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The Rebirth of Nationalism
Germans Increasingly Rejecting Blame for WWI

Three new books on World War One have been selling like hotcakes in Germany— suggesting a growing consensus among Germans that their country is not the main country to blame for the war. The FT reports that The Sleepwalkers by Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, 1913 by Florian Illies, and Der Grosse Krieg by German political scientist Herfried Münkler have all questioned a German-centric account of the blame for WWI—and they’ve sold very well accordingly. These sales match up with public opinion polls that show only 19 percent of Germans believing their country was “chiefly responsible” for WWI.

The question of guilt in WWI is complex, but this shift in German sentiment has more to do with underlying cultural changes in the united Berlin Republic than with millions of Germans flocking to the historical archives to make deep studies in early twentieth century history. Both Germany and Japan are becoming ‘normal countries’ again, reasserting their right to define and act on their national interest. Nationalists in Japan still welcome their close US alliance given their concerns about China. In Germany, the situation is different. Russia is a nuisance rather than a threat in the eyes of most Germans, and it is harder to make a compelling case for a US alliance to younger Germans than to older ones. The wave of German adulation over Obama temporarily patched things over, but the NSA revelations have damaged Brand US more in Germany than just about anywhere else.

A new generation of Germans is looking at the world and at German history and is likely to see things in different ways than their parents and grandparents. There have always been tensions in US-German relations, but elites on both sides generally worked to smooth them over (Gerhard Schroeder and George W. Bush excepted). The US and Germany have good reasons for putting up with each other still, but foreign policy types are going to have to work harder in both countries to make the case to the public at large.

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  • Andrew Allison

    History is written, and subsequently re-written, by the winners. seems to me to give a pretty coherent account of how the war began. The argument that Germany was not the main culprit seems pretty compelling to me. WWII, of course, is a completely different story.

    • Tom

      From what I understand, had Germany not given Austria-Hungary the green light, the latter would not have invaded Serbia.
      Europe was teetering on the brink of war–unfortunately, Germany told Austria they’d help if they gave a push.

      • Andrew Allison


        • TommyTwo

          John Keegan’s “The First World War” (Chapter Three) portrays Austria-Hungary as waffling and Germany (particularly Moltke) as reassuring them they had their back and “If you’re going to shoot, shoot.” As I recall, he provides several instances of Moltke and others actually prodding their Austro-Hungarian counterparts.

          (As is well-known, the situation was very complex and it would be foolish to make absolute determinations.)

          (And this likely concludes my involvement in this thread.)

        • Tom
          • Andrew Allison

            Thank you for the link. Whether “On July 5, 1914, in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany pledges his
            country’s unconditional support for whatever action Austria-Hungary
            chooses to take . . . .” amounts to a recommendation to go to war is, perhaps, debatable. As is whether Austria-Hungary deciding to do so makes it culpable. As a recycled Brit, born in 1939, I hold no special brief for Germany but fair’s fair. I agree that we’re likely (LOL) done with this.

          • Asmund Hairy-Arse

            Kaiser Wilhelm was largely behind the curve during must of the diplomatic maneuvering (apparently his summer palace in Potsdam did not have a telegraph connection and his information was continually a day late or so during all the negotiations ). It was Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg running the show, and badly, I might add.

            [source: War byTime-Table, AJP Taylor]

      • Asmund Hairy-Arse

        But Austria-Hungary had a legitimate beef with Serbia, that they were harboring terrorists. They invaded Serbia under the same grounds that the US invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. It was the French giving the Russians a green light to retaliate against Austria-Hungary that lead to a continent-wide war

        • Asmund Hairy-Arse

          Also, Niall Ferguson (in The Pity of War) lays a lot of the blame at the feet of the British. During the late 1800’s and following they abandoned their long-time ally Prussia and started appeasing (his word) their long-time rivals France and Russia.

          • Tom

            The terms of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum go a little bit beyond “turn the terrorists over to us” and go into “never let anybody say a word against us, ever.”


            The Serbs agreed to much of the Austrians wanted.


            This was apparently not enough for the Austrians.

            So…not like the US invasion of Afghanistan?

          • Asmund Hairy-Arse

            I was pointing out that the Austrians had a legitimate causus belli with regard to Serbia. Had the Serbs been a little quicker to accept the the ultimatum instead of stalling, the Austrians would probably been satisfied.
            Furthermore, had the Austrians not dallied and simply invaded Serbia forthwith, the Russians may have been forced to accept the result as a fiat accompli.

      • Corlyss

        Well, you could say that had April Glaspie not appeared to give Saddam Kuwait, we would never have invaded Iraq in Gulf 1. There’s seldom any single cause for such large events, but rather a bunch of smaller decisions all trending to facilitate the ultimate explosion.

        • Jim__L

          It’s ultimately all chaotic. Large forces and small decisions interact in interesting and unexpected ways. The army of Revolutionary France wouldn’t have been the juggernaut it was without Napoleon; on the other hand, Napoleon wouldn’t have gotten very far without an army, either.

  • Kevin

    I thought Germans have been rejecting thus from about 1920 on.

    • John Stephens

      Germany had legitimate post-war grievances, however the misuse of them for political gain has made it impossible to give them an objective examination until now.

      • Jim__L

        “Misuse for political gain”… I’d replace “political” with “territorial”. It’s not clear to me that the most notable political party of 1930’s Germany was being insincere or opportunistic when it claimed to want to address German popular sentiment to reverse the utterly unworkable terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

        Although speaking as a German-American whose family tree has roots in Strasbourg, I’m not sure that the Kaiser’s idea of reversing Louis XIV’s territorial gains was entirely without merit, either. There is such a thing as taking it too far, though, as Germany amply demonstrated.

        All that said, Europe’s dramatic self-destruction during the first half of the 20th century is certainly one of history’s most screwed up situations. Looking at everything that went into that toxic stew — Prussian militarism, industrialization of war, imperial ambitions, parochial trade restrictions, nationalist foment, and an overdose of anti-Semitism –, and figuring out what might have resolved it without the hard-won perspective that comes from making ghastly mistakes, is a mystery to me.

        (Sorry Winston, I don’t think it would have helped if the Confederates had won at Gettysburg. People prefer Cincinnatus at his plow instead of actively influencing the scene, look at what they did to you when the shooting was winding down. Look at what they did to Bush for Iraq, more recently, even when things seemed to be going well.)

    • Kavanna

      Sure, it’s not new, after all.

  • TommyTwo

    “Germans Increasingly Rejecting Blame for WWI”

    They were just following mobilization orders.


    • Kavanna

      B’dum-sh 🙂

    • FreeRider

      Germans had their own policy back then, they wanted to make whole Balcan (or Helm) as their own colony. Gavrilo Princip was terrorist from a German view, from a view of citizens of every part of Bosnia and Herzegovina he was a hero,a figure which represent freedom, unity and glory. Cause althou he was Serb by nationality, he was a part of organization Young Bosnia, they wanted free Bosnia, out of Austro-Hungarian occupational force and their administration.

  • Fat_Man

    As far as I am concerned, the Germans can have Europe. It is just not that important anymore. However, we need to remember that Russia is not just a European problem, the US (Alaska) has an international boundary with Russia in the Diomede Islands of the Bering Straight. And we confront them across the Arctic ocean.

    • The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

      Timely reminder that it’s not 1870 anymore.

  • Atanu Maulik

    World is a complex place. Events like world wars can never be attributed to one man or a particular group of men. They result when the distribution of power across the globe fails to reach a stable equilibrium after the existing equilibrium is disturbed by the rise or fall of great powers. The simplest explanation of WWI is the failure on the part of UK and France to accommodate a rising Germany to form a stable international order. To be fair one must also say that the Germans were not very flexible either.

    • Jim__L

      To make matters worse, it’s next to impossible to determine the difference between “accommodate” and “appease”.

      • Atanu Maulik

        Not really, provided both sides are driven by pragmatic people. US indeed “accommodated” both Germany and Japan into the liberal democratic world order after WWII. It helped that both those nations learned the futility of alternatives by then.

        • Jim__L

          So we can accommodate, we just have to flatten them first.

          No offense meant, but I think there may be drawbacks to that approach. =(

          • Atanu Maulik

            As I said already, accommodation is possible provided BOTH sides are willing to play ball. US may be able to accommodate China without gong to such extremes.

        • TommyTwo

          If that’s the playbook, then I highly urge the US to accommodate Iran! 🙂

          (Mea culpa.)

          • Atanu Maulik

            Iran is not a great power. It is more of a nuisance which Israel can manage on its own.

  • Corlyss

    “In Germany, the situation is different. Russia is a nuisance rather than a threat in the eyes of most Germans.”

    If memory serves, even when Russia was a clear and present menace, the Germans were more interested in accommodation than resistance. For the nation with perhaps the most effective and industrious soldier ever produced, that’s a fine howdjado. Its a horrible waste of talent. Even when they were stationed in Afpakia, their long suit was sitting around drinking beer. The French were different: their drink was wine, but their butts were in the same places.

  • The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

    Check out an excellent lecture by Ralph Raico on youtube: “The World at War”, held in 1983, where he cleans up with the “Tall Tales My Teacher Told Me”.

    Furthermore, a citation from another lecture by Mr Raico, also on youtube: “The History of the Industrial Revolution and the Social Policies of Otto von Bismarck”, which sums it up nicely:

    “Until the germans reject Frederick The Great – a man who would wage war so that he might be “talked about” – I affirm that one still cannot be sure about the germans” He then goes on to cite (It think) Chancellor Kohl’s elogium of Der Grosse Fritz.

  • Deamer

    Let me be clear on this of reversal of history
    1.Gavrilo Princip was Bosnian Serb not from Serbia
    2.He killed the oppressor who invaded his Country…and we call it freedom fighters.For Austrians he was terrorist…His Organization ” young Bosnian s” had different ethnics including Croats and Muslims and they were Heros who opposed tyrant..Simple as that!
    .3.In WWW II Germans took 3 000 kg of material from Archives in Belgrade regarding the WWWI documents which Serbian army took from Sarajevo on the end of First WW..never been returned and there is still a lot of those documents sitting in Vienna.
    4.For those who read news there is the published letter of Austrian Governor in Bosnia named Pocorek who describes in that letter 1 year before the war how Serbia will not have a choice to refuse anything
    5.And after the 2 war finally Germany got territorial expansion without the war and we call it EU

    • Damir Marusic

      Serbia’s leadership was gripped by the same toxic ideology in 1914 that took it to disastrous war in the 90s—and then as today, the Serbian nation reaped what its crazed leaders sowed. Apis was the head of Serbian intelligence. Pašić, the Prime Minister, likely knew exactly what was going on, and he let it happen—and if somehow he didn’t know the details of the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand, he approved of the ultimate goal of Greater Serbia. In any case, an organ of the Serbian government, rogue or not, was behind the assassination.

      Furthermore, though the Austrians certainly viewed the Serbs with contempt, Greater Serbian dominion over Bosnia was hardly the cause of ‘freedom’ that you so blithely describe. The wanton butchery that the Serbs visited on minorities in the lands they occupied after the Balkan Wars was enough to turn the stomach of even their stalwart British patrons. Non-Serbs were on notice.

      This isn’t to blame the Great War on Serbia wholly, but please don’t idealize them or their goals. They were a toxic force in the European system, and a critical precipitating factor for all the tragedy that ensued.

      • FreeRider

        And you’r view is very objective as a croat, isn’t it?

        • Damir Marusic

          Objectivity is a hobgoblin of tiny little minds.

          I would say I’m more informed than your average armchair historian who’s read Keegan’s WW1 and not much else.

  • ljgude

    Just want to second Jim_L’s third paragraph. It is Europe’s self destruction in the first half of the 20th century that looms larger and larger as it recedes in time. In a position to dominate the world scene indefinitely at the opening of the the 20th century, Europe instead embarked on an internal struggle for dominance.

  • Kavanna

    Umm, sorry, but the evidence for German responsibility for WWI is pretty strong. The key is the German general staff, the heir of the old Prussian general staff. It was they, after all, who hatched the Schlieffen plan, and the determination to finish off France and to wage preventive war against a rising Russia. No other actor in 1914 had such a combination of motives and drives. And it was popular in major portions of Germany society. Germany didn’t create the crisis amongst Serbia, Austria, and Russia. But it was the German general staff that converted the crisis into a general war, including unprovoked invasions of France as well as neutral Belgium and Luxembourg.

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