whose name they are acting and those that transfigure this right into the expression of higher idealistic principles and allow political persuaders to mature into ‘ideologists’, into propagandists of a world view: These empathetic softies of the intellectual life of the “key political decision-makers” don’t bother with this because they have already found out everything they need to know about the spirit that is on the move here. The “narrative” as an authority completely separate from the governing subject does all the work: events are registered, processed into schemas that evaluate what will soon be registered and determine what is to be done. According to this logic, the commanders of state power, who are supposed to fulfill their tasks with free responsibility, are exposed as largely powerless derivatives of the zeitgeist who had to make their (wrong) decisions because they were “structured” by overwhelmingly dominant “narratives.” These decisions themselves were therefore not actually the decisions of those who made them, because they could not fulfill their responsible calling, but rather were the objects of influences that produced the decisions within them. What is actually responsible is therefore the “influences,” and these come from the deep and broad stream of history in which only historians are well versed. Of course, they can’t be asked to reveal their further findings.

... as hopelessly powerless products of their influences

In a total of 1900 pages, both researchers present countless hints for the emergence of “irrationality”: the distorted perception of politicians, the poor communication structures in the field of diplomacy, the determining effectiveness of old alliance systems and strategic plans, the acute pressure to act in crisis situations, and so on and so forth. It goes without saying that the (wrong) decisions of their colleagues were also important in the making of their “wrong decisions” – everyone reacts to everyone else who has previously reacted to someone else, so in the end no one knows what to do or not to do and what to react to at all:

“Given the inter-relationships across the system, the consequences of any one action depended on the responsive actions of others, which were hard to calculate in advance, because of the opacity of the decision-making processes.” (C709 )

There is no need to prove that the widespread conditions that are said to have caused the political decision-makers’ misconduct actually produced the effects that the historian claims to be their cause. The historian is above any kind of obligation to substantiate the audacious claim that declarations of war were the result of a disastrous synthesis of intellectual heteronomy and the inscrutability of the political situation: The fact that all the “factors” he cites as responsible for the “outbreak of the war” actually had the “effect” he claims, vicariously proves the irrefutable fact that the war then actually “broke out”!

With this beautiful circle – the conditions determined by science bring about an indisputably real result, and its existence proves that the cited conditions can’t be doubted as the cause of their effect – the historian has not only successfully rid himself of all scientific obligations of decency to argue for his assertions. The logic of first constructing a fatal determination of politics to war with a hodgepodge of “factors,” in order to then justify one’s own construction of the causes of war by referring to the fact of war, opens up the transition from theory about an object to drivel. That’s the beauty and scientifically exciting thing about factors: Anything and everything can be one, and only their totality, if one had it, would be the whole concept of the matter, which is why the spirit of research never comes to rest. This mainly provides the material that makes their books so thick. Between the chapters ‘Introduction’ and ‘Summary’, which our selection of quotations is limited to, there is only what has fallen into the hands of the chroniclers of events in their empathetic understanding of the state of mind and mood of the “decision-making elites” in terms of handed-down material and which they can process into a literary genre sui generis. This happily combines the court reporting of the tabloid press with authentic verbatim reports that show scientific seriousness. For example, we learn that problems with his mistress prompted the Austrian Minister of War to emphatically prove his honor, which then promptly manifested itself as warmongering; or that the assassination in Sarajevo could not quite penetrate the English Prime Minister’s consciousness because his thoughts were in Ulster; that W. Churchill was not really determined to go to war against Germany over Belgium, whereas Foreign Secretary Grey was, but Churchill, as Navy Minister, knew his stuff, whereas the Foreign Secretary was absolutely clueless in military matters, although he never wanted to let France down, etc. (cf. C626 ff.) So it goes on for pages and pages, and everything that is filed in the historical archivist’s box of notes and can be cited as somehow significant, perhaps also only possible, but in any case “effective causes” worthy of consideration, finds its way into the narrative work and can provide an answer to the question of how exactly it could come about, what then came about. Because this is actually what the authors seriously mean: the ancient potpourri that they open up is intended to make the necessity of the war by itself self-evident, the compiled material from the inner lives of those in power should provide an overall picture of the times from which the inclined reader can see “how the individual puzzle pieces of causality came together.” (G20)

That is what this science offers: how to get rid of all questions about the cause or the reason for something once and for all. The historian lets the “facts” speak for themselves and his view that there is nothing to explain about them. To this end, he arranges a messy pile of disjointed individual parts into an overall context, which in turn only demonstrates the disastrous entanglement of its individual parts: An ensemble of factors that lead to, that is, did not prevent, the pre-established causality, because the non-existent conditions for it made this impossible. And when he has finished with this modern explanation of the ‘slide into’ war, he then transforms the actions of these ‘decision-makers’ into a judgment about the situation in which they were so hopelessly entangled.

The “complexity of the age”: Blind leaders in incomprehensible circumstances

Theorists are always noting “complex contexts of interaction” with “multifaceted correlations” (M13) and drawing the panorama of a “most complex” (C709) system of powers from the disparate interests and traditions, perspectives and sentiments in the numerous nations they review. This system therefore has the character of eluding conceptual comprehensibility, which is not only the next offensive declaration of capitulation by science when it comes to understanding its object: it also confirms once again the established judgment that, within these powers that make up the system, there are many “misjudgments” (M15) on the part of the responsible party. This stems either from the excessive complexity of the situation or from the inadequate competence of the responsible “decision-makers,” which is to be blamed on them, so that the question arises: Could the situation not be assessed correctly – or was it just them who couldn’t do it? Because one or the other leads to the same result, our scientists opt for a balanced mix of the two alternatives in their answers:

– The Australian from Cambridge wants to “remember the European war in a European way” (Clark, Deutschlandfunk 1.30), so he stages the pre-war period in an international overview as an inscrutable back and forth of mutually influencing actions and reactions in Europe, which one certainly doesn’t recognize in his view of things:

“One can think of July 1914 an ‘international crisis’, a term that suggests an array of nation-states, conceived as compact, autonomous, discreet entities, like billiard balls on a table.” (C13 )

One “can” – at least this is still possible given the complexity – “think of” 1914 as a crisis between nation states, and no sooner than one has made use of this possibility, one must immediately “conceive” these states as something completely different, namely as highly unspecific entities, about which one can at best say they are entirely on their own. Then “one can” “suggest” something else, that is, these states as billiard balls, which, as we know, whirl wildly at the first impact – and one has already grasped “the events of July 1914” exactly in their principle: A chaos. The interpreter then demonstrates this with the material of contemporary history: with piles of “facts,” he arranges an incomprehensible chaos of national interests and activities which was also reinforced by “short-term realignments” of foreign policy strategies and by the “fluctuations in power relations within each government,” so that the participants in the game who were authorized to make decisions were often not even aware of who they were “interacting” with. The fatal consequence of the diplomatic maze: “the system” of five and a half major powers and quite a few smaller busybodies became increasingly “opaque and unpredictable” (C710) and eventually took on a “beehive-like structure with many voices,” which “significantly increased the system’s susceptibility to crises” (Clark, Deutschlandfunk, January 20). As a result, the whole of Europe lost perspective – and this gradually unbalanced the “system,” which is calibrated for ‘stability’ according to its inherent historical teleology. The heads of the “decision-makers” were not spared from the general confusion of the system. The “key actors told themselves and each other” into all kinds of “visions” and “filtered world events through narratives ...glued together with fears, projections and interests.” Everywhere, “paranoia,” “dark visions” and “fantasies” (C712f) guided political decisions – in other words, nothing but irrationality everywhere!

In the final sentence of the Australian’s great litter, the warlords are then presented as “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams yet blind to the horror they were about to bring into the world” (C718), and the fact that the poet in the historian completely runs off the rails at the end of his thick opus and that the horrors that did not even exist yet become a cognitive problem for their author is the least of the evils of his omissions. They are summed up in the profound realization that this war can only be understood, if at all, as the result of the absolute lack of understanding that prevailed between all those involved in the language, communication and intellectual cultures. The book in one sentence: “The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture.” (C 717)

– The historicizing political scientist from Berlin focuses his interpretative skills mainly on the black, white and red billiard ball that his colleague has kindly given him as an object of study, and is particularly interested in the institutional conditions and mental states of the leading German politicians. He unerringly comes to the conclusion that a disastrous gulf has opened up between the intellectual inner world of the politicians and the real outer world of politics, and the reason for this disaster is clear to him: bad “influences” on the “decision-makers” led them away from the good path that was actually set for them in the form of Germany’s historical mission. Thus, in the political system of Wilhelminianism, the “primacy of politics could not be asserted” (M20) against the – proverbially warmongering – generals, which speaks for itself: that Moltke’s vote to strike – “better now than later” – could have made a relevant contribution to a primordial political decision-making process is fundamentally impossible in view of the peacekeeping tasks that academia has assigned to the rulers in opposition to their power apparatus. “Public opinion” also had a negative influence on politics; in particular, nationalistically incited “opinion-shaping elites” (M18) – including quite a few representatives of the historical guild – constantly interfered in the affairs of government – who should still be able to govern sensibly?! But the intellectual skills of the “decision-makers” were also lacking. They simply did not have the “political skills” needed to deal confidently with the constant threat of “encirclement” of the middle power and instead weakened their political judgment through “obsessions with encirclement” (M24) by way of autogenous smoke screening. In short: a disastrous “interplay of fear and recklessness, arrogance and boundless self-confidence” (M14) dominated the German leadership. From the turn of the century onwards, a fatal “mixture of grandeur and anxiety” (M21) was rampant, and the supreme warlord even suffered from a perceptual disorder of the most obscure origin: “Wilhelm lost his sense of reality about what was happening and withdrew ever deeper into a world of fantasy and wishful thinking.” (M21) Not an insight anywhere which can be expressed as such in the knowledge of the irrationality that was soon to take hold: “A rational pursuit of interests was hardly possible under such circumstances.” (M24)

Strategic considerations also mutate into “irrational” fears among the other war participants under the skillful hand of their interpreter: the French feared “marginalization,” the Russians “a loss of influence,” Austria-Hungary feared for its “great power status” and the British were tormented by “fears of decline.” (M24) So psychology, with its subdivisions of the psychopathology of screwed-up types, also finds its way into the realm of historical interpretations: Any positive content and purpose in the minds of the statesmen is dissolved into empty negative judgments about the broken mental lives of the protagonists, who vacillate between prepotency and manic depression and who one can easily imagine sometimes liked to send soldiers to war to raise their self-esteem. This doesn’t just apply to the scion of the Hohenzollern dynasty, who is the supreme warlord in Germany and lives out the consequences of his difficult birth in a “capricious manner.” Because of imaginary fears of losing power, everyone eventually convinced themselves that a war between the two power groups was ultimately unavoidable and, in a fit of pan-European resignation to fate, stumbled into the “trap of fatalism” at the beginning of August 1914.

The world war as a self-fulfilling prophecy: if one likes, one can also imagine the outbreak of a war that in the end proved to be “senseless.” The failures at the levers of power can therefore expect a fairly balanced judgment in the historical balance of guilt. On the one hand, they did almost everything wrong in the performance of their duties; on the other hand, given the “unpredictable” conditions and the “irrational” spirit of the times, they had virtually no chance of doing what was actually necessary: They were so entangled in the passage of time that it is impossible to separate the individual and the time-related “causal part” in the origin of the war. Thus it is gradually becoming clear that the “highly complex path to war” (Münkler, SZ January 14) is ultimately best understood in the categories of

Fate and tragedy

After enumerating all the objective and subjective “conditions of the origin” of the catastrophe, which caused the “complexity” of the era in which this catastrophe could only take its logical course, the historian has determined the reason for the war: It had to come as it did, and the summary of an epoch as a “path to war” captures this paradox of an abstract necessity anchored in the passage of time in the precisely fitting image. In this way, the discipline’s mistake of explaining a historical event as the effect of the “conditions,” “factors” and “influences” of events that preceded it in time takes on a life of its own: in the judgment of science, the historical event becomes a product of the time that preceded it. The pre-war period has its historical concept in the war as its result – the “most complex event of modern times,” with its “multilateral interactions” (C709, 717 and 13) and “cataclysmic escalations,” generated a “maelstrom of events” and ultimately the “fatal confluence of factually and spatially separate conflicts.” (M768 and 767) And conversely, the historical concept of war consists in being the result of its prehistory – “in 1914 there were so many causes: the alliance systems, fear of the future, the failure of politics and diplomacy, the momentum of events and often simply chance.” (Münkler, SZ January 14) Thus, in addition to all the listed “conditions” of war, which should make its necessary origin from the time before its beginning seem plausible, the “element of contingency” (C20) also operates in this science as such a condition, and its representatives can make excellent use of a word that expresses the negation of necessity as an “element” with which they explain the cause and reason of their object.

In keeping with this science, this allows, from the point of view of the results achieved, a review of the conditions that made possible such an intellectually dismal result of scientific research. From the very beginning, the concern of the representatives of the discipline presented here was not to provide an unbiased explanation of their subject matter, to explain the objective connections between the circumstances prior the war and trace them back to the purposes and interests of the subjects whose machinations ultimately led to these circumstances. The latter is also known to historians, but for them the explanation takes a completely different path. From the point of view of the ideal they have in mind of world politics and which they project into history and its course as its actual inner necessity, they know from the outset what they are dealing with in this world war. With a deviation from the necessity that they imagine in their ideal. They then explain this deviation to themselves in the way described here, i.e. in the various judgments about reality which of course they do not close their eyes to, they prove that and to what extent, contrary to all reality, they are historically right with their ideal. This approach consists of looking at world-historical events and only tracing the consistency with which they drift away from their actual historical meaning. The historian sees this as tragic and then expresses the idealist’s suffering from reality as his ultimate concept of war: “a tragedy”! (C716)


With this image of a tragic “chain of events that would ultimately drag Europe into war” (C471), the authors then also provide a retrospective look ahead from the First to the Second World War. This works so well because one already knows everything one needs to know about the Second World War if – like them – you have understood how the First could have come about: “What followed was an ‘age of extremes’” (M797), in other words a “follow-up catastrophe” to the “original catastrophe.” And because “the horrors of Europe’s 20th century were born of this catastrophe,” (C9) as already in 1914 et seq., with the devastation that the Nazis inflicted on the peoples of the world from German soil, the German nation did not overdraw its account any more than anyone else in the scientific register of historical-moral questions of crime and guilt: “Most of it can be traced back to the poisonous dose that the First World War injected” – not into the German Reich, but rather: – “into Europe.” (Clark, FAZ, September 24, 2013)

So there are no more dark shadows of the past on the nation’s record, and this is what makes it truly capable of leading Europe in the eyes of historians. Because there is still a lot to do: “The challenges of being located at the center remain, even if today these are no longer military but economic.” (M24) With the outbreak of the First World War, Germany failed at its leadership role in Europe, but only temporarily. The same can be said about the Second World War, because after its inglorious end, history soon made Germany the strong central power of Europe again, and this is sufficient proof that this nation is simply predestined to lead the continent. The message from 1900 pages of scholarship: after two unsuccessful attempts by Germany at its historic mission, Europe is finally facing a peaceful “German century,” how wonderful. German politicians must now take to heart the academically authorized acquittal of their nation from all guilt and the mission that is finally clear before their eyes.

[1] Part 1 was published in GegenStandpunkt 3-14: Political speeches and interpretations on the centenary of the First World War: Trend-setting reminders of a senseless slaughter of peoples

[2] Christopher Clark: The Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to War in 1914, New York 2013 (=C)

[3] Herfried Münkler: Der Große Krieg: Die Welt 1914–1918 (The Great War. The World from 1914 – 1918), Berlin 2013 (=M)