Germany and the Central Powers in the World War, 1914- 1918

By Walther Hubatsch; Oswald P. Backus | Go to book overview

2. World War I and Its Beginning

Few eras have been studied as thoroughly as the period from 1914 through 1918. People have indulged in wild verbal feuds and scholars have engaged in energetic debates; yet we must admit that as a consequence historians can write about the war from a reasonably firm and definite basis. That catastrophe which only a few people had expected or predicted, that world-encompassing war which most European peoples had regarded as destiny's evil surprise, is viewed by us today differently than it was viewed by contemporaries. We regard it dispassionately from a distance, and see it illuminated in all its details, almost free from enigma. Research scholars of all countries basically agree on the major lines of development unless ideological ties cloud their judgment.8

No "Epoch of World Wars." Yet it now seems--and the historiography of the past years has confirmed this--the outlines of World War I are fading in the mist covering the horizon of the present. In the foreground, there is the study of a second, even worse catastrophe, and we can notice a trend toward treating both world wars as one terrifying, connected event, like "two acts of one and the same drama." However, a precise examination of the beginning of the war in 1914 alone should suffice to warn the scholar not to compare too closely two titanic events which widely differ as to cause and course. Any attempt at judging World War I only in terms of the years 1939 through 1945 leads necessarily to erroneous conclusions. Something happened in 1919 at Versailles, which until then, had been unknown to modern European history, namely, "the victor forced the defeated to acknowledge his inferiority, he tried to make the defeated 'annex' this as part of his spiritual past."9 Such a verdict of war guilt cannot be justified by the reasoning that World War II confirmed this thesis. Judgments about the years 1914-1919 ought to be made only according to the yardsticks then valid.

Problems of research. After 1919, an entire generation of historians tried to limit or eradicate the thesis that only Germany and her allies were responsible for the war.10 This caused other problems to be neglected, especially the internal political history of the war era. The rectification of this neglect should not in its turn be a reason for pushing military events into the background. Political, economic and military

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