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Book review

‘The Sleepwalkers’ by Christopher Clark

Greg Klee/Globe staff/Getty

For a century the question of the origins of World War I has bedeviled historians, who have struggled to determine whether a conflict that claimed 20 million lives and prompted the death of three empires could have been avoided and, if not, who was to blame.

That question won’t be settled by the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand a year from this summer. There are too many factors, too many moving parts and, alas, too many (contradictory) documents to produce an ironclad answer. But no one who examines the question will be able to ignore “The Sleepwalkers,’’ the monumental new volume by Cambridge University historian Christopher Clark that addresses this issue.

Though he does not provide a verdict, Clark’s view nonetheless is revelatory, even revolutionary. His thesis is that World War I is not a hoary event shrouded in the mists and mysteries of another age, but a thoroughly modern affair, begun in a way familiar to us today: by a terrorist group that worshipped sacrifice and death, had no clear geographic moorings, and was scattered across a vast area of festering grievances and unrequited dreams.


To all that irrationality was added the most dangerous element of all in international relations — cool reason fed by national interest.

“The outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of decisions made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgments they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand,’’ he argues. Oh, dear. No wonder he contends that the war was “a tragedy, not a crime.’’

The decisions that led to catastrophe were made at one time in places far-flung: Belgrade, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Paris, London, Rome, Constantinople and Sofia. Clark’s view, and the rationale for his intriguing title: “[T]he protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.’’

The principal actor in this unfolding drama was Franz Ferdinand, reluctantly settled upon by Franz Joseph as his heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. He was a fervent advocate of peace, only one of the tragic ironies in this atrocious procession to calamity, not least because he was, in Clark’s estimation, “a man of radical intentions whose accession to the throne would bring to an end the habit of muddling through that seemed to paralyze Austrian policy in the last decades before 1914.’’


Clark argues that the Europe of 1887, with its multipolar distribution of power, full of checks on territorial ambitions and deterrents to war, could not have tumbled into war, while the Europe of 1907, a continent organized around two competing alliances, was vulnerable to collapsing into conflict.

There had been Balkan crises in the past; in fact, the Balkan past was little more than conflict. But in the years leading to 1914 there was a fundamental shift in the character of the conflict, as the diplomatic mechanisms that prevented local disputes from escalating into major conflagrations disappeared. Instead, the Balkan conflicts “became tightly intertwined with the geopolitics of the European system,’’ Clark explains, “creating a set of escalatory mechanisms that would enable a conflict of Balkan inception to engulf the continent within five weeks in the summer of 1914.’’

Even so, war seemed a distant possibility, even as arms were being stockpiled, tensions were growing, and alliances were producing dangerous instability. Arthur Nicolson, the British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs and a sober-minded diplomat who had served around the globe, said in May 1914 that “since I have been at the Foreign Office I have not seen such calm waters.’’


Those waters were roiled by the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo in a plot cooked up by terrorists, and before long Austria-Hungary was determined to pursue military retaliation, with the tentative (but quickly repudiated) notion that Serbia would be divided among Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania ­— all in a display of strength to Germany. This is the curious thing: “[I]t was irrelevant what aims were identified, what mattered was that an appearance of determination be conveyed to [Austria-Hungary’s] ally.’’

So Austria-Hungary crafted an ultimatum designed to be rejected, though by a quirk of culture, there really was no rush. A good portion of the nation’s soldiers were on harvest leave. No matter. The declaration of war was signed with an ostrich feather quill, a symbol of an age that would soon be in fatal eclipse. Measure prompted counter-measure, and Russian pre-mobilization set in motion preparations for forces, and regiments, that would not be recalled.

Not that anyone really had any taste for war. “[W]e have no quarrel with anyone,’’ George V of England said. Even so, Britain moved, as Clark put it, “from neutrality to intervention,’’ and a nation that had for a decade been preoccupied with containing Russia found itself going to war to contain Germany.

The terrible logic of regional alliances and antagonisms produced the most illogical conflict of the modern era. No one then nor now understood it. But Christopher Clark has done a masterly job explaining the inexplicable. The tragedy is that when trying to understand the 20th century, the inexplicable turns out to be indispensable.


David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.