With the approach of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, attention focuses on how the “Proud Tower” of early 20th-century European civilisation came to an end. Great questions are posed: was early 20th-century Europe an essentially stable society or one riven by dissension and dissatisfaction; was the war an accident with the guns, already primed, going off by themselves as politicians and monarchs ceded control to generals, who themselves found their actions dictated by war plans and mobilisation timetables; were one or more nations particularly culpable in willing a war that was to prove so destructive; was there an appetite for war among the populations of the European states or was the supposed enthusiasm for war a myth; or did, as the title of Christopher Clark’s book suggests, the great powers of Europe sleepwalk into catastrophe? The crisis of 1914 is a complex subject and it is a virtue of this comprehensive study that no attempt is made to provide a simple answer.
The traditional approach to the origins of the war has been to distinguish between long-term or structural reasons for the conflict, primarily the ambitions and fears of the great powers and the dangers of opposing alliances, and the immediate or contingent causes, the events of June-August 1914. Thus the tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and the crisis caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand can be seen as simply the spark that set off a small Balkan powder keg, which in turn ignited a major war. Clark changes the balance between the structural framework of great power dissension and the disputes on Europe’s fault line, the Balkans, by placing the latter centre stage. He maintains the scenario by which international relations and the rivalry of the great powers formed the context - allowing the Austro-Hungarian reaction to the assassination to set off a chain reaction that led to a catastrophic conflict - but integrates the context and the particular crisis by demonstrating the centrality and sensitivity of the Balkans to European politics.
Pre-1914 Europe was, Clark argues, increasingly unstable. He describes the shift from the late 1880s, when there was a “multi-polar” system in which the great powers’ interests and rivalries were in precarious balance but there was a degree of fluidity, to what had become, by 1907, a bipolar Europe divided between two alliances. His argument follows the consensus of diplomatic historians in seeing Germany’s decision in 1890 not to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia as a crucial step in this process as it paved the way for the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894. In 1914, the Franco-Russian Alliance, to which Britain had become loosely committed, faced the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary to which Italy, an unreliable partner, was tenuously attached. The two opposing alliances were not ordained to go to war with each other, although the military conventions attached to both added a febrile dimension, and previous crises to that of the summer of 1914 had been resolved. What gave Sarajevo the seismic implications that led to a European conflict was the way in which, Clark observes, “the loose network of the continental alliances became interlocked with conflicts unfolding on the Balkan peninsula”.
The Eastern Question - the long-drawn-out decline of the Ottoman Empire and its failure to maintain its grip on its Balkan territories - had, from the beginning of the 19th century, created a power vacuum that provided opportunities for Tsarist Russia and dangers for the Austrian Empire, while the emergent Balkan states were divided, expansionist and unstable. The end of the pro-Austrian Obrenovic dynasty in Serbia, with the brutal assassination in June 1903 of King Alexandar and his consort, Queen Draga, changed the balance of power in the Balkans. Serbia, as Clark describes it, was a failed state: essentially a peasant economy without either an aristocracy or a middle class, it lacked the social or economic structure to support its governmental and parliamentary institutions. Incompetent, dictatorial and unsavoury as King Alexandar had been, the successor regimes lacked positive or responsible direction as the new monarch, King Petar, the army, militias, secret societies and political leaders struggled for control in an atmosphere in which none dared question extravagant pan-Serbian nationalist aims. The Serbs looked to Russia for support in their aim of a greater Serbia, an aim that could be realised only at the expense of Austria-Hungary. The road to Sarajevo was open and two Balkan Wars and the formal incorporation of Bosnia-Herzegovina into Austria-Hungary were to provide its milestones.
Which power, statesman or general was to blame for allowing or willing a Balkan assassination to lead to general European war? Clark eschews the blame game and, with a snipe at David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer (2004), refuses to follow an Agatha Christie trope and discover a “smoking gun”. He also braves Paul Kennedy’s charge, in The Rise of Anglo-German Antagonism 1860-1914 (1980), that “to dodge the search for a culprit by blaming all or none of the belligerent states” is “flaccid”. The consensus since the 1960s has been to see Germany as the culprit. While Clark accepts the dominance of a diluted version of the thesis in which the German Empire deliberately chose war as a means of escaping isolation and making a bid for world power, he comments that “the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia”. His Balkan emphasis and sympathy for Austria-Hungary’s predicament do move the debate towards Russia’s policies and actions, which Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011) has highlighted, but for Clark there are no guilty parties. The search for blame, he argues, leads to an assumption that there were culpable decision-makers who had coherent intentions while, in fact, the problem was the lack of men with the power or capability to make decisions.
Far from the statesmen and generals of any country moving deliberately towards a great conflict, Europe sleepwalked towards it. Among the states that went to war, there was no one really in charge. Policy and decision-making were fractured as “competing voices” fought and conspired in support of different policies. The military competed with civilian governments, who were themselves divided, while there were factions within foreign offices, and ambassadors often pursued their own agendas. The democracies had no more of a coherent direction than the autocratic states, with French governments notoriously unstable. Meanwhile, if Britain was guided towards its decision to go to the aid of France and Russia, the guidance came from Sir Edward Grey and a group of Foreign Office officials, and the momentum from an Anglo-French military understanding kept secret from most members of the Cabinet, rather than from the decided policy of government. Historians have too often assumed a purposefulness and sense of direction that did not exist.
This is a brilliant contribution to the study of a subject that, the author argues, is relevant to the modern world and its tensions. Clark concentrates on how, rather than why, the war happened and his conclusion that the protagonists of 1914 were “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world” is more worrying than any scenario of men deliberately planning war.
Australian-born historian and “very poor bassoonist” Christopher Clark studied in Sydney and Berlin before undertaking a PhD at the University of Cambridge, where he is now professor of modern European history.
“I live with my wife Nina and our son Alexander in Cambridge; our older son Josef has just begun studying English literature at King’s College London. Cambridge is extremely pretty (at least in the middle, where the colleges and old town are) and serene enough to deprive its academic inhabitants of any reason for not concentrating on teaching, research and writing,” he observes.
Clark recalls being “fascinated at the age of 10 by R.J. Unstead’s Looking at History: The Middle Ages. I liked the restrained clarity of the text (‘Pilgrims usually walked on their long journeys’) and the use of contemporary illustrations. The effect was one of distance, a sense that we must take seriously the differences between then and now. They were no cutesy exercises of the kind that came along in later textbooks (‘Can you draw a coat of arms?’; ‘How many pilgrims are sitting around the table?’). I hated all that stuff.
”The Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I read repeatedly from 12 onwards) cemented my determination to become a medievalist. It used to be embarrassing to admit, but things are different now, thanks to [film director] Peter Jackson. Only in my twenties did I move to modernity. It was Berlin that seduced me.” That city, Clark adds, is not “obviously attractive or friendly, but it is full of energy, intense atmospheres and pockets of unexpected people”.
In writing for general readers, he says, the challenge is to find “a format that rewards the reader as well as informing her”; when addressing fellow scholars, “you wear your learning less lightly, and the scholarly apparatus is mounted on the outside of the building, like the service ducts on the Centre Pompidou”.
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
By Christopher Clark
Allen Lane, 736pp, £30.00
Published September 2012