Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Christopher Clark charts the convoluted path to WWI

This July 5, 1914 illustration from La Domenica Del Corriere depicts the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. It's the well-known event that triggered a chain reaction that enveloped the world in a hideous war. In his widely acclaimed book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark examines the "backstory," so to speak, that led up to the quickly ignited conflagration, calling the participants "sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world."
"The historiography of World War I is immense," wrote Harold Evans in the New York Times Book Review, "more than 25,000 volumes and articles even before next year’s centenary. Still, Clark … offer[s] new perspectives. The distinctive achievement of The Sleepwalkers is Clark’s single-volume survey of European history leading up to the war. That may sound dull. Quite the contrary. It is as if a light had been turned on a half-darkened stage of shadowy characters cursing among themselves without reason."
1914 illustration of the balance of power “chain reaction” that turned a regional crisis into a global war
The French head to the front (Mary Evans Picture Library). "Clark lends authority by citing Russian-French falsifications of documents. The Russians backdated and reworded papers in the records. The French were even more inventive, fabricating a telegram reporting six days of war preparations by Germany that weren’t happening. In Clark’s phrase, both Russia and France were at pains, then and later, to make Berlin appear 'the moral fulcrum of the crisis.' …. 'The outbreak of war in 1914,' he writes, '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.'"—Harold Evans, NYTBR
"In sketching the characters of the key players, Clark makes a fascinating point I’ve not seen before: not simply were all the political players in the drama male, but they were men caught in a 'crisis of masculinity.' He cites historians of gender who argue that at this particular time 'competition from subordinate and marginalized masculinities — proletarian and nonwhite for example' accentuated assertiveness. You’d expect the military men to exude testosterone, and they do, but Clark is struck by how ubiquitous in memoir and memorandums are pointedly masculine modes of comportment, and how closely they are interwoven with their understanding of policy. 'Uprightness,' 'backs very stiff,' 'firmness of will,' 'self-castration' are typical modes of expression."—Harold Evans, NYTBR
Below, an excerpt from the book. You can also read an NPR interview with the author here.
Excerpt: The Sleepwalkers
Christopher Clark
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.
The historian who seeks to understand the genesis of the First World War confronts several problems. The first and most obvious is an oversupply of sources. Each of the belligerent states produced official multi-volume editions of diplomatic papers, vast works of collective archival labour. There are treacherous currents in this ocean of sources. Most of the official document editions produced in the interwar period have an apologetic spin. The fifty-seven-volume German publication Die Grosse Politik, comprising 15,889 documents organized in 300 subject areas, was not prepared with purely scholarly objectives in mind; it was hoped that the disclosure of the pre-war record would suffice to refute the 'war guilt' thesis enshrined in the terms of the Versailles treaty. For the French government too, the post-war publication of documents was an enterprise of 'essentially political character', as Foreign Minister Jean Louis Barthou put it in May 1934. Its purpose was to 'counter-balance the campaign launched by Germany following the Treaty of Versailles'. In Vienna, as Ludwig Bittner, co-editor of the eight-volume collection Osterreich-Ungarns Aussenpolitik, pointed out in 1926, the aim was to produce an authoritative source edition before some international body — the League of Nations perhaps? — forced the Austrian government into publication under less auspicious circumstances. The early Soviet documentary publications were motivated in part by the desire to prove that the war had been initiated by the autocratic Tsar and his alliance partner, the bourgeois Raymond Poincare, in the hope of de-legitimizing French demands for the repayment of prewar loans. Even in Britain, where British Documents on the Origins of the War was launched amid high-minded appeals to disinterested scholarship, the resulting documentary record was not without tendentious omissions that produced a somewhat unbalanced picture of Britain's place in the events preceding the outbreak of war in 1914. In short, the great European documentary editions were, for all their undeniable value to scholars, munitions in a 'world war of documents', as the German military historian Bernhard Schwertfeger remarked in a critical study of 1929.
The memoirs of statesmen, commanders and other key decisionmakers, though indispensable to anyone trying to understand what happened on the road to war, are no less problematic. Some are frustratingly reticent on questions of burning interest. To name just a few examples: theReflections on the World War published in 1919 by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg has virtually nothing to say on the subject of his actions or those of his colleagues during the July Crisis of 1914; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov's political memoirs are breezy, pompous, intermittently mendacious and totally uninformative about his own role in key events; French President Raymond Poincare's ten-volume memoir of his years in power is propagandistic rather than revelatory – there are striking discrepancies between his 'recollections' of events during the crisis and the contemporary jottings in his unpublished diary. The amiable memoirs of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey are sketchy on the delicate question of the commitments he had made to the Entente powers before August 1914 and the role these played in his handling of the crisis.
When the American historian Bernadotte Everly Schmitt of the University of Chicago travelled to Europe in the late 1920s with letters of introduction to interview former politicians who had played a role in events, he was struck by the apparently total immunity of his interlocutors to self-doubt. (The one exception was Grey, who 'spontaneously remarked' that he had made a tactical error in seeking to negotiate with Vienna through Berlin during the July Crisis, but the misjudgement alluded to was of subordinate importance and the comment reflected a specifically English style of mandarin self-deprecation rather than a genuine concession of responsibility.) There were problems with memory, too. Schmitt tracked down Peter Bark, the former Russian minister of finance, now a London banker. In 1914, Bark had participated in meetings at which decisions of momentous importance were made. Yet when Schmitt met him, Bark insisted that he had 'little recollection of events from that era'. Fortunately, the former minister's own contemporary notes are more informative. When the researcher Luciano Magrini travelled to Belgrade in the autumn of 1937 to interview every surviving figure with a known link to the Sarajevo conspiracy, he found that there were some witnesses who attested to matters of which they could have no knowledge, others who 'remained dumb or gave a false account of what they know', and others again who 'added adornments to their statements or were mainly interested in self-justification'.
From The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark. Copyright 2013 by Christopher Clark. Excerpted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


  1. Reading the almost Keystone Kop-like details of the assassination, you see that it too follows an extremely convoluted path. Multiple assassins waited along the archduke's route, but it wasn't until three of them already had failed, when Ferdinand’s driver made a wrong turn and then backed up right to where the fourth was standing, that the foul deed was accomplished.

  2. Just the other day, after the anniversary of D-Day, I was thinking about how much material there is about the World Wars, and how hard it might be to sort through the good and the bad. I am excited to see that the author in this post paints a fresh perspective, and I am now interested in owning some of his works.

  3. I really appreciate that Clark takes a gendered approach, as this is often missed in discussions of political decisions, especially in relationship to war. In recent past, the arguments as to why the United States should enter into conflict with Afghanistan, they publicly argued a "feminine" approach, while depicting one entirely masculine. For example, in one of the first appeals to the public for support of the war, the weekly presidential address was made by the First Lady rather than Bush, and she told us how we're going in to save the women. But in the first set of photographs of President Bush right after the conflict began, he was posed in hyper-masculine poses (just look at any of the images from that time period and you'll understand) and most of the verbal rhetoric shifted to support it. After we were already there, it shifted from "trying to save the women" to the normal hyper-masculine war context.

    I honestly don't think too much about World War I, as it seems very distant from present society, but this was very interesting - I might have to read the book! Thank you, as always!

    1. Thank you for that very thoughtful corollary!