Thursday, 14 November 2013

Book Recommendation: The Sleepwalkers

Many books have been written on the whereabouts of the Great conflict that erupted in the summer of 1914 and became known as the Great War or World War 1. Though this is the first book I´ve read that focuses solely on this topic I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

"The Sleepwalkers - How Europe went to War in 1914", written by Christopher Clark, focuses on how the July Crisis of 1914 turned into the First World War. To generate a deeper understanding for the different parties in the Crisis and their views, dilemmas and objectives, Clark first focuses on the Balkan, the brewing kettle of the conflict, and devotes the first 100 pages to an investigation on Serba and Austria, the peculiarities of their political systems, rulers and interest groups.

This regional perspective is followed by a detailed analysis of the European Balance of Power, tracing the polarization of Europe during 30 years from 1887-1907, an analysis that questions the traditional motivations (especially Great Britains motivation to enter the Entente Cordiale and later the Triple Entente, which, as Clark shows in a very compelling way, was not so much triggered by the Anglo-German Naval Arms race and Germany seeking a Place in the Sun, but rather by the threat conceived by the Franco-Russian Alliance and later the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5). He also points out that the power to shape foreign policy was fluid in the pre-war diplomatic system, with shifting key actors and prevalent factions and agents in the respective national systems.

The following chapters of the book focus on the disruptive effects of the Balkan Wars that brought the destabilization of the Balkan and the first major clash of Austrian and Russian Interest in the Balkan. In an interesting episode, Clark shows how the Austro-Russian Balkan Winter Crisis of 1912-13 almost brought about an earlier war, and though the war was averted at this time, how the crisis reduced the options of Austria-Hungaries diplomacy in 1914.

Before the book focuses on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the following diplomatic Crisis, the author takes a look at the attempts of Detente on the on hand and the lurking dangers of conflict and belligerent thinking on the other side during the pre-war years, trying to determine their influence on the coming conflict and posing the question how avoidable the Great War was.

Finally, the book devotes a chapter to th Assassination in Sarajevo, its tragic circumstances and the international reactions, before moving into the machinations of the crisis on parts of the Great Powers. Clark shows how even before the results of the investigation into the assassination had even yielded any results, the Entente powers had formed a strong narrative that there was no connection to Serbia and any Austrian reprisal against Belgrade would be considered illegitimate. He also shows why Austria took almost three weeks to step up action against Belgrade and that Entente politicians knew about the ultimatum even before it was issued, despite Austrian attempts of utmost secrecy - and how they reacted even before all cards where officially on the table...  and how Europe went to War in 1914.

Now, my personal impressions and why I can only recommend this book: It´s an awesome collection of evidence, a very critical analysis of the things that transpired in Europe during the pre-war years. Clark is a detective who has analysed the available sources very carefully. In his introduction, Clark explains the problems of historians trying to dig into the era. He cites an oversupply of unreliable sources as the most striking problem, as many countries have produced volumes of official works after the war. "Most of the official document editions produced in the interwar period have an apologetic spin" (Clark, 2012, p.xxiv). According to Clark, the same holds true for the memoirs of the involved statesmen, who have an understandeable tendency for "self-justification".
Despite these limitations, Clark delivers an outstanding piece of work, rich with critically reviewed information (Over 200 pages of sources at the end of the book, which is almost 1/4 of the entire book!).

As the title suggests, "The Sleepwalkers" is a book that is not so much focused on why the war came about, but how. Again, I cite the introduction: "This books strives to understand the July Crisis of 1914 as a modern event, the most complex of modern times, perheps of any time so far. It is concerned less with why the war happened than with how it came about [...] The question of how invites us to look closely at the sequences of interactions that produced certain outcomes. The question of why invites us to go in search of the remote and categorical causes [...] Political actors become mere executors of forces long established and beyond their control. The story this book tells is, by contrast, saturated with agency." (Clark, 2012, p. xxvii)

Not only does he achieve this goal, he does so in a very convincing manner. While reading the book I often felt that suddenly the decisions of certain actors made sense! Decisions I questioned earlier as irrational and dangerous (with the benefit of hindsight, of course) suddenly appeared as perfectly understandable once I was confronted with the decision makers perspectives during the time. What reinforces this effect is the way Clark delivers the content to the reader. Rich in anectodes and citations, the book is written in a very enjoyable language and structure. It delivers content in an enjoyable way - reading this book is fun, not work or research! - that enables the reader to immerse himself into the situation and the decisions faced by the agents of the time.

All the while, Clark does an astounding work in keeping the book analytical and neutral. While he clearly shows who was responsible for which action during the process, there is no bias or blame for any of the involved parties. The picture that remains is a murky one, shades of grey, decisions and interest of different factions and agents, that lead to a catastrophic downfall.

  • "The Sleekwalkers - How Europe Went to War in 1914"
  • Christopher Clark
  • ISBN-10: 0141027827 , ISBN-13: 978-0141027821   (Penguin Press, soft-cover)
  • ISBN-10: 071399942X, ISBN-13: 978-0713999426 (Allen Lane, hard-cover)

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