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Was There a Crime in the Tragedy of the Great War?

By Holger H. Herwig 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: May 07, 2013 
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Austrians man a trench in Romania in 1917. Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers, a new book on World War I, shifts the focus of the conflict away from Europe to the Balkan countries. (AKG-Images)
Austrians man a trench in Romania in 1917. Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers, a new book on World War I, shifts the focus of the conflict away from Europe to the Balkan countries. (AKG-Images)

 

The Sleepwalkers
How Europe Went to War in 1914 
By Christopher M. Clark. 697 pp. Harper, 2013. $29.99.

July 1914
Countdown to War
By Sean McMeekin. 443 pp. Basic Books, 2013. $29.99.

Reviewed by Holger H. Herwig

A DECADE AGO, RICHARD HAMILTON AND I published The Origins of World War I (Cambridge University Press), a collection of essays by some of the world's leading scholars on the Great War. We argued that the conflict was brought about not by the "big" causes such as economic imperialism, militarism, nationalism, secret alliances, and the popular press, but by a small coterie of decision makers in each capital—king-emperor, foreign minister, chief of the general staff, war minister, and (in the case of Russia) the agricultural minister.

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The two books here fully endorse this argument. Christopher Clark of St. Catharine's College, University of Cambridge, author of three books on Prussian history, offers in The Sleepwalkers a meticulously researched (up to 255 footnotes per chapter), superbly organized, and handsomely written account. His mastery of the official documentary histories of the origins of the war (the massive "world war of documents," as they are called) as well as the vast memoir literature is enhanced by his use of French and Russian primary sources.

Important above all is Clark's shift in emphasis toward the Balkan and away from the Western European metropole—the unexpected emergence of an Albanian state; the Russo-Turkish naval arms race in the Black Sea; the reorientation of Russian policy from Sofia to Belgrade; and the readiness of the British Foreign Office to accept a general European war on terms set out by Russia. In short, the Balkan setting was central. It supplied what Clark calls "the conceptual framework within which the crisis was interpreted," and it prompted France and Russia to construct "a geopolitical trigger along the Austro-Serbian frontier."

Clark devotes much of the book to showing how the decisions for war in July 1914 were "saturated with agency"; the key actors, he says, "walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps." But in the end, he concludes that no one envisioned what was to come. They were "sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing…blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world."

No one person or nation is to blame. "There is no smoking gun in this story; or rather, there is one in the hands of every major character," Clark writes. "Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime."

This basic argument is taken up by Sean McMeekin of Koç University, Istanbul. McMeekin, a veritable publishing machine, has written five books since 2005. Like the others, July 1914 is a mix of research monograph and popular history. McMeekin says that he is delighted that his role model, Barbara Tuchman, started The Guns of August (1962) with August 1, 1914, leaving the July Crisis to him. Like Tuchman, McMeekin is a wonderful storyteller, with a keen eye for the descriptive act, person, or scene.

The research side of the ledger, however, is not easy to assess. Despite the publisher's claim that the work rests on "troves of new evidence from archives across Europe," those sources are merely listed alphabetically; chapter notes rarely exceed 50. While McMeekin, like Clark, rejects any notion of a pecking order of "war guilt," he manages to find his smoking gun—in Vienna. For, whereas German historian Fritz Fischer argued in his epic 1961 treatise Griff nach der Weltmacht (later published in English as Germany's Aims in the First World War) that in July 1914 Germany took Austria-Hungary "on the leash" and led it into war, McMeekin insists that Vienna dragged the Germans "kicking and screaming" into the war, and that "the Austrian noose snapped shut around their necks."

This comes as no surprise given the book's bibliography, where the author dismisses 50 years of scholarship into the origins of the war by Fischer, fellow German scholar Imanuel Geiss, and this reviewer as constituting little more than an "ultimately unsatisfying" kind of "Germanocentric orthodoxy." Unfortunately, the promised "troves of new evidence" are hardly convincing enough to throw overboard the last half century of research. It remains incontrovertible that Germany's Wilhelm II, not Britain's George V, demanded war "now or never"; that on July 5 he, not the British monarch, issued Austria-Hungary the famous "blank check"; that German army chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke, not French general Joseph Joffre, gave Belgium an ultimatum on July 26 to let his troops pass through their country; that Germany, not France, invaded Russia on August 3 and Belgium the following day; and that Austria-Hungary, not Russia, declared war on Serbia on July 28 and shelled Belgrade the next day. Thus, I persist in my "Germanocentric orthodoxy."

Finally, the main argument presented in the two books—that the "men of 1914" were Clark's "sleepwalkers," or, as McMeekin puts it, guilty only of errors of "omission, not commission"—dangerously leads us back to British prime minister David Lloyd George's malicious 1920 exculpation of the statesmen of 1914, that they "glided, or rather staggered and stumbled" into what he later called "the boiling cauldron of war." It is highly improbable that at any time in history, the leaders of five major powers merely "slid" or "stumbled" into war. Additionally, the "slide" or "sleepwalker" thesis is the great relativizer: George V is as culpable as Wilhelm II, Sir Edward Grey as culpable as Count Leopold Berchtold. Too much solid research has been done over the past half century for us to "slide" back into this way of thinking.

Holger H. Herwig is a Canada Research Chair in Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary; his most recent book is The Marne, 1914.

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