By 1961, Fischer, who had risen to the rank of full professor at the University of Hamburg, rocked the history profession with his first postwar book, Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914–1918 (published in English as Germany's Aims in the First World War), in which he argued that Germany had deliberately instigated the First World War in an attempt to become a world power. For most Germans at this time, it was acceptable to believe that Germany had caused World War Two, but not World War One, which was still widely regarded as a war forced upon Germany. Fischer was the first German historian to publish documents showing that the German chancellor Dr. Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg had developed plans in 1914 to annex all of Belgium, part of France and part of European Russia. Furthermore, Fischer suggested that there was continuity in German foreign policy aims from 1900 to the Second World War, implying therefore that Germany was indeed responsible for both world wars. These ideas were expanded in his later books Krieg der Illusionen (War of Illusions), Bündnis der Eliten (From Kaiserreich to Third Reich) and Hitler war kein Betriebsunfall (Hitler Was No Chance Accident).
Fischer was the first German historian to champion the negative version of the "Sonderweg" or "special path"' interpretation of German history, which holds that the way German culture and society developed from the Reformation onwards (or from a later time, such as the establishment of the German Reich of 1871) inexorably culminated in the Third Reich. In Fischer's view, while 19th century German society moved forwards economically and industrially, it did not do so politically. For Fischer, German foreign policy before 1914 was largely motivated by the efforts of the reactionary German elite to distract the public from casting their votes for the Social Democrats and to make Germany the world's greatest power at the expense of France, Britain, and Russia. Furthermore, the same German elite that caused World War One also caused the failure of the Weimar Republic and ushered in the Third Reich. This traditional German elite, in Fischer's analysis, was dominated by an irrational racist, imperialist, and capitalist ideology that was no different from the beliefs of the Nazis. For this reason, Fischer called Bethmann-Hollweg the "Hitler of 1914."
Fischer caused a deep controversy with his books, particularly in West Germany. His arguments sparked so much anger that his publisher's office in Hamburg was firebombed. His works inspired other historians, such as Gerhard Ritter, to write books and articles in direct response to his war-aims thesis.
Some critics contend that Fischer placed Germany outside the proper historical context. Germany was not uniquely aggressive amongst European nations of the early 20th century, a time when Darwinian ideals of struggle were popular throughout European governing circles. Fischer's timetable has also been criticized as inaccurate. Hollweg's "September Programme," outlining German war aims, was not produced until after the war had begun and was still going well for Germany. At the same time, other powers had been harboring similarly grandiose plans.
After Fischer's death in 1999 it was revealed that he had deceived the public about his affiliation with the Nazi regime, of which he had denied being a follower. After the First World War he had in fact been a member of a right-wing extremist paramilitary Freikorps for some years, the "Bund Oberland." In 1933 he joined the SA, in 1937 he joined the NSDAP.
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