For many years, the ‘Origins of the First World War’ was a familiar topic to generations of British schoolchildren and undergraduates. They learned to use with care the various official collections of documents published by governments shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. In the late 1920s their standard reading became the ‘revisionist’ books by authors such as Sidney Fay, whose argument that primary responsibility for the war should be shared more or less equally among the powers, and certainly did not rest primarily with Germany, survived the Second World War. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, two iconoclastic – if turgid – works by the German historian Fritz Fischer, Germany’s War Aims in the First World War and War of Illusions, purported to prove what Allied propagandists had claimed all along, namely that the Kaiser’s government bore the primary responsibility for the outbreak of the war. He went beyond these critics by arguing that the aggression of imperial Germany reflected her peculiar domestic structure – part modern, part feudal – which required an ever more adventurous foreign policy to contain demands for change from below, especially from the Social Democrats. Over the past forty years, much of the literature on the First World War has confirmed Fischer’s thesis, not least by taking it as a point of departure. Recent work on Germany, to be sure, has modified the picture, but largely by stressing the geopolitical rather than the domestic concerns of policymakers in Berlin, not by questioning their principal responsibility for the carnage.
Now, as the centenary of the outbreak of the war draws near, we can expect a spate of new works marking the anniversary and re-examining its origins. Sean McMeekin, an American historian working in Turkey, has been quick off the mark with The Russian Origins of the First World War.