Sleepwalkers : how Europe went to war in 1914

by Christopher M. Clark

Paper Book, 2014

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Harper Perennial, 2014

Description

An authoritative chronicle, drawing on new research on World War I, traces the paths to war in a minute-by-minute narrative that examines the decades of history that informed the events of 1914.

Media reviews

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Widsith
In a dugout in northern France, sometime in 1916, three British soldiers try to make sense of one of the most complicated questions of modern history:

PVT. BALDRICK: The way I see it, these days there's a war on, right? and, ages ago, there wasn't a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? and there being a war on came along. So, what I want to know is: how did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?

CPT. BLACKADDER: Do you mean, "How did the war start?"

PVT. BALDRICK: Yeah. […] I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry.

CPT. BLACKADDER: …I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.

PVT. BALDRICK: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.

CPT. BLACKADDER: Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort NOT to have a war. […] You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war.

PVT. BALDRICK: But this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?

CPT. BLACKADDER: Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.

LT. GEORGE: What was that, sir?

CPT. BLACKADDER: It was bollocks.

(pause)

PVT. BALDRICK: So the poor old ostrich died for nothing.

—Richard Curtis & Ben Elton,
Blackadder Goes Forth

So this is the explanation to beat, so far, in my admittedly very limited understanding of the causes of the First World War. The Sleepwalkers is the big modern book to examine the question, and it was greeted with adulatory reviews by a historical community that saw in it a long-awaited replacement for Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August from way back in 1962.

It is often elegantly written, and very extensively researched – it's not unusual to check the footnotes and find nearly a dozen different sources adduced to back up the thread of a single paragraph. This is great. Unfortunately, these feats of compression often result in rather dense, stodgy prose that examines events from a viewpoint that I found far too abstract. Pages and pages of material describe the action on a disembodied state level, like this:

The French government focused from 1911 onwards on strengthening Russian offensive capacity and, in 1912-13 on ensuring that Russian deployment plans were directed against Germany rather than Austria, the ostensible opponent in the Balkans. Increasingly, intimate military relations were reinforced by the application of powerful financial incentives. This policy was purchased at a certain strategic cost, because betting so heavily on enabling Russia to seize the initiative against Germany inevitably involved a certain reduction in French autonomy. That French policy-makers were willing to accept the resulting constraints is demonstrated by their willingness to extend the terms of the Franco-Russian Alliance specifically in order to cover the Balkan inception scenario, a concession that in effect placed the initiative in Russian hands. The French were willing to accept this risk, because their primary concern was not that Russia would act precipitately, but rather that she would not act at all, would grow so preponderant as to lose interest in the security value of the alliance, or would focus her energies on defeating Austria rather than the ‘principal adversary’, Germany.

A bit of this is good; whole chapters' worth quickly gets dull. It was probably partly my fault – I happened to read this at a time when I could only really read last thing at night or first thing in the morning, and I found myself constantly nodding off and having to reread paragraphs several times.

Attempts to humanise things by sketching the major personalities involved have their own problems, mainly because the major personalities involved number in the hundreds. I normally hate reviews that go on about all the confusing foreign names, but honestly in this one I was still struggling with the cast list by the end of the book. Kokovtsov, now is he the Russian foreign minister? Or is that Sazonov? Or Sukhomlinov? A reference to Hartwig – he's the Austrian ambassador in Berlin, right? No, the German ambassador in Vienna. Oh wait, neither, he's the Russian ambassador in Belgrade…and so on.

This isn't just a stylistic issue, I think it points up a fundamental problem with the whole book – there's no narrative thread to help you join it all together. The reason it's so hard to follow some of these discussions is because their relevance to 1914-18 is often very unclear. Most of the book is given over to examining various early-twentieth century diplomatic crises like the Bosnian annexation crisis, the Agadir crisis, the two Balkan wars – but there is an irritating lack of clarification over how these issues bear on 1914. As a result the book had, to me, a rather staccato feel.

When, after 400 pages, you finally reach the assassinations in Sarajevo, the effect is like watching a boxed set of Open University lectures and finding Iron Man 3 on the last disc. These chapters are fantastic – but they're not really the point of the book.

For what it's worth, I took three major lessons from it all. The first is to do with the lumbering mechanism of the alliance system that was in force before the war, whereby countries were roped together like mountaineers for safety: and when one fell, everyone else got dragged down into the crevasse. Hence why England, France, Germany and Russia somehow ended up fighting to the death over a glorified border dispute in the Balkans. Because the alliances had ‘tied the defence policy of three of the world's greatest powers to the uncertain fortunes of Europe's most violent and unstable region’.

The second lesson is the sheer amateurishness of contemporary international relations – not just the incompetence of some of the people involved, but the total lack of any trans-national system or process for resolving inter-state disputes. These systemic problems were made even worse by the fact that there was really no clear governmental decision-making process in many of the states involved (as Clark puts it, ‘the volatility inherent in such a constellation was heightened by the fluidity of power within each executive’).

And the third lesson – a consequence of the other two – is the utter pointlessness of the conflict. No one had a good idea of what was being fought for, no one really had much to gain, and, in short, the poor old ostrich really did die for nothing.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
As Clark points out in his Introduction, historians started debating the cause of the First World War even before it began! For it did seem inevitable to many at the time, although the eventual scope – resulting eventually in the mobilization of 65 million troops and ending with the destruction of three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million more wounded, was unanticipated. Clark notes that while a few leaders warned of “Armageddon” and a “war of extermination” and “the extinction of civilization”, they didn’t really believe it. They also made glib observations on the glory of arms. To this extent, he opines, “the 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.”

Clark bemoans the difficulties of sorting through the oceans of documents on the War to get to the real facts behind its genesis, and of separating history from historical revisionism, an inevitable result of any conflict in which the victors usually control most of the narratives. [He reminds us that our moral compass in our tendency to assign blame on the one hand, or perceive justified actions on the other, has shifted as well.] In addition, there are gaps in the records; the many “secret societies” involved did not keep records, nor did we have the benefit of someone smuggling an IPhone into their proceedings to record them for posterity.

Thus, Clark maintains that he is not going to get into why the war happened; rather, his intention is more “to look closely at the sequences of interactions that produced certain outcomes.”

This distinction may sound like hair-splitting, but it does serve to allow him to concentrate his history on what actually happened rather than what didn’t happen or what might have happened, the last two “contingent” approaches characterizing a number of recent books about the Great War. On the other hand, he can’t really avoid talking about historical events and the international economic, social, and political situation of the time.

The “Sleepwalkers” of the title are the foreign policy decision makers of the major powers. Clark contends that they stumbled into the war, in part because they grossly misunderstood the motivations of the other principal actors. A sub-theme of the book is that the decision-making apparatuses of all the powers except France were diffuse and confused, without clear chains of command. They were all monarchies whose kings or emperors who were no longer absolute rulers, but who exerted an ill-defined amount of power on their countries’ foreign policies. [Nevertheless, the tendency of these rulers to consider prolonged vacations a divine right of office enabled their war ministers to work themselves up into frenzies of paranoia, champing at the bit to effect pre-emptive strikes.]

Clark calls the crisis of July 1914 the most complex event of modern times. Much modern scholarship of the War downplays the role of Serbia, implying that the prevailing confusing interlocking system of alliances was bound to produce a widespread conflict eventually. But Clark argues that in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, it is more difficult to envision Serbia as “a mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as an historical force in its own right.”

Therefore, Clark begins his narrative not with the Sarajevo assassinations of 1914, but with the assassinations of Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga in 1903. He observes:

"…the conspiratorial network that had come together to murder the royal family did not simply melt away, but remained an important force in Serbian politics and public life.”

That network (sometimes known as the “Black Hand”) was still extant in 1908 when Austria-Hungary inflamed Serbian resentment by annexing the formerly Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus were Belgrade’s aspirations to creating a “Greater Serbia” dashed. The Serbian public was furious, and a new mass movement grew sprang up overnight “powered by this wave of outrage.” This dangerous dynamic in Serbian society still obtained when the unlucky Archduke Francis Ferdinand came visiting the newly absorbed provinces on June 28, 1914.

The archduke was murdered in Austrian territory. So what was the role of the Serbian government of Prime Minister Nikola Pašić? Although the Black Hand was not an official organ of the Serbian state, Clark concludes, “It is virtually certain that Pašić was informed of the [assassination] plan in some detail.” The government of Austria-Hungary was understandably incensed by the murder, but was unable to prove Serbian government complicity in the immediate aftermath. Nevertheless, key Austrian decision-makers determined that only a military response would do. The Austrian reaction set in motion the immensely complicated series of diplomatic and military maneuvers (such as making sure that Germany was on board) that ultimately resulted in the outbreak of World War I five weeks later.

A simplistic description of the war as a conflict between the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Russia, France, and Great Britain) does not do justice to the complexities of interlocking alliances and “understandings” that bound the Great Powers to assist one another in the event of mobilization for armed conflict.

Clark assiduously describes this maze, stating:

"The chaotic interventions of monarchs, ambiguous relationships between civil and military, adversarial competition among key politicians in systems characterized by low levels of ministerial or cabinet solidarity, compounded by the agitations of a critical mass press against a background of intermittent crisis and heightened tension over security issues made this a period of unprecedented uncertainty in international relations.”

Clark does not ascribe blame for the war. He says, “There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime.”

Evaluation: This is a long and densely packed history centering on the five weeks leading up to World War I. The emphasis is therefore on relatively minute events rather than sweeping generalizations about historical trends and long-festering causation. Nevertheless, the author includes a comprehensive background description of the military and diplomatic situation in each of the great powers. His description of numerous key individuals is masterful. To summarize this 550+ page account would take many more pages than is appropriate in a review. It is an excellent addition to the voluminous literature of the causes of World War I, but is probably not primarily for the casual reader looking for an overview of the War.

Moreover, I should note that his theory of “sleepwalkers” goes against the conviction of other WWI scholars, who tend to see the onset of WWI in a similar light as some analysts view the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Important policy makers wanted this war to happen, and the military-industrial complex supported their enthusiasm. The rest, as they say, is history.

Note: Maps, photos, and voluminous notes are included with the text.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is a magisterial work by an Australian-born history professor--666 pages of text and footnotes. I have done a lot of reading on this tantalizing subject, including Sidney Fay's two volumes (read March 1968) and Albertini's three-volume work, read in the spring of 1986, and July 1914: The Long Debate, by John W. Langdon. (read 14 Nov 1992), as well as David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer (read 7 Apr 2004) This book may not tell you what you want to hear but the author is reatty persuasive in his careful account, even though when you finish the book you may not know who is mostly responsible for the Great War, but you will know that the people who blundered into that war did not know what evil they were to see come to the world by their actions and inactions.… (more)
LibraryThing member fdhondt
Wonderful book. Merits all the praise it received until now, and maybe even more. The reader can only be struck by the recklessness of French and Russian foreign policy in the Balkans before World War One. By the unjust blaming of Austria for the outbreak of hostilities. By the virulence of Serbian nationalism and completely irrational irredentism, fuelled by French loans and boasting Russian industrialisation. By a world where travel by train across the continent could already take place without identity papers, where the European Society of monarchs danced a cautious waltz with political, economic and military elites. The detail used to describe relations between Serbia, Albania, Romania and Bulgaria, or the bold reform plans of Franz Ferdinand to transform the Habsburg double monarchy into a triad are revealing to non-specialists of World War One. One could say that Franz Ferdinand's design consisted of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy combined with Yugoslavia (founded after World War One). The German Emperor and political class come out relatively innocent, improvising rather than aggressive. Clark suggests the Belgian question was turned into a symbol by Britain to justify intervention, thanks to clumsy ad hoc German tactical reactions (e.g. the formulation of a straightforward ultimatum, which forced Belgium to declare war on Germany). Only French President Poincaré's determination to start a war with Russia and drag Great Britain into it, can be seen as directly responsible for the bloodshed of four years. Traditionally, the narrative of French foreign policy turns around Alsace-Lorraine (cf. also Barbara Tuchman's Cannons of August). Clark demonstrates, however, that the extremely ill-conceived plotting behind Austria's back in the Balkans triggered the escalation of a local conflict. In the end, the Serbian tail told the Entente cat what to do. Centuries of frustration, cruelty and lust for revenge overturned a cumbersome but advanced composite state. A bunch of Balkan nationalist fruitcakes was fed hand-to-mouth by the children of Enlightenment, by the French Third Republic of left-wing icons as Jules Ferry and Georges Clemenceau. The short-sightedness and stupidity of French diplomacy, embodied by its ambassador in Russia, Paléologue, is almost unimaginable. How could they lend twice Serbia's GNP to a country bound to buy arms ? Clark points out that not merely the aggressive German military elite caused the war. The military never comes first, but is preceded by political decision-makers. In that field, Germany and its Austrian ally were weak, rather than strong. France gambled, played outside its league, and could have suffered a tragic loss if Germany had not been so clumsy to mount a full-scale invasion of Belgium, bringing Britain in the game. This book is a warning against the passions of nationalism. Even left-wing parties are not immune.… (more)
LibraryThing member Artymedon
From the sadistic murder of the Serbian royal couple to the pots of anti-wrinkle cream of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire Chief of Staff, this serious book shows that the devil of understanding the unthinkable, the start of a world war over a minor Balkanic question, is more often than not, in the details.

An impeccable style and the art of asking simple questions such as who governed? where? make this book attractive for the amateur of complex issues.

Through good maps and a great choice of vintage photos it is a must read to understand European history drawing in the rest of the world.

For having stood in the footprints of Princip in Sarajevo, whom I always thought had started World War I chain of events, the reading of Christopher Clark's book went further in that it helped me visualize networks of alliances and the reasons why they tumbled like dominoes pushed by a mischievious finger.
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LibraryThing member thorold
When I was sixteen, I could identify city "A" (it was usually Algeciras) and territory "B" (invariably The Sanjak of Novi Pazar) on a map of Europe without hesitation, and take you from Sarajevo to the invasion of Belgium in exactly 750 words. (I could also have done you "Bismarck's Domestic Policy" or "African Colonialism and the Congress of Berlin" for the same money.) How the European powers got themselves into such a horrifically destructive conflict in 1914 is one of the most enduring puzzles of modern history, and for the overwhelming majority of us it's a subject that had some sort of tangible consequence for our lives - relatives killed or displaced, borders redrawn, etc. What family album doesn't have at least one picture of a young uncle or grandparent looking proud but slightly uncomfortable in a new uniform, or an aunt dressed up as a nurse or a bus conductor? So there's always a kind of fatalistic fascination about works of narrative history that take it on - perhaps we even read them with a secret hope that this time "it will all come out right in the end" and the plumed hats of Europe will not go down the path to war...

Clark's line in this masterly and comprehensive account is essentially that he wants to focus on the "how" and not get involved with theorising about the "why". He points out the problems with narratives that are based on ideas of "guilt" or "blame", and instead looks mostly at the processes by which states, institutions and individuals took decisions, the information that they had, the political constraints they operated under, and their real and buried motives when taking them. And of course he takes into account that the published information about how all this happened was usually exposed to subsequent manipulation by those concerned (or their successors in office). No-one wanted to look like "the idiot who started the war" in his own memoirs.

This is interesting, because it leaves a lot of room for the two mechanisms historians usually hate above all else - "agency" (things happen because of what someone does) and "contingency" (things happen by accident). And it's clear that, in the world of pre-1914 European politics, there were a lot of crucial foreign policy decisions that had to be taken on their own by ministers, generals, ambassadors or heads of state. As Clark describes it, Cabinet discussions and collective decision-making were only part of the institutional structure in a few places (notably Britain and Russia) and even there they could be short-circuited by a dominant foreign minister used to getting his own way (Sir Edward Grey in England, Sergei Dmitrievich Sazonov in Russia). Parliaments, of course, hardly enter into things at all. Newspapers are starting to be an important element, but Clark points out the confused approach many statesmen had to them, often failing to distinguish their use as a channel for publishing propaganda at home and abroad from their contradictory use as a barometer of "public opinion".

Clark is obviously very conscious of the specific "blame-the-loser narrative" against Germany that was created in the light of the Versailles Treaty and reinforced by historians of the generation that fought the Nazis, and he's someone with a very close affinity to German history and the Hohenzollerns, so you do occasionally get the feeling in this book that he might be over-compensating by the stress he puts on the contribution to the slide into war made by Russia, France and Britain - Sazonov, Poincaré and Grey in particular are shown as acting in dangerous and irresponsible ways during the 1914 crisis, whilst events in Germany and Austria at the same time seem to get rather less coverage. The book has sometimes been criticised by reviewers for seeming to whitewash the Central Powers. I don't think that's an entirely fair accusation: Clark does point out failings in the ways both Austria and Germany reacted to the crisis, but (as we already saw in Iron Kingdom) he doesn't really believe in the idea that there was an over-riding "Prussian cult of militarism".

If there ever was a main cause of the First World War, it seems to have been the reliance by statesmen on all sides on a policy of "firmness" ("they will never fight us if we show that we're willing to fight them - and if they do we will beat them anyway") coupled with a failure to think through what the consequences of modern war would actually mean for their country. And worryingly, even if we've got better at international conflict-resolution in the intervening century, we still seem to have a lot of leaders around the world who put their faith in threats and missiles...
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LibraryThing member RandyStafford
Clark has written a book intended for serious students of the war. He’s not going to tell you what the German “blank check” said. He assumes you know. Similar, with the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, he covers the main points without repeating it verbatim. He assumes you know the Franz Fischer theory of German war guilt and argues Fischer’s ideas may have as much to do with post-World War II German guilt over the Nazi years as real history.

And the whole notion of guilt, which countries get the blame for 15 million war dead, is one he firmly rejects at the book’s conclusion: "The outbreak of war in 1914 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. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime."

The arguments about the most complex social disaster in history are cannot be summarized in a review, but here are the arguments that Clark brings that seem to run counter to the World War One origin literature I’ve read.

Russia was more culpable for the war than the other powers.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was regarded by France and Russia as being on its last legs and not worthy of the same respect for its national interests that other nations were granted. For Russia, it was a “stalking horse” for German interests.

The little remembered Italo-Turkish War of 1911 broke a long standing European taboo against carving up the Ottoman Empire, and Russia began to entertain the notion that it could at last gain control of the Bosphorus Strait. Its support of Serbia was part of that plan.

The Russian Empire was perceived by Germany and France and Britain as stronger than it was, a growing force for the future. In the months before the war, it was the desire to avoid Russia as an enemy as much as fear of Germany that wedded England, France, and Russia together as allies.

World War One was not some inevitable geopolitical conflagration that could have been ignited by anyone. Serbia was a violent political culture that was noticeably duplicitous in its mixture of allegedly private covert assassination, subversion, and terrorism and official Serbian policy. The ultimatum the Austro-Hungarian Empire gave Serbia was not, given its actions, unreasonable nor intended to be a poison pill no government could accept, a mere pretext for Austrian aggression. Likewise, Serbia’s seemingly near total capitulation really what it seemed.

The book confirmed my suspicion that the statements of British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey were a major factor. His pursuit of an English-French entente not officially sanctioned by his government, his vague statements, and inattention emboldened French belligerence – especially since French war plans counted on British troops from the beginning.

Clark’s book is concerned with the decision making processes, assumptions, and motives of his “sleepwalkers”. Thus, he eschews a lot of dramatic scenes. Still there are a few.

The book opens with the assassination of Serbian King Alexandar and Queen Draga in 1903 – and the conspiracy that killed them was started by the same man, Dragutin Dimitrijevi' aka Apis, who ran the operation that killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Clark also presents a fairly detailed picture of the assassination plot and that fateful day in Sarajevo. The dithering of the Czar, as to whether to order a full or partial mobilization, was well done too.

Clark, like Paul Ham’s 1914: The Year the World Ended, does not point to any impersonal historical faces as starting the war. Both make arguments about individuals and political institutions. However, Clark does briefly acknowledge that a peculiarly ‘brittle” notion of masculinity at the time may have made his players less liable to compromise and resolved to prove they could be firm when necessary.

While he reaches further back in time than Ham, to the Serbian monarchy of 1803 to be exact, Clark doesn’t cover the Fashoda and Agadir crises in as much detail. While Hew Strachan’s The First World War: Volume I: To Arms, covers domestic politics – especially how the socialist movements of France, England, and Germany responded to the possibility of war, Clark touches little on that.

Clark does answer some long contentions about the war’s origins. Germany’s naval arms race with Britain was already lost by the beginning of the war, and both countries knew it. The infamous German “war council” of December 1912 was just a lot of talk that came to nothing – as one of its participants predicted would happen that very night. The British government had, on occasion, expressed that it would allow a limited violation of Belgium neutrality to occur without war.

Clark also points out that all the “bellicose” statements other historians like to quote must be viewed in context. What may seem, on the face of it, as saber rattling can also be seen as shaking the alms cup for increased military budgets or assuring allies. And, speaking of allies, Clark reminds us that many of these alliances had tensions in them. Britain may have allied with Russia against Germany, but Russia was a competitor over China and Persia. It is that mixed nature of these alliances that caused them to shift. War, in a few more months, may not have broken out even if another Austro-Hungarian nobleman would have been killed by a Serb.

If there was not a general desire for war amongst the Continental powers of Europe, there was a feeling it was inevitable. Both the Austro-Hungarians and Russians believed this. But the Austrians accepted war’s necessity if Russian mobilized. Russia used the idea to justify pre-emptive strikes against Germany who, of course, was not, on the face of it, involved in the dispute between Serbia and Austria.

Clark writes in a clear style and probably makes this diplomatic history about as readable as you can given its scope and length. The maps are serviceable though the location of a few more cities would have been nice. There are photos of most of the principle actors, and the index is nicely detailed.
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LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
I was born in the mid 1950's and so, when I went to school, most of my teachers had served in WW II. I can understand that, for them, it was important that the other side was totally to blame. The second World War was almost a direct consequence of the first so, my history master was in no doubt as to the culpability of Germany when looking for the cause of the Great War. The many stories, in our comics, of brave British soldiers thwarting those sly underhand German troops simply confirmed a prejudice which was so prevalent, that we were unaware that it was a prejudice!

Almost fifty years later - I am not a great fan of war and have not rushed to re-educate myself upon such a dismal story - I was lucky enough to come across this excellent book. Christopher Clark begins without pre-conceptions as to the 'guilty' individuals, or nations. The book starts incredibly slowly, and I was tempted to lay it aside: thank goodness, I didn't. Having criticised the early chapters, I cannot see how the author could have done better: I certainly needed the background information therein to enable me to appreciate the arguments expounded in the remainder of the book.

As with any unbiased look at history, the book does not find an individual who is entirely to blame for events. No major nation, or politician/monarch comes out particularly well but equally, none end up with horns and a tail. The major problem seems to be that European nations felt that they had a God given right to carve up the rest of the world and that the only question was which of them got the biggest slice. The two world wars were almost necessary to burn this possessive attitude out of Europe.

I am sure that most of us know that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip was the event that finally lead to war but, this book shows the many sub plots circling ominously beneath the surface. Incidentally, the actual story of the assassination is an almost surreal chapter in itself. I will not spoil it with a clumsy paraphrase, but it is almost a comedy of errors!

In addition to a fascinating re-understanding of history, this book has an added relevance at a time when England appears to be doing her level best to break up a European governance. The inability of nation to speak peace unto nation: indeed, sometimes to speak to each other, was an undoubted factor in war. We sometimes mock the USA for delaying their entry into our European contretemps but, perhaps we should be grateful that they entered at all and be a little more cautious to ensure that we are not found needing them to rescue us again!
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LibraryThing member hhornblower
Short and sweet - The best non-fiction work I have ever had the pleasure to read.
LibraryThing member douboy50
If you only read one book on what led up to the outbreak of WWl this is the one to read. Clark provides a great deal of info not just from the diplomatic or military perspective. He also looks into the regular and sometimes rapid changes in leadership (Prime Ministers, Ministers of War, etc.) in the various major powers of Europe. Also noted is that the centers of power within nations would change; who is the Kaiser listening to today? After reading this book I really was able to understand how a very small number of men directed the destiny of Europe and the world at the time time....scary.

A fine read worth plowing through at times.
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LibraryThing member RobertDay
This is a complex and highly detailed account of the events leading to the outbreak of the First World War. As we approach the centenary of this event, it is a timely book, and I hope that the popular accounts of the events of 1914 that we are going to see in the next twelve months base their analysis in a large part on this book.

Clark starts with a blank slate, and draws out the various factors that led to war. Unlike many others, he starts with the assassination of the Serbian King Alexandar and Queen Draga in 1903 (which I was not previously aware of) by factions within the Serbian military. His narrative then continues to detail the acquiescence of the Serbian government which was prepared to countenance the presence of extra-legal groupings within the Serbian Army who acted outside of the chain of command. This was only partly because they were pursuing the populist policy of rebuilding 'Greater Serbia', they also shared with other European military General Staffs the opinion that they were the sole arbiters of military policy and were not subject to any oversight or control from the civil authority.

This theme is then taken up with the roles of the various monarchs in Europe, who enjoyed varying degrees of constitutionality but nearly all of whom considered that their opinions carried weight in determining foreign and military policy. As Clark develops his theme, he begins to outline the passage of events as the two major power blocs jostle for advantage, and in the course of the telling, exposes further weaknesses in the political systems of the time. He exposes the jostling for power and influence within the various European governments, though oddly he does not make the final step to highlighting the lack of what we now know as "collective responsibility"; yet this is another causative factor leading to war. The idea that Ministers in any Government now would not only plot and factionalise against their colleagues (which still happens) but would actually promote policies that were directly at odds with the declared aims and objectives of their leaders, is now unthinkable and would be political suicide for anyone so minded to do that.

Clark also highlights the role of the growing popular press in driving public opinion, and (late in the book) talks about the "accepted wisdom" of the time amongst political commentators and governments that Austria-Hungary was a nation in decline and had no right to demand that its legitimate national concerns be addressed by Serbia after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. There are some interesting hints that suggest that a general war could have been avoided; paradoxically, if Austria had gone to war with Serbia in July 1914, immediately after the assassination, then that might have been viewed as a justifiable punishment for an act that many tacitly recognised even then had shadowy figures in the Serbian establishment at its back. But delays in mobilising troops, issuing ultimatums and waiting for not only the replies but also the reactions from other European capitals meant that by the time Austria was ready to move, both militarily and politically, then others had activated their plans, drawn their conclusions and arrived at their political positions; and the dominos toppled accordingly.

The one thing he does not concentrate on directly is the effect of the arms race that took place between Britain and Germany in the twenty years leading to 1914. It is a subtext, but not specifically mentioned as a factor (though I was possibly looking for this, having recently read Robert Massie's 'Dreadnought', which covers that subject in detail).

I have found in the past that some authors have an irritating tendency to draw direct but not necessarily appropriate parallels with modern-day life and events when writing history. Clark's instances of this are comparative few, but they are well-drawn; given the extent to which history repeats itself, especially in a complex and multi-player arena such as Europe, I was pleased that I did not find this irritating. His modern parallels were well-chosen and thought-provoking.

Indeed, this book tells us as much about our modern situation. Throughout the book, I found myself considering events since 1914, and how we managed to avoid another war of such destructiveness. All the elements have been present at different times, especially since 1945; but perhaps because of the lessons learnt from the First World War, we have been fortunate to avoid such a general conflagration, especially when the risks are now so much higher.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
This is a compelling and comprehensive account of the origins of the First World War.

I imagine that we all learned at school that the war was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip. That certainly acted as the catalyst ("The shot that was heard all around the world" ...), but the political tinder had already been laid and would, doubtless, have sparked into fire sooner or later even without that assassination.

Clark gives histories of political developments over the previous forty years in all of the countries of Eastern Europe, setting the context for all of the conflicting tensions that were besetting the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the deep-rooted mistrust between Republican France and the monarchies of Germany Russia and Britain, whose kings happened all to be cousins and grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

All four of those countries had been pursuing ardent colonial ventures, and had already come close to conflict at various points around the world. A complex network of treaties (many with secret, conditional clauses) had kept the world functioning in relative peace for a while, but the clock was already ticking down to all out conflict.

Clark's book is fascinating, and goes into exhaustive detail (with more than 2,000 footnotes!), but never loses the reader's complete attention. The issues he addresses are complicated and extensive, but he explains them with great clarity.
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LibraryThing member konastories
Joy's review: Everything you could POSSIBLY want to know about how WWI got started, written very well and exceptionally well organized. More than 20 million people died during this war, but now not many of us know much about how it happened. Keeps you reading, but not fast because there's just so much information. Very glad I read this book as were all the members of our non-fiction book group. As is the case with almost every history book I read, it could use more maps...… (more)
LibraryThing member MichaelHodges
The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark – A review of 13 September 2014
This is a fascinating and enjoyable history that has been well researched from a multitude of sources. It appears as if it is the work of a lifetime. Do not despair this is truly an easy read. The true difficulty is how to retain the information over 565 pages of well-crafted text. To this end at the conclusion of my first reading I have compiled a timeline to aid in maintaining the cast and plot. The book notes cover 100 pages and the index is extensive at 30pp in length. A biographical would enhance the presentation and a full bibliography of references and additional reading would be welcomed. As is often the case, only a limited number of barely readable maps are included. The extent of European towns over which the action occurs is large. Locations of towns are relatively stable. More comparative before and after colored maps of country boundaries would be most welcome.
I have read a dozen or more books concerning the lead in to the first world war over the past five years and this one clearly is tops. The recent spate of books by McMillan, and Hastings are truly also in this upper class of books. All deserve to be read. Clark’s rendition appears to be well balanced as to cause and thus not seek to cast blame. Clark’s rendition of events is solidly based on more numerous sources than most and ties the conversations as verified in many cases from multiple original sources. Clark does not hammer out blame but we can all cast our voice and our own conclusions on the numerous and valuable sources so well presented. Let’s hope that the era of sleepwalkers in positions of the future are not to be repeated. Please no more Molte’s, Conrad’s or Grey’s please. At least Putin is an easy spell compared to the host of Russian Sleepwalkers that entered the 20th century!

Time Line to WW1
1870 Franco Prussian War- Bismarck
1878 Berlin Congress- - Serbia Statehood restored under King Milan
1885 Serbia invades Bulgaria
1882 Triple Alliance formed – Germany & Austria-Hungary & Italy
1887 Reinsurance Treaty- German Peace with Russia pro-claimed
Germany endorses Russian Aims to rule Constantinople eventually
1892-94 Franco – Russian Alliance formed
1903 Serbian King Alexandra & Queen Draga Assassinated- King Pytar I crowned
1904 Entente Cordial established between Russia & France
1905-06 Morocco (1) Crisis- French Claim their Area of Interest vs German
1907 Britain meets Russia to expand “Entente-Cordiale
1907-13 Dreadnoughts- British- German Naval Arms Race
1908 Daily Telegraph initiates Eulenburg-Wilhelm Conjectures
1908 Austria-Hungry seizes control of Bosnia & Herzegovinia from the Ottomans
1909 Bulgaria becomes independent from Ottoman Empire
1910 Montenegro becomes independent
1911 Morocco (2) – Agadir Crisis of 1 July
1911 Italy invades Libya starting 3 October
1912 Baltic Port – (Paldiski) Russo-German Meetings in July with Kaiser & Tsar
1912 First Balkan War starts- Balkan League vs Ottoman Empire on 8 October
League includes:/Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia/ with Russian Support
1912 Treaty of Lausanne,,stipulating Autonomy of Tripolitania & Cyrenia
1913 Treaty of London held in March to settle First Balkan War
1913 Second Balkan War over Macedonia starts on 16 June
- Bulgaria vs Serbia & Greece to recover land from first war
Romania & Turkey gain parts from Bulgaria, a Russian protectorate
1913 Bucharest Peace Treaty signed 10 August- Bulgaria loses much territory
1913 German Liman Mission to Turkey decried in December by Entente Cordiale
1914 28 June - Franz Ferdinand & wife Sophia assassinated in Sarajevo
1914 July – Kaiser Wilhelm takes summer sailing vacation on yacht in the Baltic
1914 Poincare & Viviani depart France on 20 July for state visit to St. Petersburg
1914 24 July – Austria issues ultimatum to Serbia
1914 28 July-Austria declares war on Serbia and bombards Belgrade next day
1914 30 July – Russia undertakes full mobilization in readiness for expected war with Austria-Hungary
1914 1 August Germany declares war on Russia & France
1914 4 August Germany violates Belgium neutrality at 8am
1914 4 August Britain sends Germany an Ultimatum to withdraw from Belgium at 7pm
1914 4 August at 11pm – Britain declares war on Germany for violating Belgium’s neutrality
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LibraryThing member sloopjonb
Good stuff, this, that took me through several aspects not generally considered, such as the internal politics of Serbia. Very thought provoking.
LibraryThing member ParadigmTree
This is an excellent book on the origins of World War I. The author focusses on the "how" rather than the "why" which results in a detailed account of the complex factors leading up to the outbreak of war, rather than a casting of blame. The style is highly readable and engaging, including interesting character sketches of many of the key players. Highly recommended if you have any interest in this topic.… (more)
LibraryThing member ted_newell
The Sleepwalkers account of events that made WW 1 possible is fantastic. Fantastic. Mental maps of the different decision-makers, done one by one starting with the Serbs. If you ever asked, "How could two murders in a back corner of Europe start such an all out bloodbath," you will know. Clark has frequent enough sidebars to current affairs that you the reader feel as if it could hardly have been a century ago. "How debacles happen." He also resists big picture, long term trend, sweeping generalizations in favour of what the leaders were thinking and who they were listening to. His agent-oriented perspective has the weakness, though, that it misses the biggest big picture. He overlooks the erosion of the common beliefs that had made Europe a united continent in the first place, the vacuumwhich made more or less continuous slaughter over 5 years possible.… (more)
LibraryThing member aleph123
It reads like a novel- but it is the first book that I read (my ignorance) that focused on the Balkan history leading to WWI in more than few pages

There are other books that I shared online that could complement this one, but it is worth reading per se, and easily self-contained, if you have a basic grasp of European history since at least Suleiman the Magnificent (albeit it could be worth reading at least about the relationship between Byzantium and the surrounding areas, e.g. Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, as well as Rus)

I read it in Italian (as this was the version available in a local library), but I look forward to reading it again in English, as occasionally the translation lost the thread with some more convoluted elements of European history.

Incidentally: at last, I had a less superficial appreciation of some of the jokes and remarks that I heard in Brussels from people coming from former Yugoslavia
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LibraryThing member annbury
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The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
by Christopher M. Clark
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.34

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5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid Examination of An Open Question: Was World War I Inevitable?, June 21, 2015

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This review is from: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Paperback)
Was World War I inevitable? This splendid and readable book argues that it was not, focussing a series of specific policy choices made by individual national leaders in several different countries. Taken together, these choices unleashed the maelstrom, but Clark suggests that different choices could have been made, and that a different and more peaceful outcome might have followed.

This brings us up against two key themes -- or more accurately points of disagreement -- in World War 1 historiography. First, there's what another reviewer succinctly describes as the powder keg vs. the match. The "powder keg" view argues that political and economic tensions in Europe in 1914 were so intense that war was inevitable, making the Sarajevo assassination and subsequent events nothing more than a trigger: had they not happened, something else would have done. The "match" view argues that a general European war was not inevitable, which makes Sarejevo very important indeed.

Clark argues that the match mattered a great deal, more by detailing what actually did happen than by presenting counter-factuals. For me, this was a compelling approach. His detailed presentation of the Balkan situation and of Serbian internal politics is particularly enlightening, suggesting that Austria's response was not as irrational as is often assumed. And his discussion of the domestic pressures working on various political leaders taught me a great deal that I did not know. As well as specific issues -- he argues that much of the British military establishment saw a European war as something that could stop Home Rule in Ireland -- he discusses the cultural and even personal pressures that worked on key actors. Overall, he describes a policy environment in which internal communications were poor and lines of command blurred -- an environment in which mistakes were all too possible.

Second, there is question of national war guilt, which has been a central issue ever since the Treaty of Versailles put all of the guilt on Germany. This was of course a major political issue in the interwar period, which tended to be pushed aside after World War II. But Fritz Fischer reopened the argument with a bang in 1961; in "Germany's Aims in the First World War", Fischer argued that Germany planned the war as a step towards European domination, making Hitler's policies a continuation rather than an aberration. The debate that Fischer opened up is still wide open. Some who disagree with him argue that another country (Russia, or France, or England) bore at least a large part of the responsibility, while others argue that war was triggered by a series of mistakes that left all participants (or no participants) responsible. All involved have tended to move towards more nuanced points of view, but big differences persist.

Clark's title makes it clear where he stands in this debate: "Sleepwalkers" argues that the war resulted from mistakes rather than intention, though several national leaders were only too ready to move towards the brink. The institutional issues are critical here, in that leaders did not have accurate information, and did not communicate clearly, on a national as well as an international level. Moreover, he describes a situation in which all the major players had belief systems -- different and contradictory belief systems -- which allowed them to convince themselves that highly aggressive actions were in fact defensive.

Overall, this is an illuminating and very interesting book. Any historian of course selects and arranges his evidence, and Clark does so quite brilliantly. I am not entirely convinced that the war could in fact have been avoided. But reading this book has certainly shown me how much individual misjudgements and random chance had to do with the war's outbreak,and how much Sarajevo really did matter.
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LibraryThing member maneekuhi
In the very last sentence of the book, Christopher Clark explains his title: "In this sense, the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing.....blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world." Note that I have abridged this solitary sentence. I did not find Clark to be as readable as I would have liked for a 562 page history of the causes of WWl; hence four stars. I had read Tuchman's "Guns of August" just a few weeks earlier, and came away from that book overwhelmed by the events of the first month of the War, yet unclear as to why it happened. In hindsight, I would have preferred reading Clark's book first. Later this year I intend to read "With Our Backs to the Wall" (about the War during 1918, following three years of trench battles), and finally "Paris 1919".

The causes and events leading to the outbreak of the War are indeed complex. Many countries were involved, major players (Germany, Russia, France, England, Austria-Hungary) and less major ones (the Balkans, Belgium, Italy, Turkey). European Wars were not a rarity, though they generally lasted for less than a year, sometimes only a few months. Many countries were ruled by monarchies, and the key player of the moment could be the king, prime minister, Foreign Minister, War Minister or an Ambassador - or some combination. And in some cases, the scorecard kept changing, rapidly. There were ententes, detentes, demarches, and inceptions. And Alliances. Most of the key players were involved in at least two alliances; I was particularly struck by how tenuous some of these alliances were as they became uncomfortable for some participants as events changed. I was amazed how dismissive government officials could be of time honored agreements that suddenly dictate unforeseen and costly entanglements. So part of the chess game became guessing how truly committed potential opponents (and partners) would be to alliances, formal and less formal.

Most of us know the simple answer to the question posed here - the assassination of Austria's Archduke. But where? by whom? and where was he from? But most importantly why? Clark begins his story with a few paragraphs on the event but then dives backwards into events leading up to that moment. 367 pages later, we now are treated to a more detailed, minute by minute account of the assassination, in reality a quasi black-comedy horror story. And then the chess game continues but at a much faster pace - incredibly WWl will be well underway in only 6 weeks. A war which will last four years and take twenty million lives. There were many moments in those six weeks when "if only" had truly occurred, war could have been paused at a minimum. Or perhaps limited to a local affair instead of a global one. Clark details all the reasons (and then some) why it did happen. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member oparaxenos
This book was hard going at times, with its huge cast of characters, but the effort was well worth it. Clark has done a tremendous job of research and has looked at the origins of World War I from a much different angle. He makes it clear how futile blind nationalism is as a policy-making tool.
LibraryThing member Daniel_M_Oz
This was a difficult book to rate as it was quite a fresh approach to the topic of how World War I started and was obviously well researched and the facts and author's interpretations of them were presented to inform the reader, but it was very dry and although a large book seems to suffer from being edited to keep its one volume but could have benefited form some further elaboration and summaries into 2 volumes. It is a difficult read for what is presented as a complex topic.

That said, I have still rated it as an excellent book as it presents the complexity of how WWI started and enables the reader to see the points the author is making about how Europe drifted into a global war. The usual simplistic reasons and blames for the start of the war are included but expanded upon both in detail and placed in context to make the reader to be able to see that the causes of the war were not simple and blame can not be attributed to one or two congeries or people.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
The debate about the origins of World War I lives on. Christopher Clark is the latest to provide an analysis. Unlike most of the other books on this topic, Mr. Clark hasn't assigned blame to anyone. As he says (pg. 561): "The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama....There is no smoking gun in this story, or rather, there is one in the hands of every major character."

I see many parallels today to the events leading up to the War. The difference is that, today, we have international organizations to help resolve disputes (although they are weakening); and we have the experience of past global conflicts, along with much more powerful technology.

I was also struck by how much influence a small number of people can have. What would have happened had Edward VII not died so soon after becoming king? What if the assassination attempt on the Arch Duke had failed? There is a point, undoubtedly, where forces are so aligned that no one person can stop them....but had we reached that point? It seems to me that World War I had no clear policy objective...did it really need to happen? These are the questions Christopher Clark leads the reader through. Very thorough examination of the origins of the Great War.
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LibraryThing member Richj
Well written, detailed examination of the elite political and military forces that led to WW 1. Well worth reading since some of the problems of that time are part of international relations today. Clark looks at who ruled in each country, what forces were in conflict in each country and what were the relations among the countries. The book covers the changes from the beginning of the 20th century (and before) to the start of the war. Clark is particularly good at using indirect evidence, such as friends diaries, to show what he thinks is the true situation. A book for the history buff who wants a detailed grasp of these events, As you read you will have enough information to form your own judgement of situations. The book focuses on the elite who wielded the power and does not cover the socialist and peace movements that were developing or their effect on the movement to war.… (more)

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