New Debate on the Responsibility for War

BERLIN |

BERLIN (Own report) - In the few months leading up to the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, a new debate, over who was responsible for starting the war, is gaining momentum in Germany. As relevant publications - such as the bestseller, "The Sleepwalkers" by the historian Christopher Clark - show, "a shift in paradigm has taken place" in scholarship, according to a recent press article: "The German Empire was not 'responsible' for World War I." The debate strongly contradicts the recognition that, even though Berlin did not bear it alone, it bore the primary responsibility for the bloody escalation of the 1914 July Crisis. This insight, which was derived particularly from the analyses of the historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s, is now being massively contested. Historians are strongly criticizing remarks, such as those by Christopher Clark, who, working closely with government-affiliated academic institutions, is denying German responsibility for the war. According to Clark, "the Serbs" are supposedly a priori "the bad guys" of the pre war era, while he openly displays his preference for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The denial of Germany's main culpability for the war is "balm on the soul of educated social sectors, grown more self-confident" at a time when Berlin's political power is again on the rise.

The Hegemony's "Defensive Goal"

An article published in early January by the German daily "Die Welt" is exemplifies the new debate on the responsibly for setting off World War I. Alluding to relevant publications by Christopher Clark ("The Sleepwalkers") and Herfried Münkler ("Der Große Krieg"), the article states that "a shift in paradigm has already occurred" in historiography, particularly with a re-evaluation of the German Empire's foreign policy. "Driven by fears of decline and encirclement," Berlin simply pursued "the defensive objective" of establishing the "precarious situation of a limited hegemony" over Europe and was "far from making a cocky and megalomaniacal grab for world power." Russia, on the other hand, pursued the war "for its own expansive objectives in Eastern Europe and at the Bosporus." France had been "quite ready to go to war itself," and Great Britain had been "even less peaceful and conciliatory" than is "often assumed." Ultimately, "only when Great Britain entered the war," the "original conflict turned into a global disaster." In any case, Berlin could have claimed a "ius ad bellum" at the time. The authors conclude: "The German Empire was not 'guilty' of starting WWI."[1]

The Otto-von-Bismarck Foundation

The book, "The Sleepwalkers," published in 2012 by the historian Christopher Clark, is central to the new debate on German guilt for starting the war. Clark, who is often ascribed an alleged neutrality with respect to Germany, because he is a native Australian, teaching at a British university, has in fact close ties to state-affiliated German academic institutions. He is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the German Historical Institute in London, which is supported by the Max Weber Foundation - a Foundation of the German government, under supervision of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The German foreign ministry is also represented on its Board of Trustees. Clark is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the state-financed Otto von Bismarck Foundation, who's Board of Directors and Board of Trustees is mainly comprised of former parliamentarians and Bismarck family members. Only a few years ago, its chair, Rüdiger Kass, had headed the Department of the Federal Police in the Ministry of the Interior. In 2010, Clark received the Historisches Kolleg Award from the hand of the German President. The Historische Kolleg was founded in 1980, essentially with the help of the Deutsche Bank, and today is co-financed by Bavaria.

A Teutonophile

Clark's writing, which investigates the developments leading up to World War I, flatly denying the German Empire's prominent responsibility for starting the war, is quite critically appraised by other historians. Clark, who his colleagues characterize as "a Teutonophile," describes the German Empire at the time of the 1914 July Crisis as the "least militarized European power." "I've never read such a thing before" commented, not without irony, the historian Gerd Krumeich, an expert on the history of World War I. Pointing to serious mistakes in Clark's scholarly analysis, Krumeich confirmed that the book "The Sleepwalkers" is being venerated generally only in Germany, while "abroad" it is "respected but not praised." The fact that Clark flaunts his preference for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while treating Serbia as well as Russia with open disparagement, is particularly objectionable.[2] He sees "the Serbs" as "the bad guys of the pre-war era, and Austria-Hungary as having had every right to defend itself against them," concluded Krumeich. This has nothing more to do with objective scholarship.[3]

Plagued Employer

Clark's imperial point of view is also apparent in his appreciation of the German Empire's domestic situation. For example, in his 2010 ceremonial address at the reception of the Historisches Kolleg Award, he claimed that the notorious large landowners east of the Elbe would "appear today not so much as 'local tyrants,' but more as employers plagued from all sides, who often had been only able to prevail over a self-confident and resourceful peasantry with utter difficulty." The serf labor, peasants had to fulfill, "would no longer be considered, today, feudal coercion, but rather tenant charges, quasi a rent." Besides, the Prussian peasantry was "not doing too badly" even economically, "as has been alleged earlier." "The Wilhelmine militarism" had merely been "a socially splintered phenomenon," and not so "prevalent in the society, as a whole," as many believed. According to Clark, "the Prussian state apparatus' potential for progress" must, above all, be emphasized - "even in the aftermath of the 1819 conservative turning point."[4] An era of brutal repression of all liberal opposition began in 1819 with the Carlsbad Decrees.

The Function of German Myths

Herfried Münkler, whose work "Der Große Krieg" is also playing an important role in the current debate over responsibility for the war, can also be considered a state-affiliated political scientist. Münkler, who also relativizes Germany's primary guilt for World War I, is reported to be a "one-man think tank." He climbed the ladder from being simply a political science professor at Berlin's Humboldt University to "become one of Berlin's most prominent political advisors," according to a 2003 article. He serves, for example as "a prompter for the Bundeswehr's General Staff, the Foreign Ministry's Policy Planning Staff and also for humanitarian NGOs."[5] It has been reported that during Gerhard Schröder's second electoral period as Chancellor, Münkler was asked by Chief of Staff of the Chancellery, at the time Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to "discuss with the advisory staff" the best spin to make the measures of "Agenda 2010," "more palatable to the government's own clientele." When this proved a failure, Münkler published a book entitled "The Germans and their Myths." Münkler explained what was behind the idea: "We must find a grand narrative. We need to develop a Mosaic promise: You must go into the desert, but you will reach the Promised Land."[6] Münkler is still a member of the Advisory Board of the Federal College for Security Studies (BAKS), the German government's most important military policy think tank.

Balm for the German Soul

Observers are pointing to the fact that Münkler's, and particularly Clark's publications, are being enthusiastically acclaimed by members of the younger generation in Germany. "In a period, when the Federal Republic of Germany has again become a regional great power," denial of Germany's primary guilt for starting World War I is "balm for the soul of educated social sectors, grown more self-confident," explains the historian Stig Förster.[7] The historian Volker Ullrich considers particularly Clark's writings, to be "a change of course in the political interpretation of history." "Evidently a deep-seated need for exoneration is playing a role," according Ullrich. "If Germany's being solely responsible for setting off World War II is already unquestionable; then let it at least not be guilty of starting World War I." This drive seems "to become more overwhelming, the more Germany assumes a leading role in Europe, due to its economic preponderance." Ullrich points to a remark Herfried Münkler made in an interview: "A responsible policy can hardly be implemented in Europe, if one imagines that we are guilty of everything."[8]

[1] Dominik Geppert, Sönke Neitzel, Cora Stephan, Thomas Weber: Warum Deutschland nicht allein schuld ist. www.welt.de 04.01.2014.
[2] "Christopher Clark spricht die Deutschen von der Schuld am Ersten Weltkrieg frei". www.lisa.gerda-henkel-stiftung.de 14.11.2013.
[3] Gerd Krumeich: Unter Schlafwandlern. www.zeit.de 30.11.2012.
[4] Festvortrag von Christopher Clark: Preußenbilder im Wandel. Dokumentation zur Verleihung des Preises des Historischen Kollegs an Professor Dr. Christopher Clark, 5. November 2010.
[5] Der Ein-Mann-Think-Tank. www.zeit.de 30.10.2003.
[6] Herfried Münkler. www.welt.de 29.01.2011.
[7] "Balsam auf die Seele selbstbewusster gewordener Bildungsbürger". www.lisa.gerda-henkel-stiftung.de 17.12.2013.
[8] Volker Ullrich: Nun schlittern sie wieder. www.zeit.de 24.01.2014.