Book Review: The Sleepwalkers

Sleepwalking into Tragedy: A focus on the ‘how’, rather than the ‘why’ of pre-WWI Europe

TVR Books | Jessica Spiegel | July / August 2013

For as long as history has been recorded, those writing it down have sought lofty justifications and simplified reasons behind tragic events.

That is certainly the case with World War I—an affair that on the eve of its hundredth anniversary, has already inspired some 25,000 books, all striving to explain an event that quite literally reconfigured the world.

Sleepwalkers, a newly published volume on pre-war Europe by Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, doesn’t offer such theoretical comforts.

While many scholars view the causes of the war through the lens of decaying empires, simmering nationalism, high finance or advances in armaments, this book tries – and largely succeeds – in sidestepping the "why" and focusing solely on the "how."

Events unfold as the consequence of individual decisions and – with a cast comprised of everyone from Serbia’s charismatic Nikola Pašić to Germany’s childishly impulsive Kaiser Wilhelm II,  to all the ambassadors and foreign ministers in between – the build-up to the Great War is told as a sweeping tale soaked in agency.

Even with a lineup of interesting characters, it’s hard to stay neutral in such a complex story without losing the reader. The book jolts us awake in the first chapter with the gory murder of King Aleksandar and his wife at the royal palace in Belgrade 11 years before the outbreak of war.

From there the conflicts of the Balkan Peninsula unfurl, putting Serbia at the epicentre of a region muzzled by the proximity of three great powers, yet engulfed with expansionist ambitions both historical and new that could not be satisfied peacefully.

Although an aggressive Serbia sets the mood, no one culprit possesses the stage or holds the smoking pistol. Just as explanatory on these pages are Italy’s unprovoked decision to invade Ottoman Libya in 1911, imperialist land-grabs in Persia and China, and Germany’s resolution to build a formidable navy as European allegiances solidified in the early years of the new century.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the magnitude of the Balkans – a region that straddled a seething fault line between Russia and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires – in Clark’s account of the build-up to war. A destabilising event in this relatively narrow swath of land could, and did, have the power to bring the rest of the world to the brink.

Clark offers a number of challenges to established causal convictions surrounding the pre-war era. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, for one, seemed not inspired by fear of an empowered Austrian Empire that would be unleashed by the replacement of the stodgy Emperor Franz Joseph, but more that a liberal leader would dash pan-Serbian hopes of uniting a greater Serbia.

Whether or not the assassination of the heir apparent was in fact the trigger that ignited the war, it succeeded in removing the loudest pacifist voice of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, thus making way for brash hawks like Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf. Clark uses minor tangents to explore what seem to be his personal character obsessions – a few pages on Hötzendorf, for example, tell the story of a man who fell so deeply in love with the wife of another that war-mongering became a mechanism through which to win her love.

Some of Clark’s most enlightening words radiate from the dying embers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – which, it turns out, were not all that set on burning out. Following on the heels of books like Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor, which bathe the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a tone of inevitable doom, Clark’s instead washes Austria’s past in a more lively realism.

The empire, in fact, seemed quite successful in bringing together a dozen languages and ethnicities peacefully around a political centre and, as Clark proposes, never approached the degree of ethnic tension in Russia or Belfast at the time.

In contrast, Austria proved remarkably successful at maintaining an "equilibrium of well-tempered dissatisfaction" during a time of relative economic prosperity.

More decisive than Austria’s internal rot was its decision to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, which soured Austro-Russian relations within the context of Balkan containment.

Right before embarking on the Sarajevo assassination – the obvious climax of the book – and the final month of peace that followed, Clark makes room for several observations, most notably one on the "crisis of masculinity".  An "accentuation of gender roles," Clark notes, may have imposed intolerable burdens on some men, inciting the obsessions, vacillations and mood swings so crucial to the decision-making of key players.

While these pages present a departure from the tone of the rest of the book, they propose comments more than theories; if Clark were to harbor any personal hypothesis behind the causes of World War I, it seems to be his belief that the relative calm of the final years of détente encouraged decision makers to underestimate the risks associated with their decisions.

Sleepwalkers is a monument to academia (over 130 pages are dedicated to references), and it’s easy for a broader audience to get lost in the sea of names, dates and documents.

Moreover, in following such an obediently impartial account, one realises why the human mind longs for sweeping explanations, malicious culprits and a grave to bury guilt: The mental discomfort that fills the void left by unvoiced rationales challenges the norms of historical understanding.

But in weaving a World War I narrative from the threads of individuals and events rather than themes or movements, Sleepwalkers accomplishes something else useful. From the story of irredentist terrorists to shortsighted leaders to rapidly changing political alliances, turn-of-the-century Europe was not a world shrouded in antiquated otherness.

The assassins responsible for Franz Ferdinand’s death were rebels from an impoverished country overshadowed by a great power. Terrorist cells sprang from idealistic sentiments operating increasingly outside of government control. Regimes lost their grip on porous borders.

Politicians walked a precarious line between wooing domestic support and appeasing international orders.

And as world leaders marched, like sleepwalkers, deliberate but unknowing into a quandary they themselves had created, it gives one pause to realize that there is no single cause, no all-encompassing theory that explains why this happened. Our world is made of elements, each building upon and weighing down on a pre-existing infrastructure.

Sleepwalkers helps us understand that this infrastructure is not made of stone.


The Sleepwalkers

by Christopher Clark 

Harper (March, 2013), pp. 736     


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