Slithering over the Brink

Russia and the Origins of the First World War

by D.C.B. Lieven
St. Martin’s Press, 213 pp., $25.00

France and the Origins of the First World War

by John F.V. Keiger
St. Martin’s Press, 201 pp., $25.00

All the governments, including that of Russia, and the great majority of the peoples are pacific, but things are out of control [es ist die Direktion verloren],” the German chancellor remarked gloomily at the height of the crisis leading to the outbreak of World War I. And other politicians with a share in the decisions that brought their countries into the war had similar feelings. “The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay,” Lloyd George later observed, and S.D. Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, admitted to being “débordé par les événements.” This is an understandable attitude for politicians to take, especially in retrospect when they can see that the war they started turned out to be a very different kind of war from the one they expected.

Historians, however, are reluctant to accept that the war was the result of some general fatality and want to find more specific causes for it. Their interpretation varies with their own contemporary preoccupations. Immediately after the First World War the Allied governments wanted to justify their demands for reparations and to satisfy the popular desire for vengeance by asserting Germany’s “war guilt.” In reaction the German historians set out to prove Germany’s innocence and to spread the blame more widely. Liberal historians, following Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on “open covenants openly arrived at,” accused the international system and the “old diplomacy”—an explanation which has the advantage that if everyone is to blame, it comes to much the same thing as saying that nobody is.

World War II seemed to confirm, at least for British and American historians, the belief that, as Germany was responsible for the Second World War, so it must have been responsible for the first as well, and this view was given fresh support in the 1960s by evidence produced from the German archives by Professor Fritz Fischer which suggested, to the indignation of German conservatives, that there was some continuity between Germany’s aims in the First World War and Hitler’s aims in the Second.

More important, however, was the suggestion in Fischer’s work—eagerly taken up by those historians who were challenging the accepted view of the origins of the cold war between the US and the USSR—that the war, and, by implication, all wars, were the result of domestic pressures from economic interest groups and of governments’ need to distract attention from internal political and social problems by creating a national patriotic consensus. The belief that foreign policy was determined by internal politics was now asserted against the traditional view held by Ranke and other nineteenth-century historians that it was foreign policy which determined the domestic development of states. A belief in the Primat der Aussenpolitik gave way to an emphasis on the Primat der Innenpolitik.

At the same time some features of the international scene before 1914—the arms race, the instability caused by the national aspirations of …

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