A Summer in Italy, 1929 (Part 7)

War Guilt and the Peace Conference

“Eine Studie zur Kriegsschuldfrage von Robert C. Binkley und Dr. August C. Mahr an der Leeland Stanford Universität in Kalifornien”, Frankfurter Zeitung, 1926-02-28.

The visit to Barnes at which the bad wine was served involved Binkley in one of the bitterest feuds in American academia, concerning the historical question of Germany’s war guilt. This dispute involved three major personalities: Harry Elmer Barnes, Sidney Bradshaw Fay, and Bernadotte Schmitt, representing in that order the spectrum of historical opinion from Germany’s innocence to Germany’s absolute guilt. Binkley had been hired to replace Fay, who had been called to Harvard. Now the other star of the Smith College history department, Barnes, was taking a year off to try his hand at writing editorials for the Scripps-Howard newspapers. Binkley wondered, “Will I then have to take the place of Fay and Barnes rolled into one? That seems to be what they expect.”1 Binkley’s interactions with each of them and his own research agenda lead to an understanding of the sources of his interest in new technologies for documentary reproduction, for which he is best known today.

Fay had just published The Origins of the World War. This was the culmination of his work since the early ‘20s which revised the war-time narrative of German aggression and placed responsibility instead on the pre-war international system. Barnes was a more extreme revisionist than Fay, a polemicist for Germany’s innocence. Binkley was a moderate revisionist like Fay (which no doubt accounts for his appointment), but he was not so entangled in the war-guilt question: the focus of his research was the Peace Conference, not the war. (This was a generational division: Binkley’s generation of progressives looked back on Wilsonian idealism the way boomers look back on the ’60s today, with a “what went wrong?” nostalgia.) He was also friendly with Barnes’ nemesis Schmitt, the leader of the anti-German school among American historians. The vehemence of the surviving war-time feelings in America against the Hun meant that Fay’s moderate position actually placed him closer to Barnes than Schmitt on the contemporary spectrum (both were translated into German and patronized by the Weimar government),2 but Barnes’ extremism meant that to be Fay and Barnes in one would be very difficult.

Although the visit turned out to be friendly (“Barnes is really good fun”),3 Binkley had reason to be apprehensive of Barnes’ reception. The two had had an exchange of letters in the New Republic the previous January, after Binkley wrote a review essay dealing with Fay’s book and Pierre Renouvin’s Les Origines immédiates de la guerre.4 Binkley contrasted the two authors, to Fay’s advantage: where Renouvin was “[r]elentless as a Calvinist God” in assigning moral responsibility, Fay stayed within the bounds of historical methodology and did not make moral judgements.

[Fay’s] conclusions on the question [of war-guilt] are mostly negative; the Versailles verdict is quashed, but there is no new assessment of blame. This is a fact which escapes the attention of most of his reviewers. The lack of a new verdict is not the result of timidity but a consequence of the essential consistency of the work. Having made no ethical assumption, the writer can reach no ethical conclusions.

But the world will continue to clamor for an answer to this question – an answer which history cannot give.

Thus he dismisses the whole project of determining war-guilt, which had monopolized the attention of academic historians for a decade. (It’s interesting, by the way, that he bases his discussion on tort law, which has several principles for allocating shared responsibilities: he used the same foundation for his proposed solution to Prohibition in Responsible Drinking the following year.) Barnes managed to read the article as equating Renouvin and Fay as partisans for the two sides of the debate, and wrote a letter pointing to his own work contrasting Renouvin and Schmitt on the one side and Fay on the other.5 Binkley responded with a correction to Barnes’ contention that he had put Renouvin and Fay on the same level, and articulating his difference with Barnes:

Professor Barnes classifies writers by comparing the answers they give to the question, “Who started the War?” Equally valid is a distinction based on the way the question is propounded rather than upon the way it is answered, upon the method used in investigating rather than the conclusion reached in the investigation. In terms of the latter distinction, which it was the purpose of my article to propound, von Wegerer himself, editor of Kriegsschuldfrage and world spokesman of revisionism, stands in the same camp with Renouvin, and in the camp opposed to Fay.

Fay’s camp includes the responsible historians; Renouvin’s includes the partisans. There’s no question where Binkley would have placed Barnes. In the short-lived diary he was keeping at the time he attributed Schmitt’s invitation to review recent Peace Conference memoirs to this exchange with Barnes:

Schmitt of the Journal of Modern European History asked me to review House Vol. IV and Churchill the Aftermath along with the Miller Papers. Then he suggested Novak’s book on Versailles. To all this I accede with extreme pleasure, not unmixed with speculation as to whether it was not my sly take-off on Barnes in my New Republic article that made Schmitt so friendly.6

Binkley therefore arrived at Barnes’ house with a hidden connection to the Schmitt camp, which presumably Barnes would not know about until the review appeared in the Journal of Modern History in December. However Barnes and Schmitt felt about it, Fay must have been impressed with Binkley’s position, or Binkley would not have been hired as his replacement. Still, this was a perilous game for a young academic. An historian’s alignment in the Barnes-Schmitt rivalry could have consequences for one’s career, as Binkley learned in his visit to Barnes at Smith College:

They were talking about M. Cochran, whom Barnes had accused of agreeing with Schmitt on war-guilt. Cochran sent him a seventeen page letter explaining why he differed and wherein he differed from Schmitt. So Cochran was brought into the fold and received a nice fat contract for a text on Europe since 1815, from Knopf.7

The reference is to Michael H. Cochran, who vindicated Barnes’ revised opinion by publishing Germany Not Guilty in 1914 two years later: a savage attack on Schmitt’s The Coming of the War, with a foreword by Barnes. Like Fay and Barnes, Cochran was courted by the German government as a result.8 Binkley maintained his impartial position. When he reviewed Cochran for the Journal of Modern History (edited by Schmitt; are you keeping score?), he began: “The war-guilt question has not been fought out to the point where one standard formulated conclusion commands the field; rather, it has been spun out to the point beyond which the argument loses itself in words.” He defended Schmitt against Cochran’s charges of mistranslation of German sources, and expressed frustration at the nitpicking: “Is it a triumph or a defeat that historians, who once weighed war responsibility on a hay scale, should now be weighing it in an apothecary’s balance?”9 This is how Barnes characterized him during the visit:

I asked Barnes where he placed me – pigeonholed me, I said. He stated about what my position is – philosophical and above the battle.10

This shows the sort of academic politics which Binkley would have to navigate now that he was no longer a “file clerk in an insurance company”. It is easy to see why he felt that a concentration on Peace Conference history was a more promising career direction than banging the drum for one side or the other of the sterile war-guilt question. Binkley had helped break the ground for Peace Conference historiography with his article on Article 231 in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1926, in which he attempted to render the war-guilt question moot (in much the same way as he did in the New Republic essay) by arguing that the Treaty, properly understood, had not declared Germany morally responsible for the war, but only legally liable for damages.11 In 1929, though, the Peace Conference was still relatively untouched territory for historians, still dominated by memoirists and journalists. Binkley’s position above the fray on the war-guilt question, free from enmity toward either party, gave him room to manoeuvre, which he attempted to exploit to place himself in the vanguard of Peace Conference studies. That spring he had written to Ray Stannard Baker, then at work on his multivolume biography of Woodrow Wilson:

You and Seymour and perhaps Miller and a few of the others of us who are opening up the problem of the peace conference might do well to keep in touch with each other, and to try to bring it about that the historiographical development of the problem of the Peace Conference is not hampered by the injection of false and misleading issues, as has been the case with the Kriegsschuldfrage.12

The men he mentions, Baker, Charles Seymour (head of the library at Yale), and David Hunter Miller, were all very much senior to himself, and were members of the American team in Paris in 1919. To place himself among them as an equal was to stake a claim to a higher position than he had yet earned in academia. The review article “Ten Years of Peace Conference History” which he had mailed to Schmitt from Rome in August, and which would appear in the Journal of Modern History in December, was strong enough to establish him as an independent and fresh voice in this new field; whereof more in the next installment of this series.


The new phase in Peace Conference history was made possible by developments in the state of its documentation in 1929. Before the Italian trip, Binkley had started some wheels in motion towards a documentary history of the Peace Conference (processes which I wasn’t aware of when I wrote the first installment of this blog series). The problem for Peace Conference historians before 1929 was the lack of access to primary documents on the negotiations and framing of the treaties. Very few documents had been published by the governments of the nations involved, and there was no independent archive with a complete collection. The process of negotiating the treaty was known only from memoirs: the minutes of meetings, documents introduced, and successive drafts of parts of the treaty were all inaccessible. The most promising collections were in the hands of the individuals who made up the negotiating teams, especially the American group – including the Wilson papers in Baker’s custody, Col. House’s papers held by Seymour at Yale, and Miller’s extensive personal collection. These collections were held close, and where they had passed into institutional hands (the Hoover War Library had a good collection) they were bound by tight restrictions on access. The seriousness of the problem appears in a letter Binkley wrote to Seymour:

I recall that while I was Reference Librarian of the Hoover War Library you were good enough to permit the photostating of a Peace Conference document then in your possession. The photostat copy was then placed under restriction in the Hoover War Library, and I believe the restriction may have extended to the point that possession thereof was not to be acknowledged by the Library.13

The great fear was that the collections would be ransacked by journalists looking for sensational revelations which would embarrass the collection owners and distract from the historical process. In 1933, when Binkley was engaged in microfilming the House papers and other collections, Seymour wrote on the subject of restrictions:

[A]ll that we are interested in is receiving a guarantee (and that merely for the sake of form) that the material will be used for scholarly purposes. We have to protect ourselves against the representatives of the press, who are always trying to get into the files to extract some personal dynamite which they can exploit in the newspapers.14

Doc. 1719: RCB describes his intended use of the Miller Diary to Pres. William A. Neilson, 1929-10-03.

Binkley’s plan for breaking this impasse was to organize exchanges of copies of document collections among collecting libraries. He calculated that any library that accepted copies from another collection would find it difficult to refuse to share its own holdings; and once the dam was cracked by a few exchanges, and publications started to appear, the private owners would have no reason to guard their hoards so tightly and the collections would open up one by one. In the spring of 1929 Binkley had engaged Parker Moon in this “grand strategy”. Moon had a unique collection of Central Territorial Commission documents, and he and Binkley planned to offer copies to libraries on condition of their loosening their restrictions on their own holdings.15 This campaign had some success. When Seymour accepted a copy of Moon’s papers for Yale the following year, Binkley wrote to Moon: “This of course commits him to the idea of a general pool in the same way that the Hoover War Library is committed by the acceptance of your papers to the same idea.”16

But everything had changed already in January, 1929, when David Hunter Miller released My Diary at the Conference of Paris: a 21-volume edition of all the Peace Conference documents in his possession. (One volume is online at the Internet Archive.) He had prepared the edition very professionally and had it privately printed in forty copies in 1924 (to judge by the date on one of the volume prefaces), but had not released it until now. Access was still restricted: it was to be distributed through the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which would allocate the forty copies to research libraries in the United States and abroad. Binkley first heard of it in January, and immediately wrote to the American Historical Review and to Schmitt at the Journal of Modern History and to Canby at the Saturday Review, offering to review it;17 Schmitt took him up, leading to “Ten Years of Peace Conference History”. Binkley mined Columbia’s copy of the Diary as quickly as he could in the months between then and his departure for Italy, starting the research on Conference procedure that he would eventually publish in his two-part article “New Light on Peace Conference History” (the title no doubt an homage to Fay’s articles on the Kautsky documents)18 in Political Science Quarterly (edited by Moon). He had also started lobbying for a copy of the Miller Diary for Smith College, and for the reservation of a few copies to circulate by interlibrary loan to serve scholars without access to the major collections.19 He wrote to Pres. Neilson of Smith College in early October:

For the present, it is our belief, one of the most profitable ways of utilizing the Miller Diary will be to use it as a lever to bring about further revelations. Our plan is to analyze existing published material carefully, call attention to the most important lacunae, and make definite efforts to fill them. For instance, a number of the minutes of the Council of Ten are missing from the Miller Diary. I am at present in correspondence with someone who has possession of these missing numbers, and do not doubt that permission to photostat them will be secured.20

That is how things stood as Binkley took up his research in Northampton in the autumn of 1929: a great new phase of Peace Conference historiography seemed to be opening, which might make his career (in the way the war-guilt question had made Fay’s) if he could only a) get access to the Miller Diary for immediate use, and b) build the campaign to force open the other collections of documents. The opening, significantly, would be in the form of an exchange of photographic reproductions using the current technology favored by libraries, the photostat. Here was the confluence of Binkley’s professional interest as an historian in documentary sources for research, and his innovative interest, rooted in his library experience, in the reproduction of documents using current technologies.

  1. Doc. 306: 1929-09-29.↩︎

  2. The Kriegsschuldreferat, a unit of the German Foreign Office devoted to promoting the pro-German view among foreign historians, bought 250 copies of Fay’s book for distribution to German consulates, and sponsored its translation into German and French; Barnes received research materials and had his trip to Germany in 1926 funded. See Holger H. Herwig, “Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany After the Great War,” International Security 12.2 (1987): 5–44, at p.26.↩︎

  3. Doc. 305: 1929-09-30.↩︎

  4. “War Responsibility and World Ethics,” The New Republic 57 (1929): 208–210.↩︎

  5. Barnes’ letter and Binkley’s response were published together: “Renouvin and War Guilt,” The New Republic 58.743 (1929): 47.↩︎

  6. Doc. 2559.↩︎

  7. Doc. 305: 1929-09-30.↩︎

  8. Ellen L. Evans and Joseph O. Baylen, “History as Propaganda: The German Foreign Ministry and the ‘Enlightenment’ of American Historians on the War-Guilt Question, 1930-1933,” in Forging the Collective Memory: Government and International Historians Through Two World Wars, ed. Keith Wilson (Providence; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1996) 151–177, at pp. 159ff.↩︎

  9. “Review: Germany Not Guilty in 1914 (Examining a Much Prized Book) by M. H. Cochran; L’article 231 du Traité de Versailles: sa genèse et sa signification by Camille Bloch; Pierre Renouvin.” The Journal of Modern History 4.2 (1932): 319–322.↩︎

  10. Ibid.↩︎

  11. Robert C. Binkley and August C. Mahr, “Eine Studie zur Kriegsschuldfrage,” Frankfurter Zeitung 28 Feb. 1926: p.2, cols. 2–4; the same arguments were published in the US in their “A New Interpretation of the ‘Responsibility’ Clause in the Versailles Treaty,” Current History 24.3 (1926): 398–400.↩︎

  12. Doc. 761: RCB to Ray Stannard Baker, 1929-05-15.↩︎

  13. Doc. 1926: RCB to Charles Seymour, 1929-02-20.↩︎

  14. Doc. 2526: Charles Seymour to RCB, 1933-02-03.↩︎

  15. Doc. 4164: RCB to Parker Moon, 1930-07-31. Binkley was at Stanford that summer and was reviving the discussions he had had with Moon in the spring of 1929.↩︎

  16. Doc. 4159: RCB to Parker Moon, 1930-10-15.↩︎

  17. Doc. 1225: RCB to American Historical Review, 1929-01-25; Doc. 1931: Bernadotte E. Schmitt to RCB, 1929-02-15; Doc. 1096: RCB to Henry S. Canby, 1929-02-27.↩︎

  18. “New Light on the Origins of the World War, I. Berlin and Vienna, to July 29.” The American Historical Review 25.4 (1920): 616–639; “New Light on the Origins of the World War, II. Berlin and Vienna, July 29 to 31.” The American Historical Review 26.1 (1920): 37–53; “New Light on the Origins of the War, III. Russia and the Other Powers.” The American Historical Review 26.2 (1921): 225–254.↩︎

  19. Doc. 1642: RCB to David Hunter Miller, 1929-11-07; “Diary of Mr. David Hunter Miller.” Carnegie Endowment For International Peace Year Book (1930): 61–63, lists the libraries that had received copies, and also specifies that three lending copies would be placed at the University of California, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University, as Binkley had suggested.↩︎

  20. Doc. 1719: RCB to to William Allan Neilson, 1929-10-03.↩︎