No wonder Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers has been a best-seller. It re-tells the origins of the Great War as a story for our time.
Back in the Cold War sixties A.J.P. Taylor’s book on the War struck a chord with readers. He presented a picture of an arms race slipping out of control, leading to unintended catastrophe. You didn’t have to be a unilateralist like Taylor to see a warning for a world recently terrified by the Cuban missiles crisis.
Other accounts of the War’s origins have also usually concentrated on the Great Powers and their interactions, since these are what allowed a Balkan crisis to escalate into global conflict.
Clark scores by beginning with a detailed analysis of the Balkan beginnings, in which he finds a story that we can all recognise today. An impressionable teenage loner is a misfit in the country where he was born. He is groomed by extremists from another country, a rogue state, until he is recruited to perform an act of terrorism (intending suicide, but that goes wrong). The rogue state officially deplores terrorism, but its political class is deeply implicated in conspiracies and refuses to cooperate with the (declining and defensive) larger power where the terrorist act occurred. The political ramifications of this refusal disturb an unstable international system where each country is out for its own ends, each wants to exploit the crisis for selfish reasons, and none fully trusts the others. Within every country, too, there are divisions, resentments and incompetences that allow messages to become mixed. War comes from statesmen misinterpreting motives, failing to comprehend others, and acting with more self-righteousness than intelligence.
It is not too difficult to imagine modern equivalents of the ideological suicide bomber Gavrilo Princip of course, and rogue states are common enough, too. Clark reminds us that NATO regarded Serbia as one such back in 1999, and saw fit to take action against the country, as Austro-Hungary had done eighty-odd years before.
Christopher Clark’s close initial focus on Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs prevents the assassination of Franz Ferdinand seeming just a bit of Ruritanian nonsense (which was rather how it came across in that recent enjoyable TV series 37 Days, for instance). By showing that there were genuine passions and grievances at work, and by showing how Serbia’s situation just about forced the country’s elite into duplicity, acting against Austro-Hungary’s dominance in secretive ways, when they dared not do so officially, his account explains how the post-assassination impasse became intractable. The problem thus raised produced, therefore, the perfect opportunity for the start of a large-scale European war, and in 562 pages of small print (annoyingly small for elderly eyes, I might point out to the production designers at Penguin) he follows the repercussions, confusions and errors of the month between the assassination and the War..
In his conclusion Clark states that the story is not an Agatha Christie mystery; he can not reveal one culprit to blame, holding a smoking guns. Most of the actors in the story bear some degree of guilt. They blunder; they make wrong choices; they fail to predict the consequences of their actions. Without meaning to, each of them, by pursuing his own interest or obsession, allows the continent to sleepwalk to Armageddon.
This is well-argued, with a terrific command of the detail of very many national archives, yet at the end I was not wholly convinced. A modern parallel that Clark brings in rather unexpectedly is the Eurozone financial crisis of 2011-12, which he credibly describes as ‘a present-day event of baffling complexity’.
It was notable that the actors in the Eurozone crisis, like those of 1914, were aware that there was a possible outcome that would be generally catastrophic (the fall of the euro). All the key protagonists hoped that this would not happen, but in addition to this shared interest they also had special – and conflicting – interests of their own. Given the inter-relationships across the system, the consequences of any one action were hard to calculate in advance, because of the opacity of decision-making processes. And all the while, political actors in the Eurozone exploited the possibility of the general catastrophe as leverage in securing their own specific advantages.
In other words, there was disagreement and brinkmanship which might have led to a total collapse of the euro, which was only just averted. But such crises – though happily less serious ones usually – are common enough in international politics? And isn’t the important thing about the events of 2011-12 the fact that they did not lead to the total collapse of the euro, and that none of the nations sharing the single currency abandoned it. The single currency survived, just a little shakier for the experience. In other words, the usual diplomatic tools of discussion, compromise, fudge and negotiation actually worked. As they had done so often in the Balkans, where innumerable crises had erupted during the half-century before 1914. In each of these the Great Powers had, just as in 1914, worked to manipulate the situation to their advantage, but the crisis had not been allowed to escalate into pan-European war. So the question is – why not this time?
Most other modern historians (especially the eminent ones that Max Hastings chatted to in his documentary the other week) finger Germany and Austro-Hungary as the culprits. Christopher Clark’s book casts considerable doubt over the more extreme form of the Fischer thesis. Fritz Fischer, a German historian, claimed in the 1960s that Germany was responsible for the outbreak of the war. Fischer argued that that the German government under the Kaiser’s direction had assumed for several years that a war was inevitable, and so prepared for war, and decided to seize the first suitable opportunity to start it. He claims that the German government and general staff deliberately precipitated an escalation of the Austro-Serb crisis in order to launch what they considered a preventive strike against Russia and France. Clark’s detailed analysis shows that German policy was far less uniform and co-ordinated than Fischer suggests. (Perhaps the reason why the book, selling well everywhere, has become a mega-best-seller in Germany).
Clark admits the ‘belligerence and imperial paranoia of the German and Austrian policy-makers’, but claims that ‘the Germans were not the only imperialists, and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia’. Serbia’s intransigence and Russia’s precipitate mobilisation certainly did much to make war likelier. But it was the unstable Kaiser who at least twice deliberately took large risks with unpredictable consequences – in the issuing of his ‘blank cheque’ to the Austrians to invade Serbia, and in betting on a quick victory against France by attacking through Belgium, which was pretty well certain to enlarge the war’s scope dangerously by bringing in the British. A milder form of the Fischer thesis is still valid, I think – not that the German military elite deliberately plotted war from the outset, but that they gambled on it at key moments. So if this was war occurring by accident, it was an accident that had a great deal to do with the twitchy trigger-fingers of Kaiser Wilhelm and his political and military advisers.
So no, the book didn’t finally convince me of its over-arching thesis, but it’s still a superbly researched account of the diplomatic manoeuvres and failures in the month before the outbreak of war.
By the way, you can see a video of Gary Sheffield’s lecture ‘Not Sleepwalking’, presenting a very different view of the war’s origins, here.