By 8 May 1945, the worst of the Nazi nightmare was over. At the headquarters of the Western Allies in Reims, General Walter Bedell Smith, chief of staff to commander of the Western Front General Dwight D. Eisenhower, handed over the documents specifying the unconditional capitulation of the German Wehrmacht. The papers had been signed on behalf of the Germans by General Alfred Jodl, who had used the occasion to give a last speech about the brave achievements and suffering of his people, a heroic effort that he claimed history had never before witnessed. There was not a word of remorse about the violent death of tens of millions and the utter devastation the Third Reich had inflicted upon the countries of Europe and beyond. The capitulation procedure was repeated the next day in Berlin, where Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed in front of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, head of the Soviet forces that had taken the capital.

The Führer had married his longtime partner Eva Braun on the morning of 29 April, and committed suicide with her that afternoon in the bunker below the Reich Chancellery. His most loyal assistant, propaganda minister Joseph Göbbels, and his wife killed themselves a day later, but not before poisoning their six children. Hermann Göring managed to commit suicide the day before he was to be executed. He was one of 23 prominent Nazis put on trial at Nuremberg for ‘major war crimes’. Of these, eleven were given the death penalty. They included Generals Jodl and Keitel, foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and chief ideologist Alfred Rosenberg. The remainder received lifelong or lengthy prison sentences, but only the Führer’s former deputy, Rudolf Hess, died in captivity: he was kept in Berlin’s Spandau prison until his suicide in 1987. Also tried at Nuremberg were doctors charged with using and killing humans in medical experiments, and chemists involved in the manufacturing of the poison gas used at Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Viktor Brack and Karl Brandt were sentenced to death for their involvement in the murder of the mentally ill and disabled in the ‘euthanasia action’. Few of the others charged at Nuremberg served the full terms of their sentences.

Another 250,000 Nazis were arrested throughout Germany as part of the ‘de-nazification program’ carried out by the Allies after the war. In the three western zones, 5,000 were eventually sentenced. Of the 806 death sentences, only 486 were carried out. The rest were let off relatively lightly.

Rarely, if ever, had so much damage been done in so little time. Twelve years of Nazi rule had produced enough Orwellian Napoleons, along with their killer dogs, to ensure that only total defeat at the hand of the Allies would bring the nightmare to an end. With the Allies closing in on all sides, and with German cities relentlessly bombed, leaving thousands dead after every raid, Gestapo, SS units, and other self-appointed fighters for ‘final victory’ unleashed a last wave of terror against alleged political opponents, deserters, defeatists, or anyone who wanted to call a halt to the long-lost war. Tens of thousands perished. In the end, Germany lay in ruins physically, militarily, politically, economically. The nation was ethically and morally bankrupt.1

That an Austrian Hinterwäldler, a failed novelist from the Rhineland, a Bavarian chicken-farmer, and a morphine addict, supported by a legion of thugs, could usurp the power of the entire German military, political, and economic establishment was a national humiliation. That the regime had committed crimes — as a brave German president admitted forty years later — that have few, if any, parallels in human history was unforgivable.2 Many people had compromised themselves during the years of Nazi rule, but the professional classes stood out. Lawyers profited as their Jewish competitors were forced to close their offices; likewise doctors, and medical experiments on human beings were not confined to the concentration camps. Academics exulted in fostering the Nazi state — none more than historians. Judges handed out over 16,000 death sentences: voicing opposition to official policies sufficed for the gallows, as did petty theft that allegedly undermined Germany’s war effort. Industrialists, too, made a fortune. ‘Until the last stages of war, the benefits of the Third Reich to all those sections of industry and finance connected with armament production were colossal’.3 Shopkeepers benefited as Jewish shops closed, public servants as Jews were sacked, and looting was frequent when Jewish citizens were deported. And there was scarcely an enterprise in Germany that did not benefit from forced labour. The Holocaust and the extermination of the Slavonic ‘sub-humans’ (Untermenschen) was not confined to SS units, but involved the Wehrmacht as well.

For a brief period, it looked as though Germany would not survive as a nation. Plans to dismember it began to emerge in 1942, in particular at the urging of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. They culminated in a plan drawn up by American secretary of state Henry Morgenthau in September 1944. The Morgenthau Plan provided for the ceding of East Prussia and Upper Silesia to Poland, and of the Saar and adjacent territory to France; for the creation of a federation of German states; for forced labour by German personnel outside Germany by way of reparation; and for the internationalisation of the Ruhr, together with the cities of Bremen, Kiel, and Frankfurt. Finally, all industrial and mining equipment was to be dismantled so that Germany would be transformed into a pastoral economy.

In contrast with the Versailles peace, the Morgenthau Plan would have been a true Carthaginian peace, but it did not come to this. As hostilities ended, the Allies faced a disastrous situation in central Europe, and to avoid a further human disaster they had to rely on the co-operation of the local population. In Germany, utter chaos reigned. The damage was worst in Berlin, but virtually all cities had been bombed. In the Dresden firestorm of 14 February 1945, 35,000 people died in one night. Of Frankfurt’s 177,000 houses, only 44,000 remained standing at the end of the war. In Hamburg, 53 per cent of the buildings had been destroyed, and statistics for most other cities were comparable. The fighting on land and Hitler’s scorched-earth policy had widened the devastation. Viaducts and bridges, even footbridges over village streams, had been destroyed. Few Germans still lived in their original homes. Millions of people had fled from the bombings into the country, millions had fled from the advance of the Red Army, and others had fled east with the arrival of troops in the west. The population seemed to consist only of women, children, and the elderly. One-and-three-quarter million men had been killed in action, two million were prisoners of war, and a further one-and-a-half million were missing. Food supplies and transport had completely broken down.

In addition, eleven million people from eastern or south-eastern Europe had flooded into Germany, pushed out of their homes for the misdemeanours committed by the Nazis or having escaped from the advancing Red Army. To forestall the possibility of large-scale social and political unrest, the Allies insisted that these refugees had to be integrated as speedily as possible.

Temporarily, Germany was divided into three zones and, when the French were invited to join the post-war administration of the country, into four: three in the west (soon to become West Germany) and the Soviet zone in the east (soon to become East Germany). East Prussia, Silesia, and much of Pomerania were lost to Germany for good.

Economic and political recovery came sooner than expected, in particular for the people in the western-occupation zones. The wartime alliance held as long as there was a common enemy, but given the divergent ideological positions of the victorious powers, the end of hostilities meant the end of co-operation. The failure of Nazi Germany’s crusade against Bolshevism had resulted in the establishment of communist governments in the very heart of Europe. Moreover, communist parties in a number of Western countries were experiencing a surge in popularity. Decisive action would be required to stem the further spread of communism. The Western Allies created a single economic entity out of their zones in January 1947. The Marshall Plan, which brought large-scale American investment into Europe, soon followed, and on 23 May 1949 the German Federal Republic constituted itself in the Rhenish city of Bonn. The eastern zone followed suit, establishing itself in East Berlin on 7 October as the German Democratic Republic. The foundation of the two German states marked the beginning of forty years of separation.

Germany’s subsequent history stands in striking contrast to the preceding eighty years.

The harmonious development of Western Europe through the second half of the twentieth century was initiated by two conservative statesmen: Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic, and Robert Schumann, the prime minister and foreign minister in several French post-war governments. They were united by their fervent Catholicism, their aim to put an end once and for all to the mutual conflict that had marked the previous 100 years, and their determination to stop any further advance of communism in Europe. Adenauer had been lord mayor of Cologne from 1917 to May 1933, when he was dismissed by the Nazis. He was interned several times during the Third Reich. After the war, he became leader of the Centre Party, which he revamped into the Christian Democratic Union, a conservative party aiming to gain the support of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Adenauer was able to form a centre-right coalition government following the elections for the constituent assembly of the Federal Republic on 15 August 1949.

His French counterpart, Robert Schumann, was a keen Europeanist. In a declaration made on 9 May 1950, Schumann suggested that the French and Germans pool their coal and steel industries and place them under a common authority (the Schuman Plan). Adenauer, who firmly believed that the Federal Republic’s future lay with the West, speedily accepted. As other nations were invited to join less than a year later, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Italy signed a treaty to form the European Steel and Coal Community (ECSC) in Paris on 18 April 1951. The ECSC having proved a success, the partners agreed to widen their economic co-operation through the formation of a customs union. On 2 May 1957, the six ECSC member nations signed the Treaty of Rome, giving birth to the European Economic Community. Although the treaty laid emphasis on common economic policies, hope was expressed that eventually there might also be political integration. No one at the time could have guessed that the foundation of the EEC would lead within two generations to a transnational political and economic organisation that embraced 28 European states with a population of 500 million.

Improvement in French-German relations during the 1950s was not confined to the economic and political spheres. There were also attempts to bring the two nations closer together culturally. Among other things, this was done through exchange visits that enabled young students to gain a better understanding of their neighbour’s culture and lifestyle. It was also agreed that attempts should be made to arrive at a less venomous presentation of the recent past that had seen so much bloodshed. This resulted in a profound change in the way history textbooks treated the causes of World War I and its aftermath. Instead of mutual blame, there was to be a balanced account. The new textbooks still criticised Imperial Germany’s rulers for having been too conservative and anti-democratic and too inconsistent in their foreign policies, thus adding to the overall instability of the age, but there was now agreement that national ambitions were characteristic of all major European powers. Imperial rivalry was a common feature of the age, diplomatic mistakes were not confined to Germany, and all nations had been arming in great haste during the last decade of peace. The system of alliances and secret diplomacy contributed to the final disaster. No one, of course, had foreseen how terrible war would be in the twentieth century. All told, the international power structure was balanced precariously, a state often represented as a keg of gunpowder waiting to ignite. The spark was finally provided by the assassination at Sarajevo. Lloyd George’s statement that ‘we all slid into war’ was included in nearly all such accounts.

This ‘balanced’ explanation for the outbreak of war was not confined to France or the Federal Republic, but has been adopted with minor variations in most Western textbooks, including in the English-speaking world. Once it is agreed that Germany alone did not bear the blame for the outbreak of World War I, criticism of the peacemaking process naturally flows. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which so clearly laid bare the real ambitions of Imperial Germany’s rulers, is commonly omitted from the calculation. Nor are references to Wilson’s Fourteen Points accompanied by an acknowledgement of the pre-armistice agreement or armistice conditions.

Thus the Versailles Peace Treaty is claimed to have presented the Weimar Republic with unsurmountable economic difficulties, leading to continuous political instability, which in turn undermined and discredited the fledging democratic system, until, finally, and faced with the further threat of Bolshevism, the Germans turned to Adolf Hitler, whose potential for evil no one at the time could have foreseen.

Establishment of harmonious relations with Germany’s western neighbours soon brought rewards. The Bonn Republic was a success story virtually from its inception. Economically, the Federal Republic advanced in leaps and bounds during the 1950s and early 1960s. The need to rebuild the damage done by the war was already a powerful stimulus. The proverbial industriousness of the German people and an advanced vocational and scientific education program that fostered innovative approaches in all branches of industry added their share. Soon the term Wirschaftswunder(‘economic miracle’) was coined to describe the rapid rise in living standards of the whole population, and this assisted with the equally successful establishment of the democratic system. The cataclysmic end of the Third Reich, which had cleansed the nation of its last vestiges of militarism, was another factor. Prussia was finished: its last remnant, the former heartland of Brandenburg, had become part of the German Democratic Republic. Even the names Prussia and Brandenburg were excised, the latter to resurface after re-unification, but the former forever laid to rest. The electoral system worked well. The extreme political right never became a significant force in Germany again, nor did the extreme political left.

But there was another and disturbing side to this success. Economic prosperity and political stability fostered a widespread sense among Germans that the nation had ‘come good’, and that harping on the past was pointless. In fact, many of the generation that grew up after the Second World War had little knowledge of some of the darker aspects of Germany’s recent history. Surveys of young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s revealed that more than half had no or little knowledge of Hitler.

The extent of public ignorance about what had happened in the not-too-distant past could be gauged from the reception accorded to the American television miniseries Holocaust. Screened in Germany in early 1979 on the regional Third Program, which normally commanded only a small share of viewers — rarely more than 5 per cent — word of the tragic fate of the Weiss family spread rapidly. Two-thirds of the German television audience watched the final episodes. It was the first time that many had gained a more detailed knowledge of the Holocaust.

Further evidence of widespread complacency about the country’s recent past lay in the German judiciary’s adherence to its inglorious tradition of dealing out rough justice. The judges’ record in punishing culprits of Nazi era crimes is woeful. If the few concentration-camp survivors and the millions of relatives of the murdered held any expectation that penal retribution was to be levied upon those responsible, they were to be disappointed. Given their involvement in the Nazi state, those judges kept in office after the collapse of the regime were disinclined to pull skeletons out of cupboards.4 But subsequent generations of jurists, with the exception of Frankfurt attorney-general Fritz Bauer, who did manage to put a number of the culprits on trial in the mid-1960s, did little to improve the record. Of the 6,500 SS that had staffed the Auschwitz concentration camps (where over one million people had perished), only 29 received sentences in the Federal Republic.5 In July 2015, in what was probably the last trial of Nazi criminals, SS Officer Oskar Gröning, then aged 94, was sentenced to four years’ jail for his part in the murder of 300,000 Jewish people. The sentence — which raised the number of Auschwitz staff put on trial to 0.48 per cent — was lauded by the international community, as was the judge’s condemnation of the German judicial system that had let so many off the hook. The reader keen to gain more knowledge of the trials of Auschwitz mass-murderers is advised to take strong tranquillisers. An SS foreman, for example, in charge of throwing 400 Hungarian children alive into a fire, was acquitted because one of the witnesses was not able to take the stand. ‘Those little ones trying to get out of the flames, the SS men kicked back with their boots into the fire … they were like little fireballs’, an eyewitness reported, ‘trying to escape the stake’.6

Little noticed by the broader public, too, was a spectacular confrontation among German historians that took place during the 1960s and 1970s.

Historical controversies

The explanation that the Great War was the product of an international rupture, for which all the major European powers shared responsibility, helped to provide an effective intellectual and cultural basis for the establishment of harmonious relations in Western Europe during the 1950s. This account, however, had one serious shortcoming: it was not compatible with the facts. That Lloyd George’s opportunistic ‘we all slid into the war’ had more to do with the political opportunism of that shifty British statesman7 than with reality was laid bare in the 1960s, when Fritz Fischer, professor of history at Hamburg University, published a number of lengthy books in which he argued that the course of events leading to the outbreak of war, as presented at the time, was not compatible with the evidence.

In his War of Illusions, Fischer contends that Imperial Germany’s attempt to join the ranks of the world powers had run into severe difficulties by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century — or, more correctly, that it was felt by the political, military, and economic establishment, and by a large section of the German populace, to have run into severe difficulties. A continuous series of diplomatic setbacks had led to the conviction that the virile German empire was being straightjacketed by its British, French, and Russian rivals. Plans for breaking out of this encirclement through war were being advanced by the powerful German military leadership as early as 1909. The civilian government, though more restrained, was also convinced that French revanchism, Pan-Slavism, and Handelsneid (British envy of Germany’s economic performance) could not forever stop the empire from becoming a world power.

In Fischer’s view, the tendency to take an offensive approach to solving Germany’s perceived international isolation was manifested for the first time in early December 1912. The German government had supported the Dual Monarchy in the first Balkan War, and had threatened tsarist Russia with military action should St. Petersburg intervene. This brought an unfriendly response from British foreign minister Edward Grey and war minister Lord Haldane, who pointed out that in case of a German attack upon France, Britain would not remain neutral. As stated above, Wilhelm II was so outraged about the British stance that he called for a meeting of army and navy leaders, where the option of an immediate war against France and Russia was discussed but abandoned.8

Nevertheless, to Fischer, the ‘War Council’ meeting was an indication of how far the will to resort to warfare had taken hold of sections of the German elite. The most contentious part of Fischer’s thesis is his account of the crisis of July 1914, in which he blames Germany’s military leaders and its civilian government for using the Sarajevo assassination to force a showdown with the continental Entente powers. He argues that Kaiser Wilhelm’s ‘blank cheque’ was followed by a policy of pressuring the Vienna government into taking military action against the Kingdom of Serbia. Fischer furthermore contends that tsarist Russia would not have intervened on Serbia’s behalf if the Austro-Hungarians had refrained from a complete annihilation of Serbia. He points out that the tsarist foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, attempted to find a diplomatic solution to this new Balkan problem to the very end. Diplomacy failed, and with the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war upon Serbia on 28 July, and Russia’s partial mobilisation — and, a day later, its full mobilisation — the German government’s vital aim was achieved. A widespread media-fostered campaign of Russophobia, presenting that country as the bastion of evil and reaction, laid the blame on the tsarist government for starting the war — a vital prerequisite to securing the backing of the German labour movement. German troops invaded, without a declaration of war, the Grandy Duchy Luxembourg on 2 August and Belgium on 4 August, having already declared war on Russia on 1 August and on France on 3 August. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s never-tiring attempts to keep Britain neutral, doomed from the beginning, finally failed at midnight on 4 April, after the United Kingdom, citing the violation of Belgium neutrality, declared war on the German empire.

War of Illusions was the follow-up to Fischer’s first major monograph on World War I, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, published in its original version as Griff nach der Weltmacht (‘Grasp for World Power’). As its title implies, this presents an analysis of German war aims that, to Fischer, were bent on establishing German hegemony in Europe and world-power status. This book had already met with a very hostile response from the community of German historians commonly referred to as the Zunft, ‘the guild’. One particularly irate colleague claimed that the long list of Germany’s war aims presented by Fischer ‘was almost the monologue of a deranged person’.9 War of Illusions did little to endear him to the outraged Zunft. They claimed that Fischer had completely overlooked the policies of Germany’s enemies, as well as the nation’s deep longing for peace. They insisted that the empire’s policies in July 1914 were of a defensive nature. They also maintained that Fischer’s stance had greatly harmed Germany’s reputation. The debate soon spread beyond Germany; indeed, with historians from around the world participating, the ‘Fischer controversy’ took on a global dimension.

Most participants came out in support of Fischer, although sometimes with different arguments. Volker Berghahn, for example, who at the time of the controversy taught at Warwick University in the U.K., maintained that the German chancellor had attempted to seek a localised solution to the Serbian problem — that is, to create a fait accompli through a speedy defeat of the Serbs, followed by a peace offensive towards the Entente. According to Berghahn, the chancellor was aware, however, that the plan might misfire, leading to full-scale war. In the end, the bluff did indeed fail, mainly because it took too long for the Central Powers to get their act together. When the ultimatum was finally delivered on 23 July, the Entente partners realised that the Austro-Hungarian government was bent on a military solution, and they began to react accordingly. Now Bethmann-Hollweg was forced into the ranks of the hawks.10

Germany’s doyen of social history, Ulrich Wehler, accepts the German responsibility for the globalisation of the conflict without qualification, but sees in the motive a Flucht nach vorn — a ‘forward escape’. By pinning their hopes on a desperate gamble, the empire’s power elites attempted to maintain the traditional Prusso-German social and political system — and the privileged position their class held in that system — which they saw threatened by the growing influence of parliamentarism, and even more so by the massive rise of the German labour movement. A victorious war would greatly enhance Germany’s status and would take the wind out of the sails of the advocates of constitutional change once and for all.11 However, as Fritz Fischer also considered the maintenance of the ruling social and political system in his accounts of the outbreak of the Great War, and as Wehler’s works also illustrate the growing economic performance of imperial Germany, the difference in their approaches is one of emphasis rather than substance.

The accounts of these ‘revisionists’ of the outbreak of war in 1914 were supported by a mass of private and official papers from participants and observers in all of the belligerent countries, in neutral countries, and in smaller German states. The selection assembled by Fischer’s disciple Imanuel Geiss on the crisis of July 1914 alone amounted to 1,159 documents.12 So overwhelming was this mass of evidence that attempts to counter it could garner little credibility. A number of traditionalist historians conceded the validity of the evidence that had undermined their original position, but claimed that the German empire had embarked upon a preventive war in August 1914. This, however, presupposed concrete plans on the part of tsarist Russia and France to stage an aggressive war against the Central Powers in 1914, or not much later. Such plans did not exist.13

By the mid-1970s, the debate had by and large petered out, at least in academic circles, and few historians kept advancing the ‘international crisis’ view. Whether the more accurate accounts have penetrated the public mind is difficult to gauge. The Fischer controversy certainly made no measurable impact on textbooks in German schools, which, to the present day, is the domain of the conservative wing of the German historical profession. As accounts there of the outbreak of war differ little from what was written in the 1950s, it follows that there has been no change in the presentation of the 1918–19 peacemaking process.

Notwithstanding a good deal of acrimony and vilification, the debate brought about by Fischer, Wehler, and others remained within the bounds of academic discussion. Common courtesy was not altogether thrown out of the window. This was to change in the early 1980s with the next round of confrontation between West German historians, soon to become known as the Historikerstreit, or the ‘historians’ quarrel’.

Over a generation had passed since the end of the Second World War, and in the main the Nazi past had been treated rather coyly in the Federal Republic. Of course, politicians, public figures, the media, and the churches had expressed their apologies and regrets for the Holocaust, although half of the respondents in a Der Spiegel survey had disapproved of chancellor Brandt’s kneeling on 7 December 1970 at a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. True, some compensation was paid out, but in general the preference seemed to be to let sleeping dogs lie, even as crimes such as the full extent of the extermination war against the Slavonic sub-humans and the inhuman use of slave labour through the whole of the German war industry were coming to light.

In 1982, when, after 13 years, the centre-left governments led by chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt were superseded by the centre-right government of chancellor Helmut Kohl, a number of West German historians decided to wake the dogs up. The Bonn Republic, approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary, could justifiably claim a successful history. Internationally, the FRG was working towards the widening and enlargement of the European Economic Community. Domestically the country’s democratic principles, laws, and institutions had been consolidated.

It was time for a new approach towards Germany’s recent past. Kohl’s friend and advisor on matters historical, Michael Stürmer, lamented that Germany had lost its positive outlook towards its own past. It had to seek a new identity in order to make a full contribution to the global effort of stopping the communist threat that still emanated from Moscow. While 80 per cent of U.S. citizens were proud of being Americans, and 50 per cent of Britons were proud to be British, Stürmer regretted that opinion polls showed that in Germany only 20 per cent were proud to be Germans.14In his accounts of German history, Stürmer once again downplayed German responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, claiming that Versailles had been a fatal error on the part of the Allies that led to the downfall of the Weimar Republic.15 As he also asserted that the Nuremberg trials were a communist plot (though the chief instigator of the trials was, in fact, the War Department of the United States), his analyses of the past need not be taken too seriously.

Stürmer’s writings were mild compared to the outpourings of his fellow Bonn Republic historian Ernst Nolte. He claimed that Auschwitz, the Holocaust, and other crimes committed by Nazi Germany were essentially the fault of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks’ victory in the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent rise of Stalin and his methods, had forced Hitler’s hand and had led to the Final Solution. Auschwitz had its origin in the Gulag Archipelago. Nolte suggested that Hitler perpetrated an ‘Asiatic deed’ — an act of barbarism akin to the genocide committed by the Turks on the Armenians in 1915, or by Chinese Cheka units who, fighting on the side of the Reds in the Russian Civil War in 1920, are said to have tortured their opponents in rat-cages — because the Nazis thought themselves potential victims of Asiatic terror at the hands of the Bolsheviks.16 His virtual suggestion ‘that the victims of Nazi genocide actually provoked the genocide, that the Jews in certain ways were responsible for their own fate,’ is the most appalling of the implications of Nolte’s ‘revision’.17

Almost as unfortunate were the arguments of Andreas Hillgruber, who regarded all efforts by the German leadership, including the continued operation of the death camps, as justified in stopping the advance of the barbarous Red Army into central and east-central Europe. That the Red Army was carrying death and destruction in its baggage was true, but it should have been pointed out that Operation Barbarossa and its aftermath destroyed over 1,700 towns and 70,000 villages, often along with their entire populations; that the Soviet Union lost thirteen million soldiers and seven million civilians; and that of the 5.7 million Soviet prisoners of war captured by the Germans, only 3.3 million survived.18

Hillgruber also ranked the expulsion of ethnic Germans from east-central, eastern, and south-eastern Europe, for which he blamed the British government in co-operation with Stalin, as a crime of the magnitude of the Holocaust. It is true that the expulsion was marked by acts of great inhumanity, but Hillgruber’s assertion overlooked the important fact that, in contrast to the Holocaust victims, the great majority of those expelled survived. Most, after enduring a period of austerity that was not confined to refugee populations, were able to live a meaningful — and for many even a prosperous — life.

Nolte’s and Hillgruber’s arguments were received with incredulity, if not downright amazement, outside Germany, and they were also rebuffed by most German historians, but not by all. Renowned German scholars such as Joachim Fest, Karl Dietrich Bracher, and even Imanuel Geiss saw some merit in the work of Nolte, Hillgruber et al., and they were not alone. So bitter did the Historikerstreit become that professional academic historians refused to shake hands with each other.19

The potential erosion of the tragedy of Auschwitz was also present in a debate that took place in the late 1980s and 1990s, chiefly in the English-speaking world. Here, historians saw themselves confronted with claims that the discipline of history was in effect a meaningless concept. In particular, ‘postmodernist’ or ‘post-structuralist’ American scholars had begun to argue that the distinction between fiction and history was breaking down. To them, the notion of scientific history, based on the discovery and use of primary sources, was a false concept. There was no truth in archival documents — only the assumptions that historians brought to them. Historical truth or objectivity was simply whatever a community of historians decided it should be. ‘Time itself’, some postmodernists argued, ‘is a recent highly artificial invention of Western Civilisation’.20

The attack on Western civilisation was an important part of postmodernism. This can be traced back to French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault, who had argued that the main purpose of all historical writing and research is to gain power for historians and the political system they represent. As one of his disciples put it, ‘History is just naked ideology designed to get historians money in big universities run by the bourgeoisie’.21 The argument that history is part of Western capitalism has also been advanced by Edward Said, a New York scholar of Palestinian origin, who claimed that works written by Western historians about the other civilisations were flawed and of little value because they failed to understand the mentality of other people. He introduced the concept of the ‘Other’, meaning the oppressed victims of Western imperialism.

This was not the first time that the discipline of history had faced and survived challenges, and postmodernism, too, failed to finish it off. Nevertheless, there is an inherent danger that postmodernism, with its claims that there is no objective historical truth and its denial of the possibility of establishing concrete relations with our past, could in the last analysis play into the hands of the Holocaust deniers and the Auschwitz relativists.

The collapse of the Soviet system and the re-unification of Germany had raised expectations that peace and harmony, rather than war and conflict, would mark the new century. However, the tragedy of 11 September 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the Arab world dashed these hopes, while the collapse of Lehmann Brothers signalled the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. The attention of historians shifted for two decades or so to history in the making.

Historical controversy erupted in Germany again in 2014 with the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. Naturally, this included reference to the reasons for the calamity. Many articles by commentators, historians, and self-appointed experts, surprisingly, commenced with the claim that no serious historian would maintain nowadays that Germany was solely responsible for the outbreak of World War I. No one, of course, had ever claimed this literally. Fischer and others had been concerned not with the events of 28 July 1914, when Vienna declared war on Serbia, but with the subsequent expansion of the war into a global conflict. The new commentaries had slipped back into the traditional explanation that ‘we all slid into it’. The curious scholar today, seeking to know exactly how the arguments presented in the 1960s and 1970s by historians around the world, in thousands of pages, supported by thousands of documents, had been invalidated, would be disappointed. There was nothing to back up significant corrections to the work of the ‘revisionists’. The retirement or passing away of the historians characterised by Die Zeit as ‘a mixture of liberal, Catholic, democratic, South German, Western-aligned and Communist Prussian critics’22 seems to have been enough to summon the old wisdoms out of the grave — with the hope, perhaps, that not too many questions would be asked. The case of the Lloyd George revivalists received a boost with the publication by Prussophile Cambridge historian Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers.

Into the Great War: half asleep or wide awake?

The German edition of The Sleepwalkers was released to paeans of praise from scholars and reviewers early in 2014. By the middle of the year, it had sold 200,000 copies. Books presenting a favourable account of Germany’s role in the Great War had always achieved good sales, starting with Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, but Clark’s lengthy and notably academic monograph broke all records. With most of the German media in the hands of conservative proprietors, Die Schlafwandler got plenty of coverage and scores of friendly reviews. Critics of Clark’s approach received far less attention, or were swiftly dealt with. When Hans Ulrich Wehler, for example, objected to Clark’s pushing the blame for the outbreak of the war upon England, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung dismissed him as an old-fashioned know-all. Clark promoted Die Schlafwandler on a tour of leading bookshops across Germany, where teachers are reported to have thanked him for straightening out the facts about the outbreak of war. He was given his own series on Germany’s ZDF television network, one of the nation’s major free-to-air broadcasters, where at peak viewing time on Sunday evening he ruminated in a cordial and charming manner on the many positive aspects of German history. By the end of 2014 he had become a cult figure in Germany.

The Sleepwalkers opens with a spectacular chapter on the regicide of the Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga by Serbian Army assassins on 11 June 1903. Embroiled in the conspiracy, intrigue, plotting, purges, liquidations, thuggery, and assassinations that accompanied its quest to re-establish the medieval empire of Stepan Dušan, the kingdom of Serbia was the rogue state par excellence. Easily half of the The Sleepwalkers’ text deals with the conflict between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Serbia as it was acted out amidst the instability of the Balkans before the First World War. This does not cover new ground, but Clark does add more detail and insight into the many problems this region faced in the pre-war years.

In analysing the Balkan and other conflicts that have troubled Europe since the turn of the twentieth century, Clark is critical of conventional accounts that fault Germany for consistently pursuing ill-conceived diplomacy. Some of his criticisms are legitimate. Nevertheless, the assumptions behind his account of European pre-war diplomacy that the British empire, France, and tsarist Russia could not tolerate a major power in central Europe (evoking the old encirclement theories) are less convincing. Some of his arguments are dubious; others are plain wrong.

Clark maintains that the confrontation between the British and German empires over the latter’s naval build-up had run its course with the building of HMS Dreadnought in 1906.23 This is hard to fathom. The construction of a German armada was not the only reason the British government decided to abandon its long-cherished principle of ‘splendid isolation’ (along with its longstanding German-friendly policies), but it surely played an important part. There was no international rule forbidding aspiring powers from building large and expensive battle fleets, but they had to have a reason. Britain had an empire; Germany did not. In the free-trade world of the century preceding the outbreak of war in 1914, Germany had no need of a huge array of battleships to protect its merchant vessels. The construction of all-big-gun, heavily armoured, steam turbine-powered ships commenced by Britain in 1905 did indeed turn the ‘naval race’ decisively in its favour. Still, Germany persevered with its costly and eventually futile naval build-up. Nor is political damage once done always easily corrected. All told, Clark does not present evidence to correct the still widely held interpretation of the decline in British-German relations.24

Clark’s treatment of German and British industrial output and trade performance by the early twentieth century is also questionable.25 It is true that, in global terms, Britain’s share had declined while Germany’s had sharply risen. This did not mean, however, that Britain’s economy had taken a sharp downward trend. The opposite was the case — it was still growing at the rate of 4.2 per cent per annum during the pre-war years.26 But the cake of world trade had grown immensely, with the USA now the leading power. No doubt, some branches of British industry were hurt by German competition, but the empire still provided for flourishing trade. To cite a few scaremongers in Britain as evidence for Handelsneid establishes little.

The claim that Bethmann-Hollweg nullified the decisions taken at the ‘War Council’ meeting of December 1912 is wrong. First, other than increasing the size of the army — something Bethmann-Hollweg fully supported — no decisions were made. Second, the chancellor and the civilian government were subordinate to the kaiser, and not vice versa. Clark’s overall depiction of Bethmann-Hollweg as a dove is more than questionable.27

It also adds little credence to The Sleepwalkers that Clark presents French president Poincaré as a prime mover in the events of July 1914 that led to Russia’s mobilisation at the outbreak of war,28 a claim previously made by German propaganda in the Weimar Republic29; or his dismissing as a diversionary manoeuvre the attempts of the Russian foreign minister to find a diplomatic solution to the Serbian problem.30

The revisionist arguments of the 1960s and 1970s concerning Germany’s responsibility for the outbreak of war are dismissed in a few sentences.31 Nor does the evidence really support Clark’s claim that the Germans were reluctant to make military preparations until the end of July.32 There is a considerable amount of evidence to the contrary. The German army leadership, and von Moltke in particular, had for months before the Sarajevo assassination been calling for preventive war.33 The one reference Clark does include, an ultimatum drafted by Moltke demanding that the Belgium government permit a German advance through its territories, was also drawn up well before the end of the month.

The Sleepwalkers did not meet praise exclusively, and its critics were not confined to conservative British military or Eurosceptic historians, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung would have us believe.34 British historian and journalist Nigel Jones wondered why the Cambridge historian had not long ago embarked upon his lectures sporting a Pickelhaube. Jones accused him of ‘Teutonophilism’. Neue Züricher Zeitung journalist Ignaz Miller expressed doubt that the reasons for the outbreak of war were to be found in the beds of the wives of French ministers or in the complicated love-life of the Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff.35 Wilhelmine German expert John Röhl accused Clark of playing down Germany’s responsibility for the outbreak of war. So, among others, did German historians Gerd Krumeich and Hans Günther Winkler. The latter claimed that Clark was fostering ‘apologetic national tendencies’ (nationalpolitische Tendenzen).36

Perhaps surprised by the vehemence of the criticism, Clark is reported to have said at a book promotion in Freiburg that his book was not concerned with the question of war guilt.37 This is not borne out by The Sleepwalkers.

The First World War was not brought about by the alliance system. Christopher Clark is correct when he maintains that ‘[A]lliances, like constitutions are at best only an approximate guide to political realities’.38 Clauses in alliances are often ambiguous. There are sub-clauses, side clauses, secret clauses, and whether a ‘casus foederis’ has been invoked can be differently interpreted. Governments can claim that their country is not yet ready for military involvement; and, finally, there is no international body or institution that can apply penalties if a partner does not meet alliance obligations. The classical case in the First World War was that of the Kingdom of Italy. That nation had entered into a Triple Alliance with Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary on 20 May 1882, but refused to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers.

The reasons are readily discerned. Italy was seen as a junior partner in the alliance, and treated accordingly. The Italian government was not informed about the policies being pursued by Vienna and Berlin in July and August 1914. Nor was it difficult for the Italian government to present a reason for not supporting the Alliance partners. When the German ambassador in Rome enquired about Italy’s stance in regard to the impeding war, he was told by prime minister Giovanni Gioletti that Austria’s bellicose policies and their consequences ‘had an aggressive character. They were not in line with the defensive purpose of the Triple Alliance. Hence [Italy] would not participate in the war’.39 The pro-Entente faction in the Italian military and political establishment soon gained the upper hand and, enticed by the prospect of receiving South Tyrol after the war, as well as rich pickings around the Adriatic Sea and Africa,40 Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies on 24 May 1915. On the topic of alliances, the United Kingdom did not declare war on Germany because of the Triple Entente, but because the German empire violated Belgium neutrality.

The debate about the causes of the Great War is complicated by the fact that there were doves and hawks among both politicians and military in all countries — and that there was not always consistency in the actions of the people involved. Any historian aiming to prove a particular point in regard to the intention to go to war can find belligerent statements by people of power and influence in the military or political establishments to back up his or her claims.

All states take steps to be prepared for war, and plan accordingly. These plans are usually, but not always, of a defensive nature. Governments might enter into alliances if they perceive a threat to their country, or they might increase the size of their armies or the amount and fighting power of their military hardware. The military might put troops on alert, notify their reserves to be prepared for call-up, and place forces at vital positions. All this does not mean that a country is seeking war. The French placement of troops within 10 kilometres of the German border in the last week of July 1914, for example, was a precautionary measure.

Partial mobilisation may also be a precautionary measure. Indeed, even full mobilisation is merely the act of assembling and making troops and supplies ready for war (the Schlieffen Plan provided an exception, as mobilisation was tied to immediate combat action). Mobilisation can also be seen as a last warning that a country is ready for war should means to avoid it fail. Russia’s mobilisation on 30 July 1914 did not necessarily mean that the tsar was bent on war. Switzerland and the Netherlands mobilised on the same day. Bethmann-Hollweg himself did not see in the Russian mobilisation an intention to go to war.

Historians, as is the case in courts, must raise the question of motivation. Why should a country take such an extreme and dangerous step, demanding huge sacrifices of its people?

Did Britain want to go to war in 1914? The answer must be in the negative. To put it more bluntly, Britain needed a major war about as much as it needed a hole in the head. The century following the end of the Napoleonic wars had delivered it immense successes. The sun indeed never set upon the British empire. Worldwide trade based on laissez-faire had brought many blessings,41 and Britain was a pillar of free global economy. In fact, as has been shown above, British policies in the post-war era were guided by attempts to re-establish globalisation, to the benefit of Germany and the detriment of France. A large-scale war, even if only of short duration, would do huge economic and physical damage to Britain’s interests. In my opinion, there is still a great deal of validity in Trevor Jones’ summary of British motives: that its policy-makers ‘had not gone to war on account of the lure of easy pickings … [but because] … they had been convinced that at stake was the fulfilment of their national destiny … [and] … the defence of their way of life and political values … against a savage onslaught’.42

France did not want war. The French could not reconcile themselves to the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and wanted the provinces back, but they would not go to war over them. The nation had been badly mauled by Prussian Germany in 1870–71, and the relative population sizes, and hence military potential, had further moved in Germany’s favour. France had overcome the defeat of the Franco-Prussian war politically and economically, and had reclaimed its position among the world’s empires. The entente with Russia, it was hoped, would provide assistance should it once again come to war. France invested heavily in Russia’s industrial modernisation, particularly in railways, and the French military worked to improve the fighting quality of the Russian armies. The emphasis, however, was on hope: the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05 had shown how far tsarist Russia had fallen behind militarily, and French army leaders knew that the Russians were not likely to stand long against the powerful German war machine.

Nor did the tsarist empire seek a full-scale conflagration. The war with Japan was not only a military disaster; it had led to a revolution which almost toppled the tsarist system. Renewed warfare, particularly on a large scale, could be suicidal. According to German military analysts, Russia would not have been ready for war before 1916, at the earliest.43 The agrarian reforms to create a prosperous peasantry out of the serfs, introduced by prime minister Pyotr Stolypin in 1906, were working. Why risk everything by embarking upon an aggressive war with both Germany and Austria-Hungary?

Two further recent monographs on the events of 1914 also impute bellicosity to ‘the Europeans’.44 Such interpretations are based, as they have always been, on speculation. More convincing is the conclusion made in a third book on the topic published in 2014:

The theory of a British-French co-responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914 fails because of two key facts: the Entente states were in no way militarily prepared to defeat a fully armed opponent of the size of Germany. And the United States with its free press and open society would have never entered the war on the side of the Entente states had they attacked Germany.45

The Austro-Hungarian empire did have a motive to resort to war. As Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers clearly shows, the Kingdom of Serbia, in its quest to establish hegemony over the southern Slavs and other peoples of the west Balkans, consistently strove to undermine the stability of the Danube monarchy. Policies to exploit rising nationalism in order to foster discontent among the Habsburg empire’s Slavonic communites were not confined to irredentists and conspiratorial networks such as the ‘Black Hand’ or the Narodna Odbrana. The Serbian military establishment, right to the top, was aware of and supported these policies, and as did the kingdom’s politicians. In fact, there is sufficient evidence to maintain that prime minister Nikola Pasic was aware of the planned assassination attempt at Sarajevo, but did not, or did not want to, or could not, do anything about it.46 From Vienna’s perspective, a decisive strike would not only quieten its troublesome southern neighbour, but would also take the wind out of the sails of the empire’s secessionists. Vienna, however, wanted a local war, confined to the Balkans, and not a global conflict.

A case can be made that Berlin’s conviction that rival empires were politically, economically, and militarily bent on preventing Wilhelmine Germany from taking up its rightful place among the leading nations of the world was not the sole motivation behind its decision to force the issue. Germany was economically in dire straits. The huge costs of the military, in particular the construction of the large battle fleet, had led to a spiralling national debt. Imperial indebtedness, which stood at 1.2 billion Reichsmarks in 1890, had doubled to 2.4 billion by 1900, and had more than doubled again by 1914 to 5.2 billion Reichsmarks. As 90 per cent of the Reich’s budget was swallowed up by the army and navy, the states and communes were starved of funds. Their liabilities, virtually zero in 1890, had increased to 27.6 billion Reichsmarks by 1914.

Total German debt on the eve of war amounted to 32.8 billion Reichsmarks. Yet the growth of the army from 588,000 soldiers in 1904 to 748,000 in 1913 demanded ever more funds, as did the ceaseless enlargement of the fleet. Levies on consumption, in particular on food and alcoholic beverages, the main form of taxation, had reached their limits, and direct taxes were resented by the propertied classes, as were demands for an inheritance tax. A modest progressive property tax introduced in 1913 made little impact. Only loans could bridge the gap between income and expenditure, but as Germany’s credit rating deteriorated, foreign loans were getting harder to come by and were more expensive. A victorious war would lay the burden to pay off the debts upon the shoulders of the defeated enemy.47

Only by taking into consideration whether a government ‘pulls the trigger’ — that is, whether it launches into full-scale combat with or without a declaration of war — can it be established that a nation is bent on going to war. And the states that pulled the trigger in late July and early August 1914 were the Austro-Hungarian and German empires.

‘The war that led to the Versailles Peace that led to Hitler’

Even though the Versailles Peace Treaty was not about allocating responsibility for the outbreak of war, such claims linger. Nor did German re-unification in 1990 mean the revival of ‘Teutonic supremacy’ policies, as some — notably British prime minister Margaret Thatcher — feared. The enlarged Federal Republic was in a league of its own in the European Union in terms of population and, especially, in terms of economic strength. However, all subsequent German governments have handled this new status with consideration and tact. Germany stood behind the positive approach towards EU enlargement in the 1990s and early 21st century, and the German government played a key role in the introduction of the Euro currency. At the time of writing, the government of chancellor Angela Merkel, against considerable opposition from within its own ranks, has resisted attempts to solve the European debt crisis by ousting members, notably Greece. Against even stronger opposition from its Bavarian coalition partner and also most member states of the European Union, the Merkel government insists upon policies that allow a humanitarian approach to the European refugee crisis.

It can no longer be claimed seriously that Germans still shy away from the Nazi past. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which provides a moving record of the tragedy, attracts 500,000 visitors each year, and most German regional and local history museums set aside a section illustrating the fate of their Jewish communities during the Third Reich. Feature films, dramatised television series, and documentaries provide constant reminders of what happened. Germany’s leaders attend in full the anniversaries of the key dates of the persecution of the European Jewry, such as Crystal Night and the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camps.

However, acknowledging the Nazi past is one thing; explaining the reason for Hitler is a different matter. As one German expatriate has remarked, ‘[T]he German media have a longing for a clean historical account and an ennobling self-presentation’.48 The tendency to blame the rise of Nazism on outside factors supports this. The last crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Otto von Habsburg, shortly before his death, described the First World War as ‘the war that led to the Versailles Peace Treaty that led to Adolf Hitler’.

As the centenary of the outbreak of war approached, the presumption that the origin of the war and the peacemaking after it combine to explain the rise of Nazism (and the subsequent Second World War) was not uncommon in German accounts. Commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty, the news journal Der Spiegel, for example, published a lead article under the heading ‘The giveaway peace — Why a Second World War had to follow upon the first one’. Its tendentious title notwithstanding, the author’s account of the peacemaking at Paris is not unbalanced. In describing the slow train journey of the German delegation to Versailles, it illustrates the apocalyptic impact the German invasion had upon northern France. It acknowledges that von Brockdorff-Rantzau, head of the German delegation, a ‘touchy prestige-hungry fellow’, still held dreams of German world-domination. It concedes that the hyperinflation of 1923 and the disastrous economic policies of the early 1930s were the fault of the Weimar governments, and that the reparations Germany actually paid were modest.

The author also regards the war-guilt paragraph as harmless, and admits that, in the end, ‘the treaty was not so bad’. After all, he points out, Germany remained economically the leading nation in Europe, and was strategically in a stronger position than before the war. The article pokes fun at some of the treaty’s clauses, and some do indeed invite ridicule. But whereas the inclusion of ‘500 stallions, 2,000 oxen, 90,000 milk cows, 20,000 sheep [and] 14,000 sows’ may seem petty today, these things were a matter of life and death to French and Belgian farmers after the war. The article puts a great deal of emphasis upon president Wilson’s failure to bind the old continent economically and politically to Europe, but this overlooks the deep-seated isolationism of American politicians after 1919 — regardless of their affiliation — and of the American public at large. And, in the end, the key question of why Versailles necessitated a Second World War is left unanswered.49

The illusion that the Versailles peacemakers are to be blamed for the subsequent disastrous course of history is found not only in contemporary German accounts. In his history of the German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II, John Nettles, the British actor best known for his role as the redoubtable Inspector Tom Barnaby of Midsomer Murders, maintains that ‘The victorious Allies imposed a peace on Germany which was not a peace at all … [but] … reduced the country to grinding poverty, economic ruin, starvation and great suffering. It was rumoured that mothers in Hamburg were killing their babies because they had no way of feeding them.’50 Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum in London, in his recent and no doubt excellent book, Germany: memory of a nation, maintains that ‘in 1919 the victorious powers insisted on declaring Germany guilty, with consequences which ran for the next thirty years’.51

These kinds of claims — still a trickle by 2014 — will become a torrent in 2019, the centenary year of the Paris peacemaking. The continuous hype surrounding The Sleepwalkers — Clark was knighted in June 2015 at the instigation of the British Foreign Office — points in this direction.

This is not just another case of historians quarrelling. Something more is at stake. Margaret MacMillan, in her thoughtful study about the uses and abuses of history, points out that the dividing line between political decisions and historical accounts can be a fine one, and warns us not to allow leaders and opinion makers to use history to bolster false claims and justify bad and foolish policies.52 Thus she accuses, for example, George W. Bush (‘by common consent … one of the most incompetent American presidents of the modern era’53) of ignoring the lessons of the American past in his invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. To her, the United States ‘was abandoning its own history of working with others to uphold a world order and … its long history of opposition to imperialism. Worse, as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo would show, it was going to undermine and compromise its own deep respect for the rule of law’.54

Bad history, MacMillan warns, often makes sweeping generalisations for which there is little evidence, and ignores evidence to the contrary because it does not fit the common myth. In her view, accounts of the Treaty of Versailles readily fall into this category. The popular notion that the treaty was so foolish and vindictive that it led inevitably to World War II owed much to the polemical writings of John Maynard Keynes and others. But, she rightly points out, that notion has the severe limitation that it is not compatible with reality. After all, the Germans did lose the war; and they were not nearly as badly treated as they claimed and as many in Britain and America later believed. The reparations were not a major burden, and in any event they were cancelled when Hitler seized power. As economist Étienne Mantoux showed long ago, things were improving economically in Europe in the 1920s. The financial problems Germany faced were of its own making. Likewise the political picture was getting brighter, with the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union entering the international community. Hence, argues MacMillan:

Without the Great Depression, which put fearful strains on even the strongest democracies, and without a whole series of bad decisions, including those by respectable German statesmen and generals who thought they could use Hitler once they got him into power, the slide into aggression and then the war might not have occurred. Bad history ignores such nuances in favour of tales that belong to morality plays but do not help to consider the past in all its complexities.55

In his recent critical study of counterfactuals (‘what ifs?’) in history, Richard J. Evans turns his attention to Harvard historian Neill Ferguson’s hypothesis about what would have happened had Britain remained neutral in the Great War. In that event, Ferguson reasoned, Germany’s war aims would have been less ambitious, she would have won the war, and she would have established hegemony over continental Europe — a desirable state of affairs which, in Ferguson’s opinion, occurred anyway a century later with the German domination of the European Union, to the benefit of the Europeans. Consequently, Ferguson posited, the reasons for the rise of Nazism — frustration over the defeat in war and the Versailles Diktat — would have been removed. Hence no Hitler, no Second World War, no Holocaust, no renewed mass slaughter. There would still be a powerful British empire, rather than the current state of affairs in which, he considered, Britain’s position had declined to that of mere adjunct to a German-run Europe.56

It was not very difficult for Evans to demolish Ferguson’s counterfactual theory. Still, ‘what ifs’ enjoyed popularity in the 1990s. At a conference held by the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C. to mark the 75th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty, William R. Keylor, in his paper on ‘Versailles and International Diplomacy’, raised some ‘what ifs’ in regard to the peacemaking. What if there had been open diplomacy at Paris? What if the German delegation had been admitted as equal partner? What if all ethnic Germans had been permitted to join the Reich? What if the Allies had settled for Keynes’s reparation sums? What if there had been no ‘war guilt clause’, but all belligerents had accepted to equal blame for the war?57 Would this have brought peace and harmony to Europe? Keylor, too, had little difficulty in dismissing such counterfactuals as useless mind games that could not be substantiated from the documentary record of the peace conference.

On the contrary, he proposed that anyone interested in evaluating the Versailles Peace should seek to escape from ‘the thick underbrush of mythology’ that still surrounded the treaty and, instead of indulging in counterfactuals, should approach the topic with a few basic facts in mind. First, the allegedly ‘Wilsonian’ notion of open diplomacy did not herald a new concept for international relations; rather, it was the last gasp of a ‘noble but evanescent aspiration’ that gave way to the twentieth century’s new diplomacy of utmost secrecy. Second, the much-celebrated principle of national self-determination, believed by many ‘Wilsonians’, though not by Wilson himself, to be the cure for the world’s ills, soon proved to be a bird that could not fly (and, incidentally, in my opinion, was something that contributed significantly to many of the twentieth century’s disasters). It is therefore inappropriate to condemn the peacemakers for failing to achieve its universal introduction. Third, there was no war guilt attributed in the treaty. Fourth, the claim that the post-war budgetary policies of France were based on reparation payments constitutes an illusion. Fifth, the British politicians who so recklessly contested the Khaki Election of December 1918 were interested less in the guidelines for the peacemaking process than in exploiting the post-war euphoria — that was soon to abate in any case — to win their seats. And last, but certainly not least, John Maynard Keynes’s talk of a ‘Carthaginian Peace’ was nonsense.58

Keylor concluded his paper by raising the question of whether at the centenary conference 25 years away the treaty would have recovered from the ‘severe indictment originally issued by disaffected Wilsonians in the interwar period and perpetuated in subsequent generations’. He concluded:

Will the new scholarly discoveries and interpretations of the 1970s and 1980s finally have been incorporated into the general historiography, and therefore public memory, of the Versailles settlement? Or will the conventional wisdom continue to embrace the condemnatory verdict of those embittered angry young men in the American and English delegation at Paris who had briefly glimpsed the promised land — or so they thought — only to recede from view as the grim realities of national interest, power, and politics inconveniently intruded into the negotiations to produce a less-than-perfect, that is to say a human, pact of peace.59

I hope, with this book, to contribute to the success of the first alternative.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!