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16 J. Conflict Resol. 1 (1972)

handle is hein.journals/jcfltr16 and id is 1 raw text is: 









The limits of choice: July 1914 reconsidered




L. L.  FARRAR, JR.
Department of History, University of Washington


  The  discussion of the outbreak  of World
War  I was a classic historical debate. It raised
most historical questions. Not only academics
but also politicians, journalists, and the edu-
cated public became involved. A considerable
number  of scholars made reputations debating
it. It was probably the most burning historical
question for the interwar generation and pro-
duced  a vast quantity of original documents
and secondary  literature. But the great effort
produced   little agreement.  This  paradox
seemed  to make nonsense of history: the more
men  knew,  the less they agreed. The debate
seemed  to demonstrate that history is nothing
more  than  national propaganda,   subjective
prejudice, or intellectual exercise. This conclu-
sion was partially justified since many partici-
pants  sought immediate   political objectives
rather than historical objectivity. Indeed it was
precisely those political implications of the
debate, which attracted public attention, that
virtually insured against objectivity. In this
sense the debate tells us more about the inter-
war  period than the prewar period. However
much   the participants genuinely sought  to
explain the prewar period, their disagreement
was due  largely to questions of interpretation,
since the facts could be generally agreed upon
after publication of the official documents. The
debate is therefore understandable only if these
interpretations are isolated.


Competing Interpretations
of the Crisis

  The July crisis can be understood in terms of
four  basic   interpretations: responsibility,
chance, limited choice, and multiple explana-
tion. The most commonly   argued  interpreta-
tion and starting point for the interwar debate
was  responsibility. During the war each gov-
ernment  had  naturally sought  to  mobilize
popular  support with the assertion that the
enemy  was responsible for the war. After the
war there was an understandable psychological
and political compulsion to believe that some-
one else had been responsible. The Versailles
Treaty  established so firmly the concept of
responsibility as the framework of debate that
at first it was seldom questioned. The concept
was applied in varied and frequently contradic-
tory ways. Some  argued that all governments
to some degree were responsible and that this
responsibility could be ranked. (Most recently
this view has been put by Remak, 1971). Oth-
ers asserted that only some governments were
responsible. Still others blamed specific groups
within governments  or  societies such as the
military, revengeful politicians, foreign.minis-
tries, conservatives, industrialists, or other
interest groups. The concept of responsibility
was  also interpreted in different ways. Some
interpreters perceived conscious decisions to

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