Log in / Register
Home arrow Philosophy arrow Postnarrativist philosophy of historiography

The argumentative context of the Great War

It has been estimated that at least 50,000 titles have been published on the Great War (Winter and Prost 2005, 1). The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace alone published 132 volumes on almost all the belligerent and some neutral countries of the war (Winter and Prost 2005, 8). It would be a daunting task to go through even a representative part of the debate even in a much larger project than this one; as Winter and Prost put it, reading the existing literature would take 'several working lives' (Winter and Prost 2005, 1). My discussion of the First World War is intended to illustrate and explain what 'argumentative context' and 'argumentative intervention' in the context of this debate are. An especially useful book in this regard is John W. Langdon's July 1914: The Long Debate, 1918-1990. It provides an overview of the argumentative debate until 1990.

The first issue is to outline the original foundation for historiographical discourse on the Great War. A historical event, the Treaty of Versailles, which finally ended the Great War, provides the benchmark. It laid the war guilt and assigned reparation payments almost solely on Germany, and thus set the foundation for historiographical debate until today. This account should be seen as the default position for and against which most historians have positioned themselves in subsequent decades.

Langdon suggests that debate can be structured around six key points regarding the First World War (1991, 8-18).8 For example, a critical objective of the main German revisionists (e.g. Alfred von Wegerer and Max Monteglas) between the world wars was to argue that Russian mobilization was crucial for the outbreak, given the numerical superiority of the France-Russia alliance (Langdon's key point 6). In other words, they claimed that it was not Germany that had aggressive plans but Russia, which was interested in the Bosphorus, the Dardanelles and the Balkans. This shows very clearly how German revisionists positioned themselves and had to situate their argument in the existing argumentative field. That is, they pointedly argued against the dominant conception of German war guilt. Sean McMeekin (2011) is a contemporary historian whose thesis resembles that of the German revisionists in that he shifts the main blame to Russia's imperial ambitions. There were also many non-German revisionists who weighed in with their own argumentative interventions. We find, for example, a precursor of Clark's 'sleepwalking' thesis in Wegener, Sidney Fay and Harry Elmer Barnes, who argued that 'the nations involved were prisoners of chance, doomed to play their tragic roles in the absence of real control over their own destinies' (Landgon 1991, 23).

On the other side, many anti-revisionists in countries like Germany, the USA, the UK, France and Italy responded in kind. Perhaps the most famous of them is A. J. P. Taylor, specifically in The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 and War by Timetable. The main thesis of the former is that Germany prodded Austria into starting a war with Serbia with full awareness of the consequences. In War by Timetable, Taylor construed the outbreak of war in terms of railway timetables, the message of which can be expressed in the words of Winter and Post: 'Once the wheels were set in motion, they could not be stopped. However peaceful the leadership of the country was, the army had to be ready for war on time' (Winter and Prost 2005, 43). Similarly, in The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, Taylor states that 'The Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia was the decisive act; everything else followed from it' (Taylor 1954, 523). Nevertheless, despite the automatic trigger built into the international political and technological system, the finger points in the end at Germany: 'When cut down to essentials, the sole cause for the outbreak of war in 1914 was the Schlieffen plan. ... yet the Germans had no deliberate aim of subverting the liberties of Europe. No one had time for a deliberate aim or time to think. All were trapped by the ingenuity of their military preparations, the Germans most of all' (Taylor 1969, 121).

Taylor's The Struggle for Mastery was the last major historiography before Fritz Fischer's Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961 (Germany's Aims in the First World War). Fischer argued that the Great War was a result of Germany's premeditated struggle for power in Europe. The following quote illustrates well where Fischer directs his fire and how he makes his move in the game of argumentation: 'As Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war and, in her confidence in her military superiority, deliberately faced the risk of a conflict with Russia and France, her leaders must bear a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of general war in 1914' (Fischer 1967, 88). Fischer's construction of his thesis of Germany's expansionist foreign policy shows well the argumentative layers of his work. Namely, it was based on his specific interpretation of German policy, that is, that the German government was convinced that Britain would remain neutral in any Austro-Serbian war. This interpretation appears to stem from the reading of Kaiser Wilhelm's notes in the margin of documents to the effect that Britain would remain neutral, indicating a refusal to believe that Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov was right (Sazonov had insisted that Britain would object, cf. Langdon 1991, 69). Fischer also had another unique point of critique to direct against the previous scholarly discussion: most of the preceding discussion concentrated only on political and diplomatic history almost to the complete exclusion of domestic economic and social factors. Fischer questioned this and emphasized the primacy of domestic policy.

Fischer's main opponent was 'the dean of German history', Gerhard Ritter. Both read the same material but emerged from their reading with different conclusions. While Fischer saw the generals and statesmen in Germany as united, Ritter emphasized their differences. For Ritter, German history in the twentieth century is a classic case of tragedy and he saw fit to speak about 'disaster' and 'blindness'. Fischer, by contrast, detected only 'intent' and 'premeditation' behind the course of events. Further, the evidence, which proved for Fischer that Germany was striving for world power and was possessed by a collective megalomania, was interpreted as showing only the face of new, more marginal, illiberal, conservative and militarist German nationalism by Ritter (Langdon 1991, 106-107).

Fischer's account gradually became the new consensus, the effect of which is still felt today. The debate has continued for decades and it would be possible to mention hundreds of other cases and arguments, such as those of Mommsen, who thought that the Great War was not the consequence of Germany's lust for power but a response to an unwelcome and unanticipated crisis and hence a preventive war, which could nevertheless be used to redraft the power constellation to favor Germany (Langdon 1991, 121). In summary, much of the literature can be positioned on the war guilt axis, as Clark has observed (Clark 2013, xxvii-xxviii). Langdon remarks that since 1980, historians have moved beyond 'the limits of [the] Fischer' controversy, trying to blend together diplomatic, political, economic, social, cultural, and psychological insights (Langdon 1991, 155). And while it has often been argued that, after the initial set of events, the war was inevitable, some recent historians have even questioned this assumption and claimed that the war was actually improbable until it happened (see Afflerbach and Stevenson 2012).

And the debate continues. William Mulligan (2014) has analyzed and reviewed ten books that have appeared since 2010. He notes that the role of the international economy, businessmen and bankers in the origins of the war has previously received very little attention. There is an air of paradox because the historians of globalization have argued that the interdependence of the international economic system makes war unlikely between interdependent states, and still the relatively globalized world went to war in 1914. Indeed, new literature suggests ways in which the interdependent world economy offered new possibilities for the exercise of power and why interdependence created vulnerability for the sovereign states. Nicholas Lambert (2012), for example, has argued that Britain planned for an economic offensive against Germany by way of blockades and proactive economic warfare. The title of his book is worth noting - Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War - since 'planning Armageddon' suggests quite a different view of what went on prior to the outbreak of war than does Clark's 'sleepwalking'.

I believe that this discussion is sufficient for illustrative purposes. The historiographical debate on the Great War shows how each historical text can be seen as an argumentative intervention in the discursive field of historiography. Each text puts forward some specific point, which typically tries to correct some conceptions in the existing discursive field. Relying on argumentative resources requires that the historian provide reasons for his or hers in the Sellarsian 'logical space of reasons' formed by the existing historiographical discourse. Alternatively, the historian makes an inferential move in the Brandomian 'game of reasons' and makes a commitment to provide premises in the defense of the assertions made. Or perhaps one prefers the Skinnerian (very similar) locution, according to which the historian not only puts forward propositions but makes 'moves in argument' (i.e. in argumentative discourse), which requires explicating the worth and purposes for making a particular claim. A successful intervention and defense give epistemic authority to the historian's claim.

The plausibility of a historical thesis depends on its impact within the argumentative field. To put it the other way around, a rationally well- formulated historical argument cannot be seen as well-justified if, for example, it completely ignores some widely accepted historiographical thesis on its topic, such as Taylor's or Fischer's above. Success depends on how a new argumentative intervention manages to pinpoint weakness or insufficiencies in the existing accounts or to add something new to them. For example, Fischer was very successful because he exposed the narrow focus of earlier historiographies on diplomatic sources.

It is equally important to realize that historiographical reasoning takes place in a specific cultural setting molded by various kinds of social and political interests. This is uncharacteristically easy to see in the case of the Great War debate as it was, and perhaps still is, unusually closely connected to political interests. The presumption was that if the understanding of the war guilt could be changed so that it did not rest on Germany alone, then the demand for reparation payments by Germany as defined in the Treaty of Versailles would ease. Indeed, prior to Fritz Fischer's Griff nach der Weltmacht, the revisionist school in Germany and the USA tried to show that a degree of guilt lay on all parties to the war. All governments also produced their own 'colored books' of key documents (white for Germany, yellow for France, orange for Russia, red for Austria-Hungary, blue for Britain and Serbia, gray for Belgium) to establish their innocence.

Since no historical argument is formed on the basis of source material and the 'internal' logic of reasoning alone, it cannot be evaluated by only paying attention to its internal argumentative qualities and to its relation to historiographical evidence. The prevailing argumentative field and the conceptions it holds, as well as the social and political interests that have shaped them, determine in part the nature and success of historiographical argumentation. A different argumentative field would have produced and required different kinds of interventions. There is no inevitability, convergence of historical debate or expectation of consensus in historiography.

As mentioned above, the argumentative field with its social and political shaping would - in the old terminology used in the philosophy of science - have amounted to 'external factors', and reasoning or the argument itself to something like 'internal logic'. However, I would like to suggest that justification in historiography goes beyond the external-internal dichotomy or, alternatively, cuts through it. That is, although social and political interests shape the frames of the discursive field, historians' argumentative interventions are rational by nature. They may or may not be explicitly politically motivated but, due to the nature of scholarly historiography, they are in any case required to critique existing conceptions on rational grounds, to make a successful intervention and defense in the logical space of reasons - if they intend to be successful. The qualities of good argumentation are by and large shared by internal and external arguments, but their rational nature does not change the situation that they presuppose a politically loaded and socially shaped argumentative field. In this way, historiographical justification and historiography as argumentation crosses the internal/ external dichotomy. An argument is successful if it answers existing theses well, if it shows them to be, for example, inadequate, inaccurate, too narrow, biased, and so on. In brief, historiographical discourse takes place in a politicized context, but on rational grounds.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >
Business & Finance
Computer Science
Language & Literature
Political science