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

The twentieth century was possibly the most dramatic century human history has known, and this year marks the centenary of the event that more than any other set the stage for all that was to follow it: the First World War. In this captivating book Christopher Clark explores how the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand,  by a Serbian youth could provoke the European powers into a bloody conflict that ended in 20 million lives lost and destabilised the continent of Europe for decades to come.

It is easy to fall into simplistic moralising when it comes to passing judgement on the actors of history. What ultimately caused the war? Was it Serbian intransigence or Austro-Hungarian short sightedness about the broader implications of its actions in the Balkans? Was it Russia’s escalation of the crisis by mobilising against Germany, or German bellicosity in backing Austria and moving against neutral Belgium? Was it France’s fervent desire to see Germany humbled, or the obscurantism of British foreign policy that seemed to give both sides of the fermenting conflict confidence that Britain would support them (in France’s case) or remain neutral (in Germany’s case)?

Clark warns against the oversimplification of blaming any one party or factor and the opposite mistake of seeing the war as the inevitable result of the geopolitical alignments of the day. Instead, he shows that the war was the result both of the built-in tensions of the European political situation, and also caused by the decisions made by political and military leaders at crucial moments leading up to the war.

The first part of the book narrates the troubled history of Serbia preceding the crisis in a style that is as captivating as a good novel. Clark then considers the complex relations between the Powers and the alliance systems that effectively divided Europe into two great opposing blocs. Finally, the book turns to those pivotal days of July and August 1914 in which the Powers played an extraordinarily high staked game of poker, resulting in the war.

None of the main actors wanted war. All believed themselves to be fighting a defensive war and yet somehow the war eventuated nonetheless. That is the tragedy of the Great War, and it’s a tragedy that we can learn from today. The Great Powers all had an interest in maintaining peace, but their interests diverged at key points and they proved incapable of transcending their political culture to resolve those tensions at the critical moment.

While the means of waging war changed significantly after World War II, the complex geopolitical reality of our post-Cold War world, with terrorism and wars against terror, rising great powers, globalisation and instability in key regions of the world, there is much that we also have in common with the Europe of 1914. Russia’s invasion of Crimea is just one of many instances that shows that even in an age of nuclear weapons, conventional armies and the diplomacy they support, have real significance.

That is not to say that we are at risk of another global war, but Clark is right to argue that ‘the men of 1914 are our contemporaries.’ What struck me was how ordinary they were. None of the main players – with the possible exception of the French President, Poincaré – came across as masterly statesmen like an Otto von Bismarck or a Frederick the Great. They were not Napoleons or even (in a more positive sense) like the statesman Churchill would prove himself to be in the next war. Least of all the bumbling Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Monarchs, ministers, advisers; Capable leaders and administrators, but not the sort of people who determine to write the pages of history as Napoleon did early in the nineteenth century and Bismarck did in uniting Germany in 1871 after crushing France. And it is precisely because of their normality that we can learn from them today. Hitlers and Napoleons are the exception to the norm, but the men of 1914 were not unlike the (often mediocre) political leaders of our own day.

Clark has managed to combine scholarship with readability. As we observe the centenary of the start of World War I this year, it would be well worth understanding why this seminal disaster of the twentieth century occurred, and for that you could hardly start with a better book than this one.

Samuel Ellemor

The author Samuel Ellemor

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