First World War: How should Germany commemorate the centenary?

The problem poses deep questions for the country
June 18, 2014

German politicians mark Volkstrauertag—Remembrance Sunday—on 16th November 2008 © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Read more: 10 forgotten facts of the First World War

The centenary of the First World War is upon us. The opening shots have already been fired, and not just in Britain. In Bonn, one of the most important exhibitions marking the anniversary, which falls in early August (marking Germany’s declaration of war on Russia and France in 1914), has already closed. A number of further exhibitions will be mounted in Germany, whose collective memory of the war has been overshadowed for understandable and proper reasons by that of the Second World War and the Holocaust, though most of these are being organised at state as opposed to federal level. Its universities are as obsessed with holding conferences on the subject as are those in Britain and France.

There is one big difference, however, between the Federal Republic and its western neighbours. The governments of its erstwhile enemies, now allies, have devoted considerable resources to the centenary. In November 2011, for example, the then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, declared that the First World War was second only to the revolution of 1789 in its significance for his country. French losses in the war were twice those of Britain, but British losses in 1914-18 were twice those of 1939-45. Given the impact on British society of those losses, Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in October 2012 that the government would play a role in the commemoration of the outbreak of war was equally logical.

The German government, meanwhile, has been largely silent. The Bonn exhibition enjoyed the patronage of Joachim Gauck, the President, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has remained aloof. Last year’s elections were one reason. However, the formation of a new governing coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats has not produced the major statement many expected. When she came to Britain on 27th February, she paid tribute to Britain’s role in both world wars and to the losses incurred by its armed forces, but went no further.

The British press is not alone in noticing her uncertainty as to how to deal with the legacy of the First World War; so, increasingly, are many Germans. At the end of February, a spokesperson for the left-wing party Die Linke regretted that Germany had allocated only around €4m to the centenary. The significance of the First World War in the history of socialism in the 20th century is considerable (not that anybody in Britain, including those in the Labour Party, seems to have noticed). There is a diplomatic aspect to this, too. Michael Epkenhans, the head of the military history office of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, and himself a distinguished historian of the war, regrets Germany’s absence from a commemoration in which most of Europe is now involved.

To understand why Germany is so uncertain it is necessary to go back to the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of war. Just before it, in 1961, the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer published the first of two major books on Germany’s role in the war (the second appeared in 1969). Together, they challenged the consensus that had emerged in the 1930s and according to which no one power was responsible for starting the war. For Fischer, Germany stood guilty as charged by the peacemakers at Versailles in 1919. This did not go down well with most of his colleagues. Struggling to come to terms with the legacy of Hitler and the Nazis, they resisted an interpretation which made the Kaiser and imperial Germany the forebears of the Third Reich. In the national furore that followed several of the young scholars who had been persuaded by the Fischer thesis found themselves unable to secure academic jobs, and migrated to Britain and America. Only in East Germany (home to the young Merkel) could Fischer be sure of a hearing.

In the long run, the Fischer thesis gained increasing traction, especially after German reunification in 1990. The Holocaust exhibition which toured Germany in the 1990s showed how the German army—and by extension the German people—had colluded in the crimes of Hitler and his henchmen. The sense of collective responsibility for the Second World War made accepting it for the First as well seem more logical. Ten years ago, on the 90th anniversary of 1914, the Fischer thesis dominated German understanding of the war.

Fischer’s arguments had almost no impact on the British commemoration of the 50th anniversary, which was as parochial as so much of what is planned for the 100th threatens to be. For those anxious to argue that for Britain this was a justified and “necessary” war, as opposed to “a war of choice,” Fischer provided strong supporting evidence. Yet Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s most energetic defender at the time, John Terraine, did not cite him. More recently, especially over the past 20 years, academic historians outside Germany have been moving away from the Fischer thesis, pointing out some obvious truths: that the war began in the Balkans, that the original belligerents were Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and that the reasons for one country going to war did not necessarily apply to others.

Many German historians eventually modified their own positions: raised as pure Fischerites, they now acknowledged the need to incorporate the unequivocal evidence that it was Vienna, not Berlin, that wanted war, albeit a localised one. Last year, Herfried Münkler, a Berlin-based political scientist who is Germany’s leading commentator on war, published what was pitched as the first major general history of the First World War to appear in German since 1968. He distinguished between “guilt,” the tainted word allegedly used by the peacemakers in 1919, and “responsibility,” the word they actually used. Although he does not exempt the Kaiserreich from blame, his stress is on collective responsibility: Europe, in the words used by Lloyd George in his memoirs and which now figures regularly in headlines of the German press, “slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war.”


Last year, the publication in German of Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers, which stresses the war’s Balkan origins, caught a current just as it was gathering pace. It is important that Clark is not a German. What gives him credibility is that he is an Australian working in Cambridge. His book has sold well in many countries, but only in Germany is it, to borrow a phrase used by the historians Gerd Krumeich and Stig Förster, “balm to the soul.”

In Clark’s interpretation, Germans are relieved on two counts. First, he specifically rejects the idea of guilt, stressing that his purpose is simply to explain how the war came about. Second, his title, which has struck many historians as overdone (these statesmen were awake enough to know they were risking war), relieves Germany even of responsibility, let alone guilt. Today, unlike a decade ago, most Germans no longer believe that Germany bears the principal share of the blame for precipitating conflict in 1914.

That should make things much easier for Merkel. Admittedly, there are dissenting voices. Now in their seventies and eighties, the generation of historians closest to Fischer—Hans-Ulrich Wehler in Germany, John Röhl, the Kaiser’s biographer who is based in Britain, and Volker Berghahn in the United States—remains loyal to the idea that Germany caused the war. Younger historians who had begun to moderate their views before the publication of The Sleepwalkers, feel that Clark has pushed the argument too far. For Epkenhans, for example, the major decisions were still taken in Berlin, with Germany “picking up and playing the Austrian ball.” Krumeich, who has himself published a new book on the crisis of July 1914, thinks that Clark’s emphasis on pan-Slavism and the pressure placed on Austria-Hungary by Russia produces “extremely eccentric judgements on the politics of the July crisis.” So far, however, neither group of critics has mounted a coordinated assault on Clark’s position.

Ironically, Clark’s critics are more numerous in Britain than in Germany. Suddenly, Fischer’s arguments, however dated they might look to academics, are fashionable among the British chattering classes. In an article in the Daily Mail in January, in which he dismissed as left-wing those who believe the war in 1914 was not necessary, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, crudely politicised the debate.

What followed was absurd: Fischer was not called in evidence, but the television comedy Blackadder was. One of the programme’s stars, Tony Robinson, became Gove’s principal antagonist. The historian Gary Sheffield, Terraine’s successor as the defender of Haig, duly weighed in with supporting fire. The question of the causes of the war was conflated with its conduct, as though justifying one could also justify the other. What neither Gove nor his critics seemed to notice in the ensuing partisan knockabout was that Alan Clark, the author of The Donkeys, an ill-informed and opinionated account of British generalship published close to the 50th anniversary in 1961, went on to become rather better known as a Conservative MP. Now, as then, views about the causes of war do not divide neatly along political lines.

This spat may help explain Merkel’s reticence when she came to Britain in February. Gove’s words were characterised in the German press as celebrating “self-sacrifice, honour, heroism and patriotism,” martial virtues about which many Germans are now deeply sceptical. But their concerns go further. Germans, however much they may have taken Clark’s book to heart, have not stopped calling the war the Urkatastrophe, the seminal disaster of the 20th century (citing an American, George Kennan, as they do so), or seeing the Treaty of Versailles as leading directly to the Second World War. For them, the First World War is the beginning of a 30-year war that ended in 1945. Before 1914, the real Thirty Years War constituted for Germans a folk memory of the horrors of war which the First World War then revived: it had ravaged their land in the 17th century as the two world wars would do in the 20th. Merkel’s speech to parliament, by referring to both world wars, implicitly acknowledged these connections.

A narrative in which the First World War is the precursor to the Second brings Hitler back into the argument, of course. A recent British Council report on attitudes to the centenary in various countries calculated that, while an unsurprising 52 per cent of Germans see the war as having led to the rise of the Nazis, a massive 62 per cent of Britons do. Gove, the German press has concluded, wants to resuscitate the war guilt charge and celebrate a British victory over Germany.

British efforts to allay such concerns have been risible. The plan for reconciliation revolves around a football match, which may or may not have been played by a few atypical soldiers in No Man’s Land during the 1914 Christmas truce. Only a few Germans (30 per cent) know about this “factoid,” whereas Britons are more aware of it than citizens of any other nation (67 per cent). In general the Germans, despite their professed ignorance of the war and their rejection of its relevance to their sense of national identity, show greater awareness of the important issues. Sixty-nine per cent, for instance, know that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was killed at Sarajevo in June 1914, whereas only 55 percent of Britons do.

The assassination of Ferdinand triggered the First World War, but it was not directly relevant to Britain’s decision to fight—and to that extent comparative British ignorance is understandable. Britain entered the First World War because Germany turned west, and invaded Belgium and France. That is why a general European war—although it very quickly became a world war, not least because Britain was an imperial power—can be interpreted so narrowly by the British. Given Britain’s parochial perspective on its own history, it follows that Britons tend to think about the causes of the war almost exclusively in terms of Anglo-German antagonism. This narrow perspective was what united two apparently opposing takes on the outbreak of war broadcast by the BBC in the last week of February.

In the first programme, Max Hastings argued that war with Germany in 1914 was a necessity. Three days later, Niall Ferguson said it was a war Britain could and should have stayed out of. Neither of them said anything of significance about the Balkans or Austria-Hungary. The same might be said of the BBC’s dramatisation of the July crisis, 37 Days, transmitted a week later. Nations other than Britain and Germany had only walk-on parts.

Although their accounts were seemingly opposed, Hastings and Ferguson both relied on the Fischer thesis and the idea of German war guilt. Central to their arguments, stated explicitly in Ferguson’s case but implicit in Hastings’s, was the idea of Mitteleuropa, a central European economic bloc dominated by Germany. Fischer had addressed a wartime debate within Germany in his first book and then looked for its origins in the period before the war’s outbreak in his second, effectively arguing that Germany sought war in order to bring the dream of Mitteleuropa to fruition. Not only is the evidence for Fischer’s case sparse, the argument is counter-intuitive. Why should a state whose industrial output ranked second in the world only to that of the United States (and above that of its principal trading partner, Britain) want to restrict itself to a closed and localised market, when the whole world was potentially open to its goods?

Three years ago, when lecturing at the Free University of Berlin about the approach of the centenary, I suggested, only half-jokingly, that the German approach to an anniversary which would be politically challenging, both domestically and internationally, might be to focus on the European Union. Europeans now inhabit a continent so safe that, at least until the Russian take-over of Crimea, they tended to take their security for granted. That complacency can be attributed to the EU. Although it is the direct consequence of the Second World War, not the First, the men in the vanguard of the European movement, such as the Frenchman Jean Monnet, were veterans of the trenches, inspired by their experiences to construct a better world. On this reading, Mitteleuropa has now come to pass, albeit at considerable cost to the continent in blood and treasure, and with Germany acknowledging its position as hegemon only reluctantly. Today most European states, especially those to its east, would, perversely, prefer Germany to be more assertive, not less. This is a far cry from the worries of the early 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of reunification, let alone the anxieties of 1914 or 1939.

In a speech delivered on 27th January 2014 the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, broke the Federal Republic’s silence on the centenary. He began by doing something most ministers would have hesitated to do in the last three decades: he accepted the argument of The Sleepwalkers that all the governments of Europe had played a role in the rush to war in 1914. The bulk of German public opinion now agrees with that interpretation. A large and rapid shift has occurred, and it can be contrasted with British views, which seem to be going in the opposite direction (suggesting that Hastings triumphed in his debate with Ferguson). Steinmeier urged his audience to put the centenary to good use, and “to see the united Europe which we enjoy today as the lesson which we have derived from the drama of the world war.” The balance of power—which most Germans and many Britons would see as the reason Britain entered the war—has been replaced by a system that depends on the rule of law. As a result, Steinmeier, like most Germans and other west Europeans (including the British), thinks war in Europe is inconceivable. Beyond its borders, however, the malign influence of balance of power arguments still holds, particularly in parts of Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. Steinmeier did not name Russia, and the United States figured only by implication. However, he is not complacent: Europeans, he said, must rebound from the eurozone crisis to rebuild what they have achieved for the future.

In Britain, the EU is an unmentionable legacy of the First World War for some members of the Conservative Party and presumably for all of Ukip. Angela Merkel, although her speech encompassed both the war and Europe, refrained from provoking her hosts by making the same link. Britain’s response to the war of 1914-18, like that of 1939-45, is shaped partly by the fact that it didn’t suffer mass slaughter on the scale seen in mainland Europe across the two wars. The story of Britain’s contribution to both world wars is something of which it can be proud, largely untainted, as it is, by atrocity and war crimes. Few, if any, states in mainland Europe are so lucky.

Steinmeier’s call for Europe to rebuild itself is certainly stirring. But it has little, if anything, to do with the question of why European states went to war in 1914. Germany did not invade France and Belgium to create the EU, any more than the Conservative Party supported the Liberal government to prevent that from happening. The use of the past for contemporary purposes is all around us: in Ireland the wars of 1912-22 are used to promote understanding, while in Scotland the First World War has figured in the cases for both independence and the maintenance of the union. But our current preoccupations are not true windows to the past: we must not forget that over the next four years.