Monday, July 24, 2017

Overrated Classic: Fritz Fischer's Germany's Aims in the First World War

Fritz Fischer's Germany's Aims in the First World War is an acclaimed classic, usually cited for breaking with forty years of German accepted wisdom that, unlike in 1939, in 1914 Germany “slid” blamelessly into war (to quote UK PM Lloyd-George). That is to say, Fischer asserted iconoclastically that the German Reich bore "a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of the general war." And this assertion, commonly accepted outside of Germany long before Fischer's 1961 pronouncement, is what gained Germany's Aims in the First World War such fame and notoriety – even though Fischer himself states in his book “It is not the purpose of this work (to debate) the question of war guilt.” p 87 And truly, what Fischer spends over 500 pages on is not war guilt, but an effort to show that the Second Reich sought to use the war to establish itself as a “world power,” through the political annexation of its nearest neighbors and the economic subordination of much of Europe into a Mitteleuropa.

Unfortunately for readability, Fischer pursues this goal by repetitive chronological rendering of state papers and the opinions of Germany's government officials and occasionally politicians and leading businessmen. Make no mistake, getting through this tome is a slog, one that is rarely rewarding.

Fischer's genuine thesis is buried halfway through the book:
“Leading circles in Germany were convinced that only a victorious war ending in substantial gains would enable them to maintain their political and social order;” p. 329 Such a stance certainly explains the stubbornness with which the Emperor, Army (and Navy), and Reich and Prussian governments held to to arrogant war aims – domination of Belgium and Poland, exploitation of Romania, seizure of the Baltic, Ukraine, even Caucasus, and commandeering the mine fields of northeast France.

But Fischer's emptying of the German archives into his expose leads him astray, by overvaluing any and all documents that support his thesis of an unchecked German will to power. For example, he cites the views of the head of the German Colonial Association and the head of the Reich Colonial Office as proof of German war aims in Africa. p. 587 Bureaucratically, an organization will always advocate for its own narrow goals, irrespective of whether those goals serve the greater good. Without clear evidence that the goal was accepted by the state, such views are interesting, but not dispositive. One might as well say a child's wish for a pony proves the existence of the stable.

And again, Fischer proffers arguments such as that on page 603:
“a long report (in June 1918) by the [Prussian] Ministry of State (was) one more testimony to Prussia's obstinate determination to expand....” It is more likely that the report is testimony to the inertia of bureaucracy, offering reports to the captain on how to arrange the deckchairs long after hitting the iceberg.

The past few years have seen numerous new books on the question of why the Great War broke out. Any of them, even the least of them, is a better contribution to the field than Fischer at this date.

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