The path to catastrophe


HISTORY:The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 By Christopher Clark. Allen Lane, 697pp. £30

IT WILL SOON be 100 years since Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was gunned down by Bosnian Serb nationalists on Austrian-controlled territory at Sarajevo, along with his wife, Sophie, on June 28th, 1914. The event was shocking, but monarchs and presidents had been assassinated before. Why these killings triggered the “July Crisis” and plunged Europe into war remains a complex and enigmatic issue.

The complexity comes from the difficulty of linking the factors that made war possible (the balance of power, colonial rivalries, an arms race, and so on) to the decisions that brought it about. Historians range from seeing it as virtually inevitable, owing to the forces of history, to highly contingent, given the relative freedom of the decisionmakers to produce different outcomes. The enigma arises because few events show such a gap between intentions and consequences. None of the decisionmakers in July 1914 considered war to be inevitable or realised that, if it came, it would transform the world – hence the “sleepwalkers” in the title of this ambitious book by Christopher Clark, a professor of modern history at Cambridge University.

Clark is fully alive to the challenges of the subject. Planting himself at the contingent end of the spectrum, he prefers to establish how the war happened rather than to explain why by means of hindsight.

His method is to reconstruct the possibilities at play in the decisionmaking process and to show how contemporaries understood what they were doing.

It is a refreshing approach. He provides vivid portraits of leading figures. Several suffered acute nervous exhaustion owing to the enormity of the stakes in the July Crisis, including Conrad von Hötzendorf, the aggressive Austrian chief of the general staff, who relied on his long-standing affair with Gina von Reininghaus, a Viennese industrialist’s wife, to sustain him. Clark also gives a rich sense of what contemporaries believed was at stake in the crises leading up to the war. He shows that although certain trends predominated in relations between the five “great powers” (Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany and Russia) and two lesser powers (Italy and Ottoman Turkey), there were always alternatives.

Thus Germany was committed to Austria-Hungary, its junior partner and a bastion of Germanic influence in southeast Europe. But it also had much in common with tsarist Russia, not least a commitment to conservative values. Britain, its imperial power waning, felt threatened by the rise of a united Germany, and entered an entente with France and Russia, which had themselves become allies in a bid to curb any future expansion of German power. But the British remained willing to compromise with Germany over colonies, if not naval strength. Dozens of bilateral foreign-policy options shaped the balance of power and moderated the emergence of the two opposed alliances, with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy balancing France, Russia and Britain.

The system was mind-bogglingly complex, though the politics of the European Union run it close. Had war been unthinkable, as it is in the EU precisely because of two world conflicts, the crises before 1914 would have been the stuff of all-night negotiation and the face-saving fudge at dawn. That happened surprisingly often as the “great powers” used the Concert of Europe to restrain regional troublemakers and settle matters between themselves. But war was the ultimate sanction.

So why did the two coalitions go to war over the murders at Sarajevo? Clark’s view that multiple options were available at each stage before 1914 leads to the conclusion that war occurred not because of one policy or even one power but because of the cumulative effect of many decisions, whose tipping point was Sarajevo. Many historians would agree. The “war guilt” that the Allies laid on Germany at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and which was echoed by the work of the West German historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s, is not tenable. All the powers bought into a system whose default position was war, and all were increasingly sensitive to matters of prestige and public opinion and shared a sense that their own existence was threatened by the states in the opposed alliance.

This ought to suggest an even-handed treatment of all the states concerned. But it is here that Clark begins to make a rather one-sided case that ends up looking like the mirror reverse of Fritz Fischer’s view on German responsibility (and, in fairness, Fischer never pretended to write the history of the other powers).

Clark is sympathetic to Austria-Hungary, which he sees as a forerunner of a trans-national EU, but considers Serbia a rogue state against which Vienna was justified in defending itself. He has less to say about Germany, but places Russia and France firmly in the frame as the states that unsettled the balance of power because they protected Serbia. He overstates the case on the Serb government’s complicity in the Sarajevo murders and ignores the fact that, by contemporary understanding, the intention to eliminate Serbia as an independent state was a fundamental threat to the regional balance of power in the Balkans, which plugged directly into the line-up of the two continental alliances.

In Clark’s view, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and attacked Belgrade on July 28th, 1914, it was Russia and France that bore the main responsibility for the general war that followed because they chose to resist Vienna’s move.

This is not only a one-sided but ultimately an unconvincing argument because it ignores the dynamic role of Germany. As Europe’s powerhouse and most restless state, Germany was literally pivotal. “Encircled” by the Franco-Russian alliance, it felt vulnerable to the weakness of its principal ally, Austria-Hungary, whose multinational basis was threatened by the growth of nationalism, including that in Serbia. It was clear to many in July 1914 (including Jean Jaurès, the French socialist and peace activist, who was usually his own government’s biggest critic) that Austria-Hungary intended to destroy Serbia, that it could only do this because it had German backing, and that this would reverse the balance of power in the Balkans, leaving Russia and France with no choice but to respond. This they did with reluctance.

Germany by no means bore sole responsibility. But ignoring the role it did play makes little sense of the path that led to war.

John Horne is professor of modern European history and founding director of the Centre for War Studies at Trinity College Dublin. He published The Blackwell Companion to World War One in 2010 and edited Our War: Ireland and the Great War

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