Friday, October 07, 2016

[Books] Book Look: Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark

I'm a closet World War 1 geek. Somewhere in my life I became fascinated not so much with the actual fighting and strategy as with the run up to the war. WW1 is considered by many as the seed of our contemporary world and investigating the cause is one of the most enduring occupations for historians. (Normal people have vanishingly little interest in this which is why I describe myself as a geek. That is to say, you may want to move on now unless you have insomnia.)

There are two common tropes about WW1 that constitute the common knowledge as it is taught to schoolboys (if it is still taught to schoolboys, or if schoolboys are still a thing). First, that while the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the trigger, if it wasn't that, it would have been something else; war was inevitable because of nature of the politics and the biases of the people in power. Second, that the bulk of the culpability falls to Germany. Clark does an excellent job of busting through these shallow narratives.

With respect to the first, he brings the focus right back on the bubbling cauldron of mayhem that were the Balkans (and perhaps still are). One cannot read his description of the times without finding the Balkans to be a group of countries peopled by sociopaths in the service of ghosts. It really is astonishing to have the nearly cartoonish levels of insanity described so well. We see that the well worn narrative that the act of a terrorist without Serbian ties triggered and unacceptable ultimatum to an innocent people is well nigh bollocks. Serbia did back the assassination and the ultimatum wasn't that terrible. But we also see that crises in the Balkans were not a new thing to the major powers and when push came to shove previously wars were kept contained. That's pretty much the state of the world at any time -- yet for some reason when we look at with hindsight we see inevitability. There was no such thing.

With respect to the second, Clark demonstrates how the forces that triggered violent reactions among the great powers did not emanate exclusively from Germany. In fact, many of the policies of Germany were in direct reaction to the actions of the Franco-Russian Entente. Russia, with their delusions of pan-Slav leadership, made it clear they would back Serbia if Austria-Hungary attacked, emboldening the sociopaths. France made it clear they would support Russia out of their fear that they could not match Germany in a war without a second front. It is true that there were forces in the German High Command that argued they should initiate a war urgently, while it still could be won, but that attitude in itself was sourced from the Franco-Russian alliance. When it was all said and done, the narrative putting Germany at fault was a foregone conclusion, and we all know how well that worked out.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should point out that Clark comes pretty close to my own bias, which is that the responsibility falls on the the loathsome cretin Apis and his Serbian Black Hand, and more specifically on ignorant tool Princip and the Young Bosnians. My biases may cause me to overlook some of the shortcomings of the book. Clark can give a vivid account of events, but for the bulk of the book he hops around quite a bit, organizing things conceptually but the level of detail and causal events would have benefited with a some clearer context of the relative points in time of the events into which he deep dives. It's hard to get a full picture in your head of any particular moment. Also, there is an sore-thumb passage where Clark decries that the problem is that the leaders were all men and if women were around things would be different. Very out of place in an otherwise serious work of history.

Should you read The Sleepwalkers? Probably not, unless you are WW1 geek like me. If you are, it is indispensable and you'd be missing out on a key perspective were you to skip it.