Fritz Fischer and the rise of critical historiography in West Germany, 1945-1966
: A study in the social production of historical knowledge

  • Stephan Petzold

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The debate over the origins of the First World War in the early 1960s is widely regarded as one of the fiercest historiographical battles. It was provoked by Fritz Fischer’s book Griff nach der Weltmacht. The impact of the debate on the historiography of the war’s origins, the interpretation of German history more generally and its contribution to the transformation of West German political culture is widely recognised. By grounding the production of historical knowledge in the social and cultural practices of West German historians, this thesis seeks to contribute to a better understanding of the debate. It explores how it was possible that Fischer’s book could first be produced and second how it could provoke such a fierce debate. It analyses the intellectual, biographical and political context in which the book must be situated. The thesis argues that the book drew on several dissident intellectual and political currents of the early Federal Republic while challenging several unspoken political and scholarly assumptions that dominated the West German historical profession throughout the 1950s. Furthermore, by embracing Nazi ideology Fischer had distanced himself from national-conservative historiography and its basic assumptions during the 1930s and early 1940s. He continued to cultivate this sceptical outlook and substantiated it throughout the 1950s. This discussion of conditions and context presents a starting point for a micro-historical analysis of the controversy between 1959 and 1966. It analyses how Fischer developed a particular strategy that sought to ensure recognition within and outside the profession. The strategies of Fischer’s critics proved to be ill-adapted to an increasingly liberal democratic society. Partly due to the reaction by Fischer’s critics, a debate broke out in 1964 that placed the discussion of a historiographical issue within the public sphere. Concerned about the status of scholarly authority, several historians sought to return the discussion to the historical profession and its power mechanisms. Although this move left Fischer a relatively marginal figure in the historical profession, the criteria of scholarly plausibility with regards to the interpretation of German history had significantly shifted in the course of the controversy.
Date of Award16 Feb 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council
SupervisorHidemi Suganami (Supervisor) & Peter Darron Jackson (Supervisor)

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