Soldiers marching, and ships forming imposing lines. The photograph of ships is apparently 'The Great Fleet assembled at Spithead for the King's review, 18 July 1914.'

This book is simply a must-read. If you’re like most of us, you really have no idea why World War I happened; that certainly was the case for me going into this book. I knew generally that there were some alliances, and that the terms of those alliances dictated that various people attack various other people. My knowledge essentially reduced to this Onion headline:


Having read Christopher Clark’s magisterial [book: Sleepwalkers], I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I certainly have a decent sense of how the pieces fit together. Clark does a particularly admirable job trying to overthrow the notion — reinforced by the Versailles Treaty’s war-guilt clause [1] — that Germany was solely responsible for the war. He attacks this from any number of directions, foremost of which were 1) the French government’s hatred toward Germany, and especially Raymond Poincaré’s, 2) the media’s role in stoking the flames, 3) the various governments’ use of the media as a tool, 4) the fact that many different nations were mobilizing their forces, and that Germany by no means acted first.

To back up a bit … actually, let’s back way up. Why should you care about World War I? Why do I care about it, in particular? My interest in it is actually as a bookend to the “long 19th century”. Henry Kissinger’s Ph.D. thesis, [book: A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace] traces the story from Napoleon’s final defeat until the structure of post-Napoleonic Europe had been more or less tentatively worked out. Skating past a lot of detail that Kissinger really ably dives into, the basic gist is that you had the Austro-Hungarian Empire trying very hard to keep itself together while nationalism was on the rise; you had Europe casting a wary eye toward France, which had so recently dominated the continent; somewhere in the distance you had the Ottoman Empire, which was veering toward collapse from the mid-19th-century on; and you had Britain coming into its own after the Industrial Revolution. Every slight move by any one of these powers led to a cascade of counter-moves to try to keep the uneasy peace. Soon after Kissinger’s story ends, you have Bismarck unifying Germany, thereby introducing another complexity on the continent. And by 1914 the whole thing fell apart spectacularly. A very-long-term intellectual project of mine is to understand, in detail, how exactly that happened. Were the seeds of 1914 planted in 1789? How about in 1815? Hobsbawm would say, I think, that World War I was a natural outgrowth of the French Revolution.

All of that might still not explain why you should care. I didn’t realize exactly why I cared until I was well into Clark’s book. The big question for modern life is: could we ever go back to a continental war? We’re in a world now where Europe is bound, if nothing else, by strands of commerce. (Here’s where I’d want to dig into trade statistics from before World War I to see whether this story holds up. I recall, also, that there was more migration across European borders before the war than there has been since. The Great War seems to have shut down borders permanently.) Is there some way to bond European states in some permanent, automatic way by their self-interest? Or would the end of the euro, for instance, bring us back to the bad old days? (I should probably reread Mazower.)

Then World War I is important for the changes that it wrought on the Continent. The war exposed the instability in the Russian monarchy: within four years of the gunshots at Sarajevo, the monarchy was over and the Russians had sued for peace. And not long after the war, the Ottoman Empire was done, and Turkey was its own country. And of course World War II was in many senses just the second half of World War I, or at least a resolution to the disastrous treaty that ended the first war. Much of the world we live in today is an outgrowth of the world that the Great War formed. Tying the history of the world from the French Revolution to the EU together into a single coherent thread is something I’d very much like to do.

So to run through the days before war quickly: as everyone knows, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Hapsburg dual monarchy, on June 28th of 1914, thereby sparking the war. Clark starts, reasonably enough, with the runup to the assassination. Basically, preparations for the assassination ran deeply into the Serbian government — all the way to a man called Apis, who had earlier murdered King Alexander, and who died before a firing squad before World War I was over. The Serbian government’s complicity was known to all within days or weeks of the assassination. So first of all, it was by no means unreasonable of the Hapsburgs to declare war on Serbia. Point number one against the “it was Germany’s fault” argument.

Now the alliances fall in. On the one side you have France, the UK, and Russia. Exactly why France and the UK ended up on the same side is not at all obvious, and Clark picks it apart quite carefully. Indeed, the French had plans only a few years earlier to invade the UK. So maybe the hint to pick up from that is: history is not pre-determined. Next: why France and Russia? A substantial fraction of the book is devoted to answering just that question.

Russia was on Serbia’s side, though. Partly this gets down to dreams of a worldwide union of the Slavic peoples. And since Serbia was pretty clearly the bad guy in the assassination, this puts Serbia, Russia, France, and the UK on the opposite side from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And the French and British thought (whoops) that Russia would be a great and unassailable power within a few years, so they wanted to be on Russia’s side when the inevitable conflict came.

Now add in the final days of the colonial era, with the European powers all snapping up countries in Africa, Russia trying to control Afghanistan, Japan invading China, and everyone hoping to swoop in after the Ottoman Empire collapsed and control the coast of Turkey. Germany, having only really been formed from Prussia and some other states in the late 1800s, was getting systematically excluded from the spoils: the UK and France didn’t want anyone else horning in on their possessions. It’s not obvious that this should make Germany an adversary to the other great powers, but it certainly didn’t bring Germany into the fold.

Unpacking all of these stories, and dozens more, down to the detail of individual actors and with the elegance of a novelist, is the great achievement of [book: The Sleepwalkers]. Highly recommended.

[1] – “Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”