The battle over the 
meaning of World War I

The Sleepwalkers:

How Europe Went to War in 1914

Der Große Krieg:

Die Welt 1914–1918

World War I formally ended in 1918. Yet, the geopolitical ruptures, dislocations, and conflicts generated by this murderous war, which claimed tens of millions of victims, still shape our world. While most of the fighting took place in Europe, this truly global conflict involved military personnel as well as civilians from Africa, Asia, Australia, Oceania, and North America. The origins and meaning of the war are now the subjects of a major historical debate, unfolding amidst a resurgence of great power rivalry in our emerging asymmetrical, multi-polar global order.

Within this context, several prominent right-wing historians are attempting to undermine and marginalize not only Marxist analyses of the “Great War” but also the works of the scholarly mainstream that have integrated some key aspects of the Marxist tradition into their narratives, as is the case, most prominently, with the so-called Fischer School. Marxists should take this development very seriously and respond, not only by defending the classical Marxist interpretation but also by also critically engaging the right-wing revisionists’ arguments, and building on a growing body of excellent leftist books. 

This review focuses on two major new right-wing revisionist narratives and concludes with suggestions of new left-wing books that defend and further develop the classical Marxist account. Since the generation of V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg, Marxists have concentrated on how the war developed out of systemic Great-Power struggles, where the older and established players, such as Great Britain and France, clashed with rapidly rising new powers like Imperial Germany over dividing and redividing the world into colonies and spheres of influence for political as well as economic ends.

Today’s debate about the war involves not only academics but also ministers of state. For example, the British Tory government’s Education Secretary Michael Gove stated in 2014 that the comedy show Black Adder undermines Britain’s sense of national purpose and confidence. One is left to marvel at the quixotic fierceness of his nationalist pride. Gove was particularly irked by the popular show’s biting critique of upper class British imperialism and self-righteousness. 

But Gove did not stop at indicting Black Adder; he went on to attack leftwing critiques of the war. In a polemic entitled “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?,” Gove thundered against all those who dared undermine British patriotism and resolve of the war effort: 

Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths. Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian and Guardian writer, has criticized those who fought, arguing, “the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilization, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong.” And he has attacked the very idea of honoring their sacrifice . . . rather than [being] a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate. The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war… The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified. And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skillfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.

Gove made his attack on left-wing histories of state policy in 2013, when he pushed for a highly sanitized and jingoistic revision of the British history school curriculum.

Largely due to the efforts of Gove and other British reactionaries, the Cameron government made over 50 million pounds available for promoting a positive spin on Britain’s participation in World War I. These efforts were not only confined to commemorating a particular version of the past, but they are meant as a guide for British imperialism in an increasingly volatile world. Gove explicitly makes this point by connecting the way we remember World War I with our present situation:

The challenges we face today—great power rivalry, migrant populations on the move, rapid social upheaval, growing global economic interdependence, massive technological change and fragile confidence in political elites—are all challenges our forebears faced.… Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honor and courage.

Gove’s crude propaganda is joined by more articulate, but equally alarming, scholarly efforts to rehabilitate the war, while shielding political and economic elites from criticism. Chief among those scholars are Christopher Clark and Herfried Münkler. The former’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 fleshes out his main thesis that the various leading decision-makers and strategists that led Europe into this catastrophic war did not act in a premeditated fashion. Instead, they stumbled blindly into the conflict. In addition to largely exonerating the leaders of the various belligerent powers from destructive designs, Clark focuses on diplomatic and military history—at the expense of analyzing the socio-economic and political structures that made large-scale war an ever-more likely possibility in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Europe. 

Much like Clark, Herfried Münkler’ Der Große Krieg: Die Welt 1914–1918 [The Great War: The World 1914-1918] largely ignores questions about entrenched domestic and foreign power structures and dynamics on the eve of the outbreak of the war in favor of military and diplomatic developments. While this book is currently only available in German, other books of his such as The New Wars and Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States have been translated into English, foreshadowing some of his arguments. 

Both Münkler and Clark argue that it is time to transcend the established body of critical scholarship on the origins of World War I that Fritz Fischer pioneered. Fischer’s laid out his argument most clearly in Germany’s Aims in the First World War, published in 1961 and was translated into English in 1968. In essence, Fischer proposes that the outbreak of World War I cannot be explained by looking only at short-term diplomatic and political developments. Instead, one must examine the road to war, which lasted several decades. 

Imperial Germany, by no means the only guilty party, nevertheless is particularly responsible due to its ever more aggressive foreign policy, which was contingent on domestic pressures. The German elites, composed of a mix of new industrialists and a more traditional aristocratic establishment, tried to contain and push back Germany’s rapidly growing labor movement. In doing so, they purposefully unleashed a hyper-nationalism that unfolded a dynamic of its own and pushed German foreign policy into an ever more belligerent direction. Since 1897, Imperial Germany openly challenged the global predominance of the British Empire, which undermined the global order and made war ever more likely.

Fischer’s work challenged the previous and largely conservative scholarly consensus, going beyond merely examining the actions of diplomatic, military, and political decision makers on the eve of World War I. He examined the long-term power structures and traditions, building on the work of Eckart Kehr and George Hallgarten. Historians in the former German Democratic Republic, foremost Fritz Klein, Joachim Petzold, and Willibald Gutsche, have also contributed substantially to the development of Fischer’s ideas.

The American historian John A. Moses argued in 1975 that, “No serious historian today can venture to pit himself against the evidence compiled by the Fischer school.” The appeal of what is now conventionally described as the Fischer Thesis crystalized into a scholarly consensus that included not only Marxist historians, such as Arno Mayer, but also mainstream liberal experts on European and German history, such as Roger Chickering, Konrad Jarausch, and Volker Berghahn.

The Fischer Thesis is not without problems. The Italian Marxist historian Luciano Canfora claimed that the critical historiographical tradition of the Fischer school could potentially be misused, by fixing the sole blame for the war on Imperial Germany; Education Secretary Gove might have welcomed such an assessment in order to distract from British war guilt. Yet Canfora acknowledges that the Fischer Thesis played an exceedingly fertile role in fleshing out German imperialism and its connections with German and global capitalism. But a wider lens is required to examine the collective responsibility of the other major European powers for the war to prevent the Fischer Thesis being instrumentalized as a convenient alibi. 

Clark and Münckler, however, are trying to dismantle the Fischer school’s entire argument. What is curious is not the testing of a scholarly consensus by newer generations of experts, but rather the speed with which these challenges have been embraced by mainstream journalists and commentators who lack the systematic familiarity with relevant archival sources to justify such instant conversions. In Germany leading talk-show hosts and political essayists like Frank Schirrmacher and the president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz energetically invoke Clark and Münckler. The reasons have less to do with arcane historiographical debates—or any new scholarly research—than tangible current political strategies and objectives.

Münckler is rather open about such motives, declaring in Der Groβe Krieg that, “In the long run, Fischer’s theses have functioned as a political tranquillizer that induced a certain fatigue regarding the continued fields of conflict in Europe.” What Münckler presents in his detached academic German prose is nothing less than a call for Germany to flex its muscles in today’s world. Since German reunification in 1990, Germany has become ever more involved in European and global affairs. 

Within this context, one might recall the infamous statement by Germany’s then-minister of defense Peter Struck on March 11, 2004: “Our security must be, among other places, defended at the Hindukush [Afghanistan].” On May 31, 2010, German president Horst Köhler announced his resignation, due to his unintentional revelation of the true nature of Germany’s progressively militarized foreign policy: 

In my estimation…we—including [German] society as a whole—are coming to the general understanding that, given this [strong] focus and corresponding dependency on exports, a country of our size needs to be aware that where called for or in an emergency, military deployment, too, is necessary if we are to protect our interests such as ensuring free trade routes or preventing regional instabilities which are also certain to negatively impact our ability to safeguard trade, jobs and income. All of this should be discussed and I think the path we are on is not so bad.

In addition to his prestigious position at one of Germany’s leading universities, Münckler is part of several highly influential networks, serving on the advisory council of the Federal Academy for Security Policies. Both the German foreign ministry as well as the department of defense are involved in selecting the members of this circle. 

Münckler as well as Clark reject not only the Fischer Thesis but also the concept of European mperialism altogether. To them, World War I was essentially an avoidable accident resulting from errors in judgment and the shortcomings of individual politicians and diplomats. By doing so, they dissolve any critical social history, emphasizing power and class structures in favor of an event-centered diplomatic and military history, and attempting to push aside any restraints on German power that have developed in Germany since the end of World War II.  

Instead of focusing on aggressive foreign and domestic policies, resulting from the ruling classes using hyper-nationalism as a wedge to divide and disorient the working class movement, Clark singles out Serbia as the main culprit in Sleepwalkers, describing in detail the pathologies of Serbian political culture, including the brutal murder of the Serbian royal family by a military putsch in June 1903. Yet, he does not compare this bloody deed to other atrocities committed by major imperialist powers—including Germany’s genocide of the Herero in Africa. His purposes are clarified by careful elaborations on Serbia’s internal and socio-political developments in the early twentieth century, while the contextual descriptions of the rivalry between the Great Powers is curiously missing. 

In all, Clark devotes over seventy-seven pages on how Serbian society was economically depressed, culturally underdeveloped, and saturated with a chauvinistic nationalism. While he is right that Serbia’s history and traditions had an impact on how its leaders behaved in 1914, this nexus between past and present is just as true in the case of Imperial Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Great Britain, and the other dominant states in Europe; and yet such developments and pathologies remain largely outside his frame of analysis. In many ways, Clark’s overall objective fits into an apologia for the so-called Great Powers.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, by Holman W. Jenkins Jr., follows in Clark’s footsteps, blaming Greek’s Syriza government for opposing the austerity measures forced upon Greek society by the Troika. Jenkins’ line of reasoning is contrived and illustrates the usefulness of Clark’s interpretation for today’s capitalist elites:

Many, who have apparently only read the title, utilize and invoke The Sleepwalkers to suggest that the fault of World War I lies with feckless and absentee European statesmen, not with hysterical and immoderate demands of a single state. In fact, the first 60 pages of Mr. Clark’s book is taken up with describing such a state, Serbia, and the deep complicity of its political and military ruling class in the nationalist terrorism that led to the murder of the Austrian heir apparent and his wife. Imagine today Hillary and Bill Clinton being assassinated on an official visit by conspirators tied to a host government’s political leadership. The nettle leaders of 1914 failed to grasp was Serbian terrorism. Kaiser Wilhelm, as Mr. Clark makes clear, wasn’t a warmonger so much as somebody who believed that Serbia must be made to answer.

In a rather imaginative leap of logic, Jenkins conflates Greece’s current Syriza government with Serbia in 1914, with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras emerging as an heir to Serbian terrorism: “Mr. Tsipras shriekingly insisted that Europe go on subsidizing Greece so Greece wouldn’t have to change. He effectively put a gun to Greece’s head and said, ‘Pay us ransom or the idiot gets it.’”

Richard Evans, so maligned by Michael Gove for his lack of patriotism and “Leftist” bias, illustrates the extent to which the reactionary backlash penetrates the liberal mainstream. In a telling exchange with a reader of the New York Review of Books, Evans mimics Clark and Münckler in dismissing not only the Fischer Thesis as outdated but the entire Marxist tradition as well. While he acknowledges that the Marxist tradition contributed greatly to historical scholarship in the past, it has now fallen out of favor. 

Evans accepts this development, without elaborating on why this should be welcomed, suggesting an uncritical scholarly fashionability. Labeling Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and V.I. Lenin “ideologues,” he dismisses the Fischer Thesis in this way: 

Through its German protagonists, like Kautsky and Luxemburg, whose Socialist party attracted millions of votes, it provided ammunition, some would still say, for Fritz Fischer’s now rather discredited thesis that the empire of the Kaiser actively favored war in order to contain and outmaneuver its domestic opponents, especially to play the patriotic card against . . . [the] worker’s movement.

The main task for Marxist scholars now consists of deconstructing the challenge to the Fischer Thesis and, most of all, demonstrating that a Marxist class analysis is still—and perhaps more than ever—essential to a balanced understanding of the origins of World War I. The recent de-emphasis of political, social, and economic power structures by Clark, Münckler, and others functions as the alibi for Great-Power imperialism today.  

Reducing the origins of World War I to the missteps of individual politicians, diplomats, and military leaders reframes the war as an unfortunate accident rather than as something that evolved out of the dynamics and pathologies of capitalism. It suggests that we can create a more just and peaceful world without challenging current existing power structures. 

Fortunately, resistance to this dangerous rewriting of history is growing. In Britain, artists, intellectuals, and activists have created the “No Glory in War” movement, challenging the Tory government’s efforts to rehabilitate the war. Independent leftist publishing houses around the world, such as Verso, Haymarket, Papy Rossa, and VSA, are publishing more scholarly works that return Marxist methodology to the center of the historiographical debates on the origins of this most catastrophic war. 

Within the last few years several excellent new books by left-wing scholars, linking World War I with the rise of Fascism and World War II, have come out. Among them are Douglas Newton’s The Darkest Days: the Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, Alexander Anievas’ Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in the 30 Year Crisis 1914–1945, Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido’s Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War I, as well as Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916–1931.

These works and others demonstrate that the evolving Marxist tradition remains unsurpassed as a guide to our understanding of the nexus between capitalism, imperialism, and war. These works, along with the earlier ones from the Fischer school and the classical Marxist tradition,* are invaluable weapons we can use to expose how the system drove the great powers toward war and still does so today. The battle over history is very much one over the past, present, and the future.

*    For example: Lenin’s Imperialism: Highest Stage of Capitalism; Rosa Luxemburg’s The Junius Pamphlet; Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy, and Trotsky’s The War and the International, all of which are available on the Marxist Internet Archive.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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