I came to read The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, under somewhat unusual circumstances: it was pressed upon me by an elderly business client with similar historical interests, fresh from his very recent diagnosis with a terminal illness. With remarkable equanimity, he told me of his grim prospects while passing me the volume. “I tried but I couldn’t really get into it,” he confessed. I flipped through it while we chatted and at first blush it was indeed daunting: the trade paper edition he handed me was packed with 562 pages of dense, small type, not including the nearly 150 pages more of notes and index.
World War I – the “Great War” before they started numbering them – has only lately come to intrigue me, as it recedes ever deeper into the distant past and its centennial is upon us. I have read something of the causes of the conflict – most recently To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild and Europe’s Last Summer by David Fromkin – but I have much to learn. So I started on Sleepwalkers, driven also by a kind of obligation to read it, despite its intimidating format and size, due to the context of how it came to me.
The author has divided Sleepwalkers into three distinct parts. After the “Introduction,” “Part I” opens with a brutal regicide and coup that sees the king of Serbia and his queen ruthlessly murdered and immediately supplanted by a rival royal family, one far more antagonistic to their giant though somewhat wobbly neighbor, the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire, a mammoth if somewhat archaic collection of nations and nationalities that dominates central Europe in sheer immensity if not political power. The exciting launch turns almost at once into a somewhat dull narrative pregnant with detail of names and places and events that explores the history of the troubled relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the context of Balkan entanglements. I was interested enough to persevere, but I could well understand why others might at this stage abandon the book, for while the material is encyclopedic the prose is less than compelling. Still, patience pays off as Clark does a truly masterful job as a historian recreating the complex background and the interplay between a conservative Habsburg monarchy that resists change in the interest of stability and an essentially radical Serbian regime that dreams of a “Greater Serbia” to dominate the Balkans with a fervor that seems to welcome any cost to suit that end.
There truly is much to learn about. For instance, I knew that the “Dual Monarchy” that united Austria and Hungary only dated back to the mid-nineteenth century, but I did not know much about how it worked – or often failed to work! I never knew that there was a Cisleithania as well as a Transleithania – the historic Austrian and Hungarian environs respectively – nor that the empire had eleven official nationalities: “Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles and Italians.” [p.66] (I never heard of a Ruthenian before!) The roots of pre-war instability as well as postwar fragmentation are all represented here in details that are mostly overlooked in other accounts to the lead up to the war. The most significant event here – the annexation in 1908 by Austria-Hungary of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Ottoman province already administered by the Habsburgs for three decades – is addressed by most treatments of this era yet it is Clark’s painstaking portrait that reveals why this is such an explosive catalyst to all that is to follow.
In his introduction, Clark announces that “Part II,” which represents the bulk of the volume, “. . . breaks with the narrative approach to ask four questions in four chapters: how did the polarization of Europe into opposed blocs come about? How did the governments of the European states generate foreign policy? How did the Balkans – a peripheral region far from Europe’s centres of power and wealth – come to be the theatre of a crisis of such magnitude? How did an international system that seemed to be entering an era of detente produce a general war?” [p. xxviii] In response to these rhetorical challenges he succeeds superlatively and the narrative – freed from self-imposed chronology and other restraints – rebounds from its sometimes plodding course in the first part to take on with an exceptional verve the greater themes of how Europe managed to tumble into a war which all prepared for diligently while failing to anticipate the scale of catastrophe that was to follow, which is why the meticulous account Clark produces of pre-war Europe becomes so magnetic for the reader whose interest is piqued.
Often, my greatest complaints with books of history are a dearth of maps and the attendant referenced place-names in the narrative that are conspicuous in their absence on any chart of frame of reference. Sleepwalkers is no different in this regard, but Clark redeems himself admirably with the few maps he does include, such as the pair [p. 122] at the start of “Part II” that in one contrasts graphically the loose and evolving relationships among the Great Powers in 1887 – there is a “Reinsurance Treaty” between Germany and Russia! – with the more structured and inflexible Alliance Systems that had been carved out by 1907 and were to imprison these same Great Powers by obligations to friends that concomitantly ensured resultant enmities. Every student of the war should study these maps: even without accompanying text it becomes clear that the powers – trapped by their treaty commitments – had lost the free will of diplomacy that once prevented a general war from breaking out in Europe.
Even more dramatic are the three maps [p. 254-55] that illustrate the Balkans in 1912 and their transformation after the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13. There is a kind of epiphany for the reader contained here: one glance at the first map reveals that in 1912 a vast swath of southern Europe north of Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire; in map three only a tiny corner hugging Constantinople remains. In between, two opportunistic wars dismantle what remains of Ottoman Europe and these bits and pieces become part of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece – and give birth to the newly independent nation of Albania. Add to this mix the recent declaration of independence by Bulgaria in 1908 after thirty years of autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, and the previously mentioned ill-advised Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina that same year, and it becomes increasingly clear why instability was inherent in the Balkans — and by extension all of Europe – after these Balkan Wars which, quite curiously, earn hardly more than a passing reference in most texts about this era. Such a radical redrawing of the Balkan map is naturally a recipe for turmoil, even aside from the prevailing strains of nationalism, yearnings for ethnic identity and historic antipathies of one group for another.
More than a chronicle of territorial churnings, “Part II” treats the reader to a comprehensive survey of the governments of the Great Powers on the eve of the war years as well as their complicated history of diplomatic entanglements. The complexity at the top levels of each nation’s governing body is quite surprising, especially since it comes to seem that with the truly critical life-and-death strategies that determine war or peace, the constitutional democracies of France and Britain turn out to be little different than their authoritarian monarchial counterparts in Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. On all sides, the most significant policy seems to be guided by shadowy members of cabinets, advisors and diplomats rather than the actual heads of state. In Serbia, of course, there actually was a clearly defined powerful shadow arm of the government known as the “Black Hand” which wielded enough authority to serve as architect to the famous assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that was to give spark to the by then well-dried tinder of great power political hostilities.
Clark’s narrative also nicely resurrects the key players and policies in the often overlooked Russian and Ottoman empires, as well as the tension between these two that is rarely referenced even tangentially. It is fascinating to see how the other European states sought to keep the Ottomans – known as the “Sick man of Europe” – afloat in order to ensure stability and the balance of power, often to the detriment of Russian interests. Moreover, it is remarkable how both friends and enemies alike misjudged the pace of modernization and what they perceived as the rapidly emerging strength of Russia, which later proved to be quite illusory. Nevertheless, “Part II” is sometimes clumsily encumbered by a crushing weight of data and detail, names and places, dates and events. This tends to underscore the great shortcoming to this otherwise magisterial work: a biographical index of the enormous cast of characters that populate this work is in my opinion absolutely essential for the reader’s ready reference to track these figures, their titles and their roles in the drama. Less critical but also helpful would be additional maps and a detailed timeline.
Sadly, “Part III” – which takes us from the assassination in Sarajevo to the start of hostilities – is the weakest segment of the book, especially as the narrative winds up. It is as if the author, who has said so much over so many pages, has run out of steam. Whereas most other historians roundly place the blame for starting the war on Austria-Hungary and what has long been perceived as her malevolent instigator, Germany, Clark clearly wants to spread the responsibility more evenly and in that he generally succeeds. But if all of the nations shared some element of culpability does it then follow that such accountability should likewise be shared equally? Here I would unequivocally say no.
Perhaps in overcompensation for the past sins of others, Clark places far less responsibility on Germany and far more on Serbia, the catalyst. As such, he actually takes on the consensus both of historians and contemporaries that Serbia could not possibly retain sovereignty and accept the Austrian ultimatum that led to war. Instead, Clark downplays the latter, making what I consider a wildly illogical contrast to NATO’s ultimatum to Serbia-Yugoslavia in the 1999 “Rambouillet Agreement” some eighty-five years hence by way of arguing that Austria’s demands in 1914 were not nearly as harsh. I suppose it would be no less ludicrous to compare these to Alexander’s demands upon Thebes before his siege and sack of that city in 335 BCE, but it would be no more helpful either.
But the real central blame, Clark seems to argue, should be placed upon Russia, whose machinations behind the scenes in her rivalry with the Ottomans, hostility to the Hapsburgs, alliance with the French and encouragement of Serbian revanchism provoked the greater instability that finally was to tinder the conflagration of the Great War. Here too, I remain less than convinced. Most historians of the era focus upon the aggressive intrigues and paranoia that lived in the German court, but with all of the dizzying detail included in this thick book, Clark spends less time on Germany than its key rivals, and whether he means to or not the result serves as a kind of apologist for the German role in waging total war at the outset of what might have been contained as a regional conflict. Unfortunately, more is implied by way of the concluding chapters than is categorically asserted by the author in support of a distinct argument.
Clark does succeed brilliantly by reminding the reader again and again that European alliances and enmities existed over ever shifting ground. Pre-war events in our mind are often frozen in 1914 because we know what came next, but had the Archduke’s untimely end came a year earlier or a year later the subsequent repercussions might well have been very different. Indeed, in the early 1890s it seemed more probable that England would form an entente with Germany rather than France. Clark argues quite convincingly that: “Crucial to the complexity of the events of 1914 were rapid changes in the international system . . . These were not long-term historical transitions, but short-range realignments.” [p.557] And in a digression on Balkan geopolitics in 1913, Clark tellingly points out that: “Given time, the new Balkan alignment might just as quickly have made way for further adjustments and new systems. What matters is that this particular pattern of alignments was still in place in the summer of 1914.” [p.279]
A century after the Great War detonated Europe’s long nineteenth century and inaugurated decades of bloody horror in the twentieth, Clark’s outstanding book on its roots should remind us of the intricate linkage between nation states in a global environment and how delicate and fragile coexistence can be amid such complexity. This is an especially chilling thought, I would suggest, because a hundred years after Sarajevo, we remain so much like these people and states of those days, except for the styles of clothes we wear and the nuclear weapons we now stockpile.
Postscript: This review is dedicated to Don Burke of Somers CT who gave me this book and died on March 18, 2015, one week after I finished reading it.