Books | The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

All history is contemporary history. The official line is that commemorations of the outbreak of the Great War, one year away, are to be done without blame. It is to be an unjudging perspective from the now Europe of Schengen, NATO and Angry Birds. But that is not how humans see the world. The act of perception itself requires difference, and judgement is inescapable. Decent history means trouble. 

Hew Strachan, Professor of the History of War at Oxford, in debate with A. L. Kennedy in The Observer, makes declaration that ‘Britain entered this war conscientiously and reluctantly, for good strategic reasons, but also for ones that reflected its understanding of international law, and its determination to uphold the rights of small and neutral country.’ Kennedy in riposte dislikes the events for July 2014 ‘being packaged as a cultural event … more about influence, spectacle and spin.’

The historians diverge. Back in 1961, Fritz Fischer put the weight of blame on his own Germany. Gary Sheffield, Director of Military History at Birmingham University, states ‘Britain is going though a period of historical amnesia … we should be under no illusion as to how dangerous an enemy Germany was.’ Sir Max Hastings: ‘the Germans were certainly willing for [war]. They were the one nation in Europe who had the power to stop this if they’d chosen. It seems a cop-out not to explain this to a new generation.’

‘The Crisis of 1914 was so tangled’ says the author of The Sleepwalkers, ‘that there is always enough complexity to keep the argument going.’ But facts remain. On 28th July 1914 Clark depicts Emperor Franz Joseph in residence at the Imperial villa at Bad Ischl. With a quill pen made of an ostrich feather, he signs a declaration of war against Serbia. Clark, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, gets the numbers down in his very first paragraph: sixty-five million troops mobilised, three empires demolished, twenty million military and civilian deaths, twenty-one million wounded. 

That summer of ninety-nine years ago is the most scrutinised in history. A study published by Oxford University Press in 1991 put the numbers of published books and articles at twenty-five thousand. The Sleepwalkers is a monument of a book. Its purpose is to dig into the deep causes that preceded war.  

The Sleepwalkers Review
The Sleepwalkers
by Christopher Clark
697pp, Allen Lane

Then, as now, politics beyond the Danube were little known or understood. The Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 preceded Franz Josef’s ominous signing. Clark links these campaigns to the invasion of Libya by Italy in September 1911. He traces the trajectory of events behind Franz Josef’s act at Bad Ischl, and locates it in the defeats in battle of the Habsburg Empire at Solferino in 1859 and Koenigsgraetz in 1866.

Clark’s narrative moves to Belgrade and the key date of 11th June 1903. Twenty-eight officers attack the Royal Palace in an assault on the ruling Obrenović dynasty. Clark creates a vivid bloody two-page description. History writing of quality swings between high policy and sharp detail, and Clark is a master. He finds Sigmund Freud in Vienna in 1914 declaring ‘For the first time in thirty years I feel myself to be an Austrian …  All my libido is dedicated to Austria-Hungary.’

Of Pašić, the dominant figure in Serbia’s febrile politics, Clark writes that his ‘unsophisticated speech and slow-burning wit, not to mention his luxuriant, patriarchal beard, were marks of an almost supernatural prudence, foresight and wisdom.’ In Montenegro the King is dressed in a uniform of red and blue, gold and silver. Clark describes him enjoying a cigarette at dusk ‘in front of his palace, hoping to chat with a passer-by.’  

Monarchy is key to his description of this Europe, and key also to his theme, the sheer instability of the continent’s political structure. Of the continent’s six powers all, bar France, are dynastic states of varying hue. All six nation-states hacked out of the banishment of the Ottomans back to Thrace are monarchies. Power in this kind of polity looks impressive but the façade masks high disorder. Clark’s various ministers and potentates are reminiscent of Iraq’s Minister of Defence who first learned of his country’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 via news on television.   

Franz Joseph immerses himself year on year in mountains of paperwork, an activity of unending industry that precludes bringing any strategic grasp or intent to the role. France Foreign Ministry is the fiefdom of a few family clans. When a talented politician ascends to his nation’s presidency that marks the end of his influence on foreign policy. The powers that control the Quai d’Orsay do not admit their President.

The most complex figure is that of the Kaiser. Clark is already author of a praised, and best-selling, book on Prussia and Wilhelm. In a letter to future monarch, Edward VII he writes ‘the Foreign Office? … I am the sole master of German policy.’ In 1898 Wilhelm is already in Damascus pledging common cause with Turkey, preparing for the great Anatolian Railway, and rattling the fears of the Russian and British Empires with their large Muslim populations. Clark catches the strange, evasive, cat-and-mouse relationship between the Kaiser and his many Chancellors.   

‘I shall never be able to understand how it happened.’ That was Rebecca West. She was standing on the balcony of Saravejo’s Town Hall in 1936. Clark’s book is testament to the complexity of his history. The tradition of Germany’s culpability was laid down in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Clark is on the other side: the outbreak of war in 1914 is ‘not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking gun in his hand.’ He does not disavow the Fritz Fischer school, that stresses his compatriots’ belligerence and paranoia. But it is a part of a bigger picture. Clark indeed views the pursuit of a guilty party as a futile pursuit. Besides, to be the cause of an outcome is not the same as willing that outcome, legal and ethical standpoints agree.

If there is a judgement, it is the reverse. The Europe of that time is lacking the structures that endow holders of office with the span of power to match the role. Sir Edward Grey in the Foreign Office works on an Anglo-French military pact that is kept secret from most members of the Cabinet. Indeed, during that taut July of 1914, the decision-makers in Britain are absorbed in an issue closer to home; in May the Irish Home Rule Bill has passed in the Commons but has been rejected by the Lords.

The present day likes to dip into history for present purposes. Clark makes occasional mention of the context in which he writes – and the book was written at the time of the Euro Crisis. But he does not go in for facile analogy. What history should tell us is the sheer unknowability of the past, an unknowability not helped by its retrospective re-making. Haig retouched his diaries so that they came into accord with what, in fact, came about. Clark reports on a key telegraph from the Russian Ambassador that had its wording retrospectively amended and its time of authorship crucially back-dated.

There are no easy conclusions. He narrates how, after the Compromise of 1867, Hungary engaged in aggressive Magyarisation. Grievances in Bosnia-Herzegovina may have been justified on the basis of its disadvantage, far from the Empire’s wealth. But Clark records how the Austrians built nearly two hundred schools and training colleges.

For most of us, contact with the men and women in power – if it exists at all – is occasional and tangential. Conrad von Hoetzendorf, Austrian Chief of Staff, is identified in A. J. P. Taylor’s account as one of the three men who were the cause in making the First World War (another, Graf von Schlieffen had died in January 1913.) The Hoetzendorf in Clark’s telling is a personality swung between self-doubt and depression. He finds an outlet in mountain walks and ‘sketching steep slopes shrouded in dark conifers.’ The decision-making is confused and disputatious. With hardly a smidgeon of representative government, power is located within elites, most of the main players are monarchical appointees and favourites.

The Sleepwalkers is monumental in size, compelling in thesis and vivid in execution. Pushing the deeper causes of the war back in time and eastward in geography it renders the remote real and the far-away close. It is the book for July 2014.