Hot topic in Germany: aggression in World War I

Sunday marked the 90th anniversary of the start of World War 1.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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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.

Jürgen Kocka, history professor at the Free University in Berlin and consultant to the German History Museum's World War I exhibition that opened in May, agrees. "It is extremely interesting to see how the historical viewpoint broadens as the time passes," he says. "I think it is correct to look back and see that the time between 1914 and 1945 is a single unity or maybe even the time between 1914 and 1991."

This willingness to acknowledge the centrality of German aggression between 1914 and 1945 departs radically from the last time the subject was seriously broached in Germany - by Fischer, 40-plus years ago.

"In the 1960s," says John Röhl, a historian working on a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II, "Fischer lifted the carpet on something really quite nasty - this question of where Naziism ultimately comes from and how we got there. The carpet was then put back over this embarrassing aspect of German history. Now, we are reverting to a position where we are saying, 'hang on, there was something interesting in what Fischer said.' "

From the perspective of Germany's western neighbors, the country's rediscovery of the war is late in coming.

In France, La Grande Guerre (the Great War) has always taken supremacy because of the massive bloodletting on French battlefields. A comprehensive museum to the war opened in Péronne in 1992. Belgium opened a museum in Ypres in 1998.

In England, World War II also lags behind the Great War in the public imagination. Armistice Day, which commemorates the Nov. 11, 1918 end of World War I, serves as a memorial day for both wars.

More important than focusing solely on World War I, say historians, is the attempt to draw conclusions about what an era meant - and means - for Germany and for Europe. Indeed, says Rother, the recent expansion of the European Union on May 1 could well be intensifying the attention on World War I.

"We are returning a bit to the period before 1914. Prior to 1914, one could travel from St. Petersburg to Paris without a passport," he says. "It was a European culture that went from Lisbon to Moscow. For a long time that was a bit buried and now there is the chance that we are really going to see it come back."

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