The 90th Anniversary of World War I Provokes a New Interpretation in Germany

Roundup: Talking About History

Charles Hawley, in the Christian Science Monitor (Aug. 2, 2004):

In 1961, historian Fritz Fischer shocked Germany with his book, "Germany's Grasp for World Power," which asserted that Kaiser Wilhelm II was largely responsible for the outbreak of World War I. To a population that had grown up viewing the war as defensive, Mr. Fischer's book was widely rejected.

Now, public opinion is beginning to shift. And new theories that test old notions about World War I are surfacing.

Already this year, there have been over a dozen books published on the subject, as well as countless television specials, and a six-issue series by the prominent newsmagazine "Der Spiegel."

The change is also making its way into German schools and universities. More and more students are showing an interest in World War I courses.

"I have noticed that World War I has definitely become more interesting to my students," says Torsten Kittler, a tenth-grade teacher from the German state of Lower Saxony who was recently in Berlin to take his class to the current World War I exhibit at the German History Museum. "We have been trying to show the connections between the two wars and with the 20th century as a whole. The students really like that."

Katherina Mueller, a student of Kittler's, agrees. "We have really learned that World War I was the first and defining catastrophe of last century."

To be sure, the 90th anniversary of the Aug. 1, 1914, start of WWI has played a role in its growing popularity. But observers say this is more than just a media phenomenon. It's a new German understanding of their 20th-century history - dominated for so long by the horrors of the Holocaust. And the ongoing discussion about whether one can be "proud" to be German has raised questions about how far Germans can go in detaching themselves from the country's World War II guilt.

"There is a feeling that we are in a new era," says Rainer Rother, curator of the German History Museum exhibit.

Much discussed among historians in Germany and the rest of Europe is a theory that sees the period between 1914 and 1945 as a single continuation of violence. Rather than examining the distinctions between the two violent episodes, the similarities - such as the global and industrialized character of both wars as well as the continuity of German desires to expand eastward - are emphasized.

Some critics say this conflation of the two wars is a dangerous step toward minimizing the Holocaust. Mr. Rother says that reducing World War II to a small part of a larger era takes the spotlight away from Nazi crimes. "There is a risk," he says, "of putting World War I too closely together with the break from civilization represented by the Nazis. It minimizes that break."

Rather than seeking to relativize World War II, the current discussion of World War I has focused on recognition that German aggression was a defining feature of much of the 20th century. The so-called "Short 20th Century" - a historical interpretation that combines World War I, World War II, and the cold war into one era from 1914 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 - places guilt for World War I on German shoulders.

First articulated by British historian Eric Hobsbawm in his 1994 book, "The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991," this school of thought is finding particular resonance in Germany this year. The country is hoping this year's political union with Poland and other eastern European countries will be the optimistic closing chapter of a painful century....

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