‘The Greatest Catastrophe the World Has Seen’


R.J.W. Evans in the NYRB:

[A]ll sides moved to a more balanced attribution of responsibility for 1914. There seemed to be a wealth of evidence that all sides had taken risks and been complicit in decisions that made war likelier. Moreover, literary witnesses, such as Robert Graves, encouraged the conclusion that the whole story was one of monstrous stupidness and futility. The first phase of reflection culminated in a long work of scholarship, published in 1942–1943, by the Italian politician and journalist Luigi Albertini. Silenced by the Fascist regime, Albertini immersed himself in all the sources, and added more of his own by arranging interviews with survivors. That lent an immediacy to his wonderfully nuanced presentation of the individuals who actually made (or ducked) the fateful decisions. Albertini’s magnum opus eventually made its mark in the 1950s, when it appeared in English translation. As the fiftieth anniversary of Sarajevo approached, the verdict seemed clear: the road to war, an immensely complex and protracted process, was paved with shared culpability.

At that point the learned consensus was shattered, and earlier assumptions seemed corroborated in a new perspective. The Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer issued a series of works incriminating the German side in a premeditated “bid for world power.” By the time of his closest examination of pre-war diplomacy, in Krieg der Illusionen (1969), he argued that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his ministers more or less single-mindedly provoked the conflict out of a combination of expansionist ambition and a desire to distract and discipline socialists and other increasingly insubordinate elements in domestic German society. The resultant “Fischer controversy” had its roots in intellectual instabilities of the then Federal Republic of Germany, including ambivalent attitudes toward the recent National Socialist past, in its relation to the course of German history as a whole, and in a vogue for socioeconomic explanations of political behavior. In any event, it brought influential confirmation that the much-maligned drafters of the Versailles settlement might not have been so far wrong after all.

Decades of contention followed, akin to a rerun of the interwarKriegsschuldfrage, or war guilt question; but like the Versailles diktat before it, the Fischer thesis has not worn well. In fact, to judge by the crop of books reviewed here, it is almost dead (lingering on in a qualified way only with Max Hastings). As we approach the centenary of Sarajevo, Albertini has triumphed. And so fully that—with one partial exception—there is a notable absence of polemic in these texts. Indeed they have much in common.

More here.