1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'World War I defined a century'

Sarah Judith Hofmann / reAugust 1, 2014

Political scientist Herfried Münkler is the first German in a long time to attempt an overarching analysis of World War I. DW talks with him about Germany's special role and the lessons from World War I.

Herfried Münkler (Foto: Arno Burgi/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: Mr. Münkler, since the beginning of the commemorative year 2014 the media has published features about the outbreak of the war 100 years ago. Is this really just because of the commemoration day in summer, or are we experiencing a new attempt at processing history?

Herfried Münkler: Those two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Such anniversaries often provide a fresh opportunity to thoroughly analyze the issue. And it's clear to see that this "Great War" - as the British, French and Italians sometimes call it - set the tone for the 20th century. You can take many lessons from it, primarily what not to do. And for this reason I can imagine this becoming a huge event, during which Europe pauses to focus on what went wrong in the first half of the 20th century, in the hope of doing better in the 21st century.

In Germany we tend to call the war from 1914 to 1918 "World War I". Why did you name your book "The Great War"?

Firstly, the term "Great War" has a disconcerting quality. And secondly it has a defining or seminal character, at least to a German ear. This is the European war which defined the rest of the 20th century. One can argue that, without this war, there wouldn't have been World War II, probably no National Socialism, no Stalinism and no Bolshevik takeover in Petrograd. It would have been a completely different century. In this sense, the term "Great War" fits quite well.

If the First World War had such a defining effect on the 20th century, why is there so little discussion about it as part of German attempts to come to terms with the past? At least when compared to the domestic attention on World War II.

There you have to differentiate. In our neighbors to the West like Italy, France and Great Britain, World War I or "The Great War" does have this sort of presence. This is partly because the casualties caused by this war were much higher than the losses incurred in World War II. That is different in Germany, where World War II is firstly associated with expulsions [of Germans living in eastern Europe at the war's end], secondly with the massive damages [in Germany] from aerial bombardment, and thirdly with the Germans' war crimes and guilt. Similarly, when you go further to the East, then World War II has a much more dominant place in the public memory. You could almost argue that there is something of a West-East divide in Europe's culture of remembrance.

Debris of a cathedral (Foto: picture alliance/akg-images)
The Cathedral of Reims is a symbol for the destruction of World War IImage: picture alliance/akg-images

One hundred years after the beginning of the war a new debate over the war guilt has flared up. Australian historian Christopher Clark's book "The Sleepwalkers" has sparked it. In his book he is revising the long-accepted thesis of Germany's sole blame and he shows that all great powers were unable to prevent a war whose seeds were sown in the Balkans. What is your position in the debate about the war guilt - and does such talk achieve anything?

I think in this context the term guilt is not very helpful. It is a moral term and maybe a legal term. At least according to the formulation of Article 231 in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany bears the sole blame. But this is a discussion which we don't need anymore today. Therefore it is more useful to talk about the responsibility and to focus our gaze on the misjudgments and bad decisions that were made. These are the disucssions which I believe to be helpful in order to learn something from the conflict 100 years later.

What was the responsibility of the German Reich in the center of Europe?

Germany had not understood its special role in the geopolitical center of Europe. It can't be ruled out that one or several wars would have taken place anyway around this time in the 20th century [without Germany's involvement], but the focus would have been on localizing and containing these wars. What the Germans did was to bring together this collection of very different conflicts: unifying the longstanding conflict in the Balkans with the latent and by no means acute conflict over Alsace-Lorraine, or the battle over control over the North Sea. At the end of the day, doing this was political stupidity.

Why couldn't diplomacy do more? There were functioning systems of alliances up until 1914. There were even kinships between the European royal families. Why couldn't any of this stop the war?

Three young boys sit on the waterfront with a destroywd cathedral in the Background (Foto: picture-alliance/dpa)
German cities have been destroyed in World War II but not in the First World WarImage: picture-alliance/dpa

You know, this failure of diplomacy was based on something that has long been obvious: that it is not possible to lead a great war in Europe. Doing so will destroy everything. And because of this perception that only small, short-lived wars were viable, the various military leaders planned for wars that aimed for a quick and decisive battle. Germany's doom lay in the decision that it could only wage war on two fronts [on the western front against France and other allies, and against Russia on the eastern front - the ed.] by acting under time pressure, by being faster and better organized than the others, and by swiftly starting the war with France by marching through Belgium. On paper, all of this was an attempt to avoid a major catastrophe, but, as is so often the way, it helped lead to one. [Editor's note: Marching through neutral Belgium, which had a defensive pact with London, caused Britain to declare war on Germany, broadening the western front.]

What lessons for today can we learn from what transpired in 1914?

The most important aspect is that institutional regulations can prevent mutual mistrust. And the Europeans now have managed that with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the EU and NATO. And secondly, you have to beware of a small spark on the periphery starting larger fires. This was a war with its initial origins in the Balkans. Thus: we should learn that you can't lose sight of the periphery or underestimate it. You have to tend to such neighboring regions. In the present day, this can be seen with European police, European armed forces and European economic stimuli playing key roles in the Balkans. But our peripheral concerns should not end with the Balkans, but must instead incorparate the Caucasus, the crisis belt in the Middle East and in North Africa.

You say that we shouldn’t lose sight of the periphery. Do we actually have to worry that one hundred years after 1914 a new world war is beginning in Crimea?

We should indeed worry, but not because of the threat of a coming war, rather because of the political tensions and the effects of economic sanctions. But what this shows most of all is that military power remains a factor in European politics - of course only at the periphery. Besides this, the German government has not just let the conflict run its course, it has repeatedly intervened as mediator in various stages - and that's not because of Germany's military power, it's simply because of its political and economic influence.

Asia is also mentioned as a potential crisis region in your book. You even compare today's China with the then German Reich.

A painting with several men sitting around a large table (Foto: ullstein bild – histopics)
The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on a painting from Sir William Newenham Montague OrpenImage: ullstein bild - histopics

The remarkable thing is that China is so big and so strong - especially economically - but it doesn't feel politically recognized. That is a situation that dovetails with the German Reich's position in 1914. So you could argue that many of the things which went wrong in Europe in 1914 could now go wrong in Asia. So the politicians and statesmen there should take a very close look at the history of World War I and the July Crisis - so as not to make the same mistakes.

At the moment there is a discussion in Germany on whether the country should play a larger role in foreign military missions involving European forces. What is your opinion about it, especially in the light of our history? Would Germany gain face by playing a larger role precisely because of its past, or...

Let's turn the question around: would Germany gain face by using its history as a reason never to get involved and thus gaining a reputation among European neighbors as something of a slacker or freeloader in this regard? The others are driving the wagon forward while the Germans sit comfortably atop it, happily getting fatter and fatter. I think that this special [mililtary] role that West Germany and East Germany both played for very good reasons has now finally come to an end 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall - I think that we should now be one nation among others. We don't need to seek a leading role ourselves but we also shouldn't flee the scene when we are needed.

Herfried Münkler is a political scientist at the Humboldt University in Berlin.