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The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

by Christopher Clark

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,657418,155 (4.23)122
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.
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English (34)  Spanish (4)  French (2)  German (1)  All languages (41)
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
There was a flood of publications marking the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War. Some notable ones focused on the question of how the war came about.
For years, my understanding of how the war happened was shaped largely by Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, in which she emphasizes the blunderings and misunderstandings of political leaders living in a world that seemed incomprehensibly exotic to us, living as we did in a post-WW2 era dominated by two great powers and mediated by strong international organizations. Now the world order has shifted again, perhaps it would be more accurate to say there is no order right now, and the pre-1914 world, with many centers of power and conflicting aims, seems more familiar to us.
At the outset, Clark makes the useful distinction between the questions of “why” and “how” the war came about. Traditionally, the discussion has focused on “why,” which to Clark minimizes the question of agency and places the focus on guilt. Clark proposes to pursue instead the question of “how.” The result is an extensively researched, detailed account, perhaps too detailed for some readers, but I’m glad I stuck with it until the end.
One of the emphases of his book is that there were at every stage options open to each of the parties, yet there was a universal tendency to push blame on the other parties. The result of the war assured that two of the countries involved, France and Britain, could dictate the terms in which the postwar narrative would be framed. Two other major players, Tsarist Russia and the Hapsburg empire, no longer existed in pre-war form, so blame was placed squarely on Germany.
Although Clark concludes that the attempt to blame one party is logically impossible, one of the insights the book brought me was the way in which France and Russia had built into their alliance a contingency that a Balkan incident would trigger a continental war. They “thereby tied the fortunes of two of the world’s greatest powers in a highly asymmetrical fashion to the uncertain destiny of a turbulent and intermittently violent state” (i.e., Serbia,549). This is just one of the ways in which Clark challenges the conventional account of the prelude to war.
Clark explicates his title in his closing sentence: those in positions of power in the European nations in 1914 were sleepwalkers, “watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring to the world” (551).
The length and pace of the book may throw some readers off, but if you are interested in history, this book is highly recommended. As a side result, you may become more than a little scared of how easily the posturing, inconsistency and lack of transparency among today’s powers could lead to a stumbling into a conflagration that would dwarf WW1. Not a thought for the faint-hearted. ( )
1 vote HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
Whoa, Bosnia, Serbia, turn of the 20th c., the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hope I can hold up under the weight of 800 some odd pages!
Finished. Very, very good and highly recommended if you have the interest and wherewithal! ( )
  tmph | Sep 13, 2020 |
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. ( )
  Daniel_M_Oz | May 6, 2020 |
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... ( )
2 vote thorold | Nov 28, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
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.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Christopher Clarkprimary authorall editionscalculated
Juraschitz, NorbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ljoenes, RichardCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Perkins, DerekNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
It was in the nature of great men, Paleologue would later write, to play such fateful games.  The 'man of action' he observed in his study of Cavour, becomes 'a gambler, for each grave action implies not only an anticipation of the future, but a claim to be able to decide events, to lead and control them'.
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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.

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