Publication Date

March 1, 2000

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Fritz Fischer, professor emeritus at Hamburg University and one of the most influential historians of modern Germany since 1945, died on December 1, 1999 at the age of 91. He was named an Honorary Foreign Member of the AHA in 1984.

Born on March 5, 1908 in Upper Franconia in southern Germany, he embarked upon the long road of a German university career, finally obtaining a full professorship at Hamburg University in 1948. Originally a specialist in 19th-century German Protestantism, he had been briefly associated with Hans Frank's "Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany" under Hitler, but belonged to those German academics and intellectuals who came out of World War II determined to build a different Germany and to wrench the German historical profession away from its nationalist-conservative past.

This opportunity came when Fischer was given access, in the 1950s, to the East German archives at Potsdam, where he came across an explosive set of files relating to war aims and annexationist plans that the Reich government had drawn up in World War I. It was not merely the extent of Germany's territorial ambitions that moved him to develop his provocative hypotheses, but also the suspicion that the German government might have started the war in the first place in order to realize its expansionist program on the European continent. His book on this theme, titled Griff nach der Weltmacht (1961; trans. 1967, rather less grippingly, Germany's War Aims in the First World War), caused a huge public uproar. His German colleagues had just about accepted that Germany had been squarely responsible for unleashing World War II, but they fiercely resisted Fischer’s notion of German responsibility for World War I. Gerhard Ritter, the doyen of West Germany’s historians, spoke of the “self-obscuration of German historical consciousness.” He continued to hold that all powers were more or less equally guilty of pushing Europe over the brink.

Fischer held his ground against these attacks, repeatedly pulling from his pocket, during televised debates with fellow historians and journalists, yet another official memorandum or telegram proving his point. Meanwhile students from all faculties at Hamburg University flocked to his lectures, easily filling the large Auditorium Maximum, and some of them stayed on to write a doctoral dissertation under his supervision. Several of them made important contributions to the history of the German Empire in their own right and some historians of German historiography have spoken of a "Fischer School," whose members went to bat for their mentor's cause.

The politicization of the Fischer Controversy went so far that at one point some of his colleagues persuaded the Bonn government to withdraw promised financial support for a lecture tour by Fischer in the United States. Angry American historians thereupon found the money themselves to pay for the trip.

As criticism continued, Fischer decided to present his subsequent archival findings concerning Germany's aggressive foreign policy and the origins of World War I in a second 800-page tome, titled Krieg der Illusionen (1969, trans. 1973, this time literally, War of Illusions). In this volume he also advanced the theory that in December 1912, at an infamous “War Council,” Wilhelm II and his military advisors had made a decision to trigger a major war by the summer of 1914 and to use the intervening months to prepare the country for this settling of accounts. In the 1970s Fischer published further, shorter studies and essays elaborating on the myopia and political failures of Germany’s elites. He became one of the most explicit advocates of the Sonderweg thesis, i.e., the argument that Germany had taken a special path into the 20th century, and also threw himself into the controversy over the authenticity of diaries that Kurt Riezler, the private secretary of Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, had kept during the July Crisis of 1914.

Some of Fischer's more radical hypotheses have been challenged and modified by subsequent research published after the heated arguments of the 1960s had subsided. This time American and British historians had a major share in effecting this shift that has resulted in a more complex picture of Wilhelmine society and politics. But if his more specific findings on who was responsible for the outbreak of World War I have been revised, very few people doubt today that, as Fischer had argued, the Kaiser and his advisors played a crucial role in the escalation of the international crisis of July 1914, although they were in the best position to de-escalate. Nor does anyone deny that the exorbitant annexationist plans of the German monarchy in World War I were ominous harbingers of Hitler's ruthless imperialism 25 years later.

The repercussions of Fischer's work upon the political development of postwar Germany have been his first lasting achievement. His books helped to pave the way for West Germany's abandoning the territorial revisionism of the Adenauer era and to facilitate the emergence of Brandt'sOstpolitik. For the first time since the Wilhelmine period, Germany became willing to recognize the existing frontiers in Europe and to pursue a policy of reconciliation toward those countries of eastern Europe that had suffered from German expansionism in two world wars. The lesson had at last been learned from the disastrous course that German foreign policy had taken in the first half of the 20th century.

There is yet another mark that Fischer's work left, this time on the historical profession of the Federal Republic. Methodologically speaking, his books may have been rather traditional, focusing as they did on high politics and decision-making elites. But his challenge to interpretations of German history that had entrenched themselves in early postwar Germany encouraged a younger generation of historians who were not members of the "Fischer School" to move beyond Fischer's kind of political history and toward the analysis of the country's social and economic structures and political-cultural traditions since 1871. The history of the German Empire became a major field of research, attracting also many non-German scholars, and the work they undertook has yielded very fruitful results as well as fresh arguments.

If the imperial period offers rich material also to the teacher of modern European history on both sides of the Atlantic today, it is in no small degree thanks to the breach that Fischer made, and the courageous stand that he took, in rejecting the historiographical orthodoxies of the early postwar period. His achievements as a scholar and as a man of firm convictions and great integrity were recognized by the many honorary doctorates that he received from universities around the world. The president of the Federal Republic awarded him the Bundesverdienstkreuz 1. Klasse.

Fritz Fischer is survived by his wife Margarete, his two children, and five grandchildren.

—Volker Berghahn teaches at Columbia University.

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