Professor Holger Afflerbach’s new book launched in style at the National Army Museum

On a Knife Edge (Cambridge University Press, 2022) is a translation of Auf Messers Schneide (C.H.Beck, 2018).

In a special event, Professor Afflerbach discussed the book with the National Army Museum’s Research Director, Dr Glyn Prysor. The conversation ranged from Germany’s aims and approaches, the tensions in Germany between different wartime factions, and makes the case that Germany was not as committed to all-out conquest as has been previously thought. We have asked Holger a few questions of our own about his new book.

This book is a translation of your book Auf Messers Schneide. How did the process of translation affect the book?

The book is very specific in its claims and therefore the translation process was difficult. The translators, Anne Buckley and Caroline Saunders, took much time and effort, and so did I. In places, it was truly difficult to find a proper translation. For example, Philipp Scheidemann's quote: „Eine Internationale der Kriegsverlaengerer” can be translate as ‘An international movement to prolong the war’. This translates only a part of the German meaning, but in places you have reluctantly to accept that translations must accept limits. The first reviews of the English versions had very friendly words for good style and high readability, therefore the hard work paid off, I hope.

Your research uses new sources of evidence such as diaries, letters, and memoirs. What is the most unexpected or surprising thing you discovered during your archival research?

The most insightful source was, in my eyes, a huge collection of war letters written by General v. Lyncker, general adjutant of Wilhelm II. He wrote more than 1000 letters to his wife and offered very open and critical views on the emperor, the chances of the war on a day-by-day basis. There is also a very interesting personal conflict. Lyncker was head of the military cabinet and therefore in one of the most influential positions; he supported the war effort despite the fact that he was all too aware that the war destroyed his life and personal happiness irredeemably. He was a loving family man and lost two sons in the conflict. He was, in his own words, after the death of his second son "broken forever". This is a very interesting and enigmatic human dimension: to understand what kept people going and functioning in this conflict, through enormous and destructive adversities, and how did they justify for themselves their personal sacrifices?

The subtitle of your book is ‘How Germany lost the First World War’. How does studying this topic from the viewpoint of German defeat rather than Allied victory change our perspectives?

The big question here is: How to get out of a completely messed-up political and military situation, after the universal collapse of all war plans and four years of stalemate on the battlefield? How to end a war which cost more than 9000 lives - every single day? How to find a way out if the enemy does not want to compromise but to win? This was the situation German society found itself in, and in the second half this war was for most Germans a struggle to an end on acceptable terms; the minimum here was a status quo ante peace. This was not on offer, and the Allied powers regarded imperial Germany as responsible for the war and insisted therefore on a clear decision: victory. How to get peace? The question here is the role of compromise. How to achieve it, in such a bitter struggle? Is there value to fight until victory, or is it the better option to settle the conflict without a clear decision, to save millions of lives, even if you think the enemy has done great wrongs and should not walk out unpunished? This is a question, not an answer, and we may observe a similar question now with Russia and Ukraine.

If you could go back in time, what episode from the history you research would you most like to have observed? 

If I could intervene to say “Don't do it!”, I have plenty of ideas where I would offer them the wisdom of hindsight. This book is also about missed opportunities to find a better end to the war, to save lives, to prevent states from falling into ruin, chaos and violence.

People stood in front of an illuminated wall of old images of soldiers.

Holger Afflerbach sitting at a table signing his book.

Photos by Iyiola Solanke.