by Christopher Clark
Harper Collins, New York, 2013. Pp. xxxii, 698.
Illus., maps, notes, index. $29.99. ISBN: 0061146657
A most excellent review of the origins of World War I
In revisiting the causes of the Great War, Christopher Clark, author of Iron Kingdom: the Rise and Downfall of Prussia, rejecting the “Fisher thesis”, that it was all Germany’s fault, and also what might be called the “Tuchman thesis” of clockwork mobilization plans gone awry. Clark sees the war as growing from Balkan roots, the initial crisis in many ways being the onset of a Third Balkan War, and certainly the events of that summer make sense only in the context of the earlier two war. He further argues that it was the fragility of the two alliance blocs that facilitated the disaster. He is especially critical of the Entente, which was an attempt to form a new European power bloc (France-Russia-Britain) out of the complex set of the Franco-Russian alliance and the Anglo-French and the Anglo-Russian power sharing agreements on divisive colonial issues.
Well researched, the book must be read carefully as the author’s argument goes beyond the actual evidence presented when ‘connecting the dots’. Clark is clear where he is making speculative assertion, but the book flows so well a casual reading may confuse which is which. Clark also is perhaps too focused on the Balkans; while the outbreak of war in 1914 was sparked by events in the Balkans, there had been earlier crises, many now forgotten, that had come close to war, and absent the assassinations in Sarajevo some other incident might well have set things off later.
Overall The Sleepwalkers is a must read for those fascinated by WW I, given that the centenary is upon us, but Clark’s conclusions may be as overstated against the Entente as Fisher’s thesis was against Germany.