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The Fischer Controversy and the Inevitability of World War I

Some die shouting in gas or fire;
   Some die silent, by shell and shot.
Some die desperate, caught on the wire -
  Some die suddenly.     This will not.

From ‘A Death Bed” by Rudyard Kipling


The nature and scale of the First World War brought an unprecedented amount of destruction and loss of life that toppled Europe from its position of global pre-eminence thus altering the fundamental nature of World politics for the rest of the century.  Even the eventual Allied victory succeeded only in laying the foundations for further war on the continent.


Understandably then the nature and origins of the ‘Great Folly” have long been discussed by historians and as the generation of war heroes fades away it will be increasingly important to gain a clear understanding of what precipitated the calamitous events of 1914 lest the mistakes be repeated again.


In the comparative peace of the 1920s it became fashionable, most ardently, not surprisingly in Germany, to deny the German Empire bore any responsibility for the ‘Great War’ and it was not until the controversial Fischer thesis of the 1960s that this view was compellingly disputed. Now widely accepted as being for the most part correct the Fischer thesis main contention is that it was the grandiose expansionist aims of the Imperial German government and its domestic supporters with which accountability for the war should lie. In short as the Balkan dispute degenerated into a War involving most of Europe, officials in Berlin did what they could to ensue that this opportunity for a preventative showdown with France and Russia would not be lost. In her present state of military and economic superiority Germany stood a good chance of winning her adversaries on the continent whereas in two or three years Russia would prove too powerful and the advantage would be lost.


While the large amount of evidence that Fischer presents of German policy and national character in the early twentieth century has meant that even the most ardent defenders of Germany’s role in the war have come to accept three fourths of his arguments, historians have quite rightly argued that both Serbia and Austria-Hungary, being the two countries that sparked the war, have to shoulder some of the blame. The question of how much responsibility was long subdued by the intensity of the Fischer debate. As to was an analysis of the long term political, economic and social circumstances that prevailed in pre-war Europe. The Fischer thesis fails to take into account that when examining the driving force of any war there are a multitude of causes both long term and short term that interplay with each other. The long term analysis does not deny that that the war was triggered by Germany’s bid for World power but maintains that ultimately, combined with the nationalist mood and Social Darwinist doctrine of the time, the system of pre-war politics; stability by ‘balance of power’ and interlocking alliance systems was destined for a disastrous collapse. Schroeder remarks that, “Europe’s frequent escapes from crisis before 1914 do not indicate the possibility that she could have continued to avoid war indefinitely; they rather indicate a general systemic crisis, an approaching breakdown…” The question in this light is not; Why the outbreak or war? But why did the peace last for so long?


In the short term analysis most of what Fischer says about Germany and her bid for world power is true. His case however is very German centric and he worries little about the policies of the other powers yet assumes that German policy was decisive for their actions. Historians legitimately differ over the extent of blame each European power involved should take. Their different viewpoints arise largely from the ambiguity with which sources can be interpreted. Fischer argues that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June the 28th provided the German authority with a golden opportunity it had been waiting for. He reports of various witnesses that attested that government circles in Berlin “were of the opinion that the moment was propitious for a European war.” As the Saxon ambassador in the capital reported, “The military are now urging once again that we should let it come to war, given that Russia in not yet ready.” Hence there was no time wasted in reassuring Austria-Hungary of her allies support and Count Hoyos, Austria-Hungary’s chief of cabinet, was able to arrive in Berlin certain in the knowledge that Franz Joseph’s enquiry for his neighbours support would receive a favourable reply.


Counter to Fischer’s portrayal of Austria-Hungary as fundamentally peacefully orientated Samual R.Williamson argues that Austria-Hungary “was not an innocent, amicable-level government pressured into war by its ambitious northern ally.” Rather those in power in Vienna were determined to stave off the increase in the Empire’s decline that would surely follow if they remained passive after such provocation. Undoubtedly he is correct in asserting that officials in Vienna saw this saw this as an opportunity to crush the menace of Serbia once and for all, and the decision to attack Belgrade was made with this fundamental goal in mind. Biases arise though in his ignoring the evidence for the extent of the pressure that Berlin was asserting. Unlike her ally Austria-Hungary wished only a local war and hoped that Russia, whose economic and military reforms not yet complete, would refrain from entry. Any doubts of Russia’s likely behaviour however were subdued by a forceful Berlin who insisted that a war against Russia needed to be fought sooner rather than later. Thus three days after the Hoyos mission the German ambassador in Vienna sought out their minister of foreign affairs to tell him “most emphatically” that “one expects action against Serbia in Berlin” and that any sign of hesitation and weakness by Austria Hungary would deter Germany’s unqualified support.


In view of this and other evidence Fischer presents it is hard to dispute that following the Sarajevo murder Germany was determined to set a war in motion. Williamson on the other hand lacks evidence to support his claims that, of the alliance powers, Austria-Hungary acted the most antagonistically and actively pursued her goals while naively underestimating the willingness of Russia to protect its Slavic cousins. In reality it seems like the two allies mutually concluded that the chance to pursue there individual hegemonous aims was too good to miss and Austria while desperately hoping that Russia would be prudent enough to remain passive, drafted the provocative ultimatum to Belgrade knowing that even with full German support as deterrent the risk of a continental war was more than substantial.


Following with her pursuit of war Germany skilfully dispelled a series of European mediation attempts that shortly followed the issuing of the ultimatum to Belgrade. The official plan, under the action of the Chancellor, Bethamn Hollweg, in the final days of July was to let Russia commit the blunder of mobilising it’s great army and thus place Germany in a state of ‘pre-eminent danger’ that would make war inevitable. By portraying the Russians as the aggressors Hollweg hoped to both motivate the people at home for war as well as guaranteeing British neutrality. As war-hungry as Germany was she emphatically did not want a world war and until the last minute was convinced that Britain would not take part in a war started over a Balkan country. By the night of 29-30 of July though, despite last minute attempts in Berlin to advise Austria not to appear too eager for war, it became apparent that the continental war that Germany had contemplated – without involving England- could not now be fought. Fischer is constantly too hard on Betham Hollweg and as Geiss asserts “Hollweg when taking the plunge in July 1914, only wanted a limited ‘rational war’ in 18th century style, not a ferocious world war.” Fischer also maintains that eagerness for war and not budding anxiety concerning the execution of the rigidly fixed Schliefen plan prevailed in all levels of the German cabinet. In contrast Ritter believes it was the generals who convinced a resisting chancellor that it was already to late for mediation attempts and negotiation with Russia. So as the decision to press ahead with full knowledge that world war was inevitable the subjective mood of the men who took the ‘leap into the dark’ was an incongruous compound of optimism and pessimism; ‘Weltmacht oder Niedergang’ [World power or downfall.]


Where the Fischer thesis largely falls down is his claim that the German decision to fight a major war was taken not in July 1914 but a year and a half earlier, on 8 December 1912 at the infamous Potsdam. Having just learned, from British officials, that expansion of German power on the continent would not be tolerated, Wilhelm II was in a fit of anger and recommended strong action by Austria against Serbia in the newly erupted Balkan war. As was to be the case 1914 the moment was seen as propitious for a continental showdown and the probable intervention of Russia on behalf of its Slav counterpart was predicted. Demand for “postponement of the great fight for one and a half years” was finally settled upon in light of capital projects that yet needed to be finished in Germany that would give them a further advantage.

The war council is central to the controversy both as a indicator that the Army had it’s traditional position of high influence within the Berlin cabinet and that from as early as 1912 the prevailing thought was, in the words of the German, Chief of the general staff “war was unavoidable and [in light of Russia’s growing power] the sooner the better.” What it does not indicate is Fischer disputation that the events of 1914 were planned since as early as 1912. The chaotic decision making process in Berlin allowed no such rational long term preparation and there was no such systematic planning for war on any level – economic, psychological or political.


In the long term analysis Fischer claims that it was the unilateral hegemonous aims of Germany that from 1890 onwards led the continent towards war. He places more emphasis on the characters in power and the decisions they made than on events of the prewar era. Historians constantly debate over the relative merits of the two stances and ultimately a middle of the road analysis is necessary. While key decision makers no doubt played an important role in the events of 1914 there was a sense that events were out of their control, as Schroeder points out “military leader everywhere in 1914, especially in the Central Powers, felt themselves to be in the grip of uncontrollable forces.” He refers to the prewar system as ‘galloping Gertie’ in which “the very devices built into a system to keep it stable and operate under stress, subjected to intolerable pressure, generate forces of their own which cause the system to destroy itself”


In my opinion a question infrequently asked is that considering Germany’s sudden appearance as a continental power and the economic success that Bismarck’s social reforms brought for the fledgling country, is it unfair to criticise Germany for seeking the global pre-eminence her neighbours shared. Admittedly it was only after Germany started on her ambitious ill-fated career of becoming a full-fledged world power in her own right the world situation changed radically but was it unreasonable that she should want, as Kaiser Wilhelm put it, “to have a place in the sun.”? In light of the Social Darwinism paradigm that underlined the thinking and politics of the time it seems unfair to say that given the strength of Germany she shouldn’t have had desires for an Empire. With the prevailing notion that all races were pitted against each other in a survival of the fittest and ultimately one race world emerge to dominate the world would not any nation who had the chance to pursue national goals do so and hence was German frustration and fear at being excluded from world politics and empire also not to be expected? Virtually every attempt to expand Germany’s economic power beyond its traditional sphere of activity met with disappointment after the turn of the century.  The apprehension in Germany further flourished with the signing of the Franco-Russian alliance in 1894. Arguably Germany’s ‘Weltpolitik’ forced the Entente powers together; it was only when Britain was challenged by Germany’s naval programme she abandoned splendid isolation and sought alliances with the welcoming France in 1904 and with Russia in 1907. There is also the possibility that the Entente powers would have been drawn together out of there own need to settle their colonial disputes and France aware of her economic and population inferiority as well as her defeat in the Franco-Prussian war had long been seeking to curtail the German threat with surrounding alliances.


The encircling of Germany and strangulation of ‘Weltpolitik’ by the Entente powers is often looked over. The ‘Auskreisung’, which Fischer portrays as the result of German aggressiveness and blunders was precisely the outcome British diplomacy, was bent on achieving and Schroeder asks that considering Germany’s aggressive nature and ambitious aims why when hindered at every turn did she hold off the showdown for so long. He also notes that the central threat to the European system was the encircling of Austria and the decline of her Empire – this was the weakening of the balance of power and some responsibility should lie with Britain, who alone had the power to act to restore the balance, instead Britain hoped that if Austria-Hungary had to go she would do so quietly but as we well know this was not to be the case.


While there was no encirclement of Germany by enemies waiting to attack and crush her, the perceived threat of ‘Einkreisung’ had become so widespread that the only conceivable choice for the Reich became rising to a full-fledged world power or stagnation. The conclusion was the idea of preventable war against those enemies who tried to block Germany’s further rise. As Geiss quotes in 1918 ex- chancellor Bethman Hollweg when questioned said “Yes, My God in some senses it was a preventive war. But when war was hanging above us, when it had to come in two years even more dangerously and more inescapably, and when the general said, it is still possible without defeat, but not in two years time. Yes the generals!”…


To briefly conclude then most of what Fischer says about Germany and her bid for world power is true. Many of his foundations and emphasis are however open to challenge. Once war broke out world power became Germany’s essential goals as evidenced by the September Plan but these were not Germany’s pre-war concerns which entailed a limited war on the continent. Further Fischer’s debate is mono-causal. His main argument is correct Germany did pursue world power from 1890 onwards but there were other causes behind the driving force of the war. The attitudes of all the European nations was the same; short-sighted, selfish and unimaginative. All played the game with his or her own stakes at heart until the system was bent and twisted so much it broke – inevitably at its weakest point. Ultimately the First World War was an inevitable end to a fragile structure of politics founded on an in-egalitarian view of humanity that is best summed up as a folly that was ‘Menschlich, allzu menschlich.’ [Human, all too human]