150 of 154 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2013
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. Providing a very smooth introductory overview of the calculations of the great powers, Clark embodies that rare blend of competent professional and talented teacher guiding the novice through the intricacies of a grandmaster chess game. A hard act to pull off but Clark makes it look easy. For long stretches his history reads like a bestselling novel of international intrigue with the writing geared well at the level of the general reader who has a strong interest in the subject. For the most part you don't need to be a history major or a WW1 buff to read the book easily, although it is densely written and requires concentration. You might get badly bogged down, as I did, slogging through the diplomatic intricacies of the Balkan Wars but this is about the only price to be paid for a superb understanding of the origins of WW1.
The "sleepwalkers" metaphor is somewhat lame. Sleepwalking into a general European war isn't much of an improvement over "Europe was a tinderbox waiting for the match to be struck". But the text belies the title. Clark gives sleepwalking lip service but he fails to make the case. Instead he clearly demonstrates two great powers, neither of them Germany, actively promoting a general European war -- because only in that milieu can each one hope to achieve its own particular "interests". It is possible that with 'sleepwalking' Clark is taking a gentlemanly step back from his powerful narrative. If history is the story of the winning side, this is an authoritative and persuasive rebuttal.
Where most WW1 historians begin with the mobilizations -- at that time acts of war in themselves -- Clark ends with the mobilizations. His history deals with the individuals who unleashed those armies, often after overcoming political opposition within their own governments. The most poignant moment in this entire convoluted story is when Tsar Nicholas II tries to call off the general mobilization: "I will not be responsible for a monstrous slaughter!" He has received a telegram from his cousin. The German Kaiser is not inclined to war if it can be avoided: "military measures on the part of Russia could be looked upon by Austria as threatening, would precipitate a calamity we both wish to avoid." A big "what-if" moment there, and a reflection on how real-life monarchs can be somewhat like chess kings -- weak pieces when it comes to aggressive combinations. The Tsar's order to cancel the mobilization lasted only 24 hours, he was prevailed upon by his government ministers and signed the fateful order.
394 of 421 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2013
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. The originality of the third section is probably that it restores the roles of a variety of second-line characters. It also remains, as any account of these last few weeks, morbidly fascinating. I thought, finally, that Clark might have expanded a little on the interesting cultural factors he touches on, such as militarism and male insecurity, or the role of defensive discourses in blunting diplomatic initiative - perhaps at the cost of a shorter second section - but this is already a long book. Sleepwalkers' chief merit, anyhow, is to remind us that WWI originated in the Balkans and that, if we want to understand why it happened, we need to grasp why the Balkans came to assume such an overblown importance in Great Power thinking.
One last point: as many of the Amazon reviews seem to confirm, Clark to a large extent argues with the 'German adventurism' historical school. My wish is not to engage in polemics with fellow reviewers. My impression is that this school of thought, having originated with post-WWII German historians, was more about guilt over what happened after rather than before 1914. Nor do I privately understand how it can all be blamed on the Germans: my own, French countrymen were sufficiently fixated on Alsace-Lorraine to share in the responsibility. Whatever the case may be, though, it should be mentioned that Clark is an Aussie who teaches at Cambridge University. Though he has written a history of Prussia, there is no reason to brand him a German nationalist. It is correct that Sleepwalkers dilutes the blame, and it does paint - rightly in my view - the Habsburg reaction to the Sarajevo murders as legitimate. But if the book tends to absolve the Germans of excessive blame for WWI, this should be taken as a serious contribution to an academic debate, not as an opinion piece.
65 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 2013
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.
Well, Christopher Clark in this tremendously valuable (to say nothing of delightfully readable) account proves beyond doubt that not only is a thoroughgoing understanding of these events essential to a `complete' understanding of the prelude to war, but can be enjoyed without the administration of even a local anesthetic.
In his introduction, Clark characterizes his work as an examination of the `how' of the war rather than its `why,' explaining that the first involves scrutiny of the series of events that produced certain results while the latter suggests a search among myriad foundations such as nationalism, imperialism, armaments, alliances, etc. in an attempt to forge a reasonable elucidation of the casus belli. Of course, Clark then proceeds to employ his obvious and enviable knowledge of pre-war Balkan and general European history to demonstrate that an explanation of the `how' pretty much takes care of the `why.'
Also notable is Clark's unusual and becoming way of presenting his views on the facts as he lays them out. In my experience, rare is the historian who, having gone to all the trouble of researching especially obscure and difficult-to-interpret sources and expending the considerable energy in understanding and explaining what they impart, can resist strafing shibboleths and fragging accepted wisdom. Clark not only consistently resists the temptation to do so, but invites the reader to interpret the material along with him.
By the time one (regretfully) puts down this wonderful book, it is clear that Clark didn't undertake to re-write the causal history of WWI, but rather to clarify it. Mission accomplished. Interested in the Great War? Don't miss this one.
444 of 528 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2013
This is a difficult review to compose. The difficulty lies in the fact that Professor Clark starts off very well. He covers the deep political background of the war thoroughly. He lays out the tangled rivalries, ambitions, agendas and animosities in a manner that gives the reader a good understanding of the historical context within which the 1914 assassination crisis will unfold. The first 2/3rds of the book rate a solid 4 to 5 stars.
Unfortunately, things go downhill after that.
I think that we have to start by drawing a critical distinction. Deep historical background is just that... deep historical background. It doesn't explain HOW or WHY a particular event escalates from being a potentially resolvable diplomatic crisis into a war, it only describes the context in which this transformation occurs. Bitter rivalries can persist for decades without crossing the threshold into war. The transformation to war requires specific choices, made by specific actors, made within a specific timeline. The sword doesn't come out of the scabbard without someone deciding to draw it.
If we are going to attempt to answer the question "How Europe went to War in 1914", then there's no way that we can shy away from focusing on the questions of which specific choices, made by which specific actors, at which specific points in time, resulted in the threshold to war being crossed, thereby opening the door to further escalation. The assignment of responsibility/guilt is not a prerequisite of answering the question "How Europe went to War in 1914", but we must allow that it is a possible outcome of our pursuit of the available evidence. There is no analytical value in avoiding questions of responsibility/guilt if doing so begins to bias your pursuit of the question you are attempting to address.
The assignment of responsibility/guilt is something with which Professor Clark is not comfortable. In this context, he acknowledges the Fischer thesis/school, which does assign responsibility, but makes no concerted effort to come to grips with it. Instead, Clark simply writes, "Recent studies of the resulting Fischer controversy have highlighted the links between this debate and the fraught process by which German intellectuals came to terms with the contaminating moral legacy of the Nazi era, and Fischer's arguments have been subjected to criticism on many points" Pardon me, but SO WHAT?! The point is utterly irrelevant. A far more pertinent question is what about the mountain of documentary evidence Fischer assembled to support his argument? Forget the "Fischer controversy", it's the evidence that requires our attention -- the cables, the letters, the memoranda, all of which are produced during the crisis by the actual participants in the crisis.
The problem is that I think that in his fervent desire to steer clear of the "blame game"/Fischer controversy, Professor Clark failed to spend enough time assimilating the full weight of Fischer's evidence or its implications. The point is that the documentary evidence makes it very clear that the "sleepwalking" thesis is not tenable. Decision-makers in Germany and Austro-Hungary knew well in advance that they would be crossing the threshold into armed conflict, and that crossing would be made by choice. They had ample time to change course if they so desired. There is ample evidence of bad faith. There's no "sleepwalking" going on here. There's a valid question about the ultimate personal intentions of Wilhelm II. There's a valid question about whether particular individuals expected the war to expand as far as it did. However, there's no sleepwalking with respect to the decision to go to war with Serbia.
Do the other states share equivalent responsibility? Do they all carry their own "smoking guns" as Professor Clark claims?
Here I have to ask a question...
What specific choice or action did any of the other powers undertake which precluded the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the assassination crisis between the assassination on June 28, and the July 23 publication of Austro-Hungary's ultimatum to Serbia? Remember, without the ultimatum, subsequent actions by the other powers become moot. There is no context for response, no reason to consider mobilization. So what, if anything, did they do that made a peaceful resolution of the crisis impossible? What we have to remember is that just because they had their own ambitions, agendas, hatreds, or contingency plans, doesn't mean that they're guilty of pushing the baby over the cliff.
The thing is, it really does make a difference. If people absorb the meme that the First World War is an accidental war brought about miscalculation, militarism, and rivalries run amok, it fosters one set of suppositions about war and peace-keeping. However, if it's understood as a war of choice, a whole different set of lessons recommend themselves.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2013
This is a deep history of the diplomacy leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and the story that unfolds is eye-opening.
You may think you know the story of World War 1 (the alliance system, imperialism, the Archduke), but there's a lot you don't know! This book disposes of the standard, fairly simple view of WW1 and its causes: a decrepit Hapsburg monarchy overreacted to a random terrorist act, and dragged an equally moribund Russian autocracy into what inevitably became a world war.
Far less well-known, though, is the story of Serbian state-sponsored terrorism for years leading up to, and including, the assassination of the Archduke. Nor was Austria-Hungary on the verge of collapse: the decade before the outbreak of war was an age of rapid economic growth.
Not many will be aware of Russian interference in the Balkans, and how the Italian attack on the far-flung Ottoman colony of Libya precipitated the turmoil in that region that ultimately led to war.
Secret cabals in the French and British foreign ministries, the randomness of the Kaiser, and numerous international conferences provide a rich diplomatic history that is painstakingly explored in this work.
Most historians I'd previously read, now, it seems to me, relied almost exclusively on British and American sources in analyzing the causes of the Great War. By opening up the field to include Austrian, French, Russian, German, and Serbian accounts, we get a much more intriguing picture of the fateful mistakes and willful personalities that would ultimately bring about such a disastrous war.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2013
Clark begins his splendid account of the events leading to the outbreak of the First World War with a 96 page sections (nearly a fifth of the book) on the pre-war history of Serbia, beginning with the reigns of King Milan (1868 to 1889) and his autocratic son King Alexandar (sic) (1889 to 1903), of the Obrenovic dynasty. These two monarchs were pro-Austrian, ignoring the intense nationalist feeling of the Serb people and sections of the Serb army which wanted to reconstitute the greater Serbian Empire that had existed under the medieval Tsar Dusan. The unpopularity of the royal policy was one - but not the only - reason for a group of army officers putting a bloody end to the dynasty in 1903, installing the new figurehead Karageorgevic dynasty, and embarking on an anti-Austrian and pro-Russian foreign policy which had massive popular support. The military officers who had carried out the coup, led one nicknamed Apis, embarked on a policy of subversion of the Serb population inside Austria-Hungary and carrying out the occasional assassination of Habsburg notables. Prime Minister Pasic, though as nationalist as any, was worried by the illegal activities of Apis' agents, but powerless to stop him. Apis was actually the head of Serb Military Intelligence. (I was strongly reminded of the situation in today's Pakistan.) When Pasic learned of the intended assassination of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, he sent "a warning of sorts", through the Serbian minister in Vienna, to one of the Austrian ministers who did not take it seriously and did not pass it on to his seniors.
At this point Clark moves on to look at the wider European scene - the gradual and hesitant formation of the alliances which would be drawn into the war. Though this story is in outline familiar, Clark challenges several of the generally prevalent ideas. He argues, for example, that, though the British press encouraged fear of the German naval programme, British ministers were not particularly worried by it, nor had they any need to be: in 1905 the Germans had only 16 battleships compared with Britain's 44, and in 1913 Germany unilaterally called off the naval arms race. Nevertheless, key British policy makers had identified Germany as the main enemy, perhaps ever since the Kruger Telegram of 1895 (for which Clark also provides a perspective that I have not seen before). He brings out the arrogance of the British who justified every expansion of their own empire while resisting every German move that might give them any influence, protesting, for example, when Germany built a railway which would give the Transvaal an outlet to the sea in Mozambique. Curiously, there is no reference in this very detailed study to the three missions of Joseph Chamberlain to Germany, in 1898, 1899, and 1901 to negotiate a possible alliance with Germany. It was the failure of these negotiations which would lead Britain instead to turn to France, and later to Russia. But Clark also maintains that for Britain the Ententes with France and then with Russia were primarily directed against Germany. He sees the Entente with France in 1904 mainly as an attempt by Britain to weaken the alliance between France and Russia (always regarded as the biggest menace to the British Empire), and the Entente with Russia in 1907 as taking advantage of that country's weakness after her defeat by Japan, to end these threats which were seen at the time (and by some British politicians even in early 1914) as much more dangerous than any threats from Germany.
There is then a fascinating and detailed chapter showing that in all the Great Powers the conduct of foreign policy was hampered for long stretches of time by uncertainty about who was actually in charge of it - monarchs? chief ministers? foreign ministers? foreign service professionals? even ambassadors accredited to foreign courts? the military and naval establishments? finance ministers? - and this accounted for swings in policy, especially between hardline and conciliatory steps which tend to be forgotten when, with hindsight, we see a steady march towards the great showdown of 1914. The detailed account of the Agadir Crisis in 1911 is a striking case study of rival policies alternating within France, Germany and even Britain.
Clark shows how insecure the different alliances seemed in the three years before the outbreak of war: how Britain continued to be worried by Russian activities in the Middle and Far East and feared that Russia might leave the Triple Entente; how Britain and France resisted Russian wishes to open the Straits; how uncertain France was whether Britain would actually stand with her when the crunch came; how Austria had failed to back Germany in the Agadir Crisis and Germany had failed to back Austria during the two Balkan wars; how, even before Italy switched sides, she had coveted Habsburg Dalmatia and had ignored the interests of Germany and Austria, her partners in the Triple Alliance, when she attacked Turkey in 1911. Right until July 1914, though both blocks prepared for being forced into what each considered a defensive war, there was always the possibility that he tensions within the blocks might prevent a war between them.
The book ends with a gripping account of the period between the assassination at Sarajevo and the outbreak of the war a month later. Even during the very last few days, there were vacillations. Right up to Russian mobilization the Germans, having encouraged the Austrians to deliver the ultimatum to Serbia, hoped that the ensuring conflict could be limited to those two countries. In Russia there was dithering about whether to have partial mobilization against Austria only or total mobilization against both Austria and Germany. As late as August 1st Grey told the French ambassador that his Cabinet had decided against British participation. Especially because Clark focusses throughout on day-to-day diplomacy carried out by some people with very human anxieties and hesitations, nothing seemed pre-ordained.
109 of 130 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2013
Clark's major study of a complex topic has been well received across the political spectrum of prominent reviews in Britain where it has just been published.
His style of writing is exceptionally lucid and lively for such interwoven and counterpointed history.
I am one of many I know who has always been puzzled by questions of how the murder/assassination of an ArchDuke in Sarajevo could result in the clash of empires and wars that resulted in the deaths of millions. Clark's latest work, described by the Spectator as the product of indefatigable research into the intimidatingly vast body of sources, offers a balanced and nuanced explanation of a complex and convoluted story. In particular, I value and found much that was new to me in the narrative and analysis of the roles of Serbia, Tsarist Russia and France in perspective with then prevailing views as to the decline of Hapsburg Austria and the Ottoman Empire as great powers.
As Clark regularly affirms, there are aspects of these Balkan, manoeuvres and outcomes that continue to have implications for contemporary European and global policy and the ways in which nations formulate it.
No one who sets out to read this important work will come away from it without respect for the thoroughness and depth of the research, the quality of the writing, and the challenges posed as to the ways in which conflicting national, ethnic and religious interests. I believe that time and a broad readership will endorse the high rating I give the work.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2013
Being age 86, German-born, I went through WW II as a young German soldier including bombing, flak, infantry and seeing much destruction. Clearly Hitler started WW II in 1939 but I always wondered how Europe tumbled into WW I after which so much tragedy followed. I had only sketchy ideas, but "The Sleepwalkers" gave me the answer I wanted,in more detail than I needed or could really digest.
Positives: The truly vast and diverse amount of research. The absorbing story of the assassination, e.g. down to the telling detail that the archduke's car had no reverse gear when it needed to back out of a street, and other highlights of actions or remarks spoken. The author deserves major kudos! The book's title is superb!
Negatives: Despite the above, the middle part of the book is overwritten, i.e. mentioning too many ministers and personalities by name, and too often, even for the smallest nuance of view, so that I got lost. A separate "cast of characters" or organization table would have helped.
Who was the worst bum? The book clearly does not hang the debt alone around Germany's neck. All major European nations, Russia included, dangerously veered back and forth between peace and war desires in the book, much more than I ever was aware. The internal disparities of ministers' views, unclear authorities, superficial and often irresponsible attitudes toward war's blood and suffering, unrealistic expectations of combat results, all added up to a pathetic, tragic outcome - 15+ million casualties, three empires lost, a world order destroyed, and more.
Britain, and surprisingly even Germany, appear as - relatively speaking - peace-seeking nations at least for a while. All the nations had gone through war experiences not too long before 1914, yet, whatever they suffered, did not keep them from "sleepwalking" into another one, and the worst one yet.
All future ministers with war responsibilities should, somewhere, first visit three front line military hospitals, then three military morgues, then a dozen families of fallen soldiers.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2014
Having read Fritz Fischer's epic tome GERMANY'S AIMS IN WORLD WAR I years ago and subsequent books on the Anglo-German naval arms race, my views on culpability for the war were fairly set. But, I could never shake the feeling that there was more, much more, to the received wisdom on Germany's guilt. Christopher Clark's excellent book should be seen as a necessary corrective to the narrative on how the war began and a rebuke to the Treaty of Versailles that blamed Germany for just about everything.
Clark, it should be noted upfront, concentrates on Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, and Serbia. Germany and Great Britain are not ignored, of course (how could they be?), but he, unlike many historians, takes seriously the concerns of Austria-Hungary, the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the justifiable claims of the Habsburg empire in relation to Serbian irredentism and the consistent undermining of the Austrians by Russia with its claims to protection of its Slavic 'little brothers' in Serbia (much to the annoyance of Russia's Slavic little brothers in Bulgaria). The role of France comes in for some serious scrutiny: its massive loans to Serbia and Russia that paid mostly for armaments in Serbia and militarily strategic railroads in Russia. Clark rightly, too, examines France's persistent revanchist efforts to reclaim Alsace and Lorraine. Both Russia and France (not to mention Great Britain and Italy) were convinced that Austria-Hungary was moribund and therefore deserving of dismantling despite the remarkable fact that the Hungarian prime minister Tisza Istvan viewed Austria-Hungary as a viable entity and as a necessary protection from Romanian claims to his native Transylvania. Catholic Croats, for their part, were tolerant of the rule of Vienna as a check on Serbian pan-serbdom in Bosnia Herzegovina. In sum while Austria-Hungary had many problems, it remained a going concern that made serious efforts to invest in all of its territories.
Clark's beginning mini-history of Serbia is a real eye opener, starting with the gory extermination of the Obrenovic dynasty and its unremitting undermining of the Habsburg dynasty. Clark examines the savage politics in Belgrade and the covert machinations that led to the assassination in Sarajevo, abetted by the government. The picture that emerges is of a Serbia that laid claims to any lands that had ANY Serbs living in them and that single-mindedly pursued their goals. France and Russia, each for its own reasons, did very little to rein in the insatiable Serbs.
Taking the reader through, briefly, the Italo-Ottoman War, the two Balkan wars, and their consequences, what ultimately emerges is a picture of a Europe that worried and fretted about great power status through gaseous and nebulous declarations of national rights and purposes. But it came down to a misreading of the viability of Austria-Hungary and old aspirations and grievances on the part of, chiefly, Serbia, France, and Russia. France wanted revenge for the results of the Franco-Prussian war (and Alsace and Lorraine) while Russia dumped Bulgaria as its protege in favor of Serbia as Russia had been unnerved by Bulgaria coming within an ace of taking Constantinople, which had been the ultimate goal of Russian foreign policy since immemorial.
Again, Clark does not ignore Germany and Great Britain and their part in these events, but his book serves as a corrective to Fritz Fischer. It should be noted in passing that by 1913 Germany had reduced its naval spending, thus undermining the old assertion that the Anglo-German naval race was a decisive factor in Britain's lead up to intervention on the side of France. More importantly, World War I was not inevitable but it was made possible by a complex congeries of events and personalities. George Santayana said, famously, words to the effect that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The national leaders and politicians that brought on World War I obviously failed the test of that dictum but people today should not be too smug about that.
Clark's book reads like a novel but he has the advantage that historians have over every novelist: you just can't make this stuff (history) up. Highly recommended for the open-minded.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2013
As many other amazon reviewers have pointed out, Christopher Clark's book on the origins of World War I is a marvelous read and a deeply researched piece of scholarship with well thought-out conclusions. The book masterfully accounts for the dizzying variety of tangible and intangible factors that made the political situation among the European powers so complex and dangerous in 1914. Clark also effectively attacks some of the most sacred cows of World War I historiography, including the Fischer thesis that sees German paranoia and imperial ambitions as the main culprit, but also the contention that England was threatened by German naval rearmament, or the claim that Austria-Hungary was a doomed empire that sooner or later would have collapsed anyway. The author also notes that historians have now conclusively debunked the idea that Europeans welcomed the war enthusiastically. One can certainly argue with all of Clark's conclusions--as some reviewers here have done--but one cannot dismiss them. This Cambridge University professor has done his homework well.
My one gripe with the book is that Clark seems to shy away from taking the evidence he presents to its logical conclusion. In the often-quoted conclusion to the book, Clark argues that World War I is not an Agatha Christie novel where in the end we find the culprit with the smoking gun in his hand (actually, there is an Agatha Christie novel that makes for an appropriate comparison--"Murder in the Orient Express." I will avoid a spoiler though). I read the book differently, for I see Clark identifying two main culprits: French president Henry Poincare and Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov. Clark's account of Poincare's July 20-23 visit to Russia is nothing but chilling. The French and Russian diplomats appear positively giddy at the prospect of a full-scale war they were ready to hang on Germany and A-H. Poincare on this occasion brazenly refused to even consider the possibility that A-H's inquiry into Franz Ferdinand's assassination might find evidence for Serbian involvement (which of course was very real). As early as July 28, as the Germans were still hoping for last-minute diplomacy, Poincare already concluded: "No, there can be no settlement. There can be no arrangement" (p. 503). Similarly, Sazonov refused to even recognize that A-H had been wronged. Russia mobilized first, therefore triggering the fateful chain of events that led into disaster. As Clark shows, Poincare went so far as to later destroy evidence from his own diaries, and the Russian government backdated the Austrian mobilization order by three days in their official history of the war in order to give the appearance that Russian mobilization had been a response to Austrian action (p. 509), rather than the escalation that it was. I find it hard to escape the conclusion that among the many factors that contributed to the catastrophe of World War I, here we can identify the two main culprits.
None of this is to deny the catastrophic misjudgments, ambitions, and weaknesses among the other actors. In the end, I find the story of 1914 still to be a tragedy above else. Clark's book will not end the debate, but it will be hard to top this book as the most even-handed, comprehensive, and readable account of the origins of the First World War.