The Sleepwalkers

Six down, 24,994 to go.

That, way back in 1991, was the number of articles and books on the origins of World War One. As Christopher Clark says, there is no way even an omnilingual historian can read all the secondary works on the subject.

The primary sources for the war’s origin are very large and not flawless. There are bad memories, destroyed records, post-hoc lies and omissions and rationalizations to contend with. Official records are not always complete. For instance, the Russian records were used as propaganda tools by the Bolsheviks to attack the Czarist regime and capitalist governments or French records edited to justify the Treaty of Versailles.

Clark has written a book intended for serious students of the war. He’s not going to tell you what the German “blank check” said. He assumes you know. Similar, with the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, he covers the main points without repeating it verbatim. He assumes you know the Franz Fischer theory of German war guilt and argues Fischer’s ideas may have as much to do with post-World War II German guilt over the Nazi years as real history.

Review: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark, 2012.Sleepwalkers

And the whole notion of guilt, which countries get the blame for 15 million war dead, is one he firmly rejects at the book’s conclusion.

The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime.

The arguments about the most complex social disaster in history cannot be summarized in a review, but here are the arguments that Clark brings that seem to run counter to the World War One origin literature I’ve read.

Russia was more culpable for the war than the other powers.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was regarded by France and Russia as being on its last legs and not worthy of the same respect for its national interests that other nations were granted. For Russia, it was a “stalking horse” for German interests.

The little remembered Italo-Turkish War of 1911 broke a long standing European taboo against carving up the Ottoman Empire, and Russia began to entertain the notion that it could at last gain control of the Bosphorus Strait. Its support of Serbia was part of that plan.

The Russian Empire was perceived by Germany and France and Britain as stronger than it was, a growing force for the future. In the months before the war, it was the desire to avoid Russia as an enemy as much as fear of Germany that wedded England, France, and Russia together as allies.

World War One was not some inevitable geopolitical conflagration that could have been ignited by anyone. Serbia was a violent political culture that was noticeably duplicitous in its mixture of allegedly private covert assassination, subversion, and terrorism and official Serbian policy. The ultimatum the Austro-Hungarian Empire gave Serbia was not, given its actions, unreasonable nor intended to be a poison pill no government could accept, a mere pretext for Austrian aggression. Likewise, Serbia’s seemingly near total capitulation was not really what it seemed.

The book confirmed my suspicion that the statements of British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey were a major factor. His pursuit of an English-French entente not officially sanctioned by his government, his vague statements, and inattention emboldened French belligerence – especially since French war plans counted on British troops from the beginning.

Clark’s book is concerned with the decision making processes, assumptions, and motives of his “sleepwalkers”. Thus, he eschews a lot of dramatic scenes. Still there are a few.

The book opens with the assassination of Serbian King Alexandar and Queen Draga in 1903 – and the conspiracy that killed them was started by the same man, Dragutin Dimitrijević aka Apis, who ran the operation that killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Clark also presents a fairly detailed picture of the assassination plot and that fateful day in Sarajevo. The dithering of the Czar, as to whether to order a full or partial mobilization, was well done too.

Clark, like Paul Ham’s 1914: The Year the World Ended, does not point to any impersonal historical faces as starting the war. Both make arguments about individuals and political institutions. However, Clark does briefly acknowledge that a peculiarly ‘brittle” notion of masculinity at the time may have made his players less liable to compromise and resolved to prove they could be firm when necessary.

While he reaches further back in time than Ham, to the Serbian monarchy of 1803 to be exact, Clark doesn’t cover the Fashoda and Agadir crises in as much detail. While Hew Strachan’s The First World War, Volume 1: To Arms, covers domestic politics – especially how the socialist movements of France, England, and Germany responded to the possibility of war, Clark touches little on that.

Clark does answer some long contentions about the war’s origins. Germany’s naval arms race with Britain was already lost by the beginning of the war, and both countries knew it. The infamous German “war council” of December 1912 was just a lot of talk that came to nothing – as one of its participants predicted would happen that very night. The British government had, on occasion, expressed that it would allow a limited violation of Belgium neutrality to occur without war.

Clark also points out that all the “bellicose” statements other historians like to quote must be viewed in context. What may seem, on the face of it, as saber rattling can also be seen as shaking the alms cup for increased military budgets or assuring allies. And, speaking of allies, Clark reminds us that many of these alliances had tensions in them. Britain may have allied with Russia against Germany, but Russia was a competitor over China and Persia. It is that mixed nature of these alliances that caused them to shift. War, in a few more months, may not have broken out even if another Austro-Hungarian nobleman would have been killed by a Serb.

If there was not a general desire for war amongst the Continental powers of Europe, there was a feeling it was inevitable. Both the Austro-Hungarians and Russians believed this. But the Austrians accepted war’s necessity if Russian mobilized. Russia used the idea to justify pre-emptive strikes against Germany who, of course, was not, on the face of it, involved in the dispute between Serbia and Austria.

Clark writes in a clear style and probably makes this diplomatic history about as readable as you can given its scope and length. The maps are serviceable though the location of a few more cities would have been nice. There are photos of most of the principle actors, and the index is nicely detailed.


World War One page.

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