Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Reviews, Volume 22


ISBN 9780141027821

Reviewed by
Eoin Dillon


For undergraduates nearly 40 years ago, or at least this one, understanding the causes of the First World War was problematic. The sheer scale of what was being considered was overwhelming, particularly in an era when a good part of central Europe and beyond was behind the Iron Curtain and therefore not readily accessible even to the imagination. Through the fog and fracture of the Cold War, pre-First World War Europe had an oddly unreal ancien régime feel—the last of the good times before two world wars and the permanent threat of nuclear annihilation. At issue were the dynamics of multiple interlocking and competing European empires, some seemingly still in the ascendant, some self-evidently in decline. These empires had then to be subdivided into their various component parts, each frequently asserting itself in the idiom of nationalism, thereby demanding that it be understood in its own language and on its own terms: structure and contingency; the long-term and the proximate; the objective and the subjective. Add the lesser European powers and an emergent United States, a fundamental shift in world power relations, and the complexity was compounded.

One of the ways to overcome this complexity was to reduce it to apportioning responsibility for the conflict: war guilt. The ‘Fischer thesis’—the view in one variant or another not only that the Germans chose to go to war but that they actively planned for it (the 1905 Schlieffen Plan, the ‘war council’ of December 1912) as part of their bid to overcome European isolation and become a world power—played this role. A little over 30 years after the end of World War II it was a judgement that still found a ready and possibly uncritical audience. It still has echoes in part of the contemporary British commemorations of the war, the Lord Denning school of British history. It is simply too appalling a vista even to consider that the British ruling class could have got it—or anything else—so catastrophically, so disastrously, wrong: so they didn’t; the Germans did. It’s a simplification that Clark discounts.

As for the war itself, for those students not interested in military strategy and tactics, the testaments of the writers and poets could stand for all those on every front who had endured beyond belief. On the home front the hard-faced men who did well out of the war spat on the amputee serviceman who sold matches from a tray to make ends meet. For those of us who had come to implacably anti-war positions because of, on the world scale, mutually assured destruction (MAD) and Vietnam and, closer to home, the North of Ireland, historical complexity was reduced to emotional convulsion and revulsion: a plague on all their houses. Attempts at understanding or justification, if one should imply the other, amounted to sophistry: the ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ school of First World War history. I come to Christopher Clark’s The sleepwalkers, therefore, not as the usual History Ireland specialist reviewer but as a general reader seeking answers to long-postponed questions.

Clark is well positioned to answer them: an Australian of at least partial Irish ancestry, his great-uncle James Joseph O’Brien served as a private in the Australian Imperial Force and fought in France, while Clark himself studied in Germany and is professor of modern history in Cambridge. He would appear to have the requisite distance and familiarity as well as the expertise to engage with such questions. So, to answer the big question first: does he do it? Does he manage to engage with history on that scale, and do it convincingly? The answer is certainly yes: this is a book for its times, an extremely impressive achievement.

For Clark, the July Crisis of 1914 and the events that lead up to it are modern: with the interplay of fin-de-siècle imperialism, nationalism, alliances, finance and armaments, it is modernity as complexity. Clark is not interested in these as imperatives determining the actions of political actors; he does not believe that the war was inevitable. Rather he is interested in agency: the actions of the key decision-makers—kings, emperors, ambassadors, foreign ministers, military men, lesser officials: the people whose decisions cumulatively brought the war about. How replaces why, with all its implications of guilt, as the principal question: the resulting answer is a European panorama of high politics in the pre-war period from Belgrade, Vienna, St Petersburg and Berlin, as well as Paris, London, Constantinople, and sometimes Sofia and Rome.

In some ways—and this is the only cavil with this book—Clark’s title, The sleepwalkers, is misleading. It implies comatose people stumbling blindly towards unforeseen and horrendous consequences. The book’s three parts, over 560 pages, deal respectively with Serbian–Austro-Hungarian relations, how Europe became polarised into blocs and how foreign policy came about, and how high policy calculations and decisions finally resulted as they did. In all this, Clark demonstrates highly watchful people operating in the highly fluid conditions of a fragile and insecure alliance system—new alliances didn’t by any means always override older imperial rivalries. People walking a tightrope, even those leaning heavily one way or the other between a committed war party and committed conciliators, do not do it in their sleep. Taken literally, the title might imply a simplification the text resolutely belies.

This marvellous book should appeal to at least three kinds of reader: those who want to read a serious historian on top form, regardless of subject; those who want to read a masterly one-volume account of the origins of the First World War; and those who want to understand how élite decision-makers at a time of acute tension, prey to their own prejudices and foibles, with only very imperfect information available and subject to minimal if any democratic oversight, act as they do. In dangerous times, and after massive financial failure, that last category should include just about everybody.

Eoin Dillon has recently completed a book on the World Bank and the African state.


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