History World War 1

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The Origins of the First World War: The Historical Debate

Starting from the war guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles, Dr Ruth Henig leads the reader through the serpentine history of the outbreak of war debate, past the American historian Fay and his ˜reckless Germany' interpretation, Lenin's ˜imperialism' and economic rivalries, through Albertini's post-Second World War review, to the acceptance of the Fischer-based analysis. This widely accepted current view gives greater weight than previously to the problems within the German elite among the reasons for war.

ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR topics in modern European history, both amongst Advanced Level students, and those continuing with history at college or university, is the origins of the First World War. However, two serious problems face students as they struggle to come to grips with the central issues. The first is the sheer complexity of a topic which covers both broad themes such as the prevailing philosophies of the time, the growth of nationalism and the impact of economic imperialism and arms races, and specific rivalries such as those between the Balkan states, the conflicts between Austria-Hungary and Russia in eastern Europe, and the Triple Entente versus the Triple Alliance. The second problem relates to the interpretation of all this material. Furious debates about what caused a great war to break out in 1914 have been raging since 1919. Charges and counter-charges have been made. Without some understanding of this long and complex historical debate, students cannot hope to come to a clear view of the issues involved or of the books which cover the topic. This last point becomes very important in light of the assertion made by Herwig in a book published in 1992 that ˜most of the works on the July crisis written before 1961 are now out of date'.1 The aim of this article is ther

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