The European continent was at peace on the morning of Sunday 28 June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek arrived at Sarajevo railway station. Thirty-seven days later, it was at war. The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded. The horrors of Europe's twentieth century were born of this catastrophe."
It's impossible to overestimate the importance of World War I. It's also impossible to wrap your head around how the five Great Powers allowed themselves to march into a disastrous war that all could see coming, yet none could find a way out of. No one had an exit strategy for the escalating July crisis. Christopher Clark writes the definitive account of how the crisis led to war. After the jump, my review.
"The Sleepwalkers" is roughly divided into three parts. The first third is a history of Serbia in the hundred years or so before World War I. There are more dynastic families, political parties, secret societies, historical grudges, conspiracies, plots, and regicides than the reader can keep track of. Serbia was constantly in conflict with either Austria, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, Bulgaria, or all of them at once. This part of the book gets a grade of C- for its density.
The second third covers the crises that occupied the European Great Powers in the decade before World War I. Russia was thrashed by Japan in the Far East in 1904. Germany and France faced off in Morocco in 1905 and again in 1911. Serbia and Bulgaria together pushed Turkey out of the Balkans in 1912, then six months later Serbia and Bulgaria fought each other over the spoils. In each of these cases, Russia, Austria, Germany, France and England faced off in different configurations. The overall peace in Europe held. This part of the book gets a grade of B- for showing international relations played like the game of Risk everyone remembers from childhood (or Diplomacy, an even better game and one actually based on the map of Europe in WWI).
It's not until the reader is two-thirds into the book that the fateful assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, takes place and the July crisis erupts. This part of the book gets a grade of A- for its detailed coverage of the strategizing and diplomacy that took place in each of the European capitals in the single fateful month of July, 1914, before World War I broke out.
It's shocking how the dominoes were set up and fell over. Serbia encouraged the activists who committed the assassination. Austria was intent on punishing Serbia and perhaps dealing with that repeated threat once and for all. Russia was intent on defending Serbia, even if it meant going to war against Austria. Germany was committed to supporting Austria. France was committed to supporting Russia. England was committed to supporting France even though it had no strategic interest in what happened in the Balkans at all. Each player felt that some other Great Power held the key to stopping the dominoes from falling. No one wanted war, but each power felt, for different reasons, that their strategic position was only going to weaken over time. 1914 was believed to be a better time for war than waiting, even though there were many dread feelings of the disaster that war would bring to all, even the winners.
This is now probably the definitive study of the outbreak of World War I. That's saying something, as World War I probably has as large a bibliography as any historical event, including the hugely popular "Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman, which I read forty years ago and still highly recommend.
Because of different grades for the different parts of the book, I can only average them for an overall grade of B-. This is a very long book, but readers who want to only sample it can start two-thirds in, with the assassination in Sarajevo, and the story of the crisis of July. That's the crux of the matter in any case.