The Fischer Controversy 50 years on

The Fischer Controversy 50 years on: Conference Report

In the autumn of 1961, a book was published in Germany which would spark one of the most heated historiographical debates of the twentieth century. In his 900-page study Griff nach der Weltmacht (in English less provocatively entitled Germany’s Aims in the First World War), the German historian Fritz Fischer argued that Germany had aggressive war aims in 1914, and that Germany bore the main share of responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War. These audacious assertions turned on their head a comfortable consensus which had existed since the 1930s, rejecting the war-guilt allegations made by the victorious allies in 1919. After the Second World War, for whose outbreak Germany could not deny responsibility, revisiting the causes of the First seemed unnecessarily soul-searching, and as a consequence the reactions to Fischer’s theses were hostile and outraged.

Fifty years on, historians from Europe and North America gathered in London to take stock of this debate, and of the once so controversial views advanced by Fischer and his supporters. Had they stood the test of time? And how can we explain the explosive nature of the debate in Germany? What are historians debating on the eve of the war’s centenary, is there any consensus after nearly 100 years of controversy, and fifty years of the Fischer debate? By viewing the available evidence through an international lens, this conference aimed to answer some of these important questions.

The programme focused on a number of different aspects of Fischer’s theses, and of the debate, including war aims, the Anglo-German naval race, and decision-making on the eve of the war. The 50th anniversary of the publication of Fischer’s path-breaking book served also as an occasion to invite a number of Zeitzeugen who had worked with Fischer in the 1960s and were able to illuminate how the book was written, and how the ensuing controversy was experienced by contemporaries.

More than 65 participants were spell-bound when some of Fischer’s former Assistenten, and one who worked with Fischer’s critic Egmont Zechlin, revealed how the controversial book was written – with Fischer and his doctoral student Imanuel Geiss, among others, surrounded by documents from the archives, and with Albertini’s three-volume treaties on the origins of the war on their laps, dictating passages of primary sources and of the final text to each other, typing on an aged typewriter. It would appear as if Fischer can hardly be regarded as the sole author of the book, given the extent to which different chapters were written by different assistants. This was of course not unusual within the German academic system at the time, but nonetheless helps to explain why the book, despite its many merits, does not always make for a coherent read.

Among the interesting insights revealed at the conference was a post-card which Gerd Krumeich had found in the papers of the late Wilhelm Deist, written by Fischer’s most dogged opponent, Gerhard Ritter, in 1966: ‘That man [i.e. Fischer] no longer exists for me as a colleague’, Ritter wrote bitterly. This summed up perfectly what many German historians felt in the 1960s. Fischer’s raising of the ‘guilt-question’ was unforgiveable, at least for a generation of historian who, like Ritter (and also, for example, Hans Herzfeld) had fought in the Great War in the conviction that they were engaged in a defensive war.

The importance of events and anniversaries contemporaneous to the Fischer controversy were also highlighted. 1961 was the year the Berlin Wall was built, and saw the Eichmann trial in Israel, and the Auschwitz trials in Germany. The Fischer debate reached its peak in the year of the 50th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, co-incidentally the 25th anniversary of the outbreak of the even more destructive Second World War which, at least according to Fischer, Germany had instigated for much the same aims as the First. At a time when Germany felt insecure and on the front line of opposing Cold War alliances, it is indeed easy to see why Fischer was persona non grata in many official circles.

Fischer’s own Nazi past has also been the focus of historical investigation recently, and the conference heard details about Fischer’s membership of the Nazi Party. It would appear as if the experience of being a prisoner of war immediately after the Second World War (and there mixing with former Nazis who were still not willing to renounce their National Socialist views in spite of the obvious destruction that ideology had brought), as well as his experience of the USA in later years, turned him into a convinced liberal. This apotheosis does, however, shed revealing and interesting light on the controversy, and on the development of Fischer as an historian from religious scholar to ‘Nestbeschmutzer’ (a soiler of his own, German, nest) in the 1960s.

The impact of Fischer’s theses outside of Germany was another focus of the conference programme, with examples being drawn from East Germany, Russia, Austria and France. Fischer’s research on war aims was highlighted in a comparative framework, with Germany’s, Russia’s and Britain’s war aims coming in for particular scrutiny, including an in-depth look at Germany’s attempts to instigate revolution in the Middle East, and a closer look at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which was not a dress-rehearsal for Versailles, but rather harked back to the ideas of the infamous September Programme of Bethmann Hollweg.

A large part of the papers addressed the decision-making process in the years 1912-1914, and here the conference made some important contributions to current historiographical interpretations. Although in conclusion a consensus emerged that Fischer had got it right in attributing ‘a significant part of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of a general war’ to Germany and that Fischer’s thesis of the continuity of German war aims still stands fifty years later, the question of why this was so has yet to be answered. Armed with overwhelming amounts of primary source evidence, we know much about the ‘how’, but still very little about the ‘why’.

Furthermore, the focus must now also be on the actions of the other great powers. In July 1914, France was driven by the wish to remain a Great Power, and by her fear of eventually being abandoned by an increasingly strong Russia; Serbia was in part motivated by the support she had been promised by Russia, and had a definite agenda which aimed at undermining the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Russia’s resolve was strengthened by encouraging noises from the French leadership and this only served to firm up her intransigence; and Britain was caught in an impossible bind where not supporting the Entente would potentially threaten the security of her own Empire in the long run. These motivations need to be considered when we focus in detail on the crisis management of July 1914 when all these constraints dictated to a greater or lesser extent how Paris, London, St Petersburg and Belgrade reacted to the threats emanating from Vienna and Berlin. In summing up the conference’s findings, Jonathan Steinberg suggested that a new model of explanation of the war’s causes needed to include the five key powers (plus Serbia, one might add), whose decisions were concurrently influenced by deep pessimism and general fear as well as unfounded exuberance and optimism in equal measure.

It also emerged as a strong theme that the origins of the decision for war need to be sought much earlier than July 1914, with the winter crisis of 1912/13 identified as a crucial juncture when a dress-rehearsal for war took place which made it easier for the crisis of 1914 to escalate, or perhaps rather less likely for war to be avoided again, as it had on previous occasions. It will be interesting to see if this aspect can be deepened when the papers are published, and if they can perhaps serve as a counter-argument to the recently advanced views that in the long tradition of ‘avoided wars’ the crisis of July 1914 need also not have escalated. Some of the tentative conclusions reached in London seem to suggest that for the key decision-makers, there would not be another dress-rehearsal after the crisis of 1912/13.

The findings of this conference will be published in two separate volumes. The historiographical accounts of the debate will form the basis of a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary History (which generously supported the conference). The papers which focused on war aims, pre-war decision-making, the Anglo-German naval race and pre-war military planning will form the basis of a conference volume which will stress the importance of an international approach to the question of the origins of the First World War.

The organisers, Annika Mombauer, John Röhl and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, would like to thank the sponsors of the conference for making it possible to hold this event which was extremely positively received by all who were able to attend. The conference was sponsored by The German Historical Institute, London, The Journal of Contemporary History, The Open University, the Toepfer Stiftung, and The German History Society.


Annika Mombauer, October 2011





The Open University

German Historical Institute London 

The Journal of Contemporary History

Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S.