Historians’ dispute: bestseller’s thesis one of shared guilt

BERLIN – Unlike Britain, there is no established tradition here of remembering the conflict, nor is it ever referred to as the “Great War”. However the centenary has seen the country make up for lost time with a flood of books, exhibitions and documentaries that challenge long-held assumptions about the conflict.

The greatest phenomenon so far has been the runaway success of Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers. It remains a bestseller after weeks atop Germany's non-fiction charts last autumn. His thesis, that all of Europe's powers – not just Germany – carry blame for the war has triggered a heated historians' dispute.

It is a reversal of the original first World War dispute of the 1960s when historian Fritz Fisher argued that there was an obvious continuity between the war goals in 1914 and 1939: German world dominance. He framed the first World War as a warm-up act for the second and put blame for both squarely at the door of Berlin. By doing so he shattered West Germany’s post-war complacency towards the Nazi era as a regrettable, unprecedented historical mishap.

Fischer's arguments have been challenged by other German historians in the subsequent decades but The Sleepwalkers has lobbed a grenade into the debate and younger German historians have applauded Clark's portrayal of a pan-European crisis with shared guilt.


"I find it very convincing," said Sönke Neitzel, a leading military historian to Der Spiegel. "Everyone had the chance to prevent an escalation but no one did."

Older historians are more wary, with the milder critics suggesting Prof Clark’s book plays down Germany’s role in the July crisis. Many mainstream German historians argue that neither Germany nor Austria wanted a big European war but, motivated by false assumptions, decided to risk it anyway.

"In that sense [Germany's ]Reich leadership carry clearly the main blame for the outbreak of the first World War," writes Prof Oliver Janz of Berlin's Free University in his book 14.

The older the historian, the harsher the attacks on Prof Clark. Some have gone so far as to accuse him of pandering to a nationalist minority in Germany, for whom a draw on war guilt is as good as a German acquittal. In a lively interview with Der Spiegel Clark conceded that, had it not been for Berlin's encouragement of Vienna, the July crisis might have ended differently. But he insisted that the notion of sole German guilt for the first World War is as misleading as 1920s claims of German innocence, common after the shock of the Versailles Treaty.

The historians' dispute came to a head in Berlin last month. In the baroque German Historical Museum – a former arsenal and later museum to Germany's military might – Clark found himself under fire from Prof Gerd Krumeich (75), a German specialist on the first World War.

Krumeich suggested the secret of Clark's Sleepwalker success was its insinuation that German nationalism and imperialism before 1914 was in no way more aggressive than others. "Clearly we had a longing for a more ideal German history," said Krumeich sarcastically, "and Christopher Clark has satisfied this longing with bravura."

The event's host, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, noted diplomatically that Clark "hadn't encountered just support" in Germany for his arguments. Skirting around his own opinion of The Sleepwalkers thesis, Mr Steinmeier praised the Australian historian for making a well-timed distinction between good and bad diplomacy.

With an eye on Ukraine, Mr Steinmeier said: “It does make a difference whether we make an effort at dialogue or break off contact, whether we allow ourselves to be driven by the desire for escalation in the hope short-term gain – or whether we take the arduous path of de-escalation.”

As Germany’s historians’ dispute rolls on it has made an important contribution to this centenary year by dragging the memory of the first World War out from under the shadow of the second.

– Derek Scally