Thursday, September 4, 2014

THE SLEEPWALKERS by Christopher Clark (non-fic)

How Europe Went to War in 1914 is the subtitle of Christopher Clark's thorough examination of the causes and actions leading up to WWI.  The work and scholarship that went into the writing of this weighty tome is more than impressive.  It is almost 700 pages of careful research.  We all know that WWI was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  He was the heir to the Hapsburg Empire and was thought, by those allied to Russia, to be a puppet of Wilhelm II of Germany.  Within 10 days, Russia had taken up arms in support of Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were allied with Germany.  By the next month, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire) were lined up against the Triple Entente (England, France, Russia and later Japan, Italy and Romania).

Clark begins his history much earlier, taking us back to 1903.  His story opens with the murder of Alexander I of Serbia by a terrorist group called The Blackhand.  Thus begins one of many parallels to our world today.  As we see, the Middle East and the whole region of central and Eastern Europe was in turmoil from this period onward.  The Slavic countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Serbs, Slovaks and Croats, were all under the hand of the detested Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Nationalistic factions dedicated to the overthrow of the Empire were springing up all over this area.  The Ottoman Empire which was crumbling was already involved in the Balkan Wars where Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece were taking pieces of their territory, and was also busy on the Eastern front where the Arab nations were doing the same.

As Clark tells us the changes in our own world have altered our way of looking at the events of 1914.  He contends it is much more complicated than just blaming Germany for the war.  He states: One could even say that July 1914 is less remote from us--less illegible--now than it was in the 1980s.  Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers--a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.

This book tells the story of how war came to continental Europe and its central argument is that the events leading to WWI only make sense when we look at the decisions and varied paths taken by the leaders of Europe. As an example, Britain was more frightened of war with Russia than war with Germany. This played out in her alliance with Russia.  The complication of family relations through royal marriages also contributed to the confusion.

If you have an interest in this period of history, than Clark's book is a must for your reference bookshelf.  It has the added advantage of being a well-written account of a fascinating time with numerous connections to our world today. I now view WWI in a different light.

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