Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Sleepwalkers

Warning: long post ahead.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christopher Clark

Christopher Clark starts out by announcing that he's going to disregard why World War I started in favor of asking how. It's an admirable ambition: the latter question is a good deal more concrete, and also steers away from the seduction of single-causation fallacies.

He doesn't really do it, though. This is a history with a purpose. Clark is arguing for replacing one origin story with another. The customary narrative tends to cast Germany and Austria-Hungary as the bad actors, with France and Russia as more-or-less innocent  victims. Clark, by contrast, blames hyper-nationalist Serbs and their pet bomb-throwing terrorists.

It's easy to see why the former narrative caught on in the mid-20th century. It's equally easy to see why the latter is appealing in a post-9/11, post-Yugoslavia world. He's particularly emphatic about the Austrians' reaction. They, after all, were the victims of a terror attack. Did they, Clark asks pointedly, have no right to respond?

To appropriate a formulation that Clark uses in another context, "This view is not wrong".

On the other hand--and, with a statement like that, there's bound to be a qualifier--I can think of a more recent case where a powerful nation, in the wake of a terrorist attack, invaded a perennially-hostile, ethnically-divided foreign country, believing that said foreign country was implicated in said terrorism, and determined that its intransigent, bellicose, semi-criminal regime be brought to heel. That one didn't turn out so well, either. Clark, consciously or otherwise, avoids framing events in this light. His defense of Austria-Hungary is spirited and well-reasoned, but he's a little too forgiving. A nation may have a moral/legal right to defend itself, yet take specific actions that are not moral, nor legal, nor wise.

In his zeal to re-surface the Balkans as the cynosure of events, Clark is dismissive of some of the traditional interpretations. A couple of examples that I happen to know a bit about:
  • He argues that the British/German naval arms race was not a major factor, because the British always had more battleships. That's misleading. The Royal Navy believed that it had to be larger than the next two largest fleets combined. Britain was a naval power, hugely dependent on maritime trade; it kept, and might require, warships everywhere on the globe. Germany was a land power with virtually no need of its few overseas territories. The Royal Navy had to be ready to fight any enemy, anywhere. The Imperial German Navy had exactly one major target, lying right on its front doorstep--a fact which not only multiplied their effective forces, but enabled them to design ships with less range and more armor.
  • He correctly observes that the "odd couple" alliance of France and Russia was fueled by French fixation on Germany as "the primary enemy", but he more or less glosses over the reasons why the French might feel that way. Alsace-Lorraine gets seven scattered pages in the index. That's a little more than Spain, but a little less than Egypt.
Also, although The Sleepwalkers isn't aimed strictly at an academic audience, Clark writes like an academic. I don't mean he's unreadable--his prose is lucid, though a tad colorless--but he does have certain ingrained instincts, which don't always jibe with writing for a general audience:
  • There are some terms and phrases that Clark loves a little too much: "world-historical", "irredentism", and so on. I suppose that these are terms of art in his field, with specific meanings that are important to his thesis. For a general reader, however, a little thumbing through the thesaurus wouldn't have hurt, even at the cost of lost precision for the specialists.
  • More seriously, Clark assumes all of his readers are familiar with all of his events. His structure is not strictly chronological, nor geographic--I'd call it a thematic organization--with the result that he jumps around a lot in time and space. That's not by itself a bad thing. It's a possible problem, though, when he references different aspects of the same event in half-a-dozen widely-spacd passages. Similarly, throwing in early and unexplained references to "the Agadir crisis" or "the Anglo-French thaw of 1903" is only appropriate for readers who are already familiar with the basic facts of the period. (For the record: yes, I'm one of them, but I'm a geek.)
  • Completist tendencies. This shows itself most damagingly in the sections on Serbia, where Clark seems determined to drag in every minor fact and tangentially-important person he's ever heard of. There are too many people with too little relevance--scan through the index for names with just one or two page references and you'll see what I mean. For an academic book, intended for use and reference by scholars, that's perhaps appropriate. A better design for a popular book would be to eliminate the minor players, and add a Dramatis Personae section in the front matter for the major ones.
  • And, perhaps inevitably for an explicitly 21st-century interpretation, Clark occasionally succumbs to presentism. The most glaring example is the comparison of Austria-Hungary's 1914 ultimatum to Serbia with NATO's 1999 ultimatum to the same state. Yes, the latter is vastly more muscular. So what? By 1914 standards, the Austrian demand was genuine fire-breathing intimidation, and neither her allies nor her foes pretended otherwise.
None of this is to say that The Sleepwalkers is a bad book. On the contrary, it's a very valuable book. It's fantastically well researched (there are over 1500 citations, or an average of about three per page) and minutely observed. It provides an incisive critique of conventional thinking. I especially applaud his perceptive character portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his examination of where decision-making power was actually located.

All the same, to my mind the most compelling message in The Sleepwalkers is one that Clark never explicitly mentions. In the year 2015, we think of military alliances and wars as confrontations between incompatible value systems. To us, for instance, it seems obvious to parse the Cold War as a face-off between liberal capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship.

No political leaders in 1914 seem to have thought that way. To them, military alliances and wars were tools for promoting their individual nations' self-interest. War might be ugly, but it wasn't illegitimate. Military blackmail, extortion, and out-and-out armed robbery were, to these men, part of the cost of doing business.

The national self-interest they were serving--for which they were willing to throw away young men's lives--wasn't even what we'd call a "vital interest", with the arguable and partial exception of Russia. Here's illuminating instance:
France might consider allowing Austria to take a part of the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, a mere "pile of rocks" ... [but] France "would be obliged also to demand advantages, an island in the Aegean Sea, for example ..."
France had no more genuine need of a random Aegean flyspeck than Austria required that particular "pile of rocks". But need wasn't the point; this was a statement about prestige, about one-upmanship, about who could beat up whom. 

These men (and they were all men) weren't standing on principle. 

They were playing for points. 

For comparison, it's worth reading Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August and perhaps The Proud Tower--lesser in exhaustive scholarship, but superior as literature. Robert Massie's excellent Dreadnought is specifically focused on the naval arms race; it shows masterful craftsmanship in managing and making sense of a large cast of characters.


  1. I am always interested in your opinions, and your book reviews are interesting reads themselves. Not having context (I haven't read much history, not since school to be vocally self-critical). That's why I was particularly happy to find your recommendations at the closing.

    Feel like writing a review of Dreadnought or The Guns of August? Or perhaps just recommend one over the other.

  2. Thank you! I'm glad someone likes them. All in all, and not to brag, I think I can say that the blog has been completely ignored by more people than anything I've ever done.

    By all means, start with The Guns of August. It's a genuine Pulitzer-winning classic. It's also much, much shorter than Dreadnought! If that interests you, I'll be happy to make further recommendations.

    Also, for the record: I was reminded at every turn of Diplomacy (you know, the classic board game). Turns out that in many ways it's a very good model of how these guys were thinking. And it turns out that the online Vassal game engine not only has Eclipse, but it also has Diplomacy! I'm going to try to start up a game, if I can ever pry Kevin loose from Eclipse.

  3. And so I spent 1,016 yen on The Guns of August.

    And yes, I do of course remember Diplomacy. Sign me up if you can 1) manage play by email, and 2) convince Kevin. Only don't tell him that I'm playing. I think the last time we played, he was not happy when I back-stabbed him. Or was that Machiavelli?


  4. Oh, you'll be able to sweet-talk him. I have faith, informed by experience.

    Hope you like the book! Let me know your thoughts.