The Not-So-Great War

World War I graveyard. Germany, 2011.

In May 1903, a group of Serbian army officers fired their way into the royal palace in Belgrade. King Alexander, the scion of the Obrenović dynasty, was discovered with his wife Draga, hiding in a closet. Tricked into revealing themselves, they were hacked to death, and their partially eviscerated bodies were flung out a window. The plotters then paused for a celebratory cigarette.

Grim as it was, the extinguishing of the Obrenović dynasty and its replacement by the competing house of Karađorđević aroused little interest in Europe at large. It seemed just another brutal chapter in a corner of Europe that seemed wild, exotic, and far away. Yet, over the course of the succeeding decade the repercussions of this act would spiral outward, imprinting themselves on the politics and policies of the leading European states and contributing in large measure to the outbreak of generalized war the scope and violence of which was unexampled in human history.

Oceans of ink have been spilled over this war and its antecedents in the century since its outbreak, by historians, journalists, and by the governments who took part in it. The literature, notes Christopher Clark in his The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, comprises well over 25,000 contributions, and continues to grow. Clark’s book is one of a number of new titles recently released on this topic, and it is hardly surprising that the upcoming centennial of the war’s outbreak should spark new interest in the subject. Minutely researched and compellingly written, Clark’s book is certainly a valuable and timely contribution to this literature. But it is also an illustration of the change in the historical significance of the event itself, and of contemporary attempts to illuminate war’s history.

In the immediate wake of WWI, all of the belligerent powers issued collections of documents meant to demonstrate that they were not culpable for its outbreak. This was particularly crucial in the case of Germany, which, in addition to territorial and monetary penalties was forced, under the terms of Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, to admit guilt for the conflict. This was an exceedingly bitter pill, and one whose aftereffects would be felt in German scholarship and politics for decades to come. The rejection of so-called “war guilt” was grist for the mill on the right of the German political spectrum throughout the interwar period. After the Second World (whose origins were intimately connected with the first) conservative German historians such as Gerhard Ritter continued to take up the cudgels against German guilt.

The publication of the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War in 1961 touched off a massive controversy. On the basis of an exhaustive analysis of Imperial German archival materials, Fischer argued that Germany had deliberately provoked the outbreak of war in 1914 as part of a larger annexationist agenda. Fischer’s book, which was issued in Germany under the spectacularly provocative title Griff nach der Weltmacht (Grasp for World Power) was the subject of severe and sometimes personal criticism by Ritter and other more conservative German historians. The controversy jumped outside the bounds of academia, with the German Foreign Office acting to withdraw funds allotted to the Goethe Institute that were to be provided to Fischer for a speaking tour in the United States.

US soldier, with gas mask. No location given, WWI.
American soldier, with gas mask. Unidentified location, WWI.

What eventually became clear was that, even if Fischer’s book was not the last word on the topic, its publication made most prior discussions of the topic obsolete. And, in fact, the Fischer thesis continues to exert influence even to this day. What is interesting about this is not so much the historical controversy, but the light that it shines on the role of history in broader events. Griff nach der Weltmacht was published at the height of the Cold War, in the same year that the Berlin Wall was built. Its significance was more than merely the thoroughness with which Fischer has pursued his sources, but the consequences of reviving debate about German war guilt, at a time when West Germany was still struggling to reintegrate itself in the community of civilized nations. The implication, lost on no one who read the book in Germany in the early 1960s, was that Germany’s sins in 1914 could be interpreted as the basis for the crimes that followed, from which the West German state was working to dissociate itself.

To this day, the issues surrounding the origins and conduct of World War I have not totally subsided. Thus we find the British education secretary Michael Gove in a recent article in the Daily Mail upbraiding “left-wing academics” for their putative denigration of the glory and sacrifices of the war, while the conservative Harvard historical Niall Ferguson argues elsewhere that Great Britain should never have entered the war in the first.

Pre-burial prep. 33rd Infantry Division, France.
Pre-burial prep. 33rd Infantry Division, France.

Christopher Clark’s book functions as a corrective to attempts to demonize one particular side in the beginnings of the war, and to compose hagiographies of it. Each of the main participants are revealed to be multivalent political entities, reacting to both domestic and international impulses, by turns idealistic and intensely cynical. Clark’s narrative starts with the Serbs, whose post-1903 dynasty looked to solidify its hold on power by intensifying a nationalist imaginary centered in the recreation of “greater Serbia.” This intense nationalist politics led to a dramatic expansion in the Serbian military, but also to the formation of a secret society (the Black Hand) with connections at the highest levels of the military bureaucracy, the goal of which was the reclamation of Serbian Bosnia.

Serbia’s militarist ambitions were difficult to sustain in a predominantly agrarian society, whose government was perpetually on the brink of insolvency. That they did not succumb was due in large part to the French government’s provision of extensive loans, which the Serbs then turned around and spent on French armaments. Much of the story of the decade leading up to the war revolves around Serbian expansionism, and its conflicts with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Clark’s narrative is exemplary in its weaving together of a wide range of causal factors, avoiding the limitation of guilt to one state in particular.

France fueled the fires of Serbian nationalism with loans and weapons. Russia directed Serbia’s nationalist ambitions toward Austria-Hungary as a means of deflecting them interference in the teetering Ottoman Empire. The Franco-Russian alliance, put together in the wake of the lapsing of Russia’s Reinsurance Treaty with Germany in 1890, was to a large extent occupied with scheming about a war with Germany that both parties viewed as inevitable (and on France’s side desirable). The British were mostly concerned with the maintenance of their colonial empire, needing to preserve good relations with Russia to prevent threats to India and points east, and with maintaining naval superiority over any conceivable challenger. Germany certainly comes in for its measure of blame, but Clark’s narrative repositions Germany was one among a number of antagonists, rather than a criminal state guilty of driving the process as a whole.

Among the great strength’s of Clark’s book is his minute examination of the decision making structures of the major powers. To a greater or lesser degree all of the major powers suffered from bureaucratic disorganization and inconsistent chains of command. It was these opacities and inefficiencies in decision making that allowed the drift toward war to proceed, especially in the weeks following the assassinations in Sarajevo, when it looked as is the impetus of the conflict might be allowed to peter out.

Still, while it avoids the pitfalls and partisanship of earlier historical efforts, The Sleepwalkers does suffer from the success of its own approach. In providing the most multifariously detailed history possible, Clark often allows the reader to view the war as something that just happened. Clark eschews many of the major explanatory strategies of earlier histories, such as economics and nationalism, while others (such as the question of the role of masculinity) receive an oddly vestigial treatment. The story that Clark wants to tell is one of a pattern of escalating violence, starting with the two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913. Indeed, had it not been for the German mobilization in early August, the conflict might have simply been a third Balkan war. But the participation of Austria-Hungary connected the conflict to larger networks of alliances, made simpler and more clearly bipolar since the decline of the Bismarckian system after 1890.

The Sleepwalkers presents the diplomatic origins of the war with an exemplary thoroughness. In its approach, it illustrates many of the things that history can do when it is not put immediately in the service of a political agenda. History can be the basis for reasoned argument, but it does this best when it is pursued as a question of the best evidence available. If Christopher Clark does not provide a definitive explanation of the start of the war, it must also be said that he provides the basis for thoughtful account. Such is the task of history in the modern world.


Photographs courtesy of Susanna Stoop, Daniel R. Blume and the Otis Historical Archives. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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