World War I Guilt: Culpability Question Divides Historians Today

By Dirk Kurbjuweit

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th of the start of World War II. Questions over the degree of German guilt remain contentious among historians, who have been fighting over the issue for years.

In his book "The Blood Intoxication of the Bolsheviks," published in the early 1920s, a certain R. Nilostonsky described a particularly horrific form of torture used in the Russian civil war. A rat was placed into an iron pipe, which was then pressed against the body of a prisoner. When the torturers placed the other end of the pipe against a fire, the panic-stricken rat had only one choice: to eat its way through the prisoner.

When Hitler met with his officers on Feb. 1, 1943, after the defeat at Stalingrad, he told them that he suspected some German prisoners were likely to commit treason. "You have to imagine a prisoner being brought to Moscow, and then imagine the 'rat cage.' That prisoner will sign anything."

Historian Ernst Nolte published an essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on June 6, 1986. In it, he suggested that Hitler's use of the term "rat cage" meant that the Nazi leader had heard of the Soviet form of torture involving a rat and a pipe. For Nolte, this served as evidence of the fear that Hitler and his men had of the Russians, a fear that could have "prompted" them to commit genocide.

In 1988, historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler published a book in which he devoted an entire chapter to the "rat cage," in an effort to prove that Nolte's theory was wrong.

As much as their debate seemed to revolve around rats, the real issue was culpability. How much guilt has Germany acquired throughout its history? And does the anecdote about Hitler and the Russian rat torture somehow diminish German guilt?

This year will be a historic one, marking three important anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of the eruption of World War I, the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first two dates have been the source of heated debates among German intellectuals. The Fischer controversy in the early 1960s had to do with assigning blame for the eruption of World War I, while the dispute between historians in the mid-1980s revolved around culpability for the Holocaust. Both debates were informed by the positions in what was then a divided nation, including views on German unification.

History is not just history, but also a part of the present. This is especially true of Germany. The overwhelming history of the 20th century engulfed the country and shaped the consciousness of politically active citizens.

Both debates ended in victory for those who advocated Germany accepting the greatest possible culpability and therefore sought to exclude the possibility of German reunification, fearing that a unified Germany could lead to fatal consequences, perhaps even a third world war. As a result, German consciousness was strongly influenced by this acceptance of guilt for decades to come.

A New Identity for Germans?

In the meantime, new information has come to light on the issues in both debates, which tends to support the losing side. Could this lead to a new national identity for Germans?

The importance of this question underscores the need to revisit the Fischer controversy and the dispute among historians in this historic year. It also focuses our attention, once again, on a controversial concept of the day: revisionism. It was once anathema to one side of the debate, and subsequently to the other. But it's a necessary debate.

A device that has already been relegated to history stands on the desk of Hans-Ulrich Wehler: a typewriter. In a sense, Wehler lives between the Netherlands and Italy, in a white house on the outskirts of the northwestern German city of Bielefeld, near the underground Dutch-Italian natural gas pipeline. For Wehler, living so close to the pipeline means that nothing can be built to spoil his view. When he sits in his office, he looks out at trees and meadows. Behind him are enough books to take an ordinary person an entire life to read, but for Wehler they represent only a small portion of his reading material.

He was a professor at the University of Bielefeld for 25 years. His most important work is a book called "Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte" (German Social History). Wehler, 82, is a slim, cheerful man with a hint of the singsong accent typical of the Rhineland region.

When he was an assistant professor at the University of Cologne in the early 1960s, Wehler attended a colloquium led by Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer. But he was disappointed. He had expected something wild and exciting, but Fischer was a conservative man who "engaged in the conventional history of diplomacy."

Destroying a Comfortable Relationship with the Past

In 1961, Fischer published a book called "Germany's Aims in the First World War." A sentence in Fischer's book led to many changes. For Fischer, the German Reich bore "a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of the general war."

The young Wehler was speechless. He had been waiting for a sentence like that.

At the time, West Germany was a country that felt relatively at ease with its past. The "national master narrative," the account of Germany's good past, still existed. The 12 Nazi years were certainly viewed as horrific, but they were also largely repressed at the time. German history prior to the Nazi era was viewed as anything from tolerable to heroic, including the history of World War I. German historians of the early postwar period clung to a word that had been used by former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George: "slid." In George's view, the major powers had slid into the war, which meant that everyone was equally culpable or innocent.

Fischer's theories destroyed this comfortable relationship with the past. He saw a continuity between the war objectives and 1914 and 1939: great conquests with the goal of achieving global power. The German Empire became a precursor to the Nazi regime and World War I an overture to World War II. "A mine has been placed against the good conscience of the Germans," SPIEGEL, which agreed with Fischer's ideas, wrote in its review of his book.

For Gerhard Ritter, an important historian at the time, Fischer's book was intolerable. He had served the German Kaiser as a soldier in World War I, and he believed that Fischer's theories were a "national disaster." He was uninterested in revisionist history. The Fischer controversy had begun, a debate that was carried out in newspapers and magazine, and at the 1964 "Historikertag" (Conference of German Historians) in Berlin.

Wehler says he defended Fischer "as much as possible." But he was still too young at the time to be taken seriously as a historian.

The dispute soon became political. In 1964, the German Foreign Ministry tried to prevent Fischer from traveling to the United States to give a series of lectures. In 1965, Franz Josef Strauss, the deputy chairman of the conservative faction in the German parliament, the Bundestag, called upon the government to do everything in its power "to combat and eradicate the habitual, negligent and deliberate distortions of German history and Germany's image today, distortions that are sometimes made with the intention of dissolving the Western community."

Strauss was troubled by the idea of "sole moral responsibility," which was not something Fischer had mentioned but had become a central concept in the dispute. This is often the case in debates, when they become condensed into individual words and sentences, making do with less than complete accuracy in the interest of strengthening an argument.

Carving History into Stone

Fischer's view prevailed. Whether the term being used was "sole responsibility" or a "significant share of the historic responsibility," the national master narrative had been destroyed -- an agreeable outcome for those who dominated the public dialogue starting in the late 1960s, the student revolutionaries who came to be known as the 1968 generation.

In 1972 historian Immanuel Geiss, one of Fischer's students, said: "The overwhelming role played by the German Reich in the outbreak of World War I and the offensive character of Germany's war objectives is no longer a point of controversy, nor is it disputable." It was as if he were carving history into stone.

Geiss knew how to make this final state of the history of World War I politically useful. In his view, the Fischer controversy had produced a new kind of person, "the German who had become insightful." From the 1972 perspective, Geiss had developed instructions for this person. The first and second world wars, he said, had resulted in "the need to make do with the status of lesser powers in Europe," as well as the "final liquidation of all patriotic dreams of a German Reich." He was referring to the possibility of German reunification. "Any attempt to circumvent these political consequences, to squeeze past them, would inevitably lead to a third phase of German power politics, hence leading to a third world war initiated, once again, by Germany."

Four decades later, over lunch at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Herfried Münkler, 62, shoots that notion down. A third world war? Nowhere in sight. Power politics? Difficult question. Germany is a power in Europe once again, but primarily an economic one. Münkler is critical of Germany, which, as "the strongest player at the center is keeping itself out of the political fray."

Münkler, who teaches political science at Berlin's Humboldt University, has just written a book about World War I, "Der Grosse Krieg" (The Great War). He refers to Fritz Fischer's research as "outrageous, in principle," noting that the historian limited his research to German archives, ignoring Russian, English and French material. This, says Münkler, meant that Fischer couldn't have discovered that the other major powers also had reasons to go to war.

Confusing Scenarios and Political Plans

Besides, says Münkler, Fischer "confused scenarios and political plans." The German military leaders had in fact developed war plans, just as everyone else had, he explains. They were determined to be prepared. But the political leadership did not embrace these plans, says Münkler. Australian historian Christopher Clark reaches similar conclusions in his book "The Sleepwalkers." There are similarities between sleepwalking and sliding into war. Both involve uncontrolled movements.

Nevertheless, Münkler finds the Fischer controversy "helpful in terms of political history" and sees "a positive effect of mistakes." It was necessary, says Münkler, for the Germans to turn to their history once again, for something to break open and for the national master narrative to give way to a critical consciousness.

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1. optional
peskyvera 02/14/2014
One would think that after 100 years it really doesn't matter who was at fault and who wasn't. Rehashing a past that can't be changed. Emphasize on today, on now, and how to avoid major and minor conflicts. Will a world totally at peace ever be possible?
2. Culpability -
bonsai1953 02/14/2014
World War 1 - On the commencement of hostilities all belligerents view was it would be over in a few weeks. As the war progressed all belligerents hoped for a break out decisive winning battle. Which did not happen for any belligerent. IF the belligerents could have forseen the morass and social chaos flowing from World War 1 - it may have given all pause for thought. Would the Kaiser have signed the declaration knowing it would end Germany as a major power for a time ?? Similar can be said for the Czar and various other Monarchs / potentates. Given it's the 100 year centennial of World War 1 - the article should concentrate on that event. World War 2 genesis starts with World War 1's loss - but takes on it's own dynamic and should NOT BE MUDDLED with World War 1. The article is a mash up of historians differing views - and my suggestion to Germany is - get over it.
3.
joedima 02/14/2014
Only academics who want to show how smart they are, could think this argument up. Ask most people and the answer would be who cares.
4. You have to love the Germans again
DoAskDoTell 02/14/2014
It's time to let go of all the distracting war talks (it's been 75+ years) and focus on the challenging futures where everyone must work hard to live sustainably within their own country and region for the good of the whole planet. Not everything evolves only around fightings of spoils among the West. Hopefully not.
5. The Nazis did not land from outer space...
AmericanJew 02/15/2014
Everything that Germany did in the period from 1933 to 1945 was done by previous German governments. In Namibia there were extermination camps, they just didn't use gas. The German problem still remains in Europe. The present EU looks a lot like the plan outlined in the famous 9 September 1914 government meeting in Berlin.
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