Obituary: Professor Fritz Fischer

Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann
Monday 13 December 1999 01:02

IN A lecture I gave in Oxford the other day about the origins and causes of the First World War I talked about Fritz Fischer and his epoch-making works on that very subject. Little did I know that he had died a few hours earlier, at the age of 91.

For 40 years Fischer had towered over the by now famous debate on the origins of the First World War. He instigated it with the publication, in 1959 and 1960, of two scholarly articles in the Historische Zeitschrift about war-aims policies. Both put German historians on notice of what was to come when his seminal book Griff nach der Weltmacht ("Bid for World Power") appeared in October 1961. An English version of the book , translated by the Oxford historian C.A. Macartney, appeared under the title Germany's Aims in the First World War in 1967, with an introduction by James Joll.

Fischer had been one of the first historians to gain access to archives in East and West Germany and to make use of a vast range of hitherto unpublished and unused archival material. The strong reaction to his book in the German media did not so much focus on Fischer's wide-ranging analysis of war- aims policies as on his first two chapters on German pre-war imperialism and Berlin's policy during the crisis of July 1914. The two chapters were intended as an explanatory introduction to the development of the later war aims. But Fischer's thesis that Germany had caused the outbreak of the war was explosive.

He had turned against the prevailing interpretation that Germany had fought a defensive war and that therefore the so-called war guilt clause (article 231 of the Versailles Peace Treaty) was unjustified. Ever since 1919 German historians had tried to refute the "war guilt lie" and had become revisionists in the historical and political sense.

After the war historians in Germany continued to argue in the same vein and even managed to persuade French historians to adopt a more revisionist line in their guidelines for school books. Fischer's book challenged the national belief in Germany's innocence by revealing that it was the Second Reich's policy makers who opted for war in 1914.

It is difficult to imagine today how strongly the reaction in the public was against Fischer's challenge of a deeply entrenched national myth. Even at a personal level he was subjected to criticism. He received anonymous telephone calls and threatening letters and was shouted at in public meetings. Rejected by the political Right and Conservatives, Fischer's interpretations found acceptance by the Left, although initially it did not endorse his findings.

How did Fischer come to write about the First World War? After he had returned from the United States in 1955, where he had held a Visiting Professorship at Notre Dame University, he ran a research seminar at Hamburg University on the war. The papers presented by the students provided a challenge to the hitherto accepted revisionist outlook and inspired Fischer to delve into the recently opened archives in East Germany and Bonn to find out what had really happened. The rest is history.

Many would have cracked under the strain of media pressure. Not so Fischer. He was convinced that he would ultimately prevail because of his strong belief in the evidence of the primary sources. He had also become aware of the immensity of the cover-up of German policies before and after 1914 by historians, archivists, politicians and the military in the inter- war period. He himself had been a victim of the revisionist attitudes propagated in the 1920s and 1930s. His anger at this cover-up even surfaced in shouting matches he had with his elder colleague, Egmont Zechlin, in the history department of Hamburg before his book was published.

Zechlin, who had arranged for Fischer to be offered a professorship at Hamburg in December 1943, had also begun to work on the causes of the First World War, rejected Fischer's views and demanded from his younger colleague that he give up his research. But Fischer was not so easily intimidated. I and my fellow students, listening to the extremely noisy confrontations in their offices, feared the worst.

Fischer's fiercest critic, however, was the doyen of German historians at the time, Gerhard Ritter. He, a veteran of the Great War, was a national conservative - not a Nazi (unlike Fischer, who joined the party in 1939 but left it in 1942) - and a member of the resistance movement. Ritter was not an open apologist of German politics in 1914, but never forgave Fischer for his criticism of the Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg's willingness to start the war. He criticised the German military influence on politics but saw in Bethmann a politician who tried to resist this tendency.

As a patriot Ritter broke into tears when he discussed Fischer's line of arguments in his lectures in Freiburg. He saw in Fischer's views a great danger for the international image of Germany. Despite the emotionally laden vituperations of Ritter and others which tended to prevent more objective critical debate, Fischer defended his position efficiently. Backed by a team of young researchers at Hamburg, on whom he depended to a considerable extent, he was able to refute most of the challenges over time. He drew great strength from his willing collaborators, including his wife, and should perhaps have been a bit more generous with his acknowledgements.

Fischer was an incredibly hard worker and his command of the sources was staggering. At the same time he was widely read, willing to learn and ready to discuss history, politics, art, philosophy and social developments at an informed and interesting level at any time of the day or night. He was prepared to listen and argue endlessly with every undergraduate. Status-consciousness and pomposity were alien to him.

Lecturing abroad in the 1960s was a great relief to him after the poisoned atmosphere at home. He lectured several times at Oxford and also at many American universities. He met A.J.P. Taylor in Oxford in 1963, who greeted him as a "fellow outcast from history". But Fischer did not want to be associated with a historian who had been labelled in Germany and the US an apologist for Hitler's war.

However, he found solace in Oxford, and in 1968 was interested in the Chair for International Relations. Members of the selection committee were excited by the prospect of Fischer's coming to Oxford, but Hamburg pension rights brought this dream to a quick end. Even before the start of the controversy he felt comfortable in the English-speaking world and later enjoyed the honours which were bestowed upon him by the universities of Sussex, Norwich and Oxford.

After the publication of his major work Fischer began to explore continuity aspects between the First and Second World War. This exploration had serious implications for the Adenauer government. If, as Fischer asserted, the 12 years of Nazi rule and the war aims of the Second World War were not an aberration in the course of 20th- century German history, then the moral stance for demanding German reunification could be questioned. The German Foreign Office was prompted to withdraw travel funds Fischer had been promised to tour American universities.

An American outcry led to grants being made available for his speaking engagements in the US in 1965. After that he spent some months at the Advanced Institute at Princeton, where he began to work on his second major book, a project he pursued after his return with a new team of researchers. Now the topic was German domestic and foreign policy in the years between 1911 and 1914 to establish continuity between pre-war and war policies. The book appeared in 1969 with the title Krieg der Illusionen. An English translation, War of Illusions: German policies from 1911 to 1914, appeared in 1975, with a foreword by Alan Bullock.

Fischer's analysis was as wide- ranging as in his previous book and included again social, economic, political and intellectual movements, but this time towards war. What was new for Fischer was the adoption of the primacy of domestic policy from which he later was to dissociate himself. The controversy this time was not as heated as before. In fact some of his old opponents were willing to make concessions to some of Fischer's views. The public also reacted more favourably. The intellectual climate had changed in Germany, not the least because of the Fischer controversy.

A planned third volume, analysing the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany, did not materialise. Fischer had retired in 1973 for health reasons. Without a university-funded research team it was too difficult to carry out a research programme on the lines of the first two projects. Instead Fischer went on to publish three smaller volumes, the last in 1992 at the age of 84.

His 90th birthday last year found for the first time a positive reaction in the German media. He had become respectable, although even now a number of younger historians do not agree with some of his interpretations. But the warning he wanted to give to younger historians was to avoid national partiality and not to identify the writing of history with nationalist causes or government politics. He had lived his advice.

Fritz Fischer, historian: born Ludwigsstadt, Germany 5 March 1908; Professor of Modern and Medieval History, University of Hamburg 1948-73 (Emeritus); married 1942 Margrit Lauth (one son, one daughter); died Hamburg, Germany 1 December 1999.

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