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294 of 315 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The spark, March 19, 2013
This review is from: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (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. 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.
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Showing 1-10 of 33 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 19, 2013 5:21:07 AM PDT
Dr. Johnson says:
Good review.

Posted on Apr 1, 2013 12:09:46 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 21, 2013 9:12:59 PM PDT
reader 451 writes...

"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."

Respectfully, may I suggest that you set aside your impression and dig into material itself, for example, Fischer's Germany's Aims in the First World War. I'm not being snarky here, it's just that I think that you may have too easily bought into a claim by those who had trouble accepting where the evidence actually leads. I suspect that if you invest some time with Fischer, you'll come to accept that the evidence that he uncovered speaks directly to the specific choices and actions that transformed the assassination crisis from a matter which could have been resolved politically into a war of choice which was bound to escalate.

It's not a new insight that Europe was divided by significant tensions and rivalries. However, those tensions and rivalries were nothing new. What you have to remember is that they were managed. In the summer of 1914 something changed. This is why it is absolutely critical to have a very precise, day-by-day, nuts-and-bolts understanding of the crisis timeline from the day of the assassination on. It's not the general atmosphere that brought about the war, but a specific set of choices and actions.

What Fischer showed was that specific individuals at the head of the governments of Germany and Austro Hungary made a specific, deliberately calculated, set of choices between June 28 (the day of the assassination) and July 23 (the day A-H's ultimatum was published) that all but guaranteed the threshold into war would be crossed. Up to that point, no other nation made a comparable set of choices which would have prevented an entirely peaceful resolution of the crisis. Furthermore, absent the antecedent actions of Germany and Austro-Hungary, the subsequent choices (i.e. after July 23) of, for example, Russia and France, would have had no context in which to occur.

(BTW, feel free to throw the Serbian Black Hand into the rogue's gallery of irresponsibility if you're so inclined, just recognize that the Black Hand couldn't have started the war on its own. That required the actions of nation-states. The Black Hand's responsibility lies in providing the pretext.)

In reply to an earlier post on May 8, 2013 2:11:51 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 8, 2013 2:13:31 AM PDT
reader 451 says:
ReasonableGuy: I respect your opinion, which is obviously well informed. The literature, secondary and primary, relevant to WWI is nevertheless massive. You suggest I delve in the material itself: I would love to if I had three lifetimes to do so, and even then I suspect I would still come to the conclusion that there were other guilty parties than the German and Austrian decision-makers. I also think that the notion that Clark aims to argue with Fischer is to a large extent an Amazon reader invention. It is partly true, but Clark also aims to move away from debates about guilt / responsibility. Anyway, I have made a note of reading Fischer's book, which sounds intriguing and interesting in its own right.

In reply to an earlier post on May 12, 2013 10:46:51 PM PDT
reader 451,

Actually, I don't think the problem is that Clark attempts to contest Fischer's evidence. The problem is that he all but ignores the evidence that Fischer assembled. That's a problem because the documentary evidence demonstrates conclusively that Imperial Germany and Austro-Hungary were not, as Clark's thesis implies, "sleepwalking". To the contrary, the decision to cross the threshold to war with Serbia was a deliberate, wide awake choice made very early on during the crisis period. This completely contradicts Clark's "sleepwalking" thesis. Moving away from discussions about guilt/responsibility becomes completely counter-productive if it undercuts your declared purpose of accurately explaining "How Europe went to War in 1914".

You suspect that there were other guilty parties. Fair enough. Might I suggest that as time permits, you investigate that suspicion. As you look into the actions of each power during the crisis period (i.e. June 28 to July 23), ask yourself whether any other party has made a specific choice or action that precludes the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the assassination crisis. If you can't identify something that fits the bill, then what you are left with is that it's the A-H ultimatum (which the documentary evidence indicates was deliberately intended to result in war with Serbia) which ends the possibility of averting war and opens the door to escalation.

Posted on May 18, 2013 7:26:06 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 23, 2013 11:13:09 AM PDT
northkona says:
451 -- Terrific, thoughtful review, exciting, makes me want to read the book. It'll fit in so well with what I've been reading for the last year or two. Thanks for your post.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2013 10:51:56 AM PDT
Andy Lowry says:
R.G., I think the relevant Fischer book isn't the one on war aims, so much as "War of Illusions," which studied German policy 1911-14 and laid the foundations for the argument that Germany and Austria did indeed opt for war.

Haven't had a chance to read Clark yet, but I can already anticipate some of his argument ... he has an uphill road.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2013 2:07:17 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 23, 2013 2:17:30 PM PDT
Andy,

Actually, there is a bit of overlap between "Germany's Aims..." and "War of Illusions". Both discuss the crisis period, though as you note "WoI", which actually came out almost a decade after "GA...", would be the "go to" for the pre-crisis period. (Fischer wanted to demonstrate that there was a continuity to Germany's aims and that they did not simply spring into being with the September 1914 program -- which was one of the arguments that his critics tried to use against him.)

In fact, I don't have any strong criticisms of Clark's treatment of the pre-crisis period. I just don't think that the "sleepwalking" hypothesis works once you move into the post-assassination crisis. There, the paper trail of cables, letters, memoranda, etc., uncovered by Albertini & Fischer demonstrate a deliberate decision to seek a military solution. One can argue that the risk of escalation was underestimated, but it was recognized, and the decision to take that risk was made with eyes wide open. On an individual level, Wilhelm II ultimate intentions might also make for an interesting discussion, though his early belligerence and brinksmanship is clearly documented.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2013 7:55:47 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 24, 2013 7:57:04 AM PDT
reader 451 says:
Northkona: Thanks a lot! Positive feedback is always appreciated.

In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2013 5:20:37 AM PDT
Jon says:
@ReasonableGuy

You seem very partial to a certain interpretation of history, and one that especially pins the blame on Austria and Germany.

You continuously cite Wilhelm II's various public utterances and ignore - what to me was surprising - the overwhelming evidence that policy-makers in Germany largely ignored him. Wilhelm would shout, and his ministers, responsible to parliament, would turn a deaf ear.

I'd assumed the German emperor was more or less an autocrat, but this book shows he was anything but. At most he was an influential figurehead. So drawing this over-the-top conclusion about Germany's drive for war from selected statements of his, divorced from the context and divorced from the fact that he was out of the scene for much of the July Crisis and couldn't have exercised much influence regardless is disingenuous.

I think you're being biased and I think your bias is shown through by your absolute refusal in all your comments and reviews to consider the evidence presented in the book in any kind of objective way. It's not that Germany is blameless, but given the evidence they don't seem particularly to be instigators either.

Posted on Jun 10, 2013 11:41:57 AM PDT
What we must remember is that there are degrees of guilt.It looks to me that Germany had a major share of that for two reasons:
1.Germany antagonized the intersts of everybody else.Great Britain with a fleet that was not vital for Germany as it was for GB,France with the unlawful possetion of Alsace and Lorraine,Russia by helping Turkey to choke the Russians with the Straights
2.By being diplomatically insensitive and overbearing in matters great and small and continuously throwing her weight around.Observe for example how it allowed her relations with Russia to deteriorate for no apparent benefit
What the above statements lack in originality does not make them less true
DVK
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