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It is currently impossible to speak about the history of the twentieth century without referencing Fritz Fisher’s book Germany’s Aims in the First World War. This piece of historical investigation is necessary due to its effectiveness in presenting new information as well as the introduction of the author’s point of view on the entire situation. The main conclusion Fisher made was that at some time the aims of Germany were grandiose and were based on the differences in principles: “between political and military thinking, between moderate, non-annexationist war objectives and unlimited, annexationist ones.”1
From the very beginning, ever since the appearance of Germany’s Aims in the First World War in 1961 in Germany, the book was subjected to heated debates and public controversy since Fischer’s arguments had an adverse impact on the German mythology, and his documentation of historical accounts was too substantial to ignore2. In general, the fact that there is controversy surrounding Fischer’s work is reasonable since the questions he raised in the book went against the traditional disputes prevalent in the academic history. Therefore, what is at stake regarding Germany’s Aims is not the reliability of concrete evidence that the author cited or the conclusions he drew. Rather, it was the character of the epoch that shaped the way Fischer presented his work.
Fischer managed to offer readers an extensive analysis of the widest range of annexationist ideologies and their impact on every aspect of the First World War. With the help of skillfully demonstrating the consistency of aggrandizement program run by Germans, which took place regardless of the appearance of multiple possibilities of setting a conflict with the aid of negotiations3. Despite these opportunities, Germany was convinced that it should acquire new territories in Western and Eastern Europe for securing its position to compete with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia.
Fischer raised a controversial question whether the German government had any attempts to withstand the commotions in the country that were leading towards a catastrophe, and he made a conclusion that no efforts took place, which spoke a lot about the intentions of the government during the war4. Rather, the author wrote about the promotion of revolution, which was characterized by the mutual efforts of the general staff of the German government targeted at developing a revolutionary program against Russia and Britain5.
Although, the program only had immediate success in Russia, where it contributed to the chain of events that later shaped the history of the war. The activities included in the program started at the war’s outbreak and were the primary strategic warfare tools for postponing the deployment of the Russian military on the eastern frontier of Germany and contributing to the internal unrest within the Russian Army. Thus, the promotion of revolution on the part of the German government was a warfare tool aimed at destroying the Russian and British empires6.
Another point that was vital to Fisher’s discussion was associated with the connections he made between the mentioned promotion of revolution and Germany’s aims to expand its territory. The debate about war aims began with the introduction of the context, which placed both war objectives and the promotion of revolution on the same analytical scale. Nevertheless, Fischer recognized that the broader scope of the development of revolution program was in may cases simplified in order to only refer to the case of the Russian Empire.
Furthermore, the author pointed to the lack of clarity regarding the role of national policies of Germany as well as its international connection. Thus, Fischer insisted on the acceptance of the revolution as a means of warfare and the aim of Germany in the First World War. According to him, the members of the German government openly acknowledged revolution7. For instance, the instructions formulated by the Chancellor addressing the German embassy in Vienna defined the country’s aims to “produce a revolution, not only in Poland but also in Ukraine, seems to us very important as a means of warfare against Russia.”8
Thus, a broader political terrain can be traced throughout the entire Fischer’s work. While later studies and discussions of revolutionary activities of other authors missed such a vast terrain, Germany’s Aims in the First World War gave an introduction to a broad range of revolutionary programs ranging from the enthusiasm of the Kaiser for the activity of jihad in the Islamic world and moving to attempts to destabilize the borders of the Russian Empire, Georgia, Finland, and reaching as far as the West Coast of the United States9. Later, it was found that Germany accounted for the local specificities of each country, which also supported the view regarding a unified revolutionary program.
It is crucial to mention that despite the fact that the argument about the revolutionary program was central to Fischer’s work, it did not play any role in the debates over Germany’s Aims. Moreover, it gradually left the conversation, which is surprising, although predetermined. Early assessments of Fischer’s work validated the importance of the revolutionary program ideology. For instance, in his work World Politics, Klaus Epstein assigned a key importance of the revolutionary program in any discussion about war, which supported the assessment made by Fischer that it had to be placed in the center of any analysis associated with the policies of War in Germany. In this respect, the research conducted by Fischer possesses a special “merit” of analyzing German policies in their complete configuration10. Such a special merit included the war aims, strategies, as well as a focus o the imperial character of official policies.
Disagreements With Fischer’s Views
When it comes to disagreements with Fischer’s work, a discussion occurred with regards to the responsibility of Germany in influencing other countries to go to war. In Fischer’s opinion, Germany played a significant role in pressuring Austria to revive the Balkan conflict. Also, Fischer wrote that Germany wanted to place responsibility on Russia for causing war because it mobilized first. Another point of the radical view expressed by Fischer was associated with the view that Germany implemented aggressive policies on the basis of their economic interest. According to Fischer, Germany was invested in pursuing aggressive policies from 1900 to 1939, accusing the government of having a September program targeted at achieving global power, and that the country had been in a long preparation for war11.
Despite Fischer’s radical views, the more contemporary approach towards the intentions of Germany was different. For instance, the question about war guilt that many historians discussed was regarded as a consequence of the country’s plans. The German historian Erich Brandenburg stated that Germany was only to blame for the short-sightedness, lack of method consistency, and the underestimation of the implications their policy could have had12.
Moreover, the French’s retrieval of Alsace-Lorraine and the desire of Russia to control the Balkans were regarded as more direct causes of the First World War than the aggressive policies of Germany or its revolutionary program. For historians such as Brandenburg, the mobilization of the Russian military was the direct cause of the war, and not the attempts of Germany to gain new territories.13 The rivalry between France and Germany regarding Alsace-Lorraine and the opposition between Austria and Russia to get a leading position in the Balkans contributed to the political tensions between government, which meant that each player had made a contribution to starting the war, and Germany was not the only one to blame.
Additionally, the ideas of national self-determination played a significant role in the debate against the views laid out by Fischer. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand along with his wife presented an opportunity for Austria-Hungary to reopen the discussion about the Balkan question with the help of its principle ally, Germany. The murder of Ferdinand was a chance for Austria to express its public opinion about war and to at least subdue the nationalistic ideologies. The proclamation of war against Serbia was not spontaneous, and the next events followed from that.
However, Fischer painted a picture of Austrian policies being oriented in a peaceful direction, and that only because of the pressure from Berlin the country decided to go into war, while many other historians stated that Austria was also responsible for its contribution. As mentioned by Joachim Remark, “this was Austria’s war,14” and the historian also held a view that the ultimatum was an “appalling document – tardy, incompetent, deceptive, and designed to be rejected.”15
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Contrast to Fischer’s approach, American historians predominantly focused on intelligence, weaponry, and war plans.16 The latest trends regarding the exploration of the reasons for the First World War starting went as far as looking into topics such as nationalist ideologies, cultural determination of power politics, and economic integration. Others wanted to invest into exploring the domestic causes and investigate internal disturbances within countries that had an impact on governments’ decisions. For instance, in his article The Third Balkan War, Remak put the majority of guilt for the declaration of war on Austria rather than Germany17, which goes against the views laid out by Fischer.
Historians that studied the intentions of Germany in the First World War have not reached a consistent conclusion. If to speak from a personal perspective, it is important to state that both World Wars left a dark spot in the global history, and there is nothing can be done now to avoid the devastating implications. Nevertheless, blaming one side or the other is ineffective; although Fischer provided substantial evidence to support his ideas and although the notion of the revolutionary program developed by Germany is solid, the radical anti-German stance can only hinder the examination of the real reasons for the start of the First World War. While Germany was indeed the dominant force that desired to expand its territories, each player in the war had some national interests in the war, so no one can say for certain whether it was Germany and only Germany responsible for everything.
Barraclough, Geoffrey. “Place in the Sun.” The New York Review, March 14, 1968.
Brandenburg, Erich. From Bismarch to the World War: A History of German Foreign Policy 1870-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 1927.
Fischer, Fritz. Germany’s Aims in the First World War. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1967.
Gordon, Craig. “Germany’s Aims in the First World War by Fritz Fischer, Hajo Holborn and James Joll.” Political Science Quarterly 84, no. 4 (1969): 700-702.
Jenkins, Jennifer. “Fritz Fischer’s ‘Programme for Revolution’: Implications for a Global History of Germany in the First World War,” Journal of Contemporary History 48, no. 2 (2013): 397-417.
Konzett, Melanie. “Critically Assess Why Historians Disagreed on the Causes of the First World War.” BA Literature and History. Accessed 16 May 2017,
Remak, Joachim. “1914 – The Third Balkan War: Origins Reconsidered.” Journal of Modern History 43 (1971): 353-366.
- Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1967), 376.
- Geoffrey Barraclough, “Place in the Sun,” The New York Review, March 14, 1968, 6.
- Craig Gordon, “Germany’s Aims in the First World War by Fritz Fischer, Hajo Holborn and James Joll,” Political Science Quarterly 84, no. 4 (1969): 701.
- Gordon, “Germany’s Aims,” 702.
- Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1967), 324.
- Fischer, Germany’s Aims, 374.
- Ibid., 375.
- Ibid., 376.
- Jennifer Jenkins, “Fritz Fischer’s ‘Programme for Revolution’: Implications for a Global History of Germany in the First World War,” Journal of Contemporary History 48, no. 2 (2013): 398.
- Jenkins, “Fritz Fischer’s ‘Programme’,” 402.
- Melanie Konzett, “Critically Assess Why Historians Disagreed on the Causes of the First World War,” BA Literature and History.
- Konzett, “Critically Assess Why Historians Disagreed.”
- Erich Brandenburg, From Bismarch to the World War: A History of German Foreign Policy 1870-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press), 518.
- Joachim Remak, “1914 – The Third Balkan War: Origins Reconsidered,” Journal of Modern History 43 (1971): 353.
- Remak, “1914 – The Third Balkan War,” 354.
- Konzett, “Critically Assess Why Historians Disagreed.”
- Remak, “1914 – The Third Balkan War,” 355.