Symbolic and cultural approaches to the origins of World War I

From International Relations

This journal has published a Forum on understanding the origins of WWI.   World War I gave rise to the discipline of International Relations (IR). Rethinking the origins of that conflict accordingly encourages – perhaps requires us – to rethink the origins and development of the discipline. This War is considered overdetermined by many historians and IR scholars. Many historians took too seriously the memoranda and memoirs of leaders who had strong political and psychological interests in denying their agency, and thus their responsibility for it. Recent historical research has come to see the war as more contingent than inevitable. Such a rethinking creates a serious challenge for those many IR theories, which are either based on World War I or purport to explain it. The Forum group is challenging in different ways the more ‘structuralist’/ ‘materialist’ approaches to the origins of the war – emphasising symbolic and cultural factors.


This forum offers a symbolic and cultural approach for understanding the outbreak of World War I that stresses the interactional and symbolic-cultural aspects of German decision makers’ brinkmanship during the July crisis of 1914. Contrary to excessive structuralist accounts, the contributions focus on what actors ‘do’ and ‘feel’ during a crisis. In the German–Austrian case, symbolic interactions during the July crisis were strongly marked by challenges to the ‘face’ of decision makers. The second theme of the Forum is to question the purely ‘material’ nature of those structures traditionally referred to as permissive for World War I. Structures, in fact, are symbolic, too. Like theories on status discrepancy, the Forum stresses the impact of ‘responsibility gaps’. However, the contributors also point to the emotional aspects and internal legitimacy problems caused precisely by those status lags.

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Article details
Forum: Richard N Lebow and
Thomas Lindemann
Symbolic and cultural approaches to the origins of World War I: Introduction International Relations June 2014 28: 239-244, doi:10.1177/0047117814533221a



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