Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

June 17, 2014

This summer marks the centennial of the First World War, what historian Fritz Stern called, “the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.” In The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012), Christopher Clark, professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge, analyzes the political and diplomatic events that led to the July crisis and subsequent declarations of war. He presents a complex story where decision-makers acted on their perceptions of the state’s interests, often in the context of imperfect information, mistrust, and fear. No one person or country is to blame for war’s outbreak, Clark argues. His purpose is not to find the “smoking gun.” Instead, he says, there were many smoking guns held by many people. Additionally, Clark makes it clear that war was not the inevitable outcome of forces beyond human control. War resulted from chains of decisions made by people who knew what they were doing, but who may not have grasped the full implications of their decisions. Thus, the decision-makers were sleepwalkers, “watchful but unseeing.”

Clark’s book has many strengths. You come away with a good understanding of the instability and tension of the pre-war international scene, despite the Great Powers attempts to manage things by forming alliances. Ironically, these alliances did not lessen pre-war tension; they heightened it, but of course this is obvious only in hindsight. Part II of Clark’s book, “One Continent Divided,” details the political and diplomatic polarization of Europe between 1887 and 1907, and the subsequent series of pre-war incidents that both tested and reinforced the alliance system. These incidents included the First and Second Moroccan crises (1905, 1911), Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1908), the Liman von Sanders affair (1913), and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Clark details how each one of these incidents provoked a climate of fear and mistrust between the alliances and also within them. Incidents like these caused subtle policy realignments, like Russia shifting support from Bulgaria to Serbia in the Balkans, that later had serious consequences. In each of these political realignments and international incidents, decision-makers acted in what they believed to be their country’s best interests given their military, diplomatic, and imperial goals. They tried to advance their own country’s power while hedging against risks created by aggrandizement. Clark shows that this international system became increasingly unstable, particularly as actors found it difficult to gather accurate information about what other actors were doing.

Another strength of Clark’s book is his analysis of the fluidity of power within the executive departments of each country, particularly the five Great Powers. For example, we think of Russia, a highly centralized autocracy, as having been under the firm control of an all-powerful tsar. Clark shows that this was not the case. Monarchs wielded less influence over foreign and military policy than might be imagined. Foreign ministers, ambassadors, undersecretaries, and military chiefs-of-staff did as much or more to shape and communicate policy than their heads of state. For example, Russia’s tsar Nicholas II headed an executive department divided between warmongers like Krivoshein, the minister of agriculture, and diplomats like Sazonov, the foreign minister who eventually embraced mobilization. Intrigue within the tsar’s cabinet, the departure and arrival of new members, changing attitudes in response to international developments, clashing personalities, competing visions of the national interest and different strategies to attain it were all aspects of what Clark calls “the fluidity of power.” Who had influence, how much influence did they have, and at what moments did they exert their influence? The answer to all of these questions: it depends. Similar dynamics existed in the other European capitals. These contingencies made it difficult for governments to make decisions, and doubly difficult for other countries to understand what their rivals, and sometimes even their allies, were doing. Clark’s favorite word to describe this decision-making environment is “opacity.” This, he shows, heightened fears and created tension, further destabilizing the international system. Adding to the confusion was slow communication in the era of the telegram. This turned out to be an important factor as leaders set deadlines or relayed decisions to foreign capitals. In short, opaque decision-making and the cumbersome communications infrastructure of pre-war Europe did not keep pace with the fluidity of rapidly developing events, making it even more difficult for actors to assess reality and risk. Is today’s world any different?

A third strength of Clark’s book is the skillful way he portrays the central role of the Balkans in the lead-up to war. He does this in Part I of the book, “Roads to Sarajevo.” Control of the Balkans in the pre-war period was a three-way chess game between the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, each trying to protect its imperial interests. Yet the smaller Balkan states, particularly Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania had interests of their own that often conflicted with those of the Great Powers as well as with each other. Clark portrays Serbia as neither a villain nor a victim. Instead, Serbia comes across as having legitimate interests in the region, like gaining access to the Adriatic Sea and unifying the southern Slav peoples, yet endorsing or remaining indifferent to (the sources are not clear) pan-Slavic terror cells and engaging in atrocities against Albanian civilians during the First Balkan War of 1912. Because Clark does such a masterful job explaining the intricacies of balance-of-power relations in the Balkans, you understand why Austria-Hungary responded to Archduke Ferdinand’s and wife Sophie’s assassination with a declaration of war on Serbia. From Austria-Hungary’s point-of-view, the assassination of the relatively unpopular heir and his equally unpopular wife was the latest of a series of provocations attributed to Serbia. It demanded a strong response, or so thought most Austro-Hungarian leaders with strong German encouragement, in line with Austria-Hungary’s imperial interests in the Balkans. How this triggered a wider European war is the focus of Part III, “Crisis.”

If you like diplomatic history and don’t mind the tedium of keeping track of who is speaking to whom, when, and in what context, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is a terrific summer read. You will gain better understanding not only of the international scene in the pre-World War One period, but also of how diplomacy works, how states develop and articulate their interests, and how actors often use subterfuge (“mendacity” is Clark’s favorite word), even within their own governments, to advance their perceptions of the state’s interests. The book leads you to think beyond the pre-World War One period to consider how similarly diplomacy must work throughout time, even today. To what extent does the fluidity of power continue to vex diplomats trying to solve complex problems? How are today’s misunderstandings, mendacities, and miscommunications affecting international developments? To what extent are foreign policy decisions in today’s capital cities true reflections of a state’s interests aligning with reality? To what extent are they only the perception of state interests by certain actors in government operating on assumptions that may be outdated or on information that is imperfect, even erroneous? How much information can governments know, and how much do they need to know, to make accurate assessments of reality and risk? Are today’s decision-makers sleepwalking toward any calamities?