Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Sleepwalkers - How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark

This is a very complex book about finding the cause to the First World War. It is not possible to point to one specific cause to the start of the war. Christopher Clark makes a fantastic job in showing us the various events that lead to this  terrible war.
”The European continent was at peace on the morning of Sunday 28 June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek arrived at Sarajevo railway station. Thirty-seven days later, it was at war. The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded. The horrors of Europe’s twentieth century were born of this catastrophe; it was, as the American historian Fritz Stern put it, ’the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. The debate over why it happened began before the first shots were fired and has been running ever since. It has spawned an historical literature of unparalleled size, sophistication and moral intensity. For international relations theorists the events of 1914 remain the political crisis par excellence, intricate enough to accommodate any number of hypotheses.”
This is the opening paragraph of the Introduction to Christopher Clark’s eminent book on how Europe went to war in 1914, The Sleepwalkers. Tremendous praise has been given to the book, and it has been called a master piece. You can’t call it anything less. It is magnificent. Clark gives such detailed accounts on events, you wonder how he has been able to research it all.

Christopher Clark is an Australian historian, working at the University of Cambridge. In 2015 he was knighted for his services to Anglo-German relations. His earlier works include The History of Prussia, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 and Kaiser Wilhelm II.
”This book thus strives to understand the July Crisis of 1914 as a modern event, the most complex of modern times, perhaps of any time so far. It is concerned less with why the war happened than with how it came about. Questions of why and how are logically inseparable, but they lead us in different directions. The question of how invites us to look closely at the sequences of interactions that produced certain outcomes. By contrast, the question of why invites us to go in search of remote and categorical cuases: imperialism, nationalism, armaments, alliances, high finance, ideas of national honour, the mechanics of mobilization. They why approach brings a certain analytical clarity, but it also has a distorting effect, because it creates the illusion of a steadily building causal pressure; the factors pile up on top of each other pushing down on the events; political actors become mer executors of forces long established and beyond their control.
The British historian A.J.P Taylor and the American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that ’the war was a result of rigid planning, train schedules and treaty commitments. That is, it was the final stop in a chain of events that could not stop the train, once it started’. It is a very good description and after having read Clark’s book you can see how all decisions from the persons and countries involved, although aimed at not starting a war, on the contrary, lead directly to war.

In 1903 Alexander I of Serbia was killed by a secret network called The Black Hand. The same network that eleven years later organised the murder of the archduke of Austria-Hungary. Christopher Clark considers this to be the very start of the actions that finally led to the outbreak of the First World War. Germany was accused of escalating the conflict, but Clark means they were not alone in their paranoid imperialism. None of the great powers wanted war, but due to how events happened, they walked like sleepwalkers into the war, without anyone being able to explain how it happened.

Europe at the time was at a cross road and political changes were in the air. The imperialistic powers of Europe, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Osman empire, Russia, Great Britain, France and Italy were all conspiring to secure their power base. New times were waiting and people were opposing their governments. Clark considers that this totally, illogical conflict is based on how Europe looked before 1914. It was an unstable, hereditary monarchy, hit by ethnical conflicts and nationalistic fractions. The elite suffered from a lack of virility and needed somehow to show their masculinity. Could it be that the war started because the elite and generals felt threatened by the earlier marginalised proletariat?

There is not one separate government or individ which could be accused of having started the war. Clark notes in his conclusion that:
”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. Acknowledging this does not mean that we should minimize the belligerence and imperialist paranoia of the Austrian and German policy-makers that rightly absorbed the attention of Fritz Fischer and his historiographical allies. But the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia. The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture. But it was also multipolar and genuinely interactive - that is what makes it the most complex event of modern times and that is why the debate over the origins of the First World War continues, one century after Gavrilo Princip fired those two fatal shots on Franz Joseph Street”
So much have been written about the First World War. Last time someone counted, in 1991, there were more than 25 000 books an articles written about this disaster. If you are interested in the causes and want to have an overview of events, I can highly recommend this book. The book is almost 600 pages, written in rather small text (at least my pocket version), but it never gets dull. Wonderful prose, easy to read and told in a way that makes it hard to put the book down, once you get into it. It just confirms that the history of real life is much more exciting than any fictional story.

What amazed me, was how supposedly, responsible emperors, kings and politicians acted. Many times due to small reasons of self interest, making a decision without a proper back ground, without thinking of the greater picture, a lack of knowing what the others were doing, interpreting what they were doing, rightly or wrongly. It was like these people were sitting with the map of Europe and made their next move with a chess piece. Rather scaring.


  1. 1914 really was a huge turning point, wasn't it? No wonder so much has been written about it!

    This book sounds like a pretty thorough account, if one was o read only one book about it. Thanks for the review.

    1. It took be about two years to read it. Only because I usually read it while travelling. Once your into the book, it is so exciting it is difficult to put it down.

  2. I am very intrigued by WWI and this book sounds fascinating -- not a quick read but one that highlights so many complex elements leading to war. Your review is well written and so comprehensive, it gives me a good feel for it.