The fun thing about non-fiction books is that you don’t need to guess what they’re about, because they tell you right in the post-colon half of their titles. So, yeah, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is exactly what it says on the tin, a look at Europe in the years leading up to the first World War.

There are probably two big ideas that Clark is pushing against. The first is that WW1 was inevitable, that the constellation of inexorable historic forces would have made it happen regardless of anything, and that Franz Ferdinand was just a pretext. Toward this end, Clark takes the Serbian trigger seriously and delves reasonably deeply into the history of Serbian nationalism and the particulars of Serbian government and its relationship to clandestine conspiracy groups. He also moves on to examining the history of the relationships between the European powers in the decades leading up to the war, and shows how they were in constant flux, and that if war hadn’t broken out when it did, the constellation of alliances could have been completely different in a few years.

The second idea he’s pushing against is the idea that it’s productive to sit around pointing fingers and putting together rankings of who is the most to blame. Which, okay, not wrong. History is complicated and counter-factuals are impossible to evaluate, and everyone legitimately has their own competing interests and all. But at the same time, as someone who’s grown up with history books where Germany was on the opposing side, and who’s always understood that they were the aggressor, it’s a little odd to read a book in which it’s the French who are pushing the war forward the hardest, and pushing their allies to do the same.

But of course, saying that “France” did anything is kind of missing the point, too, because—to go back to that first point about the contingency of history—one of the things Clark illustrates vividly is that each country had its internal factions, and had its hawks and doves, and that the particulars of policy depended on the specific human beings who were in power (or, sometimes, just in key ambassadorial or ministerial roles) at any given time, and that their preoccupations and characters and beliefs shaped the course of events in ways that were unpredictable and could easily have been changed. The idea that the person in charge might be essential to avoiding or inciting catastrophe on the scale of global war isn’t one that’s particularly reassuring right now, but alas, it has a lot of compelling evidence behind it.

Ultimately, The Sleepwalkers is a good demystification and explication of a period of history that is usually taught with vague handwaves and yadda-yaddas. It’s not so blindingly revelatory that I’d recommend it to everyone no matter what, but certainly if you’re interested in the run-up to WW1, it’s a solid read.


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