The Fischer controversy, documents, and the ‘truth’ about the Origins of the First World War

Mombauer, Annika (2013). The Fischer controversy, documents, and the ‘truth’ about the Origins of the First World War. Journal of Contemporary History, 48(2) pp. 290–314.



This article argues that documents have always been central to the debate on the origins of the First World War, from their first publications in the early weeks of the war, in the so-called Coloured Books, to the official document collections on which so much of our knowledge of the period is still based. For nearly 100 years, we have been engaged in the hunt for the truth about the outbreak of the war, and documents have been seen as the key to unlocking this truth about the past. Not surprisingly, documents (many of them only recently discovered by Fischer in the archives by the time he wrote Griff nach der Weltmacht) have been seen as the key to unlocking the truth about the past. And yet, the long debate on the origins of the war has throughout been characterised by deliberate deceptions, misinterpretations and outright lies. This article attempts to unravel the connection between truth, lies and documents in the debate on the origins of the war, and suggests that primary sources, if used judiciously and within an international context, can serve as a way of explaining events the past, despite their obvious shortcomings. International documents can, for example, highlight the intersection of military and political decision-making in July 1914, and how mismatches here led to cues and triggers which had different significance in different countries.
However, the article also aims to reflects more broadly on the limitations of a document-based analysis which aims at factual truth. Documents are always subjective, not only in the way we interpret them, but also in the way they were created. It suggests that the search for that key document, that smoking gun, is almost certainly futile, but rather that the goal should be an analysis of sources for the mechanisms and cultures of military and diplomatic decision-making which they reveal. As much as any truth can ever be told about how the war started, this is the area where, with the help of documents, we might be able to find it.

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