This paper traces the debate surrounding the question who was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War, from the early days of the war until the present day. It will argue that Germany lost the war but won the debate surrounding war guilt in the interwar period - largely due to its superior historiographical efforts that were instrumentalised by nationalist politics. The situation was not substantially changed after the First World War, when German historians still maintained that there was a substantial discontinuity between Imperial Germany and the Third Reich.
Outside of Germany, however, and in particular in the Anglo-Saxon world, the Second World War prompted a major reinterpretation of modern German history that put forward the idea of the long-term continuity of German imperialism and expansionism German historians who want into exile in the 1930s played an important role in developing a new paradigm regarding the war guilt question.
It was only with the public debate surrounding the place of National Socialism in the long-term history of Germany that happened in Germany during the long 1960s that these interpretations also found a home in Germany. In particular the debates surrounding the writings of Fritz Fischer played a major role in putting forward a continuity view that put the blame for the outbreak of war firmly on the doorstep of the Imperial German elites.
In the 1980s this became the dominant, albeit never uncontested view in the historiography of the First World War. After 1990 a small group of right-wing historians sought to reinterpret German history through a more positive and nationalist prism. They failed to get a wider hearing but at the same time the foundations of the German historical master narrative began to change.
The ‘search for normality’ (Berger) produced a new master narrative that would ultimately also allow for a reinterpration of the question regarding war guilt – a reinterpretation that culminated in Christopher Clark’s book ‘Sleepwalkers’ – an interernational bestseller that, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, returned the debate wo where it had already been in the interwar period. The paper will conclude that the normalisation of modern German history entails the possibility to rewrite the history of the twentieth century in a way that allows German history to be thoroughly Europeanised.
Such Europeanisation, however, is considerably relativizing German guilt in the catastrophies of the twentieth century.