Of the many volumes that have emerged over the past year on the opening of the First World War, few have inspired as much discussion as Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers. Several discussions of the book have broken out in long LGM threads; see here, here, here, here, and here.
As the title reflects, Clark argues that the war mostly happened through an accumulation of short-sighted policy maneuvers, the impact of which few could understand at the time. Policymakers in France, Russia, Austria, and Germany either were captured by organizational processes that made the full picture difficult to appreciate, or made miscalculations with respect to the commitment of other powers. Clark doesn’t dispute that elements within every country either sought or welcomed war, or that the war parties were particularly strong in St. Peterburg, Berlin, and Vienna. He argues, rather, that the assassination of the Archduke failed to resolve intra-governmental conflict in favor of war. Instead, it pushed all of the states involved towards risk-acceptant behavior, with war as the result. This amounts to the most sophisticated story we have about World War I as “accident.”
Serbia provides the biggest exception to this rule. Clark begins with the massacre of the Serbian royal family by a group of nationalist Serbian military officers, using this story to illustrate the virulent nature of Serbian nationalism. Eventually, this nationalist feeling would lead Serbia to ignore (or abet) the activities of terrorists groups within its borders, and to pursue a variety of destabilizing policies with respect to the Balkans and Austria-Hungary. Effectively, Clark argues that Serbian nationalism was more poisonous in nature and more dreadful in effect than any of the other virulent nationalisms circulating in Europe at the time. He certainly makes a strong case for both; Serbian behavior toward occupied areas in both Balkan Wars was simply dreadful, and the impact of nationalist agitation seems to have had a singularly negative effect on Serbian domestic politics, with reverberations into Serbia’s international behavior
How this provided sufficient catalyst to drive the events of July 1914 is another question. The Russians, British, and French were willing to overlook Serb atrocities in return for influence in the Balkans. Austrian policymakers were divided, with some seeking an excuse for war against Serbia, and other interested in primarily political solutions to the problem. Serbia’s position was particularly precarious because it amounted, in 1913 and 1914, to a garrison state. Without French support, Serbia could have no hope of maintaining a level of military readiness sufficient to deter, or even threaten, Austria-Hungary.
Nevertheless, Clark’s account sees Serbian nationalism as the first mover in a cycle that would eventually result in war. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand destroyed the political balance in Vienna, eventually (after no small degree of internal dissension) resulting in the ultimatum and the decision for war. Germany was concerned enough about the developing balance-of-power to support Austria, while neither France nor Britain could act decisively enough to restrain Russia, which felt its position in the region slipping.
The long-term viability of the Dual Monarchy looms large in Clark’s argument. Clark grants that the empire had serious problems with its internal structure, and with the various nationalities within its borders. However, he argues that these problems had long afflicted not only Austria-Hungary, but also other polities, and that there was little reason to think that the empire was under looming threat of collapse. In particular, Clark argues that Franz Ferdinand himself understood the nationalities problem, and had a vision for reorganizing the empire around a triad of national collectives, which he hoped would prove more stable than the Dual Monarchy.
Clark points out that extant expectations regarding Austria’s instability drove destructive political dynamics around Europe. Skeptical about the long term survival of the Empire, Russia and Serbia became more risk-acceptant in their diplomatic and military policy. France, the United Kingdom, and Italy saw little long-term benefit in taking risks to maintain a state that might not survive. Concerns about collapse pushed Germany into unconditional support of Austrian foreign policy.
Were the contemporaries correct? This is an exceedingly difficult question. In light of what came in the wake of Austria-Hungary, a certain degree of imperial nostalgia is justified. We can imagine (and Clark helps us imagine, through the figure of Franz Ferdinand) a set of institutions that could have weathered the nationalist storm, kept the empire together, and created a new future for Central Europe. But then there were many, even within the empire, who were deeply antagonistic to the sorts of reforms that would be necessary for survival. Maintaining the empire would have required more than sleepwalkers. But on the other hand, the empire shambled along for much longer than many expected, in the end succumbing only to defeat in a systemic war. In the absence of war, or in case of victory, it might well have shambled forward indefinitely.
One of Clark’s consistent themes is that trigger events tend to trigger things, and that we’re often a bit prosaic in suggesting that the war was inevitable, and that events would have followed a similar course had Princip never encountered the Archduke. For one, a war that began over a different issue (a Bulgarian attack on Romania, or a Turkish collapse, or a colonial fracas in East Africa) would have produced a different operational situation than the one that planners faced in August, 1914. The military plans of the great powers were inflexible, but not so inflexible as to be wholly immune to politics. More importantly, a war that started in July 1916 would have seen marginal differences in the political and military capabilities of the combatants. Given how closely fought both the Eastern and the Western Fronts were in 1914, these marginal differences might well have had consequential effect.
Most importantly, an alternative trigger would have affected the diplomatic and policy mechanisms of the European powers in different ways. The war was about more than the Archduke, and even more than Serbia, but the commitments of the Great Powers were arranged in a unique configuration with respect to Balkan politics. Shifting the timing or the nature of the event might have produced different coalitions in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Paris, and London, which might well have resulted in either a different war, or no war at all.
Clark doesn’t precisely provide a brief for the Central Powers, but it’s easy to see why many have interpreted the book in such terms. Clark doesn’t share the view that either Austria-Hungary or Germany intended to use the crisis as a pretext for general war. There were certainly many voices within the Austrian government that sought war, particularly within the military establishment. The first effect of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was to remove one of the most important voices against war with Serbia.
For the German part, Clark suggests that Berlin was willing to risk war, but did not actively seek it out. The German national security apparatus believed (as did the French) that Russian strength was growing, and that a war now would be preferable to a war in several years. However, Clark argues that this merely made Germany risk-acceptant, rather than openly belligerent. Germany would have seen a successful Austrian “punishment” of Serbia as a victory rather than a missed opportunity. A Russian decision to go to war, conversely, was interpreted by the Germans as intractable belligerence.
Clark’s treatment of the British, French, and Russian decision-making processes is somewhat less complete than his discussion of Austria. Nevertheless, he gives a good account of the feel of the British, French, and Russian diplomatic systems. In every case, the diplomatic establishment was divided, with often nasty conflicts between factions who favored compromise and conflict. The expressed attitude of the state often reflected these divisions, rather than a careful appraisal of the national interest, or a reasoned assessment of the risks of entanglement.
I was ready to be convinced by Clark’s case, but I’m not quite there. Clark does excellent work with the Austrian records, but there’s enough leeway for interpretation to make compelling arguments in the other direction. I was more convinced by the account of Serbian politics and foreign policy, but even that left me uncertain of how Serbian behavior translated into systemic effect. We have examples of Serbian bad behavior that don’t lead to great power war.
As some critics have noted, Clark gives relatively little attention to military positioning and operational deployment, instead concentrating on economic and diplomatic affairs. In some areas this helps clarify issues; Clark explains that neither Russia nor Austria could maintain repeated partial or total mobilizations, because of the economically disruptive nature of such activities. However, a better sense of how the policymakers appreciated the conjunction of military and diplomatic affairs might have helped illuminate some of the intrigue, particularly on the German side. I also think that a fuller account of the military balance between Austria and Serbia could have clarified the decision-making that took place on either side, both with respect to Austrian caution and Serbian intransigence.
These concerns notwithstanding, Sleepwalkers is a remarkably fresh, absorbing look at the July Crisis. It provides a great deal of necessary background on Balkan, Austrian, and Russian politics, as well as a glimpse into the foreign policy machinery of Britain and France. Moreover, because Clark takes a point of view (however defensible), it’s quite an entertaining read. Most anyone with a basic knowledge of the events of 1914 and an interest in the details of international diplomacy will find Sleepwalkers useful, whether or not they find themselves compelled by Clark’s case.