The First World War (Questions and Analysis in History)

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Protesting the First World War - Zinn Education Project

These publications therefore had considerable weight in shaping the debate over the origins of the war. First, the choice of German and French historians and officials to start the series in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war pushed the search for the origins back from the immediate context of the July crisis and the years immediately preceding the war. This gave rise to a narrative that emphasised the flaws of the international order, rendering war a likely outcome of decades of great power rivalries.

Second, the study of the origins of the war became the study of diplomatic history.

Axis initiative and Allied reaction

Without access to significant materials from other ministries or personal papers, historians generally worked on the assumption that the key decisions were made in the foreign ministries. This downplayed the role of military and economic groups in making foreign policy. Sources for public opinion were available — in Malcolm Carroll published his important study of French public opinion and foreign policy — but these were under-utilised.

Third, the publication of so many volumes ensured that historians often had access to several accounts of the one event or discussion. By the late s, historians were busily digesting the mass of documents. American historians — most prominently Bernadotte Schmitt , Sidney Fay , William Langer , and Harry Elmer Barnes — were at the fore of the debate.

For the first time since the outbreak of the war, historians began to achieve some critical distance from the subject, even if they were working with documentary materials shaped by the political struggles over article This confirmed his findings in an earlier volume on the July crisis.

Rebuilding the world after the second world war

The most comprehensive analysis of the origins of the war, written by the former editor of Corriere della Sera , Luigi Albertini , was published during the Second World War. It represented the culmination of the diplomatic history approach of the interwar years.

Even if historians distanced themselves from politics, the wider political context inevitably shaped questions and perspectives. Noel-Baker, a conscientious objector during the First World War, was one of many to make the association between the Nazi regime and Prussian militarism. The aggressive, expansionist foreign and military policies of the Third Reich compelled contemporaries to think anew about the relationship between German domestic politics and the origins of major European wars from the s to the s.

The relationship between academic and political debate is illustrated by two contributions to the debate. The first example is A. The chapter was rejected for its allegedly pessimistic reading of German history, so Taylor responded by writing a full survey. The First World War and its origins became a central part of this narrative.

In typically irreverent and suggestive style, Taylor argued that the origins of the war were primarily rooted in the crisis-prone politics of the German Empire after Foreign policy setbacks — the formation of the Triple Entente between and and an over-reliance on the Austro-Hungarian ally — and the increasing fragility of Bismarckian constitutional settlement of increased the willingness of German leaders to pursue highly risky policies. Success in war served domestic agendas, buttressing authoritarian elites against democratic reforms.

After German historians faced the task of giving an historical context for the Third Reich, while also renewing German historiographical traditions. The German historian and veteran of the First World War Gerhard Ritter published Machtstaat und Utopie in , a partially disguised attempt to separate the Nazi regime from its self-proclaimed roots in German history.

For Ritter, Hitler represented a perversion of politics, the subordination of politics to war. The roots of the Hitler regime, Ritter suggested, lay in the triumph of military over political considerations, which brought about the destruction of the political order and moral conventions.

The Schlieffen Plan, which privileged technical military considerations over what was politically possible, represented the triumph of the military over politics. Ritter criticised Bethmann Hollweg and others for their unquestioning acceptance of the primacy of military necessity over political judgement.

As the volumes were published after the war, he also saw them as a contribution to the debate about strategy in an age of nuclear war. While Wilhelm II and Bethmann Hollweg were not fully excused from their follies: they were cast as moderates, overwhelmed by modern militarism before and during the war. Bismarck and the Prussian conservative state were rescued from the opprobrium heaped upon them by the Allies and critical foreign historians, such as Taylor. Within the West German historical profession in the s, the origins of the war lay in the anarchical international system and modern militarism.

It was in this context that the Fischer controversy broke. Certainly the most passionate debate since the early s, the Fischer controversy was perhaps also the most nationally bounded debate on the origins of the war.

From the time of the infamous War Council meeting in December , he argued, German leaders planned a war of aggression. The drive to war resulted from increasing anxiety amongst German elites about the deterioration of the domestic and international stability of the Empire. Crucially, Fischer argued, German leaders had brought this situation upon themselves. At home, they stalled on constitutional changes, while German isolation in international politics was the result of menacing moves over Morocco and the Balkans after the turn of the century. It was a case of self-encirclement.

He showed how military and political leaders prepared for war from late , increasing the size of the army and fostering aggressive nationalist public opinion. This interpretation significantly reduced the interpretive weight placed on the international system. His interpretation derived from a methodological move, from the primacy of foreign policy to the primacy of domestic politics. On this reading, foreign policy was primarily the product of domestic political pressures. This was the fundamental driving force of the history of the German nation-state between and The implications of this argument were already evident in his books on German war aims and pre-war foreign policy.

This account challenged the efforts of Ritter and others to separate the Nazi regime from the continuities of German history. They argued that many of the documents could be interpreted in alternative ways. Indeed, complex disputes over the interpretation of the War Council meeting continue to the present day. Although his own work had dissected the role of the German military in pre-war politics, he worked from the assumption that foreign policy was a response to international, not domestic political, conditions. The anxieties of German leaders before were the product of isolation and encirclement, cemented by the Anglo-Russian entente of Some German historians — and the American Paul Schroeder — argued that the entente powers, in particular Britain, were the most expansionist states in the decades before In global terms — then an unusual perspective for a scholar of European power politics — the expansion of the British and French Empires made Germany relatively weaker.

The controversy owed much of its febrile atmosphere to the political stakes. Recent research has shown that Fischer had already viewed the conservative German historical profession with suspicion, even contempt, during the s. At this point, Fischer was certainly open to certain Nazi ideas and he was appointed professor of modern history at the University of Hamburg in In this respect, the two camps shared a similar, if negative, goal, namely avoiding a return to a dictatorship.

The weight of evidence and the clarity of his argument undoubtedly contributed to his success. Yet the success of any historical argument also owes much to wider political and social contexts. Within West German universities, a new generation of graduate students adopted a more critical perspective on German history. They tended to emphasise the long-term continuities that culminated in the Third Reich. Studies of the German Empire were a proxy for engagement with the history of the Nazi past. A new generation of German historians went much further than Fischer in emphasising the domestic roots of the origins of the war.

Hans Ulrich Wehler , based at Bielefeld, was the most prominent of these historians. He introduced new approaches from the social sciences, which saw domestic politics as a struggle between different economic and social groups. Social elites — business people, agrarians, the officer corps, and the mandarin class — forged alliances to retain power and wealth at the expense of workers, peasants, and other social groups. They thwarted constitutional reform. Yet these elite alliances were beset by contradictions. An expansionist imperialist policy offered the elites in the German Empire a means to escape these contradictions and to stifle domestic reform — but at the risk of war.

Whereas in the interwar period, historians saw in Franco-German antagonism the original flaw of the international system, Wehler and others now located the source of the problems in the German constitution. Amongst French historians there was a similar change in emphasis, away from the diplomatic history practised by Renouvin in the interwar period towards a greater interest in the economic and social bases of foreign policy.

Between the late s and mids, Renouvin himself and Jean-Baptiste Duroselle supervised important works on French imperial expansion, economic relations, and public opinion. In part, the French studies did not deal directly with the political decisions of the July crisis and in part they confirmed existing interpretations that French policy had contributed towards creating the conditions for war, but had not actively sought war. His arguments confirmed the general thrust of post-Second World War scholarship on the origins of the war.

His engagement with American and British academics was important in inspiring his own criticisms of the methodological assumptions within the German historical profession. Invitations to lecture at universities and the translations of his books gave additional validation to his research. And they did, broadening the source-base and asking new questions. By the late s a new orthodoxy about the origins of the war was established, emphasising the primary responsibility of German leaders for ending peace in Europe and the flawed domestic political development of the German nation-state after Although the Fischer thesis remained a source of debate amongst German historians, the erosion of the orthodoxy that had emerged in the s and s had diverse sources, often outside Germany.

British social historians were not inclined to idealise British historical developments, against which German history could be measured and found wanting.


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In the immediate term, the questioning of the Sonderweg by social historians had little impact on research in international history. Rather than a full-fronted assault on the Fischer thesis, the cornerstone of the new orthodoxy, changing historical interpretations, emerged across a range of different issues. This reflected the increasing breadth of research into international history, but it also contributed to a fragmentation of the field. Which empires and countries had lost territory or no longer existed by the period depicted in the second map?

Which countries are on the map for that are not on the map for ? Analyze : Use what you observed in the previous step to draw conclusions about some of the effects of World War I. What patterns do you notice? What do these maps suggest about what the victorious countries gained from the war?


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  8. What do they suggest about what the defeated countries lost? What other information about the end of the war, besides these maps, would help you better understand the world in ? Predict : Make predictions about how the changes these maps show might have gone on to affect Europe in the years following the war. Which countries do you predict will be vulnerable to attack or intimidation from other countries? Which countries appear poised for prosperity and security? What can you infer about how the changes illustrated in these maps affected the way citizens of different countries were feeling after the war?

    Share and Discuss Analysis Conclude the lesson by inviting students to share and discuss the headlines they wrote in the Analyze step of the second activity , using the Wraparound teaching strategy. After completing the reading and discussing the Connection Questions that follow it, ask students to consider the following: How does the information in this reading add to your impressions about the impact of World War I in Europe, especially on Germany?

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