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…
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