#WWI #Centenary: Serbia, Germany, conspiracies and the First World War


The debate over the origins of the First World War has turned into a public controversy in several European countries including in Serbia, a country whose responsibility was recently reevaluated by Christopher Clark. The following is the English original of the interview I recently gave to Serbian newspaper Politika.

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The Centenary of the First World War is coming while we are witnessing the publication of many books which suggest a different approach to the causes of the Great War. What is your comment on this trend?

The Centenary has already been marked by a flurry of publications in most European countries and languages. It is estimated that about 300 books have been published in France last year alone. But I am not convinced this necessarily testifies to a sudden rise in public interest or to a shift in the scholarly approaches to the conflict.  The history of the First World War has been a remarkably dynamic and vibrant field of study for twenty years at least. While many of the scholars who have led and animated these historiographical discussions have published or will publish new books during the forthcoming commemorative period, many – too many – publications will actually be produced by non-specialists and commentators commissioned by publishers keen to seize a dubious commercial opportunity. The debate over the origins of the war is a case in point; very few books do actually offer new insights into the long-term and immediate causes of the conflict.

We could say that the founder of this new approach is Christopher Clark with his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, where he attempts to absolve Germany and Austria-Hungary of guilt for the outbreak of WWI, thus shifting a great deal of responsibility to Serbia. To what extent is this attitude grounded in scientifically established facts?

Christopher Clark has produced a very good book; the kind of work one would expect from a respected, senior academic historian. There is no reason to doubt the seriousness and rigor of his scholarship. One may disagree with his emphasis on Serbia’s role or dispute some of his interpretation, but this is undeniably an important contribution to our scholarly debate. I don’t think he is trying to absolve Germany and Austria of their responsibility as much as he is showing that other states and empires also have to answer for the outbreak of the war. It is also important to note that his conclusions have not been universally accepted by historians across Europe and North America. Indeed, many specialists in Balkan and Serbian history have offered important correctives.

The Serbs are very proud of their libertarian legacy of WWI and they perceive claims like these as attempts of revising history. Do these initiatives, in your opinion, have some deeper background and a hidden agenda?

First, it seems to me that Serbian historians – Olga Popović-Obradović, Dubravka Stojanović, and others – would argue that the period leading up to the war was no libertarian “Golden Age”. Most importantly, I do not believe there is any sinister anti-Serbian agenda at work here; in Clark’s work or among academic circles across Europe. I do not believe it because there is simply no evidence that historians are conspiring to undermine Serbia’s standing in Europe and in the world. I should also point out that some of the best and most recent work in First World War Studies has actually focussed on Serbia. To take but two examples: Jovana Knežević’s dissertation on Belgrade, Jonathan Gumz’s work on the occupation regime and John Paul Newman’s important articles and forthcoming book on Serbian veterans of the Great War. For too long, historians of the First World War have been content to consign the Serbian experience of the war to a paragraph leading to the outbreak of the war and to few buried footnotes. In emphasizing Serbia’s role in the period leading up to the war, Clark does remind us that it is important to fully integrate the Serbian experience into the general history of the war. Serbian colleagues and readers may disagree and dispute his analysis, but they should welcome the renewed interest in the Serbian and Balkan experience of the conflict.

It is also important perhaps to stress that debate – and indeed vigorous debate – is central and inseparable from the practice of history as an academic and intellectual discipline. In this sense, we – both as historians and citizens – ought to welcome revisionist approaches to history. It does not mean we should always accept whichever historical revision is put to us, but we should never take any accepted truth for granted. There is no starker illustration of this point that the history of the destruction of the Jews in WWII. Many of those self-proclaimed “revisionists” who claim that the Holocaust did not take place or who try to minimize it are simply lying in the face of incontrovertible evidence. They are just Holocaust deniers. However, it is largely thanks to the truly revisionist work of foreign historians of France that my fellow countrymen and women and the French State eventually confronted the role they had played in the Holocaust through active and willing collaboration with the Nazis. This the reason why it is essential to welcome revisionist interpretations of history and to foster as open and critical a debate as possible about our respective national pasts. War is a shared European heritage that we must all confront, however painful it may be. The work of historians must be supported and encouraged but not suppressed, even and perhaps especially when they challenge conventional and established opinions.

When professor Clark writes that since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, it has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power policies, this approach is accepted by some intellectuals in Serbia. What does history have to say in this case? Is it historically grounded to let some inglorious chapters of a nations recent history darken the glory of its heroic times?

I am not sure that the experience of Serbia in the 1990s does help us understand what happened in 1914. On the other hand, the 1990s and the conflicts that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia also demonstrated that Europe – and not simply Serbia or other Balkan nations – had forgotten or perhaps chosen to renew acquaintance with the destructive power of nationalism and militarism. What the history of twentieth-century Europe teaches us is that when the evil genie of political violence is out of the bottle, it is extremely difficult to put it back there and to contain it. That is the story of July and August 1914.

The historian who is particularly eager to draw parallels between the contemporary context and the times immediately preceding the outbreak of WWI is Margaret MacMillan. In her latest book The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, as well as in a series of her public appearances, MacMillan compares Serbia from 1914 with modern Iran, seeing Young Bosnia as todays Al Qaeda. What do you think about this?

I would not want to speak on behalf of Margaret MacMillan or any other colleague, but I think her position is easily and has indeed been misinterpreted. I don’t think that, in drawing contemporary parallels, she intends to equate 1914 Serbia and 2014 Iran for instance and to place them both in an ahistorical pantheon of rogue states. She is way too subtle an analyst to think in those terms. I think MacMillan is inviting contemporary policymakers to draw on history to heed the warnings of the past. At the core of her argument lies the idea that policymaking often suffers from the complacency and arrogance of leaders who failed to accept their own limitations and their incapacity to exert full control over events. This certainly is one of the lessons of the outbreak of the First World War.

Interestingly, it has been reported that during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, President Kennedy had the 1914 precedent in mind and was well aware, thanks to the work of Barbara Tuchman – her book Guns of August had recently been published in the US -, of the many mistakes which had led to the outbreak of a general conflagration.

The First World War is of great relevance to the world we live in. If nothing else, the contemporary geopolitics of Europe and the Middle East remains a by-product of this conflict. I am however concerned about the rather careless multiplication of ahistorical comparisons. For one Margaret MacMillan and her careful explorations of parallels between historical situations, they are countless commentators and policymakers who ride roughshod over the real and significant differences between the world of 1914 and that of 2014.

In his work, Christopher Clark also deal with the trope of an “inevitable war” between Austria and Serbia as a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. I am worried that much of the debate over China, Japan and the American “pivot” in the anglo-american sphere may be framed in the same way. I have already read too many articles equating Wilhelmine Germany and contemporary China. Historians must inform contemporary debates but they must also fight against the political exploitation of historical facts and parallels.

The question of the culprit for the beginning of the war used to imply interference of politics into historical science until the process was halted by the so-called Fischer thesis, when German historian Fritz Fischer presented strong evidence about Germanys fault. Could we say that the time has come for refuting the Fischer thesis? Has Clarks study Sleepwalkers started a new initiative?

The debate over the origins of the war has always been politicized. During the war itself as well as in its immediate aftermath, belligerent countries published documents and “histories” to make their case before the domestic and international public opinions. Art. 231 of the Treaty of Versailles – the so-called “war guilt” clause that ascribes responsibility for the war to Germany and her allies is – literally – history written by the victors. Subsequently, historians did not always assert much intellectual autonomy and often accepted and peddled version of national narratives. The Fisher thesis and the ensuing controversy must also be seen as part and parcel of a wider attempt by German scholars and commentators in the 1960s and the 1970s to come to terms with their immediate past, the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Fischer’s work has since been revised and nuanced. The immense majority of academic historians would now argue that Germany and Austria played a critical role in allowing the tensions with Serbia to degenerate into war. But it is important that a number of countries also made it possible for a regional conflict – the Third Balkan War – to turn into a general and indeed global conflagration.

I doubt Clark’s book will suffice to overturn what is – if not a consensus – at least a dominant interpretation of the causes of the war.

Critics think that, owing to the negative image Serbia has had in the West, it is pretty easy for the most populous and the most powerful European country of Germany to be relieved of the burden of guilt for both the First and the Second World Wars and to transfer it to Serbia. (Please comment).

I think we can understand why Germany may be reluctant to dwell on its responsibility in the outbreak of the war. I struggle to think of any European nation – including France and Britain, my own and adopted countries – keen to insist on the crimes or deadly mistakes committed in their name. Germany has mainly been focused – and rightly so – on its responsibility for WWII and the Holocaust. The country is also dealing with the legacy of the Communist dictatorship of the DDR. This does not mean the German State or the German public is denying the role that the Kaiserreich played in the outbreak of the war. In Great Britain, conservative politicians and commentators are banging on about a presumed attempt to whitewash Germany of any responsibility. Yet, I still haven’t come across any evidence of any such cover-up. This debate has simply been hijacked by right-wingers who reject European integration and will use the centenary of the First World War as another opportunity to burnish their eurosceptic credentials.

Truth be said, Max Hastings has published his study Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War where he has no dilemma about German guilt for the outbreak of WWI. Could you please try to comment on how is it possible for two historians of the highest rank like Clark and Hastings to have such disparate views on the matter?

I am not sure it would be fair to place Clark and Hastings on the same plan. Clark is an academic historian that is striving to further our understanding of the war, using new primary sources and the latest scholarship. Hastings is a prolific writer who writes for the general public. He does so with a real talent but historians will not find anything they do not already know in his book. In fact, Hastings’ insistence to denounce Germany in the Daily Mail and other media demonstrates that he remains, first and foremost, a right-wing polemicist that draws on history to support his political agenda.

Why do you think Serbian people, who have traditionally been on the right side through history, are now facing mostly negative perception in the West? What needs to be done in order for this picture to be changed? 

I am afraid I cannot think of any country which has always been on the right side of history. Our nations all have checkered pasts because they suffer from and reveal our own shortcomings. They can only grow stronger and move forward if they accept to confront the crimes and mistakes of the past. National myths are politically expedient and culturally comforting, but I doubt they ever helped any country to meet the challenges of the present.

It is clear that the the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ensuing conflicts have damaged the image of Serbia in Western Europe. But the real problem here is not so much poor reputation than ignorance. Serbia’s history deserves to be better known and understood for her benefit of course and for that of the European continent. The experience of Serbia can teach us a lot about the history of the continent as a whole. Historians have a role to play in furthering relations across European nations; not by peddling nationalist myths but by debunking them. The public may not like  what we have to say but it is our duty to make sure that the mistakes and crimes of the past are not forgotten. Historical truth and reconciliation go hand in hand but reaching them both often is a painstaking effort.

Serbian historians have recently found a letter from May 28 1913 which was sent by Oskar Potiorek, who served as Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Austro-Hungarian minister Leon Biliński, where Potiorek among other things stated that their (Austrian) main task in the years to come should be the preparation for one inevitable great war which would be fought in utterly difficult conditions. Since the letter was sent 13 months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, this letter is widely regarded in Serbia as an additional argument in favour of the thesis that the assassination can by no means be perceived as the real cause of WW1. What is your opinion about this?

Historians of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are better placed than I am to assess the significance of this particular document. No academic historian will however be surprised. It has long been demonstrated that several key policy makers were contemplating war with Serbia before 1914. As an army officer, Potiorek is indeed both typical and in his role. Having said this, one cannot ignore the role that the Sarajevo assassinations, and therefore the Black Hand, played in the outbreak of the war. Making sense of August 1914 requires a combination of structural and contingent explanation. However significant, structural tensions in the international system provoked by economic or imperial rivalries, military alliances, nationalism, etc., had been successfully managed up to that point. In the summer of 1914, European leaders proved unable to retain control over the events that unfolded in the wake of Principe’s gunshots.

In December French newspaper Le Monde reported about Angela Merkel’s speech at the summit of the European Union and quoted her saying that the present state of affairs reminds her of the one in the eve of WW1. German political magazine Der Spiegel clarified that Mrs Merkel was referring to the book Sleepwalkers by Cristopher Clark. Could this be understood as a signal to a wider strategy for pardoning German guilt for the outburst of WW1? How do you understand this move Mrs Merkel has taken?

I remember reading this article and I am not sure it tells us much about Angela Merkel’s state of mind. I suspect she was warning her fellow European leaders against complacency, but I frankly don’t think it illustrates an attempt to deny Germany’s responsibility in the outbreak of the war.

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