How Europe sleepwalked into war

Public domain
Public domain

On the eve of the First World War, British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey is reported to have said: ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time’. 2014 will mark the one-hundred-year anniversary of the war that provoked that ominous statement. The conflict that tore Europe apart between 1914 and 1918 was also the first truly global one, mobilizing 65 million troops from over fifteen nations. It claimed 20 million military and civilian deaths and 21 million wounded, destroying three empires along the way and giving birth to some of the forces that would define world politics for the remainder of the century. So as the world gets ready to commemorate the tragedy, we must ask ourselves: how did it start? Who is to blame for this catastrophe? And what lessons can we learn, one century later, from the chain of events that led to it?

These are the questions Christopher Clark asks in The Sleepwalkers 1, a 600-page book devoted to analyzing the origins of the conflict. As Clark himself points out, it is only the most recent contribution to the enormous literature that has appeared over the last almost-century inquiring into the causes of the ‘Great War’. The existence of this literature demonstrates the enduring fascination of the conflict on our modern mind, as well as the complexities historians have had to face when analyzing the dynamics that brought it about. And rather than trying to iron out these complexities, Clark endeavours to show them in intricate detail, highlighting just how complicated the road to 1914 was.

We all know the bare facts: by the 1910s Russia and France had established an alliance against a possible conflict with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Britain tried to remain aloof from the situation but Sir Edward Grey made secret commitments to support France in case of a war. The assassination of Austrian heir Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist led Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, a country Russia had declared it would protect. And so the dominos fell: Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, and Germany, France and Britain were quickly drawn into the conflict. But beyond this simple account, it is difficult to pick out the patterns in the enormous tapestry of statesmen, interests and national dysfunctionalities that led to August of 1914. Indeed, nothing is easy to grasp in the Europe that Clark paints: the decision-making and policy-determining structures of the great powers were fairly fluid; the relations between countries were driven by complicated guesswork and calculations; contingent events suddenly faced individuals with choices they had not expected to have to make. Plenty of the principal characters of this story (like the German Kaiser Wilhelm II) are shown to have changed their mind at various times, or to have remained agonizingly undecided until the very end over whether war should happen or not. In this sense, Clark repeatedly emphasizes that very few of the scenarios of the 1900s, or even of 1911, 1912 and 1913 were leading “unavoidably” to war. At every turn we see individuals making decisions that will lead Europe closer to war, but that did not necessarily have to be that way. Their own doubts and ambiguities, the abundant wiggle-room they tried to leave for themselves, are proof of this.

Two things are particularly interesting in this regard. The first is related to the individuals who dictated foreign policy in the major European capitals: as Clark shows, every country’s governmental structure was defined by clashing factions. The victory of one individual over another could provoke entire reorientations of foreign policy, as could the particular prominence of one minister or even one ambassador (not to mention the whims of the monarch). This fluidity occurred in autocratic countries like Austria-Hungary, where indecisions over foreign policy were part of an incredibly complex political system, as well as in democratic ones like France, where different factions fought within the ministry of foreign affairs, with occasional interventions from the president, premier or minister of the time. These complex dynamics therefore make it difficult to insist on any country being particularly ‘aggressive’ or ‘at fault’. Every country had individuals who were opposed to war, or at least to the decisions that made war more likely; and their ruling structures oscillated between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ up until the very eve of the conflict. The contrast between French President Poincaré, who was resolute in the necessity of war, and his premier René Viviani, who broke down at the prospect of it, is a good example of this. Moreover, the various factions argued over who should be the enemy in case of war: the 1912-1914 period saw numerous voices in Britain calling for a rapprochement with Germany and against Russia.

The second aspect that is particularly interesting in Clark’s account is the strange double dimension of the alliances that coalesced in the Europe of the early 1910s. Often the decisions of European powers were dictated not so much by European concerns as by imperial ones. In other words, sometimes alliances were shaped not so much by worries over what could happen in Europe, but by what could happen in other, very faraway scenarios. The case of Britain and Russia is clearest in this regard, where most of Britain’s attraction to the Franco-Russian alliance was due to its worry that a hostile Russia might threaten India and other British Asian possessions. It is fascinating to see how policies towards Africa or Asia could determine the great powers’ policies towards Europe.

Clark also devotes much space to the situation in the Balkans between Austria-Hungary, Russia and the smaller Balkan nations (particularly Serbia). This Central- and Eastern-European emphasis tends to get left out of our modern memory, but it makes complete sense when we try to understand how a couple of shots fired in Sarajevo by a terrorist with loose Serbian affiliation could draw the world into a war. Russia and Austria-Hungary’s conflicting interests in the Balkans are not sufficient to explain the chain of events; equally important are the desires of the new nations that had emerged from the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans. These nations exhibited hyper-nationalist and irredentist sentiments, and were keen to find ‘protectors’ that would support their expansionist dreams. This explains Serbia’s actions in both preparing the ‘gunpowder’ in the region and not doing enough to defuse the ‘match’ of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.

Beyond this Central- and Eastern-European emphasis, Clark draws attention to the problem of the opacity of countries towards one another. The difficulty for statesmen to read their foreign counterparts, the sheer number of mixed signals that nations were sending to one another through various channels (diplomats, military officers, the press), led to abundant misreading and misapprehension. This was especially true in the month that followed the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, where there were numerous instances of nations underestimating how serious the other countries were about taking measures that would lead to war. Clark insists repeatedly on this issue of opacity: none of the powers, it seems, were parting from a pre-established plan to go to war. It was the opacity of the international system that led them to adopt successive worst-case scenarios that, in turn, made war likelier.

Public domain
Public domain

Clark’s reconstruction of the origins of the First World War settles a number of questions for historians, but it leaves contemporary readers with new, harrowing ones. Because once we discard the possibility that such an event was caused by one malignant agent (the blame has traditionally fallen on Germany in this sense, something Clark disagrees with), then how can we foresee new ones? How can we prevent the type of de-centralized, multi-agent ‘sleepwalking’ into catastrophe that this book identifies? It is true that international bodies, as well as larger changes in our cultural attitudes, can act nowadays as ‘checks’ for this type of processes. But Clark draws a number of contemporary parallels that make us wonder if this will ever be enough. Particularly intriguing is his comparison between the road to war in 1912-1914 and the contemporary Eurozone crisis. In both scenarios, all parties were fully aware of the catastrophe that could eventually occur (a new European war, and the failure of the euro, respectively); but the conflicting interests of the individual actors led them to exploit the possibility of the general catastrophe in order to achieve their own goals. The interdependency of the system, and the opacity of the decision-making bodies, did the rest. In 1913 the nations were sleepwalking into war; in 2013, what are we sleepwalking towards?


  1. Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Allen Lane, 2012.

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