Germany and the Two World Wars

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

This concise yet informative study is a translation of a work that first appeared in Germany in 1967. It was primarily intended for the general reader. Andreas Hillgruber, a professor of history at the University of Cologne, set out to clarify recent disputes of historians about German war aims in 1914 and 1939. These controversies concerned the extent of German responsibility for the outbreak of both world wars. In addition, Hillgruber sought to cast some light on the issue of whether there was continuity or change in German war aims between 1914 and 1939.

According to Hillgruber, the twentieth century German quest for hegemony began after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s fall from power in 1890. Bismarck’s political successors, especially Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and Privy Councillor Friedrich von Holstein, alienated both England and Russia. By 1914, Germany and its Austrian ally were isolated from the rest of Europe. At this time, German generals and admirals had prepared for the eventuality of a two-front war.

Hillgruber presents an incisive discussion of the European crisis of July, 1914. He finds that Bethmann-Hollweg’s foreign policy advisers, particularly Kurt Riezler, preferred German coexistence with the great powers, but they also favored a policy of threats and bluffs to further German power. This, together with intense nationalism and the influence of the German military establishment, led to Bethmann-Hollweg’s “leap into the dark.” Germany encouraged Austria to attack Serbia, while the German army was willing to risk war with Serbia’s ally, Russia. Hillgruber believes that Imperial Germany both feared and underestimated Russian power. When Russia refused to call off mobilization in August of 1914, Germany declared war. Hillgruber concludes that the German share of responsibility for the outbreak of World War I is therefore “evident” and “considerable,” though more “moderate” than the premeditated and more direct responsibility for World War II. Most historians today would accept his judgment as balanced and sound, though hardly path-breaking.

Perhaps the crucial point of the book emerges in the discussion of the development of German war aims during the later stages of World War I. In 1967, Fritz Fischer argues that there was a definite continuity in the expansionist war aims of 1914 and 1939. He uncovered a German government plan for exploitation of certain portions of Europe as early as the fall of 1914. Hillgruber modifies Fischer’s thesis somewhat by emphasizing that the program of German annexationists really evolved and became radicalized from 1916 to 1918. By 1918, General Erich Ludendorff and the Pan-Germans were in control of the government. Social Darwinist and ultranationalist ideas permeated the German leadership. By 1918, the Germans coveted western Russia, the Ukraine, Belgium, and parts of France. These grandiose plans flourished as Russia left the war because of the Bolshevik Revolution. Hillgruber fails to mention that this was made possible in part by Ludendorff’s sealed train that carried Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Petrograd.

German annexationist and imperialist groups and ideas survived World War I and the subsequent Weimar Republic, thus ensuring some continuity between German war aims in both world wars. Hillgruber makes the obvious but often neglected point that many Germans believed they had been cheated out of victory in 1918 simply because their victories in the East seemed so impressive. For a short time the Germans continued to hold considerable territory in the East even after they had been defeated on the western front.

Above all, these frustrations helped give rise to Nazism. Adolf Hitler’s...

(The entire section is 1525 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XIX, October, 1981, p. 296.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, March 1, 1981, p. 329.

Library Journal. CVI, August, 1981, p. 1538.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, December 9, 1981, p. 32.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, April 30, 1981, p. 44.