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

Fifty years ago, Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller The Guns of August taught a generation of Americans about the origins of the First World War: the war, she wrote, was unnecessary, meaningless and stupid, begun by overwhelmed, misguided and occasionally mendacious statesmen and diplomats who stumbled into a catastrophe whose horrors they couldn’t begin to imagine – ‘home before the leaves fall,’ they thought. It was in many ways a book for its time.
Tuchman’s story begins with Edward VII’s funeral on 20 May 1910. The king’s sister-in-law, the empress consort of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III, was there. So was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the aged Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. And so was Edward’s least favourite nephew, Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm loved and admired the British and they loved the kaiser: to him, theTimes said, belongs ‘the first place among all the foreign mourners’; even when relations were ‘strained’, he ‘never lost his popularity amongst us’. Four years before Armageddon the German emperor was decidedly not the antichrist he would become. The book ends with the Battle of the Marne – ‘one of the decisive battles of the war’ – which ended the German hope for a quick victory and set the stage for four years of deadlock and misery.
Tuchman says nothing about Austria-Hungary and Serbia on the eve of the war, and nothing about the Russo-Austrian and Serbo-Austrian fronts once it began. ‘The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war,’ she thinks, and in any case nothing much happened there in the period she covers. More surprising is that in the first third of the book there isn’t a word about Serbia. The assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 goes by in two sentences, one of which, a quotation from the oracular Bismarck, may be all she needs: ‘some damn foolish thing in the Balkans’ would ignite the next war.
Why was this story so compelling in the 1960s? I think because at the height of the Cold War the world needed and embraced a morality tale of the sort Tuchman offered. It goes like this. In 1914, two opposing power blocs, each in the process of a massive and historically unprecedented military build-up, came to feel that it was more dangerous not to respond militarily to a relatively minor incident at the periphery of Europe than it was to do so. The precise nature of each stage of the July Crisis, or of earlier crises, is less important to Tuchman’s cautionary tale than the dénouement: the failure of the great power blocs to negotiate their differences and the catastrophe that this failure unleashed. For the generation immediately following the Second World War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the hydrogen bomb that the Russians exploded in 1961, little was left to the imagination about what could happen if a mistake on the order of 1914 were made again.
John Kennedy read The Guns of August as a parable of the Cuban Missile Crisis. ‘I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] “The Missiles of October”,’ his brother Robert quotes him as saying. ‘If anyone is around after this they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace.’ Following Tuchman, he believed that European statesmen ‘somehow seemed to tumble into war’, because of their ‘stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur’. He would not follow suit. (Appeasement, about which Kennedy had written his undergraduate thesis, might have come more immediately to mind and had less happy consequences.)
Judging from his hawkish counsel during the 13 days of the crisis, Lyndon Johnson was less impressed by Tuchman. But when Kennedy was assassinated he too had the First World War in mind, arguing that what happened in Dallas could plausibly be as badly misconstrued as the murder in Sarajevo had been fifty years earlier. A comparable mistake today, Johnson believed, could leave twenty million dead instantly.
Christopher Clark’s breathtakingly good book is, much more self-consciously than Tuchman’s, also a history for its – that is, our – times. An act of terrorism in Sarajevo – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife – led the Austrian government to make demands on Serbia. If not quite a terror state, Serbia had close links to terrorism and made no effort to hide its view that Austria had it coming. The boundaries between official state policy, the army and clandestine terrorist cells were blurred at best. The Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, may not have planned the assassination but he clearly knew about it in some detail and failed to pass on any but the most vague – in today’s terms ‘not actionable’ – warnings to Austria. Serbia had something to answer for.
Clark, however, begins with an earlier terrorist act, the grotesque murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga, by a small group of officers acting as part of a larger conspiracy. They found the royal couple cowering in a closet, tricked them into coming out, and riddled their bodies with bullets; they then bayonetted the corpses, hacked them to pieces and partially disembowelled what was left. The queen’s near naked and almost unrecognisable body was tossed over the balcony into a garden.
One of the plotters – Dragutin Dimitrijević, ‘Apis’ (the Serbian word for ‘bull’) as he was known – would in 1911 become a founding member of the secret, ultra-nationalist organisation Union or Death, a.k.a. the Black Hand. In 1913, he became head of the intelligence section of the Serbian general staff, a job that put him in a position to arrange to smuggle the weapons and ‘the boys’, as Clark calls them (Gavrilo Princip who fired the fatal shots, was a month shy of his 20th birthday), over the border into Bosnia. That same year, one of the officers who had participated in the coup of 1903, and was notorious for carrying with him a dried bit of flesh cut from Queen Draga’s breast, was pardoned at the army’s insistence for the murder of a less than enthusiastic recruit. Pašić, who had become prime minister in 1903 as a consequence of the murder and had close ties with the plotters, was still prime minister in 1914.
The governing classes of Serbia and the shadowy Black Hand were bound together by the policy of irredentism: a poisonous mixture of self-serving history and mushy metaphysics that seeks national redemption by regaining lost land and lost glory. The Serbian version is that losses to the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo – fought in 1389, ten kilometres from today’s Pristina – had left the south Slavs and the Serbs in particular stranded in strange lands under Muslim rulers. It was this defeat that had to be redeemed: where there was a Serb or someone who could be construed as a Serb there was – or ought to be – Serbia. This view motivated two deadly and brutal wars in 1912-13, in which first Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria clawed land away from the Turks and then Bulgaria lost much of what it had gained to its former allies. Serbia was the biggest territorial winner.
It was the history of the 16th and 17th centuries that brought the Habsburgs into this 20th-century story. Fast forward to 1908: the Austrian annexation of Bosnia that year infuriated Serbian nationalists, who felt betrayed by the European powers and in particular by Russia, which allowed it to happen. In 1912-13, Serbia invaded Albania, to whose independence Austria was committed. Its soldiers murdered three hundred Gostivar Muslims and threw them into mass graves; hundreds more were killed in small incidents before the Serbs, at Austria’s insistence and again with the backing of the other European powers, were forced to leave by the treaties that ended the Balkan Wars.
On the 525th anniversary of the Serbian defeat at Kosovo the archduke and his wife paid a state visit to Bosnia. It didn’t occur to anyone that this might have been an inauspicious date. But then, why should it have? Sarajevo’s civic architecture, its university, its hospital, its city plan were Habsburg; economic development had proceeded apace. The royal pair expected and got a warm reception. They were happy to be away from Vienna, where court protocol made their lives difficult. Moreover, 1913 and early 1914 seemed to contemporaries to be a golden time of peace and promise; few saw the darkness to come. Delusion, Clark suggests, contributed to the risky behaviour of key actors as they tried to sort through the fallout from that day.
But neither a history of terrorism in Serbia, nor irredentism and nationalism more generally, made a Serbo-Austrian, still less a Europe-wide war inevitable. An Austrian peace party, led by the soon-to-be murdered Ferdinand, had envisaged a sort of United States of Europe as the way forward; Ferdinand had prevailed over more bellicose colleagues at various tricky moments in the course of the preceding decades. And in Serbia too there were men of peace. Even in the negotiations over the Austrian ultimatum of 23 July 1914 there were many in Belgrade who were ready to compromise.
The Sleepwalkers is also a book for our time in its emphasis on contingency and the role of what Clark calls the multiple ‘mental maps’ in the decisions that were taken. The war in his account was not the consequence of two great alliances yielding to specific provocations. If anything, it was the opposite; it was the weakness and unreliability of the alliances, and the lack of certainty about who would be on whose side, that exacerbated the crisis of summer 1914 in the capitals of Europe. (Political scientists who have studied the question used to think that in only 25 per cent of cases did allies act as their treaty partners expected, which makes you wonder why statesmen make treaties in the first place. A more statistically sophisticated analysis of wars between 1816 and 1965 gets the proportion up to 75 per cent, but that still leaves plenty of room for chance. Those who took Europe to war in 1914 had every reason to be uncertain.)
Statesmen at various levels and in at least five countries were testing a system whose workings were beyond their comprehension. No single logic, no master narrative led to a determinable end. There were structural limits to policy-making. The dynamics of great power politics had been shifting for decades before 1914, as the rise of Germany and the rapid economic and military growth of Russia unsettled the system. Austria slowly shifted from being among the guarantors of peace in the Balkans to being seen as a threat. Clark tells this well-known story efficiently and with an important new twist that I will come to in a moment. But it does not drive his narrative.
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