Reflections on a reading of Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, 2012, Penguin Books, 2013, © Christopher Clark, 2012)
This is a drama whose ending we know, only too well. It is to Christopher Clark’s credit to make us realise, at long last, how it started. In awe, we observe the events of those haunting years, from the Balkan “crisis” of 1912, to the July 1914 Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, following the assassination of Frank-Ferdinand, heir to the throne, as if watching, in slow motion, the silent collapse of a tall building, as we did in September 2001.
“The Sleepwalkers” read, at times, like the scenario of an implacable nightmare, or a devilish horror movie. Surely, we think, “they” must have realised, “didn’t they know what was coming?” We see Poincaré, ensconced in his inept germanophobia, on the deck of his warship, on his way to meeting with the tzar in Saint-Petersburg, we follow the sickly assassin on his progress to Sarajevo, nurtured by the sinister Black Hand, we listen to the pontifications of Lord Grey, the British Foreign Secretary… With horror, and perhaps not without a reflection on the crimes of our own time, we see the Italian Air Force bombing Libya. Few of those events do not have some eerie counterparts in our time, in these first decades of the twentieth century. Of course, it is not that history risks repeating itself: only human folly, like Capital, knows how to reproduce itself, whatever the circumstances.
1914 Austria-Hungary is surely not 2014 Russia, nor today’s Ukraine yesterday’s Serbia.
Clark’s equally masterly “Iron Kingdom” makes a more comfortable reading for a convinced European: perhaps because its conclusion, the reintegration of Prussia into a modern, peaceful and reunited Germany, is more palatable to our mind, than the inexorable prospect of Armageddon in “The Sleepwalkers”. For the Sleepwalkers are among us, and in the restless comfort of this fragile peace, we wonder if we are not them. Clark stresses the importance of understanding the thought process of the then decision makers, rather than the ritual attribution of responsibilities. His account makes, for us, in 2014, painful reading: confusion, mistrust, fear, unaccountable media (already…), propensity to posturing, lies, false promises, it is already all there. For the “Entente”, the improbable and shaky alliance of the French Republic, its historical arch-rival Great Britain, and imperial Russia, should we read today’s Union? Surely not, I hear you say.
Then, there is the Other, as yet hardly visible. Yet, by 1910, the US industrial production has already overtaken the combined outputs of the United Kingdom and Germany. The “Great War” would kill over fifteen millions human beings, devastate Belgium, Northern France, part of Austria, Italy and the Balkans. It will trigger murderous revolutions in Russia and Germany, and tragically end three, once powerful, dynasties: the Habsburg, the Hohenzollern and the Romanov. The UK and France would end up in debt for decades. Their colonial empires would be, by then, doomed to annihilation.
Image: Dragutin Dimitrijevic Apis (Драгутин Димитријевић Апис), leader of the Black Hand and prominent member of the Serbian General Staff