Sleepwalking into World War One


From Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914:

Do we really need to make the case against a single guilty state, or to rank the states according to their respective share in responsibility for the outbreak of war? In one classical study from the origins literature, Paul Kennedy remarked that it is “flaccid” to dodge the search for a culprit by blaming all or none of the belligerent states. A stiffer approach, Kennedy implies, ought not to shrink from pointing the finger. The problem with a blame-centered account is not that one may end up blaming the wrong party. It is rather that accounts structured around blame come with built-in assumptions. They tend, firstly, to presume that in conflictual interactions one protagonist must ultimately be right and the other wrong. Were the Serbs wrong to seek to unify Serbdom? Were the Austrians wrong to insist on the independence of Albania? Was one of these enterprises more wrong than the other? The question is meaningless. A further drawback of prosecutorial narratives is that they narrow the field of vision by focusing on the political temperament and initiatives of one particular state rather than on multilateral processes of interaction. Then there is the problem that the quest for blame predisposes the investigator to construe the actions of decision-makers as planned and driven by coherent intention. You have to show that someone willed war as well as caused it. In its extreme form, this mode of procedure produces conspiratorial narratives in which a coterie of powerful individuals, like velvet-jacketed Bond villains, controls events from behind the scene in accordance with a malevolent plan. There is no denying the moral satisfaction delivered by such narratives, and it is not, of course, logically impossible that war came about in this manner in the summer of 1914, but the view expounded in this book is that such arguments are no supported by the evidence.

      The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. View in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime. Acknowledging this does not mean that we should minimize the belligerence and imperialist paranoia of the Austrian and German policy-makers … But the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia. The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture. But it was also multipolar and genuinely interactive—that is what makes it the most complex event of modern times and that is why the debate over the origins of the First World War continues, one century after Gavrilo Princip fired those two fatal shots on Franz Joseph Street….

      Among the speakers [at a series of lectures in Paris, in 1913] was Professor Jacques-Ambroise Monprofit, who had just returned from a special mission to the military hospitals of Greece and Serbia, where he had helped to establish better standards of military surgery. Monprofit observed that “the wounds caused by the French cannon [sold to Balkan states before the outbreak of the First Balkan War] were not merely the most numerous, but also horrifically grave, with crushed bones, lacerated tissues, and shattered chests and skulls.” So terrible was the resulting suffering that one prominent expert in military surgery, Professor Antoine Depage, proposed an international embargo on he future use of such arms in battle. “We understand the generosity of his motivation,” a journalist commented, “but if we must expect to be outnumbered one day on the field of battle, then it is as well that our enemies know that we have such weapons to defend ourselves with, weapons that are to be feared…” The article closed with the declaration that France should congratulate herself both on the horrific force of her arms and on possessing “a medical organization that we may confidently describe as marvelous.” We can find such glib reflections wherever we look in pre-war Europe. In this sense, the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

– Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, 560-1, 562