What Else, Indeed?

The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I

by Laurence Lafore
Lippincott, 282 pp., $4.50

The Great Departure: The United States and World War I, 1914-1920

by Daniel M. Smith
Wiley, 221 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The Great War 1914-1918: A Pictorial History

by John Terraine
Macmillan, 480 pp., $15.00

Once upon a time historians believed, with Ranke, that if they accumulated enough facts they would find the answers and produce a true, immutable version of past events. Now we are less confident. Knowledge breeds doubt, not certainty, and the more we know, the more uncertain we become. Thirty-five years ago, when I was first set to lecture on the origins of what was then called The Great War, I spoke with cheerful confidence. There were many books to read, many sources to study. Once this had been done, it seemed easy to come up with firm explanations. The explanations changed with the years. During the war itself, the explanation was the wickedness of the opposing side. After the war, it shifted to the wickedness of all, or nearly all, the statesmen concerned. The system of “international anarchy” was supposed to be at fault, though no one explained how a system which had produced an unprecedented period of peace then produced the bitterest of wars. By the 1930s we had taken up with “economic imperialism,” a version which we derived, unconsciously or otherwise, from a rather inferior tract by Lenin.

The Second World War switched some historians back to blaming the Germans for the First. Others, putting all the blame for the second war on Hitler, concluded that the previous generation of Germans, lacking a Hitler, were no worse than other people. Still, the second war confirmed our belief in confident explanations one way or the other. It had, or seemed to have, a simple explanation: a desire to destroy Hitler and the Nazi system. By the end of the war, the Allied statesmen proudly gave the impression that they had wanted it all along—a version perhaps true of Churchill, certainly untrue of both Stalin and Roosevelt, the great evaders. I half-expected that the coming of the cold war would produce a new edition of the explanation that the first war was the fault of the Russians, and so it did to some extent. Usually however the mud thrown at Hitler has stuck also to Imperial Germany. Mr. Terraine, for instance, dismisses the cause of the Great War in a couple of pages. It was the German state and people “striving toward world supremacy through their traditional instruments—the armed forces.” Professor Lafore picks on Bethmann Hollweg and Jagow—“almost certainly duplicitous beyond the common requirements of diplomacy or even expediency,” though Jagow was a routine diplomatist, while Bethmann deserved more than most statesmen the title of an honest man. But most historians know so little about Bethmann Hollweg that they even spell his name with a hyphen.

Professor Lafore does not of course limit himself to condemning two German statesmen. Apart from anything else, this is not a thesis on which to base a whole book. Professor Lafore indeed ranges far book, as many have done before him, to Bismarck’s system of alliances and even to the unification of Germany and Italy. He recognizes that these things have little relevancy to…

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