Germany and the Causes of the First World War

By Mark Hewitson | Go to book overview

8

Diplomacy and War: Chancellor,
Kaiser and Foreign Office

Policy-makers in the Foreign Office and Chancellery – and in the person of the Kaiser – relied for the conduct of diplomacy on information received from the German military on opinions in the press, on cases put forward by political parties, economic interests and social groups, and on reports from their own extensive network of ambassadors, consuls, secret advisors and – more occasionally spies. As a result, German foreign policy was, as historians have rightly pointed out, the product of competing pressures and lobbies. As has been noted, Fritz Fischer and the Hamburg school concentrated on domestic pressures, proposing the existence of a Primat der Innenpolitik before 1914, which rested on structural blockages within the 'sham democracy' of the German Empire. Some scholars strongly influenced by Fischer continue to argue that such stalemate and conflict at home created a sense of panic, which in turn pushed statesmen to contemplate a Flucht nach vorn, whilst other historians associated with the Hamburg school stress the domestic basis of feelings of self-confidence and superiority, which led to a willingness to risk war.1 Most recent studies, however, have shifted their focus away from the debate about the primacy of domestic policy and have paid much greater attention to the formulation of foreign policy in its own right. Accordingly, even a scholar such as Wolfgang Mommsen, who gives a prominent role to financial and industrial groups, for instance, and who characterizes the Kaiserreich as 'a system of skirted decisions', subordinates these factors to traditions and parameters of policy-making within the Foreign Office itself.2

The new emphasis on diplomatic history has been accompanied by two sets of arguments, both of which refute or qualify Fischer's thesis about the aggressive or offensive nature of German policy. First, ministers and officials are assumed to have been motivated by the same sense of despair as army officers, since they were aware of the

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