In this year, 2014, the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, we are not short of commemorative books and films, with much more to come, I’m sure.
The BBC had a brilliant three part drama, “37 Days” a few weeks ago, telling the story from the British political perspective, from the moment Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by Bosnian Serb nationalists. It’s not on the iPlayer at the moment, but hopefully it will be repeated. I strongly recommend it.
But what I want to write about here is “The Sleepwalkers”, by Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. The subtitle is “How Europe went to war in 1914”. Not “why”, but “how”. This is an important distinction. The book details the events, the history, the diplomacy, the motives, the personalities and how all of this interacted and led to war. It doesn’t posit that country X or Y was to blame, or that it was caused by the industrial-military complex, or whatever. Everyone and no-one is to blame. Or put another way, here are the facts, this was the trail of events, make your own mind up if you think there was a main culprit.
This might be why the German translation of the book has been a big seller in Germany apparently. Because it doesn’t just resort to pinning the blame on an aggressive, militaristic Germany. Even if Germany was aggressive and militaristic – and it wasn’t alone in that. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to show that Germany was actually quite hesitant. Committed to supporting Austria-Hungary, very wary of the Russian threat, untrusting of the French, but not desirous of war and keen to stay friendly with Britain in particular.
The book is beautifully written, witty at times and insightful about the political personalities, the monarchs, the military men. Even though I felt I was reasonably well informed about the history, I learned so much reading this book. It’s quite long – the main text is 560 pages long – but it is engrossing throughout, and there is a genuine sense of foreboding at the end as Europe lurched, almost involuntarily, into war. Locked into position through alliances, and historical ambitions and resentments.
Britain plays a very ambiguous role. There was no appetite for war amongst the public, or in much of the Liberal Cabinet. The Foreign Secretary, Grey, was anti-German (but not vehemently so), and wasn’t exactly pro-France or Russia, even though they were our allies at the time. Could Britain have done more to prevent war? It feels like the answer is yes, but to do so it would have had to be much more engaged in the European interplay. Instead it sat on the sidelines, more interested in its colonial interests, and the Irish problem. Sounds familiar?
In the end, you can’t help but feel that if the Sarajevo assassination hadn’t have happened, something else would, which would have dragged the European powers into war. There were so many competing interests, and the political and military leaders were still playing 19th century diplomatic games. America wasn’t yet influential enough to sort them out. And they hadn’t quite twigged (or maybe accepted) that they all now possessed weapons that made short, decisive wars much more unlikely. And made mass destruction, of people and property, horribly inevitable. Notwithstanding the experience of the American Civil War only forty odd years previously.
A colossal tragedy which was maybe avoidable in the short term, but perhaps not avoidable in the medium term. And tragic not only because of the loss of life, but because of what it led to in Europe afterwards. Now maybe that was avoidable…
Anyway, I’m now starting to theorise. What I really want to say, is that that if you are interested in what led to the First World War and feel you don’t know enough, “The Sleepwalkers” is a brilliant place to start. Not happy reading, but intriguing and educative.