Jim Cullen: Review of Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" (Harper, 2013)

tags: Jim Cullen, World War I, book reviews, Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers



Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. His next book, A Brief History of the Modern Media,will be published next year by Wiley-Blackwell.

At one point early on in The Sleepwalkers, University of Cambridge Professor Christopher Clark cites a perception -- certainly one I had growing up -- of the First World War taking place on the far side of a historical divide. "It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe's 'last summer' as an Edwardian costume drama," he writes, attributing this view to Barbara Tuchman books. "The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the 'ornamentalism' of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world."

The Sleepwalkers -- particularly the first of the book's three parts -- bracingly, even joltingly, revises this view. We are introduced to a shadowy world of fanatical terrorist cells engaged in plots that range across state borders, funded and armed by secret organizations that are connected, with carefully constructed plausible deniability, to official government ministries. The fanatics in this case are Serbian nationalists rather than Islamic fundamentalists (though it should be said that Serbian nationalism has long had strong religious overtones), but their outlook and methodology seem startlingly modern. So too are the polarizing pressures and media attention their activities generate, especially in terms of a positive feedback loop in which even presumably moderate figures feel compelled to emphasize their militancy for fear of appearing weak. When, after a series of botched attempts, one youthful member of an organization known as the Black Hand finally succeeds in murdering the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it triggers a war in which many of the participants have only a peripheral relationship to its proximate cause. Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly don't seem so far away from the Balkans.

The second part of The Sleepwalkers is a traditional diplomatic history reminiscent of A.J.P. Taylor's classic 1954 study The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1914. Clark reconstructs the realignment of European great-power politics in the four decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War. The hallmark of his approach is pluralism: he demonstrates that for every national player in this drama, decision-making power was decentralized. In parliamentary societies, there were considerations of party politics, as well as the relationships between the military, the diplomatic corps, and a nation's political leadership. But even in presumably autocratic societies like Russia, policymaking was hardly straightforward; figures like Tsar Nicholas II or Kaiser Wilhelm were often managed by their ministers rather than leading their countries, and public opinion could influence strategic considerations no less than it did in France or England.

The final segment of The Sleepwalkers returns to Sarajevo in 1914, opening with a depiction of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that spools with cinematic clarity. Clark then proceeds to chart the sequence of decisions -- more like miscalculations -- that culminated in catastrophe. In light of his preceding analysis, it's clear that he rejects the notion of an overriding cause or a principal villain. As he explains in his 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 the corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol." 

And yet the weight of his own analysis makes clear that Clark blames some figures more than others. Serbian nationalists were not only irresponsible in the intensity of their fervor, but in their insistence on the legitimacy of territorial claims flatly denied the realities of history and the presence of non-Serbs in places like Albania and Bosnia. (Serbian conquests in the Balkans in 1912-13 were followed by atrocities strongly reminiscent of ethnic cleansing.) Russia's support of the Serbs was part of a larger pan-Slavic strategy that had less to do with mystic chords of memory than trying to realize a long-term goal of succeeding Ottoman Turkey as the master of the Straits of Bosphorus, one that led the Russians to take dangerous risks. And French desperation for a strong partner to counter Germany virtually goaded the Russians to take those risks.

Conversely, Clark rejects the view that Austria-Hungary was an empty husk of an empire lurching toward collapse -- indeed, Franz Ferdinand had a plausible scenario for a reformed and federalized polity that reduced the disproportionate influence of of Hungary and gave more representation for Slavs, including Serbians (one reason why radicals wishing to see the empire break up were so intent on killing him). Vienna's demands in the aftermath of the assassination were not unrealistic, though its delay in issuing them -- here again the baleful influence of internal divisions, one of which were foot-dragging Hungarians -- led rivals to mobilize their opposition. Germany is often portrayed as ratcheting up the pressure by giving the Austrians the notorious "blank check," but Clark depicts Berlin as believing the crisis could be resolved locally long after everyone else had concluded otherwise. British Conservatives welcomed war as a means of preventing Irish Home Rule, since fighting Germany would deprive Liberals of the military tools to implement a policy that had vocal, and possibly violent, opponents. More generally, there's a motif about anxieties surrounding masculinity being a factor for some of the characters he portrays, a nod toward cultural history that isn't really developed.

None of which is to say that The Sleepwalkers is a polemic in the vein of Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War (1999), which considers Britain the culprit for the war. Clark's mode is tragic; his title refers to politicians who, "watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams," blindly led their peoples toward an outcome that no one wanted. Which makes for one more piece of revisionism worth noting here: Clark rejects the idea that jingoistic Europeans blithely leapt into the void in 1914. Instead he offers evidence that a great many people, both inside and outside government, were deeply worried about what was to come (he also gives us examples of diplomats who were literally sickened by the prospect). This may well be the most troubling aspect of this riveting, sobering book: in the end, good will and intelligence may simply not be enough to prevent disasters. Even those who remember the past may be condemned to repeat it.


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