Germany’s Aims in the First World War
Germany without Bismarck
It is still possible to find people who will tell you that both World Wars were a tragic, avoidable mistake. They are the revisionists, or their heirs, the people who attacked the pro-Allied attitudes of Wilson, House, and Lansing in World War I, and accused Roosevelt of deceiving the American people in World War II by talking peace while preparing to fight. They have not had much success among professional historians; but among a broad segment of the American public their attacks went home. There was not, they suggest, much to choose, after all, between the Germans and their opponents, certainly not enough to justify the destruction of the heart-land of western civilization; with greater statesmanship it would have been possible to satisfy legitimate German demands, or at least to have achieved a compromise peace without handing over eastern Europe to Soviet communism and necessitating immense sacrifices by the United States to put western Europe on its feet again after 1945.
For these people the appearance of Fritz Fischer’s book is a blow of almost lethal destructiveness. Here is a distinguished German historian, professor at the University of Hamburg, who has set out, with much new documentation, to show that the German government was responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914, that Germany deliberately aimed at world domination between 1914 and 1918, and that Hitler did not represent a new phenomenon in German history, but that there was substantial continuity between Germany’s war aims in World War I and those of World War II. Hitler’s program of conquest in the East, Fischer makes clear, stemmed directly from World War I. His aims in the West were a revised version of those in World War I. Moreover, when England refused to make peace in 1940, the plans of World War I for a German empire in Central Africa were immediately revived. Furthermore, Fischer shows convincingly that German annexationism was not simply the dream of German militarists or of the much maligned Prussian Junkers, but that the civilians, including the German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, were as eager as the military for annexations and world power. Indeed, German expansionism—the cry for a “place in the sun”—was far more an expression of German liberalism, of industry, finance, and the burgeoning middle class, than of German conservatism.
No wonder that Fischer’s book, ever since its first appearance in Germany in 1961, has been the subject of violent public controversy, or that when Fischer was invited to visit the United States every official obstacle was placed in his path. His arguments were too destructive of orthodox German mythology, his documentation too solid simply to be brushed aside. It is good that there should be controversy, because the questions Fischer raises transcend the normal disputes of academic history. What is at issue is not simply the validity of the specific evidence he cites, or of the conclusions he draws from it, but the character of an epoch.
His purpose, he says, is “to show that the age of imperialism did not end, as most historians make out, in 1914,” but reached its “climax” in Germany’s “colossal effort” to win equality “with the established and the potential world powers: the British Empire, Russia and the United States.” In addition, he reopens, and puts on a new basis, the controversy about the origins of World War I, which had come to a dead end with the banal conclusion that all parties were equally at fault, or that the war was the result of impersonal forces, such as “international anarchy” or the armaments race. Fischer shows beyond all reasonable doubt that the so-called “war-guilt clause” which attributed “responsibility” to Germany was essentially correct. That is why his book produced such an uproar in the Federal Republic.
In the six years between the first appearance of Fischer’s book in Germany and the publication of the English edition, historians have had time to digest its contents. Moreover, a number of new works have followed up particular aspects. Fischer himself published a resumé of his controversy with Ritter and Zechlin. His pupil, Imanuel Geiss, re-examined the immediate origins of the war in greater detail than Fischer did, with even more devastating results. Quite independently, Wolfe Schmokel traced the history of Germany’s “dream of empire” down to 1945. Charles Bloch examined Hitler’s foreign policy in 1933 and 1934 to establish how far it represented continuity with the past or a break with continuity. It may be said of all this work, and of the critical evaluation in Volume 3 of the Journal of Contemporary History, that its effect has been to confirm, rather than to impair, the “Fischer thesis.” It is possible that Fischer overshoots his mark at certain points; but few, if any, foreign historians have rejected his interpretation, and even in Germany it is remarkable how closely Fischer’s leading opponent, Gerhard Ritter, came to adopting Fischer’s views in the last volume of Staatskunst und Kriegshandwerk which appeared before his death.
THE VERY FACT that Fischer places German expansionism in the broader frame of European imperialism should be sufficient indication that he is not aiming, as some of his German critics have suggested, to saddle Germany with a unique burden of guilt. It is also true—and this seems to me the weakest part of Fischer’s argument—that it would be hard to prove that Germany entered the war with the specific aims of conquest it subsequently formulated. Rather it hoped, in the words of one of Fischer’s most vehement critics, to “separate the partners of the Triple Entente” and thus to acquire the “freedom to participate in world politics” which was its ultimate aim and ambition. In this there was nothing inherently wicked and nothing to distinguish Germany from the other imperialist powers. As Fischer says, “all great powers had ‘annexationist’ policies in the age of imperialism.” What set Germany apart—and made the resistance of the other powers morally justifiable—was the nature of the German response to the imperialist challenge; and the ultimate value of Fischer’s book is the way he spells out, by reference to the unpublished documents, the detail of that response, beginning with Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg’s program of conquest, drawn up on September 9, 1914.
Bethmann Hollweg’s program was (in Hajo Holborn’s words) “the archetypal plan of all German policies till the end of the war.” It would, as Fischer writes, “have brought about a complete revolution in the political and economic power-relationships in Europe.” France was to be eliminated as a great power, Russia thrust back, British influence systematically excluded; and Europe was to be subjected to German hegemony. Well might Fischer ask whether this “new order” could ever have provided “an adequate foundation for an enduring peace” or whether it would not rather have “infallibly” laid up “a store of terrible explosive material for new conflicts.”
But Bethmann Hollweg’s plan, which (he admitted) could only be realized “under the pressure of political necessity,” was merely an “archetype.” The German Chancellor specifically left over for later discussion “the question of colonial acquisitions” and also “the aims to be realized vis-à-vis Russia.” It was when the latter were elaborated, when the program for eastern Europe was drawn up, that the enormity of German ambitions became fully evident. Here was the blueprint for Hitler. Not only did Bethmann Hollweg propose direct annexation of 90,000 square kilometers, with between five and six million inhabitants, at the expense of Poland; he also called for “the export of workers from Poland” for German agriculture and industry, and German colonization of the so-called “Frontier Strip” (actually an area more than twice the size of Alsace-Lorraine) “as completely as possible.” As for Russia, Germany’s aims were succinctly described by Kühlmann, Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1917 and 1918, as “detaching huge areas from the present Russia and building up those districts into effective bulwarks of our frontier.” The notorious peace of Brest-Litovsk showed this policy in action. But in addition Germany intended to subject “rump Russia” to ruthless economic exploitation in German interests, and on June 4, 1918 a syndicate representing German bankers and the “twelve most important iron and steel companies” drew up elaborate schemes to this effect. The philosophy of the Slav Untermensch was already in operation.
Easy though it is to criticize the imperialism of the French and British in Africa or China, their worst enormities simply do not compare. For all its faults British imperialism had a genuine idealistic component, a sense of service and mission expressed in India by Curzon and in Egypt by Cromer. Germany, as the German historian, Ludwig Dehio, pointed out, had nothing equivalent to offer. Its imperialism represented German power, pure and simple. Even in the Baltic region, where it claimed to come as a liberator from Czarist tyranny, it had no intention of granting independence. In Lithuania and the Baltic provinces the basis of German policy was “to retain the real power…by bringing them under her sovereignty.” German policy was necessarily based on force. It “could not allow the peoples of the east to recover in any respect, for”—as Fischer points out—“they would then try again to overthrow in a second war the intolerable hegemony which Germany had established at Brest-Litovsk.”
HOW FAR was the ruthlessness of German policy a result of the peculiar constitutional structure foisted on the new Reich by Bismarck in 1871? How far, in particular, is it to be attributed to the irresponsible position of the Emperor, surrounded by a sycophantic court? William II’s hysterical instability is well known, and so is his “brutal racialism” (the phrase is Dr. Röhl’s). But Fischer warns—and most historians would agree—that it would be “too simple” to blame the Kaiser for the excesses of German policy, just as it is too simple to throw all the responsibility for Nazi excesses onto Hitler’s shoulders. Dr. Röhl takes another point of view. The theme of his book, originally a dissertation, is that after an uneasy pause following Bismarck’s fall in 1890, William emerged in 1897 as “the decisive figure,” and that it was he who determined the direction of German policy. I shall be surprised if many historians endorse this view. As is common with writers of dissertations, Dr. Röhl reads too much into his evidence. But he is right in saying that, after 1897, the German government, “adjusting itself to the age of mass politics,” sought an “alliance with the forces of popular nationalism.”
The expression of this alliance was imperialism and Weltpolitik. As one of the Kaiser’s associates wrote, Bismarck’s successor, Caprivi, “believed that Germany had no chance at all of becoming a world power, and consequently his policy was designed only to maintain our position on the European continent.” Undoubtedly the abandonment of Caprivi’s policy (which was also Bismarck’s policy) was a decisive turning point on the road to war, military defeat, and the collapse of the monarchy. It was a decisive turning point also on the road to Hitler.
Yet, in the climate of the time, it was only natural that Germany should turn away from Prussian conservatism and embark on imperialist policies. The fault did not lie here. Nor was it true, as German apologists have frequently urged, that the other powers banded together to deprive Germany of its rightful place in the sun, and thus forced it to extremes. On the contrary, there is evidence enough to show that they were willing to meet reasonable German demands. The real problem, as the German historian, Erich Brandenburg, long ago pointed out, was that Germany had no tangible goal. Its imperialism was boundless, unscrupulous, and, above all, entirely oblivious of the rights of other peoples. It embodied no higher aim, had nothing to offer save subjection to German domination. The most striking—and for many readers the most repellent—feature of the documentation Professor Fischer brings together, is the utter disregard it reveals of anything but the narrowest German interests. No one who has read Professor Fischer’s book can possibly believe that the First World War—or the Second World War for that matter—was fought in vain. The world which Germany’s war aims envisaged was a nightmare world in which no other people had a right to an independent life. It is because it brings home this unpleasant fact that Fischer’s book is so important. When we see what we have escaped, it may perhaps seem less difficult to confront our own world, for all its imperfections.
Pre-Copernican Germany May 23, 1968