Map of Europe in 1914 (as envisaged by the New York Times in 2013)
As I write this, Russian military forces are massing at the border with Ukraine and armed men have seized government buildings in the Crimean capital, hoisting a Russian flag over the regional parliament building. A regional conflict threatens confrontation between Russia and other European powers.
Sound familiar? Perhaps because I recently finished reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s much-praised history of how Europe ended up going to war in 1914, the parallels with the events of that July are just a bit disturbing. The question that arises after reading his meticulously-researched and detailed account of the diplomatic manoeuvrings in the months and days before war broke out is whether today’s architecture of international communication and dialogue via the UN and the European Union will help us avoid the disaster that befell Europe after a little local difficulty in Bosnia spiralled out of control.
Christopher Clark’s book sets up further modern resonances in two gripping chapters that narrate with thriller-like tension and grim detail the unfolding of two terrorist acts. Thirteen years ago we saw how a single act of terror could change everything. Clark doesn’t spell out the parallel in so many words, but the implication haunts his pages, so in this sense Sleepwalkers is a history of the Great War for our times.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on the morning of 28 June 1914
The fateful act of terrorism in Sarajevo – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife – does not make its appearance until more than halfway into Clark’s book. He narrates the shambolic sequence of events on 28 June 1914 with fine attention to the ironies and the tragedy of the act. Previous chapters have led us deep into the arcane world of European alliances and diplomatic intrigue in the previous decade (Clark describes European diplomacy at the time as a sort of ‘Harold Pinter play where the characters know each other very well and like each other very little’), so we understand a little better why two deaths in the Balkans had such boundless consequences. We can understand why the Austrian government made demands on Serbia. While the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, may not have planned the assassination, Clark’s scrupulous documentation has revealed that he clearly knew about it in some detail and failed to pass on more than vague warnings to Austria. Serbia, in the shape of shadowy forces that extended their influence as far as the heart of government, was implicated – deeply.
To unpack the background, Clark begins with a chapter – one that simply takes your breath away – detailing 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. Storming the royal palace in Belgrade, they blast their way into the royal apartment with dynamite and discover the royal couple cowering in a secret closet. Their bodies riddled with bullets, the couple are bayoneted, hacked to pieces and disembowelled. The queen’s near-naked and unrecognisable body was tossed over the balcony into a garden. Across Belgrade, other victims, including the queen’s two brothers, the prime minister and the minister of war, were found and killed.
The murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga
Methodically, Clark traces the connections between this act of terror and the assassination in Sarajevo eleven years later. One of the plotters – Dragutin Dimitrijević, known as ‘Apis’ (the Serbian word for ‘bull’), would in 1911 become a founding member of the secret, ultra-nationalist Serbian irredentist group Unification or Death, a.k.a. the Black Hand. In 1913, Dimitrijević 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 short of his 20th birthday), over the border into Bosnia. 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 historian Fritz Stern once wrote that the First World War was ‘the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. By its close, the war and its appalling slaughter had destroyed Europe’s empires, weakened economies and unleashed political forces of left and right that would wreak havoc across the continent. Among the the legacies of World War I might be counted revolution in Russia, Nazism in Germany, yet another world war, and the Holocaust. All of which explains our continuing fascination with how such a disaster came about.
Our interest is personal, too. Almost every family touched in some harmful way by the conflagration. So it’s no surprise that Clark opens proceedings on a personal note, with an acknowledgement to his great uncle Jim, a farmer from New South Wales and a survivor of Passchendaele, whose wartime journal Clark inherited. He recalls, as a nine year old, asking Jim whether the men who fought were scared or keen to get into the fight. ‘It keen ones shat themselves first,’ Jim responded – an answer that deeply impressed the young Clark. He writes that he puzzled over the reply for some time – especially the word ‘first’.
‘The historian who seeks to understand the genesis of the First World War’, writes Clark, ‘confronts several problems. There are too many sources, vast propagandist official histories, and volumes of unreliable memoirs from statesmen and decision-makers. The result is a bewildering variety of interpretations that tend to lay the blame for the war on one state or system. In seeking to add to the vast pile of First World War historiography, Clark argues that though a century may now have passed since its inception, the relevance of the conflict is even greater now, what with terrorism, the end of Cold War bipolar stability, the resurgence of divisions in the Balkans, and the lesson learned in September 2001 about how a single, symbolic event can change politics irrevocably.
In the introduction to Sleepwalkers, Clark states that he has set out to understand the July crisis in 1914 as ‘a modern event, the most complex of modern times, perhaps of any time so far’ and to do this by seeking to explain how rather than why the conflict began. To ask how, he looks at the sequence of interactions that produced certain outcomes; he is less concerned with the question why, which, he argues, though encouraging a more analytical search for categorical causes (such as imperialism, nationalism, alliances, armaments, etc) has a distorting effect, creating the illusion of ‘ a steadily building causal pressure’ in which the political actors become ‘mere executors of forces long established and beyond their control’.
Instead, Clark seeks to show how key decision makers – kings, emperors, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders and the rest – ‘walked towards danger in watchful calculated steps’. The result is a dense and detailed narrative that makes considerable demands on the reader as Clark shifts his focus from one centre of decision-making to another, as well as back and forth in time in the years leading up to war. In Clark’s words, the story is ‘saturated with agency’, a phrase that suggests the decision-makers were clear about their objectives and knew what they were doing.
Yet, at the same time, Clark is keen to argue that the obsessive search by historians for a guilty party is fruitless. The search for blame, he insists, rests on the assumption that there were culpable decision-makers who had coherent intentions while, in fact, the problem was the lack of men with the power or capability to make decisions. In the states that went to war, there was no one really in charge. Policy and decision-making were fractured as ‘competing voices’ fought and conspired in support of different policies. The military competed with civilian governments, who were themselves divided, while there were factions within foreign offices, and ambassadors often pursued their own agendas. The democracies had no more of a coherent direction than the autocratic states, while in Germany, which had the broadest franchise and a socialist-dominated parliament, the Kaiser, a man who was clearly off his rocker, controlled military decisions.
So Clark’s analysis, contradictory as it may seem, is that all the key players knew exactly what they were doing and had clear objectives, but yet at the same time were sleepwalkers: they were, in the final words of the book, ‘watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring in the world’.
Police in Sarajevo arrest one of Gavrilo Princip’s co-conspirators after the earlier, failed attempt on the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Agency and contingency are both inextricably woven into his narrative.Perhaps the clearest example of this comes in his account of the background to the assassination in Sarajevo, and of the event itself. Having traced, in earlier chapters, the deep interpenetration of state and non-official irredentist agencies by the conspiratorial networks born with the terrorist act of 1903, Clark provides a heart-in-mouth minute by minute account of events in the Bosnian capital on that June day. To give sense of the truly contingent nature of events as they unfolded that afternoon, I can do no better than to quote Thomas Laqueur’s review of Clark’s book in the London Review of Books:
If we could marry Monty Python to Greek tragedy we would get what happened next. Seven young men were waiting to kill the archduke; none of them today would make it in al-Qaida. The first was paralysed with fear. The second managed to throw his bomb but it missed its main target; the driver of the archduke’s car heard the percussion cap go off and accelerated. Sophia got a scratch and the passengers in the car behind were wounded. The would-be assassin botched his suicide and was quickly caught.
One might have thought that the archduke would now call it quits, but he insisted on taking care of the wounded and after that on heading to the town hall, where he made a speech. Three more assassins all froze, undone by fear, as he passed by; one reported that when he saw Sophia he felt sorry for her. After the public ceremony Franz Ferdinand decided that it might, after all, be best to cancel the rest of his programme but before he left town he wanted first to visit the wounded in hospital. His hosts had the good sense to change the planned route, fearing that yet another assassin might be waiting. The motorcade would go straight down the Appel Quay rather than make a right turn on Franz Joseph Street. But no one told the driver about the change of plan. ‘This is the wrong way,’ the Austrian in charge shouted as it became clear the car was pursuing the original route. The car had no reverse gear and had to be pushed to get onto its new route. ‘This was Gavrilo Princip’s moment.’ He rushed up Franz Joseph Street to the stranded car and, after some hesitation, shot the royal pair at point blank range.
Given what we now know, Clark’s story is like a horror movie. Can’t they hear the music? Don’t they know not to walk down a long back-lit hall? Franz Ferdinand and Sophia died almost instantly. The fate of the adolescent assassin is not within the chronological scope of this book but it speaks to the world-historical import of what he did. Princip was instantly captured, but wasn’t executed because he was too young. Instead, he was sent to the Austrian fortress at Terezin, where he died miserably in April 1918. His prison is better known today as the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where visitors can see his cell and his manacles amid the detritus of the Holocaust that he did a great deal to make possible.
A contemporary painting depicting the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie
What did I learn from Clark’s book? I gained an overwhelming impression of the astonishing levels of intrigue, violence and terrorism in Serbia and the Balkans. This region of instability was locked into a European network of opposing military and diplomatic alliances: these were ‘the structures within which a continental war became possible’. The nations attached to those alliances were, all of them, led by scheming, ineffectual politicians and incompetent dynastic heads of state.
Clark’s examination of how decision-making processes in the centres of power shaped the policy outcomes seems, on my reading at least, to have the greatest sympathy with the Austrian position. He portrays the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – ‘a unique polity, like an egg with two yolks’ – as pursuing a more accommodating policy on national rights in the Balkans, along with moderately reformist policies on public education, investment in infrastructure, and devolution of power to local entities. Indeed, one of the ironies of the assassination of which I was unaware was that in murdering Franz Ferdinand the assassins killed a man who, had he succeeded to the throne, had every intention of pursuing radical policies on the nationalities and who was opposed to aggressive confrontation in foreign relations.
Reviewing several recent histories of the war, Tony Barber, the Financial Times Europe editor, quotes Margaret MacMillan (author of The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War) on this point:
It is one of the smaller tragedies of the summer of 1914 that in assassinating Franz Ferdinand the Serb nationalists removed the one man in Austria-Hungary who might have prevented it from going to war. A year before his murder the archduke, heir to the Habsburg throne, criticised in no uncertain terms Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria’s military commander, commenting that he stood for ‘a great Hurrah-Policy, to conquer the Serbs and God knows what’.
In a detailed line-by-line analysis of the terms of Austria’s 48-hour ultimatum to Serbia after the assassination and the Serbian reply, Clark demolishes the standard view that Austria was too harsh and that Serbia humbly complied. Austria demanded action against irredentist networks in Serbia. This would certainly have been an infringement of sovereignty, but Serbian tolerance of the terrorist networks and its refusal to pursue the organisations behind the Sarajevo murders offer some justification. In one of the few instances where he draws contemporary parallels, Clark describes Austria’s ultimatum as ‘a great deal milder’ than the ultimatum presented by NATO to Serbia-Yugoslavia in the March 1999 Rambouillet Agreement which demanded ‘unimpeded access’ to Serbian territory by ‘NATO personnel, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment’. As for Serbia’s reply,regarded by many historians as conciliatory, Clark demonstrates that on most points it was a ‘masterpiece of diplomatic equivocation’.
In his essay for the Financial Times, Tony Barber provides a succinct summary of the shifting historiography of the causes of the war:
Until the 1960s there was a sort of consensus on what had caused the war. One year after the Allies insisted on the ‘war guilt’ clause of the 1919 Versailles treaty, which placed all the blame on Germany and its associates, David Lloyd George, the British premier, observed that Europe had ‘glided, or rather staggered and stumbled’ into war. Politicians in Weimar Germany, anxious to evade reparations payments premised on the ‘war guilt’ clause, clutched eagerly at the implication behind Lloyd George’s remark that German behaviour before 1914, and immediately after the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, was not blameworthy. Historians of later decades pointed the finger at pre-1914 military planners, especially in Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. As AJP Taylor memorably put it, the generals launched a ‘war by timetable’ because their mobilisation plans, once set in motion, allowed no room for diplomacy to stop the slide into disaster.
The Second World War changed the historical perspective yet again. With the experience of Hitler and National Socialism fresh in mind, the ‘anti-revisionists’ returned to the idea of German responsibility. In Britain, AJP Taylor wrote The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, which placed the blame on German territorial ambitions. There were German anti-revisionists, too, as Tony Barber observes:
Everything was turned upside down in 1961 when Fritz Fischer, a German historian, published Griff nach der Weltmacht, known in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War. This book showed that, one month after the war’s outbreak, the German government had drawn up a plan for large-scale territorial annexations and economic hegemony in Europe. Fischer earned the opprobrium of many of his peers by blaming the war squarely on a German bid for world power.
As Barber points out, most historians nowadays regard the Fischer thesis about a pre-1914 German plan for world domination as too extreme. Instead, it is more usual to blame the war’s outbreak, in descending order of culpability, on Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, France and Britain:
Germany stands accused of practising an abrasive diplomacy in the pre-war years, and of offering rash, wholehearted support for Austria-Hungary’s insistence on punishing Serbia after Franz Ferdinand’s death on June 28 1914 at the hands of a Bosnian Serb terrorist. Austria-Hungary’s leaders are deemed guilty of reckless behaviour from the start of the July crisis. Russia was willing to risk war and ordered early mobilisation in the knowledge that this would expand the conflict beyond the Balkans. All in all, MacMillan speaks for many historians today when she writes that the greatest responsibility lies with ‘Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt [and] Russia’s impatience to mobilise’.
Crowds in Trafalgar Square cheer Britain’s declaration of war on Germany
In her analysis, MacMillan places less emphasis than Clark on the Serbian role in destabilising Austria-Hungary. Overall, Clark eschews the blame game, recognising the possibility that the people, events and forces he has described carried ‘seeds of other, perhaps less terrible futures’.
Could the immense tragedy of 1914-18, in which 65 million men fought and nearly 9 million died, have been avoided? By July 1914, we can see from Clark’s meticulous analysis of the documentation that most of Europe’s political and military leaders regarded the defence of national power and honour was worth the risk of war. What is perhaps most inexplicable is the willingness of the vast majority of Europe’s citizens to enthusiastically support going to war. After all this was a Europe in which socialist movements – which regarded war as a capitalist imperialist struggle to secure supplies of raw materials and markets, and far from the interests of the working class – were at their most powerful in all protagonist states, and especially in Britain and Germany. In her study, Margaret MacMillan concludes that those who were against war could have stood up more firmly against those who denied there were other choices. She concludes: ‘There are always choices’.
Crowds on Unter den Linden in Berlin, following the declaration of war, 4 August 1914