Ugly History

Title: The Sleepwalkers:
How Europe Went to War in 1914
Author: Christopher Clark
Genre: European History (WWI)
Pages: 587 (+160 pages of citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

This is the ugly history of the politics, propaganda, and events that led up to World War I. Prior to reading this, my general impression of WWI (based on fuzzy memories of high school history & reinforced by the fourth season of Blackadder) was that it was a horrifically pointless war started on a pretext by arrogant greedy statesmen whose various alliances dragged all of Europe into a maelstrom of death…and it was somehow mostly Germany’s fault. Having read this amazingly well-researched book, I think the blame could be spread around a bit more liberally, but my general view remains pretty much the same.

Christopher Clark makes meticulous use of primary source material to weave together a coherent account of how the Great War came about. This is a daunting task given the complexity of the issue and massive amount of (often self-justifying) written sources. He does his best to describe for the Balkans (especially Serbia) and for each of the “great powers” what was going on domestically, militarily, colonially, and in their relationship with each other. This required a lot of jumping back and forth over the same material many times to try to cover the myriad of interactions. It could be confusing at times, but given the complexity of the matter, I was impressed overall with the author’s clarity.

The author also interacts with secondary sources, stating when he agrees or disagrees with common conjectures and analysis. He steers away from blaming things primarily on Germany, pointing out different (and constantly shifting) degrees and kinds of paranoia, imperialism, bellicosity, manipulation, etc. in all of the “great powers.” He also maintains that world war was not fatalistically inevitable, conjecturing about specific situations, decisions, policies, and procrastinations that could have completely changed the course of history had this or that person/committee acted differently in the moment. As the title of the book implies, the author sees the forces of Europe stumbling along with woefully incomplete understanding or analysis of the possible effects of their various power games.

Whether you agree with all of the author’s analysis or not, this is a must read if you are trying to understand the causes of WWI. If you’re not the kind of person who can sit down and read a long history book, then I suppose you can settle for Blackadder’s explanation of how the War began or if analogies are more your thing there’s the story of If WWI were a bar fight (though Serbia bumping into and accidentally spilling beer on Austria should probably be Serbia chucking beer in Austria’s general direction and then pretending it was an accident).