Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Amazon Book Review of Christopher Clark's, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914"

Sleepwalkers is about how, not why, Europe fell into the abyss of war in 1914. It is a terrific work of history, but for the lay reader, it is way too long and gets too bogged down in minutia. Hence four stars instead of five. What makes this book different from the volumes I have read on the origins of World War One is that is puts the emphasis on where it started, the Balkans. After reading the early chapters of the book, Clark proves, intentionally or not, the Bismark aphorism, that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.

For someone like myself schooled in the works of Tuchman (chaotic and inept decision making theory) and Fischer (Germany wanted a war from the get go) Clark's book is an eye opener. First it makes all of the players seem rational and second it puts far more emphasis on the role of France and Russia in starting the war. Both France and Russian planning was based on a "Balkan inception" scenario; something that was given to them on silver platter by the assasination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28. Within five weeks Europe was at war. As an aside the fear of growing Russian power not only motivates Germany, but also France in that France feared that in only a few years Russia would no longer need an alliance with them.

Although Clark convincingly covers the intrigues of Belgrade, Venice, St. Petersberg, Paris and London; he does not spend sufficient time on Berlin. I know that might be more of a "why" question than a "how" question, it is necessary for the story. It speaks the need to understand whether Austria-Hungary was an independent actor or a pawn of Berlin.

These quibbles aside there is so much to learn here and there are lessons for today. Afterall the Sarajevo trigger was an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

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