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Cent ans après : la mémoire de la Première Guerre mondiale

Elli Lemonidou

The Attack on Belgium and the Defence of “German Freedom”: German Historians and their Involvement in a War of Culture since August 1914

Christoph Cornelissen


A key for understanding the reception of the WWI outbreak in Germany is the attitude held by German intellectuals. Many historians strongly supported the decisions of the German leadership through public interventions, providing an ideological foundation for the German policy. This attitude, in breach with professional standards, was directly related to their own perceived role in German society, through a constant interplay of historiographical self-mobilization and official mobilization. This attitude of German historians, still rooted for many years after the end of the conflict, partly explains the overall treatment of First World War in later German historiography. Only historians with direct experience of the battlefront managed to express differentiated historiographical discourses, although it took almost two decades before most of them felt able to turn their minds actively on their own war experience.

Une clé pour comprendre la réception du déclenchement de la Première Guerre mondiale en Allemagne est l’attitude des intellectuels allemands. De nombreux historiens ont fortement soutenu les décisions des dirigeants allemands par des interventions publiques, en fournissant une base idéologique pour la politique allemande. Cette attitude, en contradiction avec les normes professionnelles, était directement liée à leur propre rôle perçu dans la société allemande, par un jeu constant de l’auto-mobilisation historiographique et de la mobilisation officielle. Cette attitude des historiens allemands, encore enracinée pour de nombreuses années après la fin du conflit, explique en partie le traitement global de la Première Guerre mondiale dans l’historiographie allemande ultérieure. Seuls les historiens ayant une expérience directe du front de guerre ont réussi à exprimer des discours historiographiques différenciés, bien qu’il ait fallu près de deux décennies avant que la plupart d’entre eux ne se sentent capables de tourner leur esprit activement sur leur propre expérience de guerre.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Hampe 2007, p. 101.
  • 2 Roolf 2005.

1Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the Heidelberg medievalist Karl Hampe entered a note in his diary about the German violation of Belgium’s political neutrality. In the emergency of the German Reich at that moment –according to Hampe’s comment on the 5th of August– only military utility should count, whereas moral considerations should come second as they were “only of minor importance”1. To be sure, the historian Hampe should not be ranked equal to the many German hotheads who began, at an early stage of the war, to adumbrate far-reaching visions for the future of a Belgian state under German hegemony. He did not belong either to the coterie of German academics, scientists or experts who regarded the outbreak of war as a welcome opportunity for plundering cultural assets in Belgium. This even included plans, as the historian Christoph Roolf demonstrated it in 2004, for the transportation of dinosaur skeletons from the small town of Bernissart to German natural history museum2.

  • 3 Hampe 1915a.
  • 4 Hampe 2007, p. 30.

2However, all of this must be seen as part of far wider reaching plans for the war pillage of documents, objects of art and other material gains by the German occupants since August 1914. In comparison to these sweeping activities Hampe’s comments seem to be much more restrained, though he did not either really ponder much about the fate of the occupied country as various entries in his diary testify. Furthermore, it seems that his research on Belgian and Dutch history was soon met with a very positive echo by leading representatives of the military General-Government (Generalgouvernement) in Brussels. Therefore, he was officially invited to continue his studies in Belgian archives in the autumn of 1915. That led him to a memorandum on “Belgium and Holland” and a more or less similar book version on Belgiens Vergangenheit und Gegenwart later the same year3. While he was working on these texts, Hampe was also conceded some free time which he used for excursions to Anvers, Dinant, Namur and Louvain. Although the material destruction caused by the German conquest did not elude his attention, he tried to justify it indirectly by saying that considerable improvements had taken place since then. To prove this point to himself, he referred to the reconstruction of houses which had been organised by the German military government. He also stated quite frankly that many habitations had surprisingly survived the destruction of war. When he commented on the developments in Louvain, he briskly observed that the loss of the library building was not a real loss “due to reasons of taste” (aus geschmacklichen Gründen), leaving out not only the fact that German soldiers had set ablaze the priceless cultural heritage of this library, but also committed massive war crimes in the city as well as in other parts of Belgium4.

  • 5 Ungern-Sternberg von 1996.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 144.

3The fact that the historian Karl Hampe glossed over these problems in his diary must be seen against a general denial of many German intellectuals, academics and politicians who rapidly formed a united front when faced with foreign reproaches accusing the German military of a serious violation of both international and martial law. The most famous or rather notorious instance of such an intervention became known as early as on the 4th October of 1914, when ninety-three prominent German scholars and artists published an appeal “To the world of culture” (An die Kulturwelt!)5. In six repetitively constructed passages, each of which begins by saying “It is not true…” (Es ist nicht wahr…), the counter-signing academics and artists denied all foreign reproaches according to which Germany should be blamed both for triggering the war and having committed war crimes in Belgium. In addition they went on to say that: “It is not true that our troops acted brutally against Löwen. And it is not true that our warfare ignored the rules of international law”6. Apparently, the foreign attacks against the German “cultural barbarians” (Kulturbarbaren) weighed heavily on many people’s minds. The appeal was followed up by a plethora of official, semi-official and academic publications, all of which tried to demonstrate the same arguments.

  • 7 Kellermann 1915.
  • 8 Ungern-Sternberg von 2014.

4Now, it could be easy to argue that all of this was the sorry consequence of war propaganda, possibly also of an overdose of nationalistic postures in times of war or, perhaps, of the attempt by academics and intellectuals who tried to underline their own importance for the national war effort. Although there may be some truth in this, I will argue that these reasons cannot be regarded as a sufficient explanation for what happened in the wider “war of culture” which evolved after August 1914 and which should be regarded as an integral part of the “people’s war” –the Volkskrieg as it was termed in Germany. One of the major challenges in this “war of the minds” (Krieg der Geister) –the term actually dates back to a book title from Hermann Kellermann in 19157– was constituted by the fact that basically nobody could really define what Germany was fighting for, except for its own preservation and the maintenance of its position as a leading power in Europe. In contrast to this situation, England and France could mobilize the universal ideas of equality and freedom right from the beginning of the war, that is to say the ideas of 1789. And they could claim to fight for democracy, although they had to remain rather silent regarding the allied Tsar of Russia. The Germans, however, could not simply distance themselves from these universal values. But as their constitution and political culture was certainly neither democratic nor parliamentarian in a western sense, many academics and intellectuals tried to point a way out of this impasse by putting a high emphasis on Germany’s singularity and its specific understanding of political freedom. Contemporaries in Germany often also spoke of the ideas of 1914, which they positioned against the ideas of 17898.

  • 9 Mommsen 1992. For more recent discussions on this topic, see Flasch 2000; Bruendel 2014.
  • 10 Meinecke 1958.
  • 11 Niedhart 2009.
  • 12 Thimme 1994, p. 157.

5Thus the talk of a “deutsche Freiheit” (German freedom) turned into something like a topos during the war. It even moulded into some kind of propaganda formulae which supposedly helped to legitimate the attack on Belgium, on France and on their co-belligerents9. The idea of a specific “German freedom” was partly grounded on philosophical or more general ethical considerations, many of which represented a combination of Fichte’s moralism and the pronounced anti-western attitudes of the late xixth and early xxth centuries in German political culture. But it was also based to a great extent on historical interpretations. All of these ranked the semi-autocratic political culture of Imperial Germany as a case of its own, which could claim the support from all strata of the German society. Thus, for example, the conservative-liberal-minded historian Friedrich Meinecke from Freiburg argued in August 1914 that the Germans as a chosen “people of culture” (Kulturvolk) had gone to war in order to defend their specific understanding of political freedom10. Many more were to join him along the same line of argument. This included, for example, one of the few German historians in favour of the Social Democratic Party, Gustav Mayer, who argued that defending Germany’s course meant to pursue higher cultural ideals. In his eyes, the war was led by Germany to ascertain the highest values of humankind –so he put in October 1914. He even regarded the war as a tribute to the “eternal will of history”11. The Berlin historian Friedrich Thimme was to second him in a similar way several years later, in May 1917. His letter to Meinecke merits quotation as it explicitly defined the aim of defending German liberty and also because it neatly described the role Thimme assigned to the profession of historians during the war12:

I would like it very much if we German historians could come together to stage a powerful appeal in favour of defending the “German liberty”. Basically, all of us, perhaps with the exception of the hapless Dietrich Schäfer, are of the same opinion as to the aims of the war and peace, but also on home affairs. […] We historians in particular, who administer the heritage of Bismarck and Treitschke, should be at the front line of both domestic and foreign politics.

  • 13 Wilhelm, Walter 1914.
  • 14 Quoted by Lübbe 1963, p. 228.

6It is interesting to note the fact that so many leading German historians voluntarily took part in explaining their country’s war effort against “a world of enemies”13. And it is also interesting to realise that this attempt united historians over the whole political spectrum and from all confessions. All of them readily sided with their government when it came to explain the German attack on Belgium and also when denying the Belgian atrocities committed by the German army. What we witness in this connection can be understood as the result of a general moralisation of warfare which, as the German theologian Ernst Troeltsch argued in 1915, had become part and parcel of a modern people’s war. In times of mass politics, so Troeltsch argued further, political leaders had to couch the national war effort in terms of a “war of defence”. Therefore, both politicians and academics represented the war as a just cause to defend Germany’s political existence and also to defend the specific moral fibre of its political culture14.

7In my view, this argument carries some weight because it underlines the importance of moral standpoints and thus a phenomenon which has remained to this day a corollary of modern warfare. If democracies attempt to win a war, they do not only have to win battles but they also need to gain the higher moral ground over their adversaries. The argument in itself was, to be sure, not new, neither in 1914 nor at the end of the First World War. But after August 1914, this challenge propelled many of the German historians into becoming fervent supporters of their country’s cause. This proved quite a challenging task as Germany could not pretend to lead a war in the defence of universally acclaimed ideals. Against this background, the German government engineered several broad publicity campaigns to legitimise the attack on Belgium and at the same time to defend what is understood under the concept of “German freedom”. These publicity campaigns were meant to convince both the public at home and the inhabitants of the neutral states of the just cause on the German side. However, this mobilization went, as I will argue, hand in hand with a broad self-mobilization of German intellectuals and academics, many of whom were renowned or less well-known historians.

8In the following I would like to probe deeper into this phenomenon by concentrating on a selected number of public interventions by German historians during the war. To this purpose I will, firstly, try to give a rough sketch of the professional group of historians and its adherence to the idea of a German freedom. Secondly, I will analyse the relationship between mobilization and self-mobilization which ensured a wide circulation of the concept of German freedom. Thirdly, I will look a bit closer at some of the long-term consequences for the German historiography on the First World War. In all these passages, I will try to highlight the great importance of the German attack on Belgium as this weighed heavily on all moral and political debates since the outbreak of the war, but I will not confine myself to it. The historians’ debate over Belgium needs to be integrated into the wider “war of culture” that took place between 1914 and 1918. It is only then that we can understand its wider implications.

A Brief Group Profile of German Historians During the First World War and the Idea of a “German Freedom”

  • 15 Cornelissen 1996.

9Although it has been constantly repeated that the age of the mass university had already begun at the turn of the xixth to the xxth centuries, this was, in quantitative terms, completely different to what we understand under the expression today. At the outbreak of the First World War, there were only eighty-six established chairs of history in Imperial Germany, seventy-six of which formed part of a university department. This situation ensured that a few opinion leaders usually sufficed to exert a relatively strong influence over their “guildsmen”. During the war years, this concerns, above all, Hans Delbrück, Friedrich Meinecke and Hermann Oncken, to mention only some of the most renowned ones. The three of them represented figureheads of a liberal-conservative wing in German historiography, while Dietrich Schäfer, Max Lenz and Georg von Below turned into historiographical rabble-rousers during the war, favouring far-reaching war aims and a punitive peace against Germany’s enemies. Together with numerous other colleagues, to whom we should add Karl Hampe as a specialist on Belgian history, they took part in massive publicity campaigns to legitimate the German war effort and also concrete military actions on the ground15.

  • 16 This letter was passed on to me by Christoph Roolf.
  • 17 Roolf 2009.
  • 18 This letter was passed on to me by Christoph Roolf.
  • 19 Roolf 2009.

10But, perhaps, it is helpful to extend the borders of this group to better understand some of the motives which activated its members. This attempt should include some of the less well-known exponents of the field, such as the archivist Paul Richter from the state archive in Wetzlar, who came to occupied Belgium in 1915 in order to carry out a comprehensive search of German historical documents. What his motives were, he made clear in a letter to the Deputy-Director of the state archives in Berlin, Paul Bailleu, written in Anvers in July 1916: “It would be a real pity [as Richter formulated at that time] if one does not benefit from the present circumstances not only to gain the expected material values, but also idealistic ones”16. Obviously, Richter was thinking of important archival documents, of which the Germans should get hold of in order to relocate them into archives under German rule. This chimed in with one of the main war aims put forward by numerous directors of German museums, libraries and also archives who, at an early stage of the war, already called upon their government to ensure the restitution of the pillages during the Napoleonic Wars. This campaign concerned objects of art, historical manuscripts, books and archival documents in Belgium, France and Russia17. At times this led to far-reaching claims, as can be shown with regard to Friedrich-Wilhelm Bissing, the son of the General-Governor in Brussels, Moritz von Bissing. Friedrich-Wilhelm Bissing was an egyptologist at the University of Berlin and he may be ranked as quite an ominous figure in this context. In September 1914, Friedrich-Wilhelm Bissing wrote several revealing letters to Wilhelm von Bode, the General-Director of the Imperial Museum in Berlin, in which he underlined the importance of a transfer of significant objects of art from Belgium to Germany: “Yes, the complete Gent Altar needs to go to Berlin, including the missing part of the Dirk Bouts-Altar from Löwen. Perhaps, at a later stage, parts from Munich can be added to it in exchange for a Bavarian image or sculpture or even a good Rembrandt”18. Obviously, the war wet the experts’ appetite for more, which went along with rather dire comments on the Belgian side. Thus Friedrich-Wilhelm Bissing commented in another letter to Bode (the 14th of September 1914)19:

We must get hold of the Gent altar at all cost; this is the price for saving the city hall in Löwen! I also do not believe that the Americans will hinder us to act this way. On the whole things in Belgium look rather gloomy. We may even reach the point when we have to destroy Brussels [zusammenschiessen]. But that would not really matter. As far as I have come to know Belgium and the Belgians, they are a rather awful sort.

11To be sure, Bissing was not an exemption but rather a typical representative of many other German academics, scientists or experts from various fields who came to Belgium, Northern France and Paris in order to draw up long lists of claims for the restitution of the objects mentioned. In their eyes, the hunt for material objects was a good basis for a future peace treaty or, alternatively, it might be regarded as a security or bartering object in order to enforce Germany’s will onto Belgium and France. This position however was constantly vetoed by the German Foreign Ministry, which partly explains why the self-mobilization of so many scientists and academics, who addressed their political or military superiors with long memoranda, went unnoticed for a very long time after the war. What is important in our context is the observation that to many academics (including historians) the war represented a phase of unprecedented opportunities. They were suddenly confronted with a very wide scope of action which, obviously, they were prepared to turn to Germany’s advantage.

  • 20 Ringer 1988, p. 97.

12In a clear contrast to these very wide reaching aims by numerous experts, many of whom came to Belgium to carry out covert or even secret groundwork as advisors to the military, most of the leading historians literally worked in the background. That might partly explain their more reserved interventions compared to what the front-line experts said. But the result can also be understood as the consequence of their social background and professional training. The traditional avenues of school and university education ensured that German historians regarded themselves as high priests of a school of thought which strove to demonstrate a sort of positive historical continuity for their own country. Methodologically speaking, many of them adhered to the historicist school with strong neo-Rankean leanings and, politically, most of them belonged to the camp of a broad spectrum of governmentalism. A majority of them also regarded themselves as a public authority whose task was to shape public opinion. To achieve this, they tried to kindle a fairly uncritical identification of the public with its state and the nation. It seems that the historians’ claim to public leadership was relatively successful because it formed part of a wider academic culture or an intellectual field, as Fritz Ringer has termed it20. Thus there was, both before and after 1914, a network of inter-related and explicit beliefs about academic practices of teaching, learning and research, but also about the social significance of these practices which guided historiographical output during the war years.

  • 21 Delbrück 1914.

13This means that German historians could expect a positive echo when they highlighted the uniqueness of their own particular state and its political culture. When it came to more concrete plans and controversial questions during the war, a majority of them were rapidly prepared to defend a territorial expansion of the German Reich. Simultaneously, they continued to praise the specific German constitutional set-up as the expression of a kind of German liberty which was, in their view, much more beneficial to the people than western liberalism, derided again and again as corrupt and plutocratic. An epitome of this view may be found in a booklet by Hans Delbrück, then editor of the Preussische Jahrbücher and professor at the university of Berlin, which first came out in 1913 under the title Government and the People’s Will   21. According to Delbrück’s argument, the idea of the sovereignty of the people merely represented a fictitious model. In contrast to the sham respect of the people’s will in the countries of the West, as he saw it, the German system ensured the effective combination of democratic representation with administrative rule. At the same time, he postulated that the German model was able to ensure a much better and adequate social security for the inhabitants than in Britain or in France.

14These ideas were taken up by many of his colleagues during the war. They became part and parcel of a constant battery of politico-historiographical arguments which were directed repeatedly against wartime claims from foreign historians, according to which German society was suffering from a rift between Prussian militarists and the ideals of a humanistic culture. In this context it is interesting to note that although the war actually activated more and more German historians to throw down their gauntlet against the enemy, the range of their arguments remained comparatively stable. On the whole roughly forty German historians came out with statements and publications during the war, which may be regarded as a significant contribution to “the war of words”. But it seems that this constant increase in public statements often did not really further the debate in intellectual terms. Delbrück’s 1913 book remained more or less canonical. His colleagues ensured that his ideas found a very wide circulation in countless publications.

  • 22 Sombart 1915.

15But when more attention is paid to their speeches and published works, much more comes to the fore. We should not expect to meet with the kind of books written, for example, by the sociologist Werner Sombart on Traders and Heroes which contained extreme anti-English diatribes22. This was not exactly the style most German historians preferred, although the majority of them were deeply convinced of the idea that Britain had willingly unleashed the war to hold down Germany and its people. But in their publications most German historians remained more restrained in their statements. Perhaps that was much more effective than the open propaganda of the type of Sombart and his fellows produced. We may indeed assume that this kind of “intellectual poison” administered by historians was even more harmful in the final analysis, as it met a wide approval amongst the German bourgeois reading public.

  • 23 Hampe 2007.
  • 24 Hampe 1915a.

16The Heidelberg historian Karl Hampe, already mentioned, may be a good case in point, because he began at a very early stage to raise the question of Belgium’s future after the war. Very much in line with many of his colleagues, he regarded the coexistence of the Flemish and Walloons in a united Belgian state as “unnatural” and therefore pleaded in October 1914 for a “more healthy reconstruction” (23 October 1915)23. Between December 1914 and May 1915, Hampe worked on a historical survey of Belgium which mainly centred on modern and contemporary history, while putting a great emphasis on its status as a neutral power. It really did not take him long to conclude that Belgium had justly lost its status as a neutral power due to the rapprochement with the entente powers. In his eyes, the secret talks of 1906 and 1912 –the conversations anglo-belges– meant that Belgium had given itself up politically to the English and culturally to the French. The fate of the country, which had solely sought to fortify itself to the East, could only be understood as a kind of “antique tragedy”, as Hampe concluded24.

  • 25 Quoted by Hampe 2007, p. 297f.
  • 26 See Wende 1969.
  • 27 Ibid.

17Many of Hampe’s historical arguments remained rather vague. They did not reach out as far as the ones produced by many experts over the future fate of Belgium. But it cannot be overlooked that by and by the historians also began to be carried away by their country’s desperate military situation. Thus Hermann Oncken, in a speech held in October 1914 in Heidelberg, went to great lengths to explain the German war aims in Belgium. Although he pleaded against those who called for a complete annexation of Belgium, he made clear that it would be useful to hand the occupied territories as a kind of security, which would then allow to dictate the conditions of a future peace treaty to England25. Erich Marcks, Willy Andreas or Gustav Mayer argued in a similarly equivocal way in their statements, because on the one hand they favoured leaving the Belgians free to administer their internal affairs, while on the other hand they favoured a close control of their foreign policy in order to avoid a new rapprochement with England or France. Another central question consisted of the status of the Flemish in Belgium26. Many German historians proved to be adherents to romantic ideas of a considerable ethnical vicinity between the Flemish and the German “tribes”. Be it the national economist Gerhard von Schulze-Gaevernitz or the staunch conservative historian Georg von Below, they all identified a powerful Flemish movement which deserved the political support of Imperial Germany in order to improve its status in a reconstructed Belgian state27. At the same time, it cannot be overlooked that these or similar arguments put forward amongst others by Georg von Below, Hermann Schumacher and also by Eduard Meyer, basically served to legitimate far reaching plans for turning Belgium into a German protectorate. At times, some of those who knew better, as, for example, Gustav Mayer, had inklings that the whole situation looked a lot different and he even spoke of the “curse of horrific deeds”. And others like the renowned historian of Antiquity Eduard Meyer and Friedrich Meinecke already mentioned were not prepared to give up completely their belief in a common European heritage during the war.

  • 28 Novick 1988.

18On the whole, however, the members of the politically moderate camp amongst German historians also sided with their more hard faced colleagues when they discussed the important Belgian questions during the war. We could, therefore, enumerate a whole series of pamphlets and books in which German historians violated central historiographical virtues such as detachment and impartiality, and there is much to be said in favour of the argument that the noble dream of the objective, as Peter Novick has aptly called it, was lost sight of again and again28. The historiographical discourse over Belgium furthered this trend considerably and must be seen as a pivotal debate for the increasing international isolation of German historians both during and after the war.

The Interplay of Historiographical Self-Mobilization and Official Mobilization

  • 29 Oxford 1914.

19When we consider the massive surge of historical publications as from August 1914, it is obvious that many historians did not find it difficult at all to extoll the virtues of their respective country. The constant increase in manifestoes and pamphlets can be explained by the fact that each historical statement by one side inspired a counter-argument by historians of the respective enemy state on the other side. Thus in September 1914 historians of the University of Bonn set in motion a spiral of denouncing manifestoes against Britain and English politics which was quickly countered by a series of academic pamphlets in Britain. “Why We Are at War” was a project by Oxford dons of September 1914. In this series, the authors equated Germany with the glorification of war and they described England, by contrast, as the epitome of the rule of law and the protection of small nations29. This was only one of many other historiographical projects that came into being as the outcome of a spontaneous mobilization of historians without any government interference or any official cooperation.

  • 30 Schumacher et al. 1915. See Cornelissen 1996.

20But neither the British nor the German surge of war-time publications remained independent of state influence as it might seem on the surface. Thus it has been shown that even the famous Appeal to the Civilized World (Aufruf an die Kulturwelt) had been officially initiated by the propaganda department of the German Naval Office. A similar and quite important project was initiated in 1915 under the title Germany and the World War (Deutschland und der Weltkrieg), about which it may be useful to go a bit more into detail30. The project was initiated by Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, a higher civil servant in the Ministry of Culture and from 1917 Minister of Culture. Schmidt-Ott cooperated with leading German historians to counteract the allied intellectual propaganda. Their main aim was to win over the public in the neutral states like the United States of America, Italy, Holland, Switzerland or in Scandinavia.

  • 31 Ibid.
  • 32 Hampe 1915b.

21To achieve this aim, the initiators of the project brought up the idea of a well-researched book to defend the German case in moderate historiographical terms. The whole thing was to be a scholarly response to the Allied accusations and largely free of the strident note of the manifestoes. Once Schmidt-Ott had developed the idea, it was rapidly taken up by historians like Hermann Oncken, Otto Hintze and Friedrich Meinecke. Additional support came from the ranks of the national economists, amongst whom Hermann Schumacher took on a leading role31. Karl Hampe was assigned the task of writing about Belgium. Hampe, at first, hesitated because he felt that this knowledge was not good enough to take on such a task. But he finally accepted and produced, with the financial help of the regional ministry in Stuttgart, the article the editors had asked him to write. Basically, it consisted of a summary of his publication on the same subject, which means that Hampe firstly gave a survey of Belgium as a neutral power before he entered into a critical evaluation of its misuse and also of its precarious ethnical situation due to a strong cleavage between the Flemish and the Walloons. To put it short, the whole argument was a justification of Germany’s invasion, which betrayed the strong influence of the idea of a close relationship between Germans and the Flemish. While in his text Hampe could nowhere identify signs of a “soul of the Belgian people”, he gave almost everywhere the proof of a close flemish-germanic connection32. This remained the case until the end of the war.

  • 33 See Cornelissen 1996.

22Illusions of this kind explain why the whole project failed miserably. The wide-raging expectations invested into the project could not possibly have been fulfilled. The idea is nonetheless noteworthy because it demonstrates clearly the multitude of problems which beset the participating historians once they got involved in semi-official historiographical missions. Some of the letters exchanged by the historians involved in the project are quite revealing. Thus Hermann Oncken gave vent to his frustrations in letters to Friedrich Meinecke in 191633:

We historians cannot live up to the expectations of either side. Due to the many considerations by the editors, I was forced to make concessions in my article. Therefore historians regard my work as a kind of official-apologetic diplomatism; the diplomats, however, do berate me for not knowing and not saying what was really important.

23All of this would leave the historians in a very uncomfortable position. Furthermore, the war brought with it permanently changing constellations which the contributors found difficult to bring into line with their historical arguments.

24We cannot go into more detail at this point. Obviously the rule of objectivity was extensively violated in this work and, in retrospect, many of the historical arguments turned out to be much less “sober” than they had originally been claimed by their authors. In the final analysis, the project did not fulfil the wider political aims which had been invested into it. The American translation was met only with a scant and predominantly negative echo. In consequence, both the Ministry of Culture and the German Foreign Office lost their interest in taking historiographical projects of this type any further.

  • 34 Thimme, Legien 1915.

25Despite this failure, Germany and the World War did not remain the only project which mobilized German historians via official channels. There was a whole series of other projects which testify to the constant interplay between official planning and self-mobilization. Friedrich Thimme had a hand in several of these projects, above all when the German historians began to dwell on the advantages of the “German social kingdom”. These projects found a powerful prop in the works of national economists like Gustav Schmoller and the Weber brothers; but Meinecke, Delbrück and Oncken, to whom we should add Walter Goetz, also played a prominent role in highlighting the advantages of Germany’s early welfare state in comparison with foreign examples. Thus in 1915 Thimme initiated together with leading social democrats and trade unionists a book project entitled The New Germany, which was meant to attract members of the educated working class in particular34. Again the project failed to achieve its aims, as the historians continued to feel very uneasy in their work with representatives of the organized Labour movement. Rather it turned out that the radical historians on the political right like Schäfer and von Below were much more efficient in whipping up public political sentiments. This was due to their willingness to use modern methods of mass political participation whereas the politically more moderately minded historians continued to place a high value on their direct links to government circles. But once Bethmann Hollweg’s government had been turned over in July 1917, this wing lost much of its political influence. As a consequence the interplay between the semi-official mobilization and the self-mobilization of German historians came to a standstill.

  • 35 Goetz 1918.

26When Walter Goetz co-edited another project in 1918, entitled Germany and the Peace (Deutschland und der Friede), an obvious corollary to the aforementioned Germany and the World War, he marked the end of a series of historical academic failures during the war35. The book only served, after its publication in the middle of 1918, to vilify the German peace attempts as many contributors were still arguing for moderate German war aims in a situation when the German army had lost its final major campaign. Now, it would definitely go too far to say that Germany lost the war because of the academic failures described above. But in retrospect they did not really help the German effort either. In addition, as Germany lost the war, many historians had in the end to realize that by letting themselves be drawn into semi-official propaganda work they had seriously violated the criterion of academic objectivity. This constituted one of the reasons for their surprising silence on the concrete events of the war after 1918, although many of them posed first-hand experience of the events, either as writers in the shadow of the military front or as soldiers with first-hand experiences of many battles.

Some of the Long-Term Consequences for the Historiography and the Long Negligence of the Belgian Atrocities

  • 36 Horne, Kramer 2001.
  • 37 Meyer 1919.
  • 38 Goetz 1922.

27The end of the war did not mean at all that the “war of the minds” also drew to an end. On the contrary, the latter went on and to a considerable extent it focused on the question of German atrocities in Belgium. That is shown by a large number of books, articles and pamphlets published on this subject from the 1920s and the 1930s36. Many of them were written by specialists on international law or publicists, but the historians were part of the revisionist movement right from the very beginning. Once again, one of the first texts resulted from a public appeal engineered amongst others by the historian of Antiquity Eduard Meyer who came out in 1919 and who demanded “Honour, Truth and Justice” for Germany37. This was followed up by a treatise by Walter Goetz from the University of Leipzig on the atrocities, published in 192238. Later, it was to be accompanied by numerous further historiographical and juridical papers against the “unfounded reproaches” of German barbaric deeds in Belgium. All of them more or less came to the conclusion, already formulated by Walter Goetz, that the myth of German atrocities had no substance at all and would, therefore, explode just as much as the idea of Germany’s responsibility for the war.

  • 39 Ritter 1964, p. 39. See Cornelissen 2001.
  • 40 Nipperdey 1993.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 760.
  • 42 Brockhaus 1996.

28It is interesting to note that the majority of German historians both before and after 1945 held on to these views, which meant they continued to rely on the official view of the military and the German Foreign Office. Gerhard Ritter belonged to this group, as he still argued in the 1960s that the intellectual interventions by his predecessors during the First World War and its aftermath should be ranked as “politically harmless attempts of a modern nation of culture” to come to terms with the fate of a total war39. Even in the 1980s, in his much acclaimed history of Imperial Germany40, Thomas Nipperdey described the invasion of Belgium in a way that still showed traces of the German white book on the Belgian atrocities. According to Nipperdey, Belgian francs-tireurs had caused a strong “nervousness” in the ranks of the German soldiers and “small instances [...] and the destruction of cultural monuments” had been used by the allied propaganda, so he argued, “to accuse German soldiers of ‘horrific barbarism against women and children’ or even to speak of ‘German atrocities’  ”41. The same view found entry into one of the best known German encyclopaedias, the Brockhaus, which in 1996 explained that “Franktireurs” stood for armed civilians who fought against German soldiers in Belgium in the hinterland of the military front42.

  • 43 Wieland 1984.

29Now, Nipperdey was certainly not a specialist on Belgian history, but that does not explain why he ignored the book by Leo Wieland on Belgien 1914 which had come out in 198443. This raises, of course, important questions about the long-lasting effects of the propaganda from the First World War on German historiography. But instead of going into the details here, I would like to conclude by indicating at least why so many important aspects of the “war of the minds” continued to dominate the minds of many German historians.


  • 44 See Cornelissen 2002.

31Firstly, many Germans possessed first-hand experience of the war but preferred not to speak of them after 1918, even though these had been cardinal events in their lives44. Secondly, the impact of the war experience was nonetheless there and that should not be overlooked. Thus, we can witness on the one hand the emergence of a so-called “people’s history” (Volksgeschichte) since the 1920s which began to widen the social and cultural scope of former historicist approaches. On the other hand, the continuity of the war can be observed in the historians’ rhetoric, in their political positioning and, last but not least, in their incapability (which I mentioned before), their failure to come to terms with their personal experience of war.

  • 45 Ibid.
  • 46 Cornelissen 2001.

32In this regard, the category of intellectual generations may be helpful to make some further differentiations45. In a very general sense, we should distinguish between representatives of an older generation like Walter Goetz, who had volunteered at the age of forty-seven in 1914. He was, however, rather the exception than the rule, because most of the historians of his age group acted on the home front. The age groups drafted as soldiers, that is those who had been born between 1879 and 1899, were quantitatively much more important. Of the latter, I have been able to identify approximately fifty German university historians in the 1920s and 1930s who had undergone some kind of war experience, many of them quite harsh ones. In my biography of the Freiburg historian Gerhard Ritter, I mention one example of this group of German historians who took part in many well-known battles of the First World War, who suffered serious physical injuries and who, something we should certainly not forget, underwent traumatic experiences with long-term-consequences46. Ritter had already finished his first round of academic socialization before the outbreak of war and, therefore, he found it easier to integrate his personal war experience into his academic career. But the same cannot be said for the younger members of the front generation. These tended to react in a much more radical way and thus it is certainly no coincidence that numerous members of their ranks opted for a much clearer distancing from bygone historiographical concepts after the war than was the case with the elder fellow-soldiers.

33To those who had been mobilized as soldiers, the experience of the war and the German revolution in 1918 engraved itself much deeper than in the minds of their academic teachers. Whereas Meinecke and Oncken, for example, proved capable to analyze the events in quite a detached mode, even while there were going on, the younger ones reacted much more passionately and much less restrained. The wartime letters and the after-war correspondence of Gerhard Ritter, Hermann Aubin, Richard Salomon, Lüdwig Dehio, Hans Rothfels and many others testify to this result: during the war, their mental map had remained relatively blank as to what they had observed and experienced. But when it finally dawned on them that their country, that they themselves had lost the war, they reacted by introducing important historiographical modifications. Aubin, for example, entered upon the way of regional and folk studies. Ritter became a proponent of a new kind of neo-Rankean universal history which tried to retain its national roots. And as from the middle of the 1920s Rothfels embarked on a historical-political mobilization of young university scholars, the results of which have been discussed in a very controversial way over the past years. To put it short, the younger, the more radicalized the rhetoric of our war historians became; the younger they were, the more they favoured a methodological break with the past, though this does not represent a hard rule. After the war, however, it took most of them almost two decades before the majority felt able to turn back their minds actively on their own war experience. Interestingly enough, Hitler’s foreign and military policy after 1933-1935 paved the way for a fresh reflection on the history of the World War.

  • 47 Schulze, Oexle 1999.

34I have already considerably trespassed on the chronology of my topic, but in my view this is the direction which we should take if we really want to advance the present state of research. I will end by offering a second closing remark. The mobilization and self-mobilization of German historians produced an intellectual disaster because common standards of our profession were massively violated. Historical virtues such as objectivity, detachment and impartiality were easily shed to assist the national war effort. In retrospect, this development represented the first major step in the dehumanization of historiographical values which was to find a much more pronounced expression during the Second World War47. The historical interpretation of the Belgian atrocities can be regarded as an early instance of this development which was to have very serious consequences.


Brockhaus 1996 = Brockhaus, Enzyklopädie, 20 Aufl. (1996-2001), Griterloh, F. A. Brockhaus, 1996.

Bruendel 2014 = Bruendel Steffen, Zeitenwende 1914: Künstler, Dichter und Denker im Ersten Weltkrieg, Munich, Herbig, 2014.

Cornelissen 1996 = Cornelissen Christoph, “Politische Historiker und deutsche Kultur. Die Schriften und Reden von Georg v. Below, Hermann Oncken und Gerhard Ritter im Ersten Weltkrieg”, in Mommsen Wolfgang J. (ed.), Kultur und Krieg: Die Rolle der Intellektuellen, Künstler und Schriftsteller im Ersten Weltkrieg, Munich, Oldenbourg, 1996, p. 119-142.

Cornelissen 2001 = Cornelissen Christoph, Gerhard Ritter. Geschichtswissenschaft und Politik im 20. Jahrhundert, Düsseldorf, Droste, 2001.

Cornelissen 2002 = Cornelissen Christoph, “Die Frontgeneration deutscher Historiker und der Erste Weltkrieg”, in Dülffer Jost, Krumeich Gerd (eds), Der verlorene Frieden. Politik und Kriegskultur nach 1918, Essen, Klartext, 2002, p. 311-337.

Delbrück 1914 = Delbrück Hans, Regierung und Volkswille, Berlin, Stilke, 1914.

Flasch 2000 = Flasch Kurt, Die geistige Mobilmachung: die deutschen Intellektuellen und der Erste Weltkrieg; ein Versuch, Berlin, Fest, 2000.

Goetz 1918 = Goetz Walter, Deutschland und der Friede. Notwendigkeiten und Möglichkeiten der deutschen Zukunft, Leipzig, Teubner, 1918.

Goetz 1922 = Goetz Walter, Die Kriegsgreuel, Frankfurt am Main, Frankf. Societäts-Druckerei, 1922.

Hampe 1915a = Hampe Karl, Belgiens Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, Leipzig/Berlin, Teubner, 1915.

Hampe 1915b = Hampe Karl, “Belgien und die grossen Mächte”, in Schumacher Hermann et al. (eds), Deutschland und der Weltkrieg, Leipzig, Teubner, 1915, p. 348-392.

Hampe 2007 = Hampe Karl, Kriegstagebuch 1914-1919, ed. by Reichert Folker, Wolgast Eike, 2nd edition, Munich, Oldenbourg, 2007 (first edition: 2004).

Horne, Kramer 2001 = Horne John, Kramer Alan, German Atrocities, 1914. A History of Denial, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001.

Kellermann 1915 = Kellermann Hermann, Krieg der Geister. Eine Auslese deutscher und ausländischer Stimmen zum Weltkriege 1914, Weimar, Vereinigung Heimat und Welt, 1915.

Lübbe 1963 = Lübbe Hermann, Politische Philosophie in Deutschland. Studien zu ihrer Geschichte, Basel/Stuttgart, Schwabe, 1963.

Meinecke 1958 = Meinecke Friedrich, “Politik und Kultur”, in Meinecke Friedrich et al. (eds), Deutschland und der Weltkrieg, Darmstadt, 1958, p. 76-82.

Meyer 1919 = Meyer Eduard (ed.), Für Ehre, Wahrheit und Recht. Erklärung deutscher Hochschullehrer zur Auslieferungsfrage, Berlin, Curtius, 1919.

Mommsen 1992 = Mommsen Wolfgang J., “Die ‘deutsche Idee der Freiheit’. Die deutsche Historikerschaft und das Modell des monarchischen Konstitutionalismus im Kaiserreich”, Staatswissenschaft und Staatspraxis 3 (1992), p. 43-63.

Niedhart 2009 = Niedhart Gottfried (ed.), Gustav Mayer: Als deutsch-jüdischer Historiker in Krieg und Revolution 1914-1920. Tagebücher, Aufzeichnungen, Briefe, Munich, Oldenbourg, 2009.

Nipperdey 1993 = Nipperdey Thomas, Deutsche Geschichte 1866-1918, vol. 2, Machtstaat vor der Demokratie, 2nd edition, Munich, Beck, 1993 (first edition: 1984).

Novick 1988 = Novick Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Cambridge, Cambridge university press, 1988.

Oncken 1917 = Oncken Hermann, Das alte und das neue Mitteleuropa: Historisch-politische Betrachtungen über deutsche Bündnispolitik im Zeitalter Bismarcks und im Zeitalter des Weltkrieges, Gotha, F. A. Pethes, 1917.

Oxford 1914 = Members of the Oxford Faculty of Modern History, Why We Are At War. Great Britain’s Case, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1914.

Ringer 1988 = Ringer Fritz K., “Das gesellschaftliche Profil der deutschen Hochschullehrerschaft 1871-1933”, in Schwabe Klaus (ed.), Deutsche Hochschullehrer als Elite: 1815-1945, Boppard am Rhein, Boldt, 1988, p. 93-104.

Ritter 1964 = Ritter Gerhard, Staatskunst und Kriegshandwerk, vol. 3, Munich, Oldenbourg, 1964.

Roolf 2005 = Roolf Christoph, “German Scientists in Belgium at the First World War between Occupation Policy and Planning of Plundering Cultural Assets –the Case Example of Palaeontology”, in Jaumain Serge et al. (eds), Une guerre totale? : La Belgique dans la Première Guerre mondiale. Nouvelles tendances de la recherche historique ; actes du colloque international organisé à l’ULB du 15 au 17 janvier 2003, Brussels, Archives Générales du Royaume, 2005, p. 271-281.

Roolf 2009 = Roolf Christoph, “Eine ‘günstige Gelegenheit’?: Deutsche Wissenschaftler im besetzten Belgien während des Ersten Weltkrieges (1914-1918)”, in Berg Matthias et al. (eds), Mit Feder und Schwert. Militär und Wissenschaft -Wissenschaftler und Krieg, Stuttgart, Steiner, 2009, p. 137-154.

Schulze, Oexle 1999 = Schulze Winfried, Oexle Otto Gerhard (eds), Deutsche Historiker im Nationalsozialismus, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer, 1999.

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Sombart 1915 = Sombart Werner, Händler und Helden. Patriotische Besinnungen, Munich/Leipzig, Duncker & Humblot, 1915.

Thimme 1994 = Thimme Annelise (ed.), Friedrich Thimme 1868-1938. Ein politischer Historiker, Publizist und Schriftsteller in seinen Briefen, Boppard am Rhein, Boldt, 1994.

Thimme, Legien 1915 = Thimme Friedrich, Legien Carl (eds.), Die Arbeiterschaft im neuen Deutschland, Leipzig, Hirzel, 1915.

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Ungern-Sternberg von 2014 = Ungern-Sternberg von Jürgen, “Making Sense of the War (Germany)”, in Daniel Ute et al. (eds), 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, 2014, [online]. URL:

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Wieland 1984 = Wieland Lothar, Belgien 1914. Die Frage des belgischen “Franktireurkrieges” und die deutsche öffentliche Meinung von 1914-1936, Frankfurt am Main, Lang, 1984.

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1 Hampe 2007, p. 101.

2 Roolf 2005.

3 Hampe 1915a.

4 Hampe 2007, p. 30.

5 Ungern-Sternberg von 1996.

6 Ibid., p. 144.

7 Kellermann 1915.

8 Ungern-Sternberg von 2014.

9 Mommsen 1992. For more recent discussions on this topic, see Flasch 2000; Bruendel 2014.

10 Meinecke 1958.

11 Niedhart 2009.

12 Thimme 1994, p. 157.

13 Wilhelm, Walter 1914.

14 Quoted by Lübbe 1963, p. 228.

15 Cornelissen 1996.

16 This letter was passed on to me by Christoph Roolf.

17 Roolf 2009.

18 This letter was passed on to me by Christoph Roolf.

19 Roolf 2009.

20 Ringer 1988, p. 97.

21 Delbrück 1914.

22 Sombart 1915.

23 Hampe 2007.

24 Hampe 1915a.

25 Quoted by Hampe 2007, p. 297f.

26 See Wende 1969.

27 Ibid.

28 Novick 1988.

29 Oxford 1914.

30 Schumacher et al. 1915. See Cornelissen 1996.

31 Ibid.

32 Hampe 1915b.

33 See Cornelissen 1996.

34 Thimme, Legien 1915.

35 Goetz 1918.

36 Horne, Kramer 2001.

37 Meyer 1919.

38 Goetz 1922.

39 Ritter 1964, p. 39. See Cornelissen 2001.

40 Nipperdey 1993.

41 Ibid., p. 760.

42 Brockhaus 1996.

43 Wieland 1984.

44 See Cornelissen 2002.

45 Ibid.

46 Cornelissen 2001.

47 Schulze, Oexle 1999.


Professeur à la Goethe-Universität, Francfort

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