I’ve pretty well lost my voice. It’s a weak, raspy husk of a thing as a result of a cold I picked up, probably from some sick colleagues. It hit me Friday night and forced me out of bed to start on antibiotics and take a painkiller. I thought I might get over it Saturday and was out and about, including a visit to a local festival. I was less confident yesterday, but it was Cheeseboy’s birthday lunch, and so I went out again. Today, it’s all caught up with me.
Being home, I’ve spent the whole morning in bed, weary, aching, tired, and free to read. In between drowsing, I finished reading a book, which is what I want to speak of today.
The book is The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War In 1914, by the Australian historian, Christopher Clark.
I’ve read a lot of books about the causes of the First World War, but none nearly as comprehensive, as detailed, or as clearly considered as this. I can’t imagine it will ever be surpassed, though I’m wary of such statements.
Unlike the other books I’ve read, this goes back into the years long before the conflict erupted to dig out the roots of it. It’s a fascinating story of unscrupulous, opportunistic and naive characters, of shifting alliances and back-room deals and grand politics.
Everyone knows how the war was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. I knew, or thought I did, about the events that followed on from that and which ultimately led to war. What I didn’t know was the intricacy of regional politics leading up to the assassination, and the alliances forged that ultimately led to one domino falling after another. And while I had read of the headline events that followed the assassination, it’s the conversations, the politicking, and the general intrigue revealed in this book that give it a whole new spin.
It’s folklore that Germany were the instigators of the war, and got their comeuppance in the end. It’s a story that suits the victors, who get to write the history. German aggression and militarism are blamed, and the good guys had no other option but to stand up to it and beat. Cue the band.
I got a very different reading from this book.
There are difficulties in cleanly attributing blame for a catastrophic event such as this. For a start, everyone has a share of it. But it’s also very complex with a million moving parts, and repeated occasions when had it happened differently the whole thing might never have occurred. A conflagration like this requires a mass of events to arrange in such a way that finally it becomes inevitable. But it wasn’t inevitable until it was.
Looking back from a hundred years on, and with the benefit of this history, some things are familiar. The Archduke was murdered by Serbian nationalists calling themselves the Black Hand, encouraged and secretly supported by large swathes of the Serbian government seeking independence from Austria.
The Archduke was not only an Austrian national, he was a member of the Austrian royal family. If something like that were to happen today then there would be widespread outrage, particularly if it was believed if the other nation was supportive in any way, and wished to cover it up.
It happens today. These days it’s terrorists and the response to something like this is generally an airstrike, or something similar. Basically, it’s a message, if you’re not going to do anything about it, then we will instead. Generally, it works, and for the most part, the justice of the action is accepted.
There are many differences then to now, the main one perhaps in this instance is that technology allows for swift and surgical retribution. That was never possible then, but war may never have eventuated had that option had been possible. It would have cauterised the situation quickly – but I’m only speculating.
Instead, within their rights, the Austrians gave the Serbians when it became clear that the Serbian response was inadequate. It was a member of the Austrian royal family who had been murdered, but it was this ultimatum that became the pretext for war.
The Serbians may have acceded to it, and that would have been it most likely, no war required. And while they wavered, the Russians stepped in.
If you were to ask me who’s to blame for the war then I’d say the Serbians made the trigger, but it was the Russians, egged on by the French, who pulled it.
Again, a hundred years on, and with the benefit of history, it’s hard to imagine a more catastrophic turn of events. The Russians, ambitious, and greatly overestimating their own might, saw the situation as an opportunity. The French were all over this, seeing it as their chance to do away with the hated Boche. They wanted war.
For Russia, the decision to mobilise, and effectively go to war, led to the slaughter of WW1 – and to the end of their nation as they’d known it. We know that the Russians were soundly beaten by the Germans, and suffered much misery and misfortune, leading ultimately to Revolution. Surely this goes down as one of the greatest turning points in history: what if Russian hadn’t so itched for a fight that it mobilised? Chances are, no war, and if the revolution was to come – big if – then not in 1917 or even soon after, and almost certainly no Lenin, no Stalin…
From there, the alliances took over. All entente eyes were on Germany, but Germany had been nothing more than supportive of its own ally to that point. Then Russia mobilised which meant that Germany must, which meant also that France must also in support of Russia – though they had intrigued for just this outcome. Finally the English, incompetently led, joined in. Et voila, the Great War!
If you’re interested in this history, then I’d well recommend the book. I’ve summarised and generalised drastically, and this is my take on it – the author just presents the facts. There’s squillions of facts though, more than any comparable book, and a lot of fascinating detail. It’s a book that adds real substance to our knowledge of the times.