Monday, 18 November 2013

The Sleepwalkers - Christopher Clark

After being hugely impressed by his imperious book "Iron Kindgom", a study of Prussia, I was excited to discover that Christopher Clark had written an analysis of the events which led up to the outbreak of the First World War. This book is entitled, quite aptly, "The Sleepwalkers".

Many television documentaries about military history receive deserved plaudits, but the more I read the more I realize that even the most substantial of these programmes are at best superficial, at worst downright misleading. Such documentaries are superbly produced and entertaining, but in order to acquire any authoritative understanding, it is essential to read meticulously researched investigatory works. The Sleepwalkers is the type of study which reinforces this view. It is a truly masterly piece of scholarship, impressive both in its scope and its flavour.

Even in the early pages, I was struck by Clark's characteristic capacity to blend intricate language with an accessibility and infectiousness which compels people to read on. This was one of the great joys of "Iron Kingdom".

Refreshingly, the "how" tends to supersede the "why". No preconceptions and smug premises. He takes a detailed and open-minded look at what unfolded in the run-up to the conflict. Beginning with receptive minds helps to minimize prejudices and inflexible conceits.

Early on, there is a clear and lucid account of how Serbia's position, and that in the Balkans generally, evolved. The minutiae are probably little known to most people. We are reminded how economic and social conditions in a country can impinge on its fate.

As regards Austria-Hungary, a somewhat different picture is painted than is ordinarily the case. The empire is portrayed as more benign, and less recalcitrant, than is customary. The Habsburgs were not entirely blameless, but equally they were battered by extraneous factors. The author also stresses the impact of the peculiar "dual monarchy" and the attendant machinery of government.

Throughout the book, there is superb examination of the motives and insecurities behind the alliances which emerged in the decades leading up to 1914. An example of this is the suggestion of how suspicions about Britain's intentions and reliability contributed towards the Franco-Russian understanding. Clark allows himself time and space to elaborate on these processes, but does so cogently.

Much of this work is given over to an analysis of the fall-out from conflicts, imperial ambitions and trouble-spots in the preceding decades, and their effects on international relations, allegiances and diplomacy. Particular attention is paid to the Moroccan crisis and the Balkan Wars, and also to the ambitions of Russia in central Asia and the Far East.  These chapters underline the extent to which the cementing of alliances was partially dictated by calculations arising from matters on the periphery.

The book slowly begins to focus on the salient factors, and the extent to which the blossoming of the Entente alliance isolated Germany, whose assumptions and calculations could no longer sustain the desired balancing act. Clark cleverly and convincingly argues how hostility was focused and channeled, with the Balkans assuming greater gravity as tensions elsewhere were subdued or diminished.  The mechanisms by which the orientation of Turkey and Bulgaria occurred are revealingly related.

I was particularly impressed with the passages devoted to an explanation of the foreign policy machinery which existed in the European states, and how this affected developments. The account of the role, approach and outlook of Kaiser Wilhelm II is possibly a little at variance with the widely accepted view.  Attention is drawn to the indistinct and multi-faceted structures in some of the nations, and how these influenced the course of the crisis. The detailing of cliques, factions and upheavals is expertly and tidily undertaken.

Some stress is given to the role of the Entente Powers in tacitly sanctioning sorties, for example Italian operations in Libya, which had repercussions, including in the Balkans, and the attempts of the Central Powers to discourage such moves. Again, stripping away the veneer of popular conceptions about what elevated tension, and who was culpable. The author also points out instances where "nationalism" was used as a cloak for avarice, self-interest and megalomania.

There is a probing exploration of apparent French belligerence and assertiveness, and its assessment of the strategic implications of Germany's "two-front" dilemma. The analysis of the rough and tumble of French political life is valuable, as is the depiction of the fluctuations in sentiment seen in both Russia and Britain.

An extensive look at the fallout from the Sarajevo assassination is naturally an important part of this book. During the July crisis itself, whatever its strident behaviour of preceding years, was Germany guilty of misjudgment rather than malevolence, particularly concerning Russian intentions in the Balkans?  Clark highlights ambiguities in the sequence of events which are seldom included in modern accounts. It also becomes clear how many of the Powers formulated multi-layered approaches to the situation, downplaying the chances of others intervening whilst clinging to allies in the event of war.

Austria seemed blinkered in its obliviousness to the prospect of external interest in the Balkan theatre. The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia also comes into sharp focus, including the degree to which the Serbian response was conditioned by the likelihood of Russian support.

This work also looks at less publicized aspects of the crisis, such as the attitude of the Hungarians and the minorities within the Habsburg lands, and France's campaign to embolden and bolster Russian resolve to intervene on the side of Serbia.

It is interesting to note how fixated the Entente Powers seemed on preserving their alliance by whatever means, rather than in objectively appraising Austrian (and German) intentions on the Serbia issue. The importance of Russian mobilization is also thrown into sharp relief. In this reading, there appeared to be a distinct absence of war-mongering on the part of Germany.  In fact, imperial Germany comes across less as almighty and overbearing than clumsy and inept.

We also get a brilliantly articulated critique of how Britain arrived at its decision to get involved, the strategic balancing act which it attempted, and the domestic considerations which weighed heavily.

In recent times, it seems to have become the norm to observe that all of the combatants were claiming defensive motives, and seeking to portray others as the aggressors.  I would contend that this book adheres to that view to some degree, but crucially it fleshes out the subtleties and discrepancies.

In conclusion, this is an insightful, fast-paced and enlightening read.

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