At the moment there is a deluge of books attempting, so it would seem, to cash in on the outbreak of the 1914 war rather than to advance its study. "Sleepwalkers" is an exception to this. In the introduction to the book Christopher Clark writes that its purpose is not to explain why the First World War happened. Rather it is to show how it came about by looking at the complex relationships between the main players and the outcomes they produced, culminating in the declarations of war that brought about the war.
Complex the relationships certainly are. Clark's meticulously argued work though places the key focus on the Balkans and the relationships that developed and festered there between Austro-Hungary, Serbia and Russia. By 1913 several points emerge that would have an impact on the decisions of June/July 1914:
- Russia was becoming a growing threat to an increasingly unreliable stability between the Great Powers. It's apparent support for Serbia in the Balkan Wars alienated Austro-Hungary just as its incursions into Persia antagonised Britain. Thanks to French loans it was undergoing a massive programme of military rearmament and revival (at the time believed to be greater than it actually was). This in turn helped contribute to the German rearmament programme of 1913 which in turn led to further French and Russian expenditure on weapons and tweaking of war plans.
- The French saw supporting greater Russian involvement in the Balkans as in their interests for if war broke out between Russia and Austro-Hungary, Germany would become involved in support of Vienna. If Russia then tied up German forces in the east this would give France the opportunity to attack and defeat weaker German forces in the west.
- Recent experience had taught Austro-Hungary to believe that using a realistic threat of force was the only means of getting its way against an increasingly militant, nationalist and aggressive Serbia.
Clark shows that this need not necessarily have resulted in the catastrophe of 1914. In a careful study he shows that each country had supporters for and against the actual path followed and policies pursued. In several cases the countries had also displayed contrary policies to the ones that actually occurred in June/July 1914. There was a signal lack of clear leadership in each major power so that ambiguity of intentions and the nature of likely outcomes reigned as the final fateful decisions were made. Britain was perhaps the most perfidious of all, Foreign Secretary Grey encouraging Germany to believe Britain might not get involved, whilst at the same time leading France and Russia to think the opposite. The Alliances were uncertain, not always what they seemed to be.
It would appear that the generation born in the 1880's and 1890's and who would die by the millions were let down not just by the quality of the wartime military leadership but also by that of their pre-war politicians. As "Sleepwalkers" reaches June and July 1914 it is the politicians lack of prescience that brings the peace to an end. Clark suggests a key role in the encouragement French President Poincare gives to Russia as ensuring what might have remained a local Austro-Hungarian conflict with Serbia becoming a continental war.
And what of Germany, blamed at Versailles and focus of much finger-pointing by historians? The chapter on the "blank cheque" is clear in showing crucial initial German support for Austrian action against Serbia ie to support a localised, if not continental war. However what is implicit is that it was the resultant (and clumsy) actions of Russia, with French encouragement, that transformed what might have remained a local conflict into the Great Power continental one.
This is essential reading for students seeking to understand the outbreak of war beyond the classic long term/short term causes approach. It shows emphatically how the lack of clarity in political decision-making and a failure to understand the implications of decisions made, led Europe to fall into war, oblivious to its industrialised reality.
London Review of Books: Very comprehensive and valuable. By Thomas Laqueur, professor of History at the University of California
Washington Post: By Gerard DeGroot, professor of history at the University of St Andrews
linked casahistoria site: World War 1