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The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 Hardcover – March 19, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The immense documentation of the origin of WWI, remarks historian Clark, can be marshaled to support a range of theses, and it but weakly sustains, in the tenor of his intricate analysis, the temptation to assign exclusive blame for the cataclysm to a particular country. Dispensing with a thesis, Clark interprets evidence in terms of the character, internal political heft, and external geopolitical perception and intention of a political actor. In other words, Clark centralizes human agency and, especially, human foibles of misperception, illogic, and emotion in his narrative. Touching on every significant figure in European diplomacy in the decade leading to August 1914, Clark underscores an entanglement of an official’s fluctuating domestic power with a foreign interlocutor’s appreciation, accurate or not, of that official’s ability to make something stick in foreign policy. As narrative background, Clark choreographs the alliances and series of crises that preceded the one provoked by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but he focuses on the men whose risk-taking mistakes detonated WWI. Emphasizing the human element, Clark bestows a tragic sensibility on a magisterial work of scholarship. --Gilbert Taylor


“An important book. . . . One of the most impressive and stimulating studies of the period ever published.” (Max Hastings, The Sunday Times)

“Excellent. . . . The book is stylishly written as well as superb scholarship. No analysis of the origins of the First World War will henceforth be able to bypass this magisterial work.” (Ian Kershaw, BBC History)

“The most readable account of the origins of the First World War since Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. The difference is that The Sleepwalkers is a lovingly researched work of the highest scholarship.” (Niall Ferguson)

“This compelling examination of the causes of World War I deserves to become the new standard one-volume account of that contentious subject.” (Foreign Affairs)

“Clark is a masterly historian. . . . His account vividly reconstructs key decision points while deftly sketching the context driving them. . . . A magisterial work.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“A monumental new volume. . . . Revelatory, even revolutionary. . . . Clark has done a masterful job explaining the inexplicable.” (The Boston Globe)

“Easily the best book ever written on the subject. . . . A work of rare beauty that combines meticulous research with sensitive analysis and elegant prose. The enormous weight of its quality inspires amazement and awe. . . . Academics should take note: Good history can still be a good story.” (The Washington Post)

“A meticulously researched, superbly organized, and handsomely written account.” (MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History)

“Superb. . . . One of the great mysteries of history is how Europe’s great powers could have stumbled into World War I. . . . This is the single best book I have read on this important topic.” (Fareed Zakaria)

“A thoroughly comprehensive and highly readable account. . . . The brilliance of Clark’s far-reaching history is that we are able to discern how the past was genuinely prologue. . . . In conception, steely scholarship and piercing insights, his book is a masterpiece.” (Harold Evans, The New York Times Book Review)

“As spacious and convincing a treatment as has yet appeared. . . . Clark’s prose is clear and laced with color.” (The Daily Beast)

“A great book. . . An amazing narrative history of the crisis and the larger context.” (Slate)

“A superb account of the causes of the first world war. . . . Clark brilliantly puts this illogical conflict into context.” (The Guardian)

“This book is as authoritative as it is gripping. . . . Clark provides a vivid panorama of the jostling among Europe’s policymakers. . . . The reader is rapt as ‘watchful but unseeing’ protagonists head for inconceivable horror.” (The Independent)

“Excellent. . . . Where Clark excels is in explaining how the pre-war diplomatic maneuvers resembled a giant exercise in game theory.”- (The Economist)

“Clark’s narrative sophistication, his philosophical awareness, and his almost preternatural command of his sources make The Sleepwalkers an exemplary instance of how to navigate this tricky terrain. The best book on the origins of the First World War that I know.” (Thomas Laqueur, The London Review of Books)

“One of 2013’s finest nonfiction books. . . . Offers more up-to-date scholarship than you’ll find in a classic like Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.” (Matthew Yglesias, Slate)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (March 19, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006114665X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061146657
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (596 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #32,140 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

159 of 165 people found the following review helpful By Brenda Teese on September 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The standard mid-20th century narrative explained how WW1 happened: Europe was a tinderbox primed for war; the assassination of an obscure Austrian arch-duke not important in itself, merely the match struck which finally plunged the continent into a war that was waiting to happen; then a quick cut to the military mechanics: who mobilized when and where. Somewhat mystifying and ultimately unsatisfying considering the scope and the horrific after-shock of WW1. I could never settle for "it just happened".

What I liked right away about Christopher Clark's book is that he takes the Sarajevo assassination seriously, he takes the Serbian assassins seriously, he tells us more about that obscure Austrian arch-duke. He devotes the first two chapters of his book to the history of Serbia and its relationship to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With a few swift strokes he sketches in how the Austro-Hungarian Empire came to be, writing as if the reader knows nothing about central European history and needs to be brought up to speed. He elucidates great power tensions arising from the declining Ottoman Empire; what that decline meant for Russian interests in the Turkish Straits; the effect of that on Russia's relationship with Austro-Hungary.... I could feel myself relaxing into this book right away. Serbs, Russians, Hungarians, Austrians, Bulgarians and Ottoman Turks -- it reminded me of my favorite WW2 novelist Alan Furst who writes about the lesser-known venues of the war. A new perspective on the familiar story, and illuminating because of that.

The particular strength of Clark's history is elucidation of the great power alliance systems of pre-war Europe, starting in the 1890's.
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398 of 427 people found the following review helpful By reader 451 on March 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Which was most important, the spark or the powder keg? There are probably enough books on the origins of the First World War to rebuild the great wall of China with. Thanks to the influence of the 'annales' school and its long view of history, however, and then of Marxist thinking and its predilection for structural causes, most of that literature has focused on the powder keg. In Sleepwalkers, Clark chooses to ask about the spark: how the First World War came about rather than why, though how is of course also expected to inform the question why. The book thus devotes close attention to Balkan politics, and it includes what must be one of the most detailed accounts of the Sarajevo murders anywhere. In this sense and to a degree, it is a return to the 'battles and princes' history of earlier times. Look for irony in this if you like, but Clark makes the point that our twenty-first century multi-polar world, with its fluid politics and shock-prone environment - think 9/11 and its aftermath - resembles the pre-WWI era more than much of the twentieth century, and perhaps makes that era more approachable.

Sleepwalkers is actually divided into three sections. The first, which I found the best, deals with the Balkans, Serbian irredentism, the Black Hand, and the Habsburgs' fraught involvement and Russo-French investment in the region. The second teases out longer-term risk factors over the ten to fifteen years to 1914, and the third section puts the characters and events immediately leading to the war declarations under the microscope. Inevitably the book's second section rehashes already well-covered points: the hardening of the alliance system, mobilisation plans, colonial competition, though it does make the important argument that not every trend pointed towards military confrontation.
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66 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Thomas M. Sullivan on August 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You know how it goes. I venture to say that we general History readers could pretty readily agree that the causative factors recited in most World War I accounts are pretty rudimentary and follow a well-trod narrative (or series of them). Aside from the British and German naval build-up's and other peripheral military and diplomatic chess-playing, there invariably comes the discussion of Balkan unrest. Serbia and its neighbors were a `powder keg' ripe for detonation. Austria-Hungary was the tired old man unable to retain its grasp on its southeastern putative possessions. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

To the extent I've thought about it, and I have, my feelings have been mixed about learning more about the Balkan background than typically is provided in these tomes. After all, one could fairly speculate about the reasons why the accounts are usually so adumbrated. It could be, for instance, that many historians who purport to be WWI `experts' really don't understand this tangled web themselves and are simply anxious to satisfy their readers' expectations by getting on to the fighting as expeditiously as possible. But it strikes me as more likely that they are of the mind that we `general' readers simply don't have the patience to wade through a detailed explanation of who in the Balkans did what to whom in the years preceding the conflagration, and what effects these events had on the relations of the Great Powers. After all, sitting still for this stuff could be like listening to a lecture on the Peloponnesian Wars delivered in ancient Greek.
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