Gerhard Georg Bernhard Ritter (6 April 1888, in Bad Sooden-Allendorf - 1 July 1967, in Freiburg) was a nationalist-conservative German historian, who served as a professor of history at the University of Freiburg from 1925 to 1956. He studied under Professor Hermann Oncken. A Lutheran, he first became well known for his 1925 biography of Martin Luther and hagiographic portrayal of Prussia. A member of the German People's Party during the Weimar Republic, he was a lifelong monarchist and remained sympathetic to the political system of the defunct German Empire.
A critic of both democracy and totalitarianism, he supported authoritarian rule and German supremacy in Europe. His vision of history was narrowed to German interests and of little sympathy to foreign nations but full of disdain for Catholicism. He cooperated with Nazi historians on anti-Polish propaganda. Eventually, his conflict with the Nazi regime got him arrested by it in 1944.
Following World War II, Professor Ritter worked to restore German nationalism by attempting to separate it from Nazi ideology, and favored pursuit of German national interests rather than reconciliation with victims of German aggression. At the end of his career, he argued against theories of the German historian Fritz Fischer. Ritter was an honorary member of the American Historical Association from 1959.
His studies were continued at the Universities of Munich, Heidelberg, and Leipzig. Ritter began serving as a teacher in 1912. While studying at Heidelberg, Ritter was a research assistant to the national-liberal historian Hermann Oncken, who was a major influence on Ritter. Professor Oncken opposed the Nazis, and was later forced to resign in 1935.
Ritter's first book was published in 1913: Die preußischen Konservativen und Bismarcks deutsche Politik (The Prussian Conservatives and Bismarck's German Policy). It was his PhD dissertation completed in 1911, under the supervision of Oncken. Ritter examined the dispute between Otto von Bismarck and conservative Prussian Junkers during the years 1858-1876. The Junkers felt that Bismarck's policy was a menace to their traditional privileges. A source of special conflict between Bismarck and the Junkers was their opposition to Bismarck's compromises with the southern German states, which were seen as a threat to the traditional powers that they enjoyed. The theme of the extent of one's allegiance to those who hold power would be a recurring subject in Ritter's oeuvre.
Ritter fought as an infantryman in the First World War. Ritter was strongly committed to a German victory. While he criticized the ideology of Pan-German League as chauvinistic nationalism, he found it difficult to come to terms with the German defeat.
He regarded the German defeat of 1918 as a great disaster. Ritter believed that the monarchy had been the best form of government for Germany and that the Weimar Republic was a grave mistake since Germany did not have a tradition of republicanism. Ritter subscribed to the 19th-century view of history as a form of political education for the elite, and contemporary politics were always a pressing concern for him.
In 1919, he married Gertrud Reichardt with whom he had three children.
Ritter worked as a professor at Heidelberg University, (1918-1923), Hamburg University (1923-1925) and Freiburg University (1925-1956). During his time at Heidelberg, Ritter began an official history of the university from the Middle Ages to the present, but only one volume was ever published.
In 1925, Ritter published a sympathetic biography of Martin Luther that made his reputation as a historian. Ritter treated his subject as an excellent example of the "eternal German". Ritter argued against the view of Luther as an opportunist, promoted by Ernst Troeltsch and Max Weber, and instead contended that Luther was a man of faith who possessed the ability to expose what Ritter regarded as grave flaws in the Catholic Church. Ritter argued that Luther inspired his followers to have the self-confidence to improve the world.
Ritter's Luther biography was written in large part under the impact of the defeat of 1918 and so Ritter went to great lengths to defend what he regarded as the unique German spirit against what Ritter saw as the corrupt, materialist spiritual outlook of the West. Throughout his life, Lutheranism was a major influence on Ritter's writings.
In particular, Ritter agreed with Luther's argument that the moral values of Christianity were relevant to only the individual, not the state. Citing Luther, Ritter argued that the state had to hold power, and as part of the messy business of politics, it could be guided only by the Christian values of its leaders. Taking up of the ideas of Rudolf Kjelléns and Friedrich Patzel, Ritter argued that the state should be regarded as a living entity, which to live successfully required economic and territorial growth. Using that argument Ritter contended that Frederick the Great's invasion of Silesia in 1740 was a necessary act to allow the Prussian state to live, regardless of international laws against aggression.
During the last years of the Weimar Republic, Ritter changed his focus from the medieval-early modern periods to the modern period, and from cultural history to biographies of political figures. In 1931, Ritter wrote the biography of the Prussian statesmen Karl vom Stein. Ritter's two-volume work portrayed Stein as the total opposite of Bismarck. Ritter argued that Bismarck was the ultimate power politician and that Stein was the ultimate anti-power politician. Ritter argued that Stein's success as a politician was limited by his moralism but contended that despite his lack of political sense was nonetheless successful because of his strong moral character.
On 11 February 1933, in a letter to a friend, Ritter described his intentions as:
I am planning to write two books. One will be entitled 'What is Liberalism?', and will be the attempt to pave the way for the founding of a large national party of the center, a party which we need today more than ever before. The book will contribute to the drafting of a new liberal national program, which will offer political orientation based on historical reflection...The second book is to...shed light on the great crises in the political and intellectual history of Germany, and will thus explain the present state of mind of the German people. This second book will serve two purposes. It will develop a new concept of the history of our nation...and it will help deepen the notion of the idea of German nationality and national consciousness after a time which this idea has in public use become unbearably trivial. New tasks are crowding in upon us. In our era the historian acquires a distinctive national function, an educational function. Certainly, for the time being no one wants to listen to him, because everyone is still running after noisy political agitators. But I am confident that a time will come when everyone will be thoroughly fed up with the din of national phrase-making and will long for a pure drink instead of the inebriating potion administered by the Nazis. The historian has to prepare positions for the reserves...".
Already, at midday on January 30, 1933, in a fateful step, the German President Paul von Hindenburg had confirmed the leader of the Nazi party as the new German chancellor, to lead for a time a minority government.
Initially, Ritter supported the Nazi regime, despite severe doubts about the Nazis, Ritter reconciled himself to approving of the Nazi regime and its foreign policy, but he broke with the Nazis over the persecution of the churches. In 1940, Ritter stated that "the sword is always more ready to the hand of continental statesman who stands in the midsts of the fray of European power interests, and must always be armed to counter an attack before it is too late". He agreed with Mussolini that "might is the precondition of all freedom".
For Ritter the Nazi Reich was the "peaceful center of Europe" that would form a "bulwark against Bolshevism" and praised the German Anschluss (union) with Austria. As a supporter of the idea of Greater Germany, Ritter hailed the Nazi invasion as a realization of the German hopes. While critical of Nazis, he supported this annexation of Austria praising it as the boldest and most felicitous foreign policy feat of our new government.
Ritter was a staunch German nationalist who belonged to a political movement generally known to historians as national conservatism. Ritter identified with the idea of an authoritarian government in Germany that would make his country Europe's foremost power. In an article published in early 1933, "Eternal Right and Interests of the State", Ritter argued that the German people needed most was a government "in which a strong authoritarian leadership will gain voluntary popular allegiance because it is willing to respect eternal justice as well as freedom".
In addition, as someone who believed in a Rechtsstaat (state of law), Ritter was opposed to the lawless ways of Nazi Germany. In 1935, Ritter attempted to defend his mentor, Hermann Oncken, against attacks by Nazis who objected to a paper by Oncken which implied the Nazi revolution was not the greatest revolution of all time.
Historian Russell Weigley called it "the best introduction to Frederick the Great and indeed to European warfare in his time".James J. Sheehan says it is the best book in English on the famous king.
Ritter's biography was designed as a challenge to Nazi ideology which said there was a continuity between Frederick and Hitler. Dorpalen says, "The book was indeed a very courageous indictment of Hitler's irrationalism and recklessness, his ideological fanaticism and insatiable lust for power." Dorpalen nevertheless criticized Ritter's historiography as apologetic of Prussian militarism, German past and figures like Frederick the Great and Bismarck
Ritter's emphasis on Frederick's limited war aims and willingness to settle for less than he initially sought was seen at the time as a form of oblique criticism of Adolf Hitler. In addition, the emphasis that Ritter placed on the influence of the Enlightenment and "orderly reason" on Fredrick were intended by Ritter to quietly disprove Hitler's claim to be Frederick's successor. The inspiration behind the Fredrick biography was Ritter's personal reaction to the Day of Potsdam, 22 March 1933, when Hitler had laid claim to the Prussian traditions in a way that Ritter felt was not historically accurate.
In March 1936, upon witnessing the Remilitarization of the Rhineland, Ritter wrote in a letter to his mother that for his children "who had never seen German soldiers from close up, this is one of the greatest experiences ever.... Truly a great and magnificent experience. May God grant that it does not lead to some international catastrophe".
In 1938, Ritter was the only faculty member at Freiburg to attend the funeral of Edmund Husserl, considered the founder of the modern philosophical school of phenomenology. Husserl had been on the faculty at the University of Freiburg until the Nazis in 1933 caused him to be dismissed because of his Jewish origins.
Husserl was then also prevented from publishing his works. Ritter's presence at the funeral of Husserl was widely interpreted at the time (and since) as an act of quiet courage and political protest against the Nazi regime. After the Kristallnacht pogrom, Ritter wrote in a letter to his mother: "What we have experienced over the last two weeks all over the country is the most shameful and most dreadful thing that has happened for a long time".
In 1938, Ritter became involved in a major debate with Friedrich Meinecke over "historism". Meinecke argued in favor of the idea of celebrating the "valuable individual quality" of all the phenomenon of history, which was judged not by universal standards, but only in regard to its own values. Ritter attacked this position, arguing that without universal notions of values of good and evil and judging all historical phenomenon by its own standards was to abandon all ideas of morality applicable to all times and places.
Following the Nazi's 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, Ritter became a founding member of the Freiburger Kreis, a discussion group whose focus was neo-liberal policy for the political economy. It was composed of anti-Nazi professors which included Adolf Lampe, Constantin von Dietze, Franz Böhm and Walter Eucken.
Later, Ritter worked as an advisor to the German conservative politician Carl Goerdeler. Together they considered a future constitution after the overthrow of the Nazis. Both were involved in the secret plans to take down Hitler (see below "In assassination plot").
In a Denkschrift submitted to Goerdeler in January 1943, Ritter wrote that "Hundreds of thousands of human beings have been systematically murdered solely because of their Jewish ancestry." Although urging that the Holocaust should be immediately ended, Ritter went on in the same memo to suggest that, in a future post-Nazi government, the modern civil rights of Jews should be restricted.
In 1940, Ritter published Machtstaat und Utopie (National Power and Utopia). In this book, Ritter argued that democracy was a luxury that only militarily-secure states could afford. Ritter argued that because Great Britain was an island, this provided a degree of security that allows democracy. By contrast, Ritter argued that Germany with its location in Central Europe needed an authoritarian government as the only way of maintaining security.
Here Ritter contrasted the utopianism of Sir Thomas More and the realism of Niccolò Machiavelli. Ritter declares that Germany had to follow the realism of Machiavelli because of the security requirements of its geographic position. Ritter describes two sorts of values as generated by two different types of polities: one traditionally Anglo-Saxon and the other continental, as personified by More and Machiavelli.
Ritter praised Machiavelli as the ideal thinker who understood the "paradox of power"; namely, state power to be effective always involves the use of or threat of violence. Accordingly, society could not function without an armed police power to hold it together (and a military against foreign threats). Ritter criticized More for refusing to acknowledge this paradox of power; instead, More seems to pretend that morality could function in politics without the threat of and/or use of violence.
Ritter presents traditional Anglo-Saxon thinking about power, which depends on an ineffective legalism, as inferior to continental thinking, based on an understanding of the ultimate necessity of some form of violence. The historian Gregory Weeks commented that it is hard to tell how much of Machstaat und Utopie was material inserted to allow the book to be passed by the censors, and how much was the expression of Ritter's own beliefs. Weeks has argued that if Ritter was no Nazi, certainly he was a German nationalist who wished to see Germany as the world's great power.
Ritter appeared to disavow part of his original work of 1940 by the addition of a footnote to the third edition of Machstaat und Utopie published in 1943. There Ritter praised More for his understanding of "the demoniacal forces of power" against which More had appealed to the strength of Christian morality; hence, More rightly did not reduce all politics to a "friend-foe" mentality. The historian Klaus Schwabe observes that Ritter's disapproval of the term "friend-foe" was a not-so-veiled criticism of Carl Schmitt, who had popularized the term a decade before (Schmitt had supported the Nazi regime). Thus Ritter's criticism indirectly pointed at such Nazi "forces of power".
During World War II, Ritter became involved in work on a study of civilian-military relations in Germany from the 18th century to the 20th century. The original intent behind this work was to offer a critique of the "total war" philosophy of General Erich Ludendorff as a form of indirect protest against the Third Reich. Censorship prevented the book from being published during the war and, after 1945, Ritter revised his work to publish it as a four-volume study of German militarism.
Ritter was involved in the 20 July 1944 Stauffenberg assassination plot. He was one of the few conspirators not liquidated by the Nazis. His friend and political associate, Carl Goerdeler, was slated to become the new Chancellor under a post-Nazi regime. If the coup had succeeded, the plotters planned to bargain with the Allies that Germany keep territories in Eastern Europe, then in the path of the Soviet counter-invasion. Goerdeler was executed by the Nazis in 1945. Ritter, who also belonged to the conservative German opposition to the Nazis, was imprisoned in late 1944 for the rest of the war.
Two major themes of Ritter's writings after 1945 were attempts to prove that the Bismarckian tradition in German life had nothing to do with national socialism and it was democracy of the masses rather than aristocratic conservatism that caused the Nazi movement. After World War II, Ritter wrote the book Europa und die deutsche Frage (Europe and the German Question), which denied that the Third Reich was the inevitable product of German history, but was rather in Ritter's view part of a general Europe-wide drift towards totalitarianism that had been going on since the French Revolution, and as such, Germans should not be singled out for criticism.
In Ritter's opinion, the origins of National Socialism went back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's concept of the volonté générale (general will) and the Jacobins. Ritter argued, "National Socialism is not an originally German growth, but the German form of a European phenomenon: the one-party or Führer state", which was the result of "modern industrial society with its uniform mass humanity".
Along the same lines, Ritter wrote that "not any event in German history, but the great French Revolution undermined the firm foundation of Europe's political traditions. It also coined the new concepts and slogans with whose help the modern state of the Volk and the Führer justifies its existence". Ritter argued that throughout the 19th century, there been worrisome signs in Germany and the rest of Europe caused by the entry of masses into politics, but that it was World War I that marked the decisive turning point.
According to Ritter, World War I had caused a general collapse in moral values throughout the West, and it was this moral degeneration that led to the decline of Christianity, the rise of materialism, political corruption, the eclipse of civilization by barbarism, and demagogic politics that in turn led to National Socialism. In Ritter's view, the problem with the Weimar Republic was not that it lacked democracy, but rather had too much democracy. Ritter argued that the democratic republic left the German state open to being hijacked by the appeals of rabble-rousing extremists. In Ritter's view, if his much beloved German Empire had continued after 1918, there would have been no Nazi Germany.
Ritter argued that democracy was the essential precondition of totalitarianism because it created the window of opportunity for a strongman to make himself the personification of the "popular will", leading Ritter to conclude that "the system of 'totalitarian' dictatorship as such is not a specifically German phenomenon" but rather was the natural result of when "the direct rule of the people derived from the 'revolt of the masses' is introduced". Ritter argued that the precursors of Hitler were "neither Frederick the Great, Bismarck nor Wilhelm II, but the demagogues and Caesars of modern history from Danton to Lenin to Mussolini".
Ritter saw his main task after 1945 of seeking to restore German nationalism against what he regarded as unjust slurs. Ritter argued that Germans needed a positive view of their past but warned against the appeal of "false concepts of honor and national power". He belonged to group of German historians who rejected reconciliation with victim of Nazi German aggression in favor of Germany pursuing national interests.
He railed against the fact that the United States and Great Britain had confiscated German archives at the end of World War II and had begun to publish a critical edition of German foreign policy records without the participation of German historians. He used his official position as the first postwar head of the German Historical Association to demand the return of the records and held the opinion that their absence hurt his own research projects the most.
In his treatment of the German Resistance, Ritter drew a sharp line between those who worked with foreign powers to defeat Hitler and those like Goerdeler which sought to overthrow the Nazis while working for Germany. For Ritter, Goerdeler was a patriot while the men and women of the Rote Kapelle spy network were traitors. Ritter wrote that those involved in the Rote Kapelle were not part of the "German Resistance, but stood in the service of the enemy abroad" and fully deserved to be executed.
Besides defending German nationalism, Ritter became active in the ecumenical movement after 1945 and urged conservative Catholics and Protestants to come together in the Christian Democratic Union, arguing that based on his experience in the Third Reich, Christians regardless of their church needed to work together against totalitarianism.
During the war, as a result of his underground work, Ritter came to know a number of Catholic and Calvinist members of the German opposition, which caused Ritter to abandon his former prejudices against Calvinists and Catholics. Ritter came to the conclusion that whatever differences divided Lutherans, Catholics and Calvinists, member of three churches had more in common, to unite them against the Nazis.
In 1954, Ritter published an acclaimed biography of Carl Goerdeler, a close friend, a conservative politician who was executed by the Nazis in 1945. Goerdeler was a devout Lutheran, and himself the son of a conservative Prussian politician. Ritter pushed for the translation of his Goerdeler biography into English to counter the publication of John W. Wheeler-Bennett's book Nemesis of Power which, in his view, vilified the German resistance.
Ritter specialized in German political, military, and cultural history. Ritter always drew a sharp distinction between what he regarded as the Machtpolitik (power politics) of Bismarck where military policy was subjected to carefully limited political goals and the endless expansionism motivated by militarism and bizarre racial theories of the Nazis.
Ritter was well known for his assertions denying that there was a uniquely aggressive German version of militarism. For Ritter, militarism was the "one-sided determination of political decisions on the basis of technical military considerations", and foreign expansionism, and had nothing to do with values of a society.
In a paper presented to the German Historical Convention in 1953, "The Problem of Militarism in Germany", Ritter argued traditional Prussian leaders such as Frederick the Great were a Machtpolitiker (power politician), not a militarist since in Ritter's view, Frederick was opposed to "the ruthless sacrifice of all life to the purposes of war" and instead was interested in creating "a lasting order of laws and peace, to further general welfare, and to moderate the conflict of interests".
Ritter maintained that militarism first appeared during the French Revolution, when the revolutionary French state, later to be followed by Napoleon I's regime, began the total mobilization of society to seek "the total destruction of the enemy". Likewise, Ritter contended that Otto von Bismarck was a Kabinettspolitker (Cabinet politician), not a militarist, who ensured that political considerations were always placed ahead of military considerations. Ritter was to expand on these views in a four volume study Staatskunst und Kriegshandwerk (translated into English as The Sword and the Scepter) published between 1954-1968, in which Ritter examined the development of militarism in Germany between 1890-1918.
In Volume 2 of Staatskunst und Kriegshandwerk, Ritter commented that it was only after Bismarck's sacking in 1890 that militarism first appeared in Germany. Accordingly, a review of the first years of the 20th century was "not without a sense of psychological shock". Ritter wrote that "the prewar Germany of my own youth, which has for an entire lifetime been illuminated in my memory by the radiant splendor of a sun that seemed to grow dark only after the outbreak of the war of 1914" was "in the evening of my life" darkened by "shadows that were much deeper than my generation-and certainly the generation of my academic teachers-was able to perceive at the time".
For Ritter, it was the radicalizing experience of the First World War that had finally led to the triumph of militarism in Germany, especially after 1916, when Erich Ludendorff established his "silent dictatorship", which Ritter believed was a huge break with Prussian-German traditions. It was the unhappy results of that war that finally led to the "proletarian nationalism" of the Nazis gaining a mass audience, and led to the "militarism of the National Socialist mass movement" coming to power. Moreover, Ritter placed great emphasis on the "Hitler factor" as an explanation for Nazi Germany. In 1962, Ritter wrote that he found it "almost unbearable" that the "will of a single madman" had unnecessarily caused World War II.
Though many regarded Ritter's work as an apologia for German nationalism and conservatism, Ritter was at times critical of aspects of the German past. Though Ritter commented that many nations had bent their knees in submission to false values, "the Germans accepted all of that with special ardor when it was now preached to them by National Socialism, and their nationalism had in general displayed from its beginning a particularly intense, combative quality".
At the first meeting of German historians in 1949, Ritter delivered a speech:
"We constantly run the risk not only of being condemned by the world as nationalists, but actually being misused as expert witnesses by all those circles and tendencies that, in their impatient and blind nationalism, have shut their ears to the teachings of the most recent past. Never was our political responsibility greater, not only to Germany, but also to Europe and the world. And yet never has our path been so dangerously narrow between Scylla and Charybdis as today".
In 1953, Ritter found a copy of the "Great Memorandum" relating to German military planning written by General Alfred Graf von Schlieffen in 1905. The following year, Ritter published the "Great Memorandum" together with his observations about the Schlieffen Plan as Der Schlieffen-Plan: Kritik Eines Mythos (The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth).
In his last years, Ritter emerged as the leading critic of the left-wing historian Fritz Fischer, who claimed that there were powerful lines of continuity between the Second Reich and the Third Reich and that it was Germany that caused World War I. During the ferocious "Fischer Controversy" that engulfed the West German historical profession in the 1960s, Ritter was the best known of Fischer's critics.
Ritter fiercely rejected Fischer's arguments that Germany was primarily responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914. The later volumes of Staatskunst und Kriegshandwerk were taken up with the goal of rebutting Fischer's arguments. Ritter claimed that Germany did not start a war of aggression in 1914 but admitted that the situation of the German government had required a foreign policy that contained the immediate risk of war. Counter to Fischer's thesis, Ritter maintained that the Chancellor Dr. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg resisted the demands by General Ludendorff for wide-ranging annexations as a war aim.
As part of his critique of Fischer, Ritter contended that Germany's principal goal in 1914 was to maintain Austria-Hungary as a great power; thus, German foreign policy was largely defensive. Fischer claimed that it was mostly aggressive. Ritter claimed that the significance that Fischer attached to the highly bellicose advice about waging a "preventive war" in the Balkans offered in July 1914 to the Chief of Cabinet of the Austro-Hungarian foreign ministry, Count Alexander Hoyos by the German journalist Viktor Naumann was unwarranted. Ritter charged that Naumann was speaking as a private individual, and not as Fischer claimed on behalf of the German government.
Likewise, Ritter felt that Fischer had been dishonest in his portrayal of Austro-German relations in July 1914. Ritter charged that Germany had not pressured a reluctant Austria-Hungary into attacking Serbia. Ritter argued (ironically against Fischer) that the main impetus for war within Austria-Hungary came from domestic politics and was internally driven. There were divisions of opinion about the best course to pursue in Vienna and Budapest, but it was not German pressure that led Austria-Hungary to choose war as the best option.
In Ritter's opinion, Germany can be criticized for its mistaken evaluation of the state of European power politics in July 1914. According to Ritter, the German government had underrated the state of military readiness in Russia and France, falsely assumed that British foreign policy was more peaceful than what it really was, overrated the sense of moral outrage caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on European opinion, and above all, overestimated the military power and political common sense of Austria-Hungary.
Ritter felt that in retrospect, it was not necessary for Germany to maintain Austria-Hungary as a great power but claimed that at the time, most Germans regarded the Dual Monarchy as a "brother empire" and viewed the prospect of the Balkans being in the Russian sphere of influence as an unacceptable threat. As opposed to Fischer's claim that Germany was deliberately setting off a war of aggression, Ritter argued that Germany's support for Austria-Hungary's retributive plan to invade Serbia was an ad hoc response to the crisis gripping Europe.
Ritter accused Fischer of manufacturing the quote he attributed to the German general Moltke, Chief of the General Staff, during a meeting with the Austro-Hungarian War Minister, Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, about the necessity of a "speedy attack" on Serbia. Ritter claimed the importance that Fischer attached to the report of the German Army's Quartermaster that the Army was "ready" for war in 1914 was simply mistaken since the Quartermaster always reported every year that the Army was "ready" for war.
Likewise, in reference to the order by Bethmann Hollweg to Siegfried von Roedern, the State Secretary for Alsace-Lorraine, to end Francophobic remarks in the German-language press in Alsace, Ritter claimed it was proof of Germany's desire not to have a wider war in 1914; Ritter accordingly claimed also that Fischer's contrary interpretation of Bethmann Hollweg's order was not supported by the facts.
Contrary to Fisher's interpretation, Ritter maintained that Bethmann Hollweg's warnings to Vienna were meant to stop a war and were not window dressing that was intended to distract historical attention from German responsibility for the war. Ritter claimed that Fisher's interpretation of Bethmann Hollweg's meeting with the British Ambassador, Sir Edward Goschen, was mistaken since in Ritter's opinion, if Bethmann Hollweg was serious about securing British neutrality, it made no sense to express the imperialistic war aims to Goschen that Fischer attributes to him.
Ritter strongly disagreed with Fischer's interpretation of the meeting of Moltke, Bethmann Hollweg and General Erich von Falkenhayn (the Prussian War Minister) on 30 July 1914. Rather than a conscious decision to wage an aggressive war, as Fischer argued, Ritter's claim was that news of Russia's mobilization led the German generals into persuading a reluctant Bethmann Hollweg to activate the Schlieffen Plan.
Ritter was strongly critical of what he regarded as Fischer's "biased" view of Moltke's reaction to the outbreak of the war and argued that Moltke's opposition to the sudden last-minute suggestion of Wilhelm II for the German attack on France to be cancelled was because of logistical concerns rather than a desire to provoke a world war. Finally, Ritter faults Fischer for his reliance on the memories of Austro-Hungarian leaders such as the Count István Tisza and Count Ottokar Czernin, who sought to shift all of the responsibility for the war onto Germany.
Ritter argued there were no lines of continuity between the Second and Third Reichs and considered the Sonderweg view of German history to be a myth. Ritter clearly denied Fischer's arguments that both world wars were "wars for hegemony" on Germany's part. In 1964, Ritter successfully lobbied the West German Foreign Ministry to cancel the travel funds that had been allocated for Fischer to visit the United States; in Ritter's opinion, giving Fischer a chance to express his "anti-German" views would be a "national tragedy" and so Fischer should not be allowed to have the government funds for his trip to America. Writing in 1962, Ritter stated he felt profound "sadness" over the prospect that Germans may not be as patriotic as a result of Fischer.
According to Richard J. Evans, the outcome of the Fischer Controversy and of Ritter's role in it "only succeeded in giving Fischer's massive, scholarly and extremely detailed book a national prominence it would probably not otherwise have achieved". Evans notes that after his death, Ritter was usually cast as the "villain of this affair, as Fischer's views, at least in their more moderate forms, gained widespread acceptance among a younger generation of historians".
A history book on Imperial Germany by Hans-Ulrich Wehler published in 1973 held that as a result of Fischer's theories, "two opposing schools of thought" formed. The first agreed with Fischer. The second, while admitting Fischer shows much political talk in high circles that sounds quite war-like, held that Fischer failed to find the actual political decisions and military actions that he claimed.
Professor Wolfgang Mommsen (1930-2004) was a German historian of Britain and Germany during the 19th/20th centuries. His 1990 work credits Fischer's work in part for opening up the discussion. Yet Mommsen characterizes Fischer's "central notion of Germany's will to power" circa 1911 to 1915, as being seriously flawed, as here Fischer "has allowed himself to be carried away". The nature of his methodology worked to obscure his perspective and, further, Fischer's conclusions displayed a neglect of the historical context. That is, Fischer blames Germany alone for a Social Darwinism that was then European-wide.
Niall Ferguson, a British historian, served as a professor at Oxford University, and currently at Harvard University. In his 1998 work on World War I entitled The Pity of War, Ferguson reviews Fischer's claims about German objectives in a European war.
"Yet there is a fundamental flaw in Fischer's reasoning which too many historians have let pass. It is the assumption that Germany's aims as stated after the war had begun were the same as German aims beforehand." Professor Ferguson then recites how a September 1914 program of German aims "is sometimes portrayed as if it were the first open statement of aims which had existed before the outbreak of war.... But the inescapable fact is that no evidence has ever been found by Fischer and his pupils that these objectives existed before Britain's entry into the war.... All that Fischer can produce are the pre-war pipedreams of a few Pan-Germans and businessmen, none of which had any official status, as well as the occasional bellicose utterances of the Kaiser...."
Ferguson also criticizes Fischer for seizing on the notion that rightist office holders in Germany used an aggressive foreign policy in order to gain domestic political advantage over the German left. Such misuse of foreign policy, Ferguson notes, "was hardly the invention of the German Right," in effect repeating the charge made by Mommsen (see above) that Fischer neglected the historical context. In fact, rightist office holders in Germany were articulate and aware that a European war could lead to the ascendancy of the left, whether the war was won or lost.
In 1959, Ritter was elected an honorary member of the American Historical Association in recognition of what the Association described as Ritter's struggle with totalitarianism. Ritter was the fifth German historian to be so honored by the AHA, one of the last historians of the traditional German Idealist school, considered history as an art. He concerned himself with an imaginative identification with his subjects, focused on the great men of the times studied, and was primarily concerned with political and military events.