Review: The Sleepwalkers

Posted by Viktoria Michaelis on November 25, 2013 in Articles and Reviews |

For many of us, history began in 1914 with the beginning of the modern times. We were taught that Germany invaded France by crossing through neutral Belgium, thus breaching various inter-nation conventions and forcing the rest of the civilized (western) world to protect their interests against the invading forces. If we wanted to know more about the background to the First World War it was either a passing reference to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, thirty-seven days before the outbreak of war, or we were told to go to the library and look it up ourselves. We were faced, and still are faced, with two very simple explanations for the war: Germany invaded or the Archduke, heir apparent to the throne of the Habsburg Empire, was assassinated. Education begins after; the modern world begins with conflict.

Viktoria Michaelis: The Sleepwalkers: Christopher Clark: Review: First World War

Photo Credit: drakegoodmanCreative Commons

We all must realize that there is considerably more to such a major conflict than just one of these two incidents or a combination of the two. Any good library provides us with a wealth of literature covering the period – many thousands of works have been published over the years – from different sources, from all possible points of views, from victors and victims. Only one point remains in our minds: Germany was the aggressor; Germany is at fault for the mobilization of sixty-five million troops, for the deaths of over twenty million people. But such explanations, such simple causes cannot possibly explain such an event. There must be more to the whole than just an invasion or an assassination.

To go right into the depths of this world-changing event, we would need to read through more books, articles and reports, cover more memories from individuals and those involved than it is humanly possible to read or hear in one lifetime. We would need to be able to separate fact from fiction, contemporary memories from later justifications, purple prose from glorification or vilification. And, above all, we would need to be able to remove the prejudices placed in our minds through the educational system and the tales told from different sides of the conflict. That, and the passage of time since those events which not only warp our understanding of events but wrap the times and troubles in mists of modern understanding against knowledge of what the world was like one hundred years ago. A practically impossible task.

The events leading up to the First World War have their roots further back than just the second decade of the twentieth century. They were times of great intrigue, of in-fighting, of colonialism, arrogance and the belief in historical sovereignty beyond accepted borders. They were times of complicated and highly secretive political manoeuvering between different countries as much as between political parties; between internal factions and religious beliefs; between power and international business interests.

Viktoria Michaelis: The Sleepwalkers: Christopher Clark: Review: First World War

Photo Credit: harrypopeCreative Commons

Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914 is an in-depth study of the reasons and reasoning behind the First World War. It outlines both the accepted reasons behind that final mobilization and the detailed and complicated machinations which made such a movement of forces seem necessary, if not vital, to protect individual and sovereign interests across the European continent. The work handles many of the inner workings of councils and governments in the years leading up to the assassination in Sarajevo; the thinking behind the recruiting and arming of the small group of men determined to kill the heir apparent of the Austrian monarchy; the continual movement of men and machines within and across borders; the military build-up and naval power play combined with fascinating insights into the workings and conflicts between civilian politicians and military commanders.

Above all it is a tale of arrogance, of conflict, of unstinting belief that only one side was in the right and a refusal to communicate, to diffuse, to mediate. The hundreds of sources used to compile this exceptionally clear and well written work are carefully listed, the players in this European drama dissected alongside their prejudices, their opinions and desire for power or, in some cases, their failings and refusal to accept advice or a minor loss of face. The Sleepwalkers brings new light into a conflict which raged across Europe one hundred years ago, the war to end all wars, the Great War and, at the same time, illustrates how, despite what we should have learned then, such an event could happen again and, in the Thirties, came to be repeated.

Published by Penguin Books. ISBN 978 0 141 02782 1.

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