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  — 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.
 – “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.”
“The big question for modern life is: could we ever go back to a continental war?”
One major underlying current that produced World War I: industrialization made countries massively dependent on foreign imports for survival, but the global trade system was still very insecure. Germany, for instance, completely relied on the import of Chilean nitrogen for both military explosives and fertilizer. If the trade from Chile were to be cut off, Germany would cease to be a power. Her people would be hungry and her military could not function. There were many other examples of foreign resource dependency among the European powers. Yet access to resources was precarious – Britannia ruled the sea, colonial powers often excluded foreign countries from trading with the colony. Britain in turn feared losing control of the seas, and becoming dependent on the graces of other nations. The dependence on foreign resources combined with mutual mistrust created a sort of Highlander scenario (“there can only be one”). After two terrible wars, and one cold one, the U.S. now straddles the globe as “the one.” For now, access to resources for most countries is relatively secure, thanks to the U.S. hegemony.
For now, I think the chance of a war in Europe is remote. For one, birth rates are below replacement. That means people are precious, too precious to be ordered into machine fire. And with fewer people, there is less pressure on farmland and resources, so little incentive to conquer your neighbors for land. Second, I suspect that historians centuries from now will not view early 21st century European countries as independent countries. Rather, they will be viewed as semi-autonomous provinces of the American empire. America still maintains military bases in Europe, she exacts tribute in the form of the Bretton Woods dollar reserve system, she still dictates many global rules of trade, etc.
In general, one major cause of general peace these days is that there is no high-birth-rate, high-technology country. Countries with a material reason for fighting a war of conquest cannot do so (for instance, it would be massively in the interest of India to conquer Australia or Saudi Arabia, but India is not capable of pulling that off). Those countries with the technology, would rather spend their twenties drinking and playing video games than procreating and fighting real wars.
If you want to add more dimensions to your understanding of World War I, How the Diplomats Make War is a great read. The book was written in 1915 by a British journalist. It is a scathing critique of how Britain ended up in the war. You can then balance that book out by reading the memoirs of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister himself, another fascinating read. And then if you want a heterodox view of how America ended up in the war, check out the essay, Power and the Intellectuals. I generally do not trust Rothbard’s interpretations that much, but the quotes he cites are incredible. See the quote by Wilson’s son-in-law on page 3 of the PDF, and read the section on Richard Ely (page 23 of the PDF). Both are mind blowing.
I think for me part of the fascination with WWI is the broad cultural disillusionment it provoked. I find it absolutely fascinating to watch Edwardian pieties crumble away as people are exposed to the horror of the trenches and the stupidity of the continent’s leadership. Interesting reading along these lines (off the top of my head): Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory”, Robert Graves’ “Good Bye to All That,” and Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth.”