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The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

By Sean McMeekin | Posted 29th November 2012, 11:59
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The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christopher Clark
Penguin / Allen Lane   697pp   £30

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These are heady days for historians. While the 1990s saw one 50-year retrospective after another on the Second World War for those writing on the First the centennial of all centennials is fast approaching.

After a century it remains the ultimate historical whodunit. How did Europe, at the height of its glory, commit collective suicide, drowning centuries of progress in the bloodletting of 1914-18?

Until recently many historians believed this question to have been settled for good, with a consensus emerging that Germany had willed the war out of her fear of the growth of Russian power. Fortunately for First World War buffs this increasingly sterile Germanocentric orthodoxy is at last buckling under the weight of new research. In The Sleepwalkers Christopher Clark restores the primacy of the Balkans to a conflict which, lest we forget, began in Sarajevo.

Clark opens with a gripping narrative of Serbia’s grisly coup d’état of 1903, which saw hyper-nationalist officers carry out ‘an orgy of gratuitous violence,’ butchering the king and queen, along with the prime minister and war minister. The royal corpses were ‘disemboweled’, ‘mutilated beyond recognition,’ and then tossed, ‘virtually naked and slimy with gore,’ into the palace garden.

If one is to explain how Europe’s long peace turned into the bloodiest war in history this is not a bad place to begin. Having grabbed his readers’ attention, Clark charts the growth of the Austro-Serbian antagonism through Austria-Hungary’s provocative annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, which saw Serbia nearly double in size. We meet all the key policymakers in Belgrade and Vienna, including the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie. The stage seems set for the drama in Sarajevo.

Clark, however, is not quite ready to get on with his story. Like all historians seeking to unpuzzle 1914 he needs to explain how a local Balkan quarrel turned into a world war. And so he peels back to reconstruct, at forbidding length, the ‘polarization of Europe’ in the preceding decades. Although much of this territory is familiar, Clark is rigorous, scholarly and thorough as he navigates it.

Above all, he is conscientious, sometimes to a fault. After describing European diplomacy as a sort of ‘Harold Pinter play where the characters know each other very well and like each other very little,’ Clark buries his own point underneath a discussion of ‘hypertrophic forms of masculinity,’ the idea being, apparently, that Europe’s real problem in 1914 was that the ‘play’ of power politics had ‘only male characters’. As opposed to all the years before when female statesmen predominated?

The demands of political correctness being what they are, one can forgive a bit of this sort of thing. But each little curtsey to fashion takes its toll. After wading through hundreds of pages of what amounts to a giant parenthesis on Europe’s alliance system, with jargon-ridden digressions into theory (the ‘normative power of the factual’; ‘narratives of inevitability’) and the ‘broader contours of gender history,’ many readers may have lost the plot by the time the proper narrative resumes.

This is too bad, for much of what Clark has to say is worthwhile. He points out that Austrian claims about Serbian complicity in Sarajevo proved essentially correct, although one would never guess this from histories still coloured by the ‘Russian counter-narrative’ of Serbian innocence. He dismisses the canard that France and Russia were ‘shocked’ when they learned of the ultimatum: both had known what was coming for days, which allowed them to coordinate a response. Austria’s supposedly ‘draconian’ ultimatum, Clark shows, was far less harsh than the one NATO gave Belgrade before the Kosovo war of 1999. And Serbia’s reply was not conciliatory at all, but a ‘highly perfumed rejection,’ designed to impress France and Britain (Russia having already given its backing for war).

Still, after pouring well-deserved scorn on the German ‘preventive war’ thesis, Clark’s story peters out at the end of July 1914, just when it should be reaching its climax. As if exhausted by his Herculean efforts at even-handedness, Clark resolves the whodunit with a resigned shrug of the shoulders in the face of its ‘complexity’. There was no ‘smoking gun’, he concludes, merely a ‘multiplicity of initiatives, scenarios and attitudes’. In the end, Europe’s leaders were ‘sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing,’ conjuring up Armageddon without knowing what they were doing.

That is not what the documentary record shows. Pulling one all-nighter after another in the last days of peace, their minds disturbed by visions of the ‘monstrous slaughter’ sure to result if they went to war, Europe’s leaders (except Sir Edward Grey, staring dreamily at his lampposts) were wide awake as they stared into the abyss. Then they plunged right in.

Sean McMeekin is Associate Professor of History at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. His latest book, July 1914: Countdown to War, will be published by Icon Books in 2013.


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