Sleepwalkers: A book review

Sleepwalkers cover

It’s been more than 40 years since I read Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Guns of August, about the days leading up to  World War One.  Though others have written about the causes of World War One since the book’s publication in 1962, none have reached the level of popularity as Tuchman’s classic narrative. But we approach the centenary of Gavrilo Princip’s shots that sparked the crisis leading the world into cataclysm in June, and the inevitable reassessment  of events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife that catapulted Europe into calamity are appearing on booksellers’ shelves.

The first of these was Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.   It is the most important book written on this topic. Clark eschews the need to assess blame for the beginnings of arguably the most disastrous event of the twentieth century.  Rather, he carefully examines the context for each of the important participants in that summer of 1914.  And he doesn’t just stick to the major players-Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain, putting Serbia under the microscope.  Most importantly, Clark doesn’t look for easy answers.  His thesis is that one cannot look to the Entente or Central Powers and hope to find a guiding reaction to the Sarajevo shootings.  Each nation was guided by self interest, sometimes contradictory self-interests, that blinded them to understanding European relations as a whole, or even appreciating the conditions within their own alliance.

Two examples of this most impressed me.  The opening chapter of the book is devoted to understanding Serbia, the nature of Serbian leadership and that nation’s desire for power, the mythic delusion of victimhood and quest for a pan-Serbian homeland centered in Belgrade.  Traditionally, we are left with an image of poor Serbia desperately defending itself against a rapacious Austria-Hungary seeking to gobble up the Balkans, using the assassination as a pretext.  Clark paints a much different picture. with Serbia emerging from the Balkan Wars as a regional power, flush with French loans and armaments, the nation is incensed at Hapsburg annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Franz Ferdinand is portrayed as a conciliatory figure, favoring a third monarchy  of the Empire in the Balkans, included Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Further, Princep’s Black Hand was a covert arm of Serbian intelligence, the assassination planned with Serbian assistance. Based on  Clark’s analysis, Serbia must shed its mythic status of victim and grasp some responsibility for the igniting the war.  Clark’s portrait of Serbia’s actions, both as a regional power, with its vision of a mission to unite all Serbs everywhere, including in other countries such as Bosnia, Albania and other parts of the empire, remind one of Hitler’s quest to free the Germans of the Sudenland in 1938, and the vicious blather of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s that plunged the former members of Yugoslavia into a decade of bloodshed.

The other argument Clark makes was the lack of unanimity within the alliances themselves.  There was no “I go, you go,” certainty that if Austria-Hungary was invaded the German were sure to follow.  However, the situation is much murkier in the case of the Entente.  As the story goes, once Germany mobilized against Russia, France was dragged in, Germany invades Belgium and in come the British.  Not so fast, according to Clark.  By 1914 Russia’s expansionist rivalries with England were renewed in Central Asia and in Persia, and Britain began to reconsider her commitments to the Entente.  In addition, the cabinet and the leadership of the military were split over the question of Irish Home Rule, and there was real doubt whether the army could be deployed to Europe or whether it would have to go to Ireland.  In addition, there was a belief the German invasion of Belgium would not proceed through central and northern Belgium toward the Scheldt estuary and Antwerp, but simply dodge the Ardennes Forest and the most populated areas of that country.  Foreign Secretary Edward Grey began to question whether Great Britain had an interest in the unfolding disaster.  Only when reminded that France stripped its north coast of defenses after guarantees of Royal Navy protection, and the Germans began to pound the Belgian defenses at Liege, did Grey concede the necessity for action.

Sleepwalkers is not for the faint-of-heart.  It is a challenging read.  Filled with many, many Slavic names and pages of minute details, it is, at times, difficult to follow.  I certainly see a re-read in my future.  I even took a brief break from it at mid-point.  But I found it to be eminently fair to all parties, scholarly, with no stone left unturned to demonstrate the complexity of  interests of each of the participants in the tragic summer of 1914.

Highly recommended.  Five of five stars.


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