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VINE VOICEon 4 March 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I found the book a gripping read, and Clark's mastery of his sources satisfying. The issue that is dividing reviewers is the central one that Clark sets out to answer - were the Central Powers, in particular Germany, guilty of starting World War One?
Clark's argument is that such reasoning is simplistic, and that all the statemen of Europe in 1914 were in effect sleepwalkers - walking into the abyss of a continental war.
Clark is the first to agree that the literature on 1914 is enormous and increasing - and that documentation exists to support many hypotheses about the causes and origins of the war.
Clark argues that it was not Germany that triggered the war, but a combination of factors: The development of the competing alliance system in Europe which tied Russia to France and France to Britain, versus Germany and Austria-Hungary's alliance, Serbia's extremist nationalists who were prepared to use violence on their neighbours, the aggressive mobilisation plans of most countries' military establishments terrified of being caught out by their neighbours mobilising first, and the preparadness of statesmen to risk war while pursuing foreign policy.
He has been accused of being an academic apologist for Germany (and worse by some) which only shows that 100 years on, the divisions and consequences of the war still run deep in Europe.
I should note that there are some excellent and detailed reviews here on Amazon which challenge Clark's thesis - which emphasises French and Russian war planning and mobilisation rather than the 'blank cheque' Germany gave Austria-Hungary.
For me, the essential point I took away from the book, was that too many statesmen on all sides were prepared to use war - and war on a massive scale if need be - as a policy tool.
For any student of 1914 I would recommend this book. It is an important contribution to the debate and is worth studying. But I would not read it alone, there are other equally worthy books which reach different conclusions.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 March 2013
Which was most important, the spark or the powder keg? There are probably enough books on the origins of the First World War to rebuild the great wall of China with. Thanks to the influence of the 'annales' school and its long view of history, however, and then of Marxist thinking and its predilection for structural causes, most of that literature has focused on the powder keg. In Sleepwalkers, Clark chooses to ask about the spark: how the First World War came about rather than why, though how is of course also expected to inform the question why. The book thus devotes close attention to Balkan politics, and it includes what must be one of the most detailed accounts of the Sarajevo murders anywhere. In this sense and to a degree, it is a return to the 'battles and princes' history of earlier times. Look for irony in this if you like, but Clark makes the point that our twenty-first century multi-polar world, with its fluid politics and shock-prone environment - think 9/11 and its aftermath - resembles the pre-WWI era more than much of the twentieth century, and perhaps makes that era more approachable.

Sleepwalkers is actually divided into three sections. The first, which I found the best, deals with the Balkans, Serbian irredentism, the Black Hand, and the Habsburgs' fraught involvement and Russo-French investment in the region. The second teases out longer-term risk factors over the ten to fifteen years to 1914, and the third section puts the characters and events immediately leading to the war declarations under the microscope. Inevitably the book's second section rehashes already well-covered points: the hardening of the alliance system, mobilisation plans, colonial competition, though it does make the important argument that not every trend pointed towards military confrontation. The originality of the third section is probably that it restores the roles of a variety of second-line characters. It also remains, as any account of these last few weeks, morbidly fascinating. I thought, finally, that Clark might have expanded a little on the interesting cultural factors he touches on, such as militarism and male insecurity, or the role of defensive discourses in blunting diplomatic initiative - perhaps at the cost of a shorter second section - but this is already a long book. Sleepwalkers' chief merit, anyhow, is to remind us that WWI originated in the Balkans and that, if we want to understand why it happened, we need to grasp why the Balkans came to assume such an overblown importance in Great Power thinking.

One last point: as many of the Amazon reviews seem to confirm, Clark to a large extent argues with the 'German adventurism' historical school. My wish is not to engage in polemics with fellow reviewers. My impression is that this school of thought, having originated with post-WWII German historians, was more about guilt over what happened after rather than before 1914. Nor do I privately understand how it can all be blamed on the Germans: my own, French countrymen were sufficiently fixated on Alsace-Lorraine to share in the responsibility. Whatever the case may be, though, it should be mentioned that Clark is an Aussie who teaches at Cambridge University. Though he has written a history of Prussia, there is no reason to brand him a German nationalist. It is correct that Sleepwalkers dilutes the blame, and it does paint - rightly in my view - the Habsburg reaction to the Sarajevo murders as legitimate. But if the book tends to absolve the Germans of excessive blame for WWI, this should be taken as a serious contribution to an academic debate, not as an opinion piece.
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on 14 November 2013
An important book, especially for those who may disagree with the views it implies on German War Guilt, who need to deal with the evidence prsented here.

The author does have a reputation for being more sympathetic to German views on how the war arose than is common amongst British historians at any rate.

The Sarajevo assassination and the Serbian entanglement with this is treated in great detail. There are also valuable discussions on the different ways that decisions were made in the major countries concerned. How Austria-Hungary for example to make a decision on anything will puzzle many modern political commentators. Much detail will surprise those not specialists on this historic period. For example the fact that the President of France was on a state visit to Russia at the end of July 1914, returning home only a few days before the outbreak of war.

It is a tough and complex read though. And even with this length and complexity a number of important matters are skimped over or not mentioned. The untenable strategic situation in the Polish lands for example following the partitions of Poland in the 18th Century, reinforced by the post-Napoleonic settlements. The Russian salient including Warsaw made a defence of Prussian lands very precarious in the case of hostilities. Only an international understanding such as the `Dreikaiserbund', defunct by 1914, could manage the situation in Poland. Stressing this might reinforce a more conventional interpretation of how the war situation arose.

The discussion of the politics in Britain will leave most lay readers puzzled, as there are frequent references to the Liberal Imperialists but no explanation of who they were, and how important in the politics of the time. Briefly, the rise of the British Empire in the last third of the 19th Century was not without opposition. The Liberal Party often opposed new colonial adventures. The Conservative Party built up a populist pro-Empire movement which recruited many voters who might otherwise have supported the Liberals on certain other policies. Only when a faction in the Liberal Party friendly to the Imperial State came to an accommodation with more sceptical Liberals could the Liberal Party put together an internal coalition that won General Elections and introduced social reforms to the UK. The Lib Imps as they were known were eventually the faction that prevailed in the debates on British intervention in WW1.

Entirely omitted in this book is any discussion as to how the Nederlands avoided being forced into the war, and how it remained neutral throughout. This is important as at one stage the German General Staff envisaged a variation on the Schlieffen Plan including an invasion of Belgium via Dutch territory. The Nederlands however mobilised its forces at the end of July 1914 following an intelligence tip-off on July 25th that Europe-wide hostilities were imminent. Did this cause disruptions to German planning?

For me, one lesson learned is how views on `Europe' began to change in those years. At the start there was a kind of Bismarkian dismissal - Europe was just a 'geographical expression' a space over which powers tried to establish a balance of forces. Europe was nobody's common home. At the end something perhaps a little new, expressed in the dignified Belgium rejection of the German ultimatium of 2 August 1914: that acceptance would "betray Belgium's duties towards Europe".

A "Geographical Expression" or something shared between all its peoples. Can we see here the seeds of the debate over the nature and existence of the European Union in our own day?

In short this is an important book which is in no sense the final word on the issues it raises. Four stars only because it is frankly heavy going at times.

(Those interested in the Dutch experience should read Maartje Abbenhuis `The Art Of Staying Neutral: The Nederlands in the First World War)
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on 23 February 2014
All books on history that are worth reading will require the reader to exercise judgment and Christopher Clark's work is no exception. He does not enter the "blame game" save that if blame is to be attributed it is not to one country or one faction it is to the class of diplomats, financiers and militarists consistently seeking its own ends whether of personal advancement, chauvanistic nationalism or ill-formed notions of the interests of one state or another driven by internal jostling and squabbling
If one wishes to understand this arcane world which the first global war did much to end then this book is one that must be read. Works that apply simplistic analysis to World War I do not serve understanding of the events. Similarly, works that present the War as a war largely between Germany, Britain and France fail to grasp the real nature of the conflict or place it in its proper context. Clark without advancing it as a thesis, demonstrates that a global war could have started by reason of the Agadir crisis in which Britain, despite the main actors being Germany and France, demonstrated a far greater belligerence than either of those. If war had broken out then the question "What were the origins of WWI?" would have a very different answer and were blame being attributed Britain might well have to accept far more responsibility than it did in 1914. Similar points could made about the critical relations between Austria/Hungary and Russia which always entailed the menace of German involvement in 1912 as the Balkan Wars escalated. Had war started then would Britain even have been involved given the ambivalent nature of its commitment to France and France's own ambivalent relationship (and treaty terms) with Russia?
Clark places the Balkanization of Great Power politics in clear context; this aspect of European history of the time is often undeservedly marginalized partly by reason of it arcane nature and the linguistic problems in dealing with primary sources faced by later historians. Clark does not (as indeed Max Hastings does not) make this error. The Balkan "crisis" or succession of crises over the five years preceding the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is critical to understanding how European and World war became almost inevitable at some point. When one looks at the Agadir crisis it is perhaps the fact that the politics of the time had not become "Balkanized" to the extent that occurred by 1914 that prevented the crisis assuming greater proportions than it did. The cause of itself was inadequate for the German and French people to embrace a war that all knew would be catastrophic. With the rolling war of the Balkans which "ended" in the Treaty of London added to the mix the scale of events assumed a far larger perspective than perhaps they deserved. It still remained a large puzzle to many in every country involved in July 1914, with the possible exception of Serbia, why the great powers were entered on a war for such a remote cause with in many cases allies that only a few short years before were suspect at best and enemies at worst.
Clark elaborates that puzzle with great clarity and adds back to the historical lexicon events that have been overlooked such as the Italo-Turkish War which could with reason be cited as the real cause of the later global conflict. His skill and the detail of his work is compelling making it impossible for others to ignore the real world of international relations and politics that created the crisis. Because it does not seek to lay blame the work is all the more instructive; he does not appear to advance one cause or another nor does he seek to do other than elucidate what have been dark corners of history until now.
The book is not without humanity or character; the likes of Lord Grey are carefully analyzed as are those of Sazanov or Hartwig or Pasic. It might be an aid for Kindle readers to have a hyperlink to the cast of characters section with each name referred to as the cast is enormous and as the politics ebb and flow some, like Conrad to take an example, appear and disappear to reappear later when a reminder of whom and what they were might be useful. In general however the alert and concentrating reader will get through and such is the skill of the writing that individuals do indeed emerge as real personalities. Moreover they are kept as characters in and of their time without attempts to apply too many psychological analyses not available at the time.
If this book is considered too detailed and too concentrated on the arcane world of international relations then the answer is to read Max Hastings book "Catastrophe" at the same time. It is written with his usual skill as a story teller and his superb knowledge and research. He, too, does not allow the reader to fall into easy assumptions or jingoistic justifications but presents a clear and cogent account of some of the same events. Nor does Hastings offer easy answers or dilute the scholarship that is required if one wants to come to some understanding of why the governments of Europe committed their peoples to a war that ultimately led to the destruction or drastic transformation of each of the states involved.
For both then five stars and a suggestion that they are read in tandem. They are works of the highest calibre and present us with real and fresh insights into questions that are still troubling and relevant. Perhaps that is the next book from either or both; what happened afterwards, what changed and to what extent, such that the question of what caused this conflict is still an issue today and such that ill informed politicians will attempt to politicize it in pursuit of their own ends.
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on 12 May 2015
This book is a compelling, interesting and well-researched presentation of the events leading to the first world war. It's a long an detailed book with lots of different characters, so it's not always an easy read. But it is surprisingly engaging for a book that deals with the subject in such detail.

Clark argues that it makes more sense to explain how the war began rather than why it began, because the question of why inevitably leads to questions of fault and blame. The problem with Clark's presentation is that it is almost impossible for the reader not to identify the culprits based on Clark's narrative.

On the one hand we have the three great powers Britain, France and Russia who have conquered much of the world and divided it among themselves. Germany is an emerging industrial power in Europe, and Austria-Hungary is a big incoherent European empire that's just doing it's best not to fall apart. France and Russia together gang up on German and Austria-Hungary, in an attempt for France to reclaim Alsace and Lorraine, and Russia to take control of the Balkans. Britain is willing to go along with France and Russia, largely because they would prefer to see Russia kept busy fighting in the Balkans rather than trying to take India from Britain. And smaller powers like Italy see which way the wind is blowing, and decide they'd rather be on the winning side of a war. The Russians sponsor Serbian terrorists to attack Austria-Hungary. And when Austria-Hungary attempts to defend itself from terrorist attacks, Russia and France use it as a pretext for war. Germany goes to the aid of Austria-Hungary, because it is their only ally. If Germany doesn't go to the aid of Austria-Hungary, then it is clear that France and Russia will destroy Austria-Hungary and then turn their aggression on Germany.

This narrative is not stated explicitly in the book, but it seems impossible to read the book without identifying this narrative. The problem is that by not discussing this narrative openly, there is no discussion of alternative narratives, such as the traditional one that Germany was responsible for the war and it used the terrorist attacks on its ally as a pretext for the war. The book would really benefit from discussion of alternative theories about the war, because it would help a non-expert reader to at least attempt to reconcile Clark's narrative with the traditional one.
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VINE VOICEon 15 April 2015
In the second half of the twentieth century a prominent British newspaper started referring to the two World Wars as the First German War and the Second German War. This reinforced an attitude of mind which blamed Germany for over running brave little Belgium in 1914 and for repeating its attempt to rule Europe during the time of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. Clark's meticulously researched work puts an end to such nonsense. Whereas many historians start their account of the origins of the war with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Clark begins with the murder of the Serbian King Alexandar and Queen Draga by twenty-eight officers of the Serbian army in Belgrade, organised by Dragutin Dimitrinjevic known as 'Apis'. The murders brought to an end the pro-Austrian Obrenovic dynasty and replaced it with its great rivals the pro-Russian Karadjordevic clan. This was not unusual in Serbian politics as Clark points out, 'It is striking how few of the nineteenth-century Serbian regents died on the throne of natural causes'. Whichever faction was in power used brutality and conspiratorial methods earning rulers a reputation for untrustworthiness which outweighed any genuine nationalist demands they articulated.

The overthrow of the Obrenovic dynasty was greeted with 'an entire absence of decent regret', the British minister in Belgrade noted. The new monarch promised to rule as the constitutional king of Serbia and encouraged liberal reforms which had been suppressed by his predecessor. However, the regicide network became more powerful at court than any popular political party and, in realistic terms, the king was their prisoner. The Radical party led by Nikola Pasic agitated for Serbian expansion, the territorial unification of all Serbs in the Balkan peninsula and Pan-Slavism. The army regarded itself as 'the incarnation of a Serbian national will', an aim pursued vigorously by Apis who, in 1911, formed Unification or Death, better known as Black Hand. While the major powers may have sleep walked into conflict Serbia did not and the role of Apis in seeking 'to save Serbdom with bombs, knives and rifles' is not a matter of playing the blame game but placing responsibility where it lay. It did not lie with Serbia alone but to dismiss Serbia's role is the equivalent of saying ISIS has no responsibility for the crisis in Syria. Ultimately, Black Hand was an extra-political aspect of the Serbian aim of freedom from rule by Austria-Hungary.

The system of international alliances provided the backdrop within which Serbia could operate. France and Russia formed an alliance to counter the increasing assertive German international policy. Britain abandoned isolationism to form an entente with France and Russia. Nations armed themselves and prepared for the eventuality of war while not considering its consequences. The difference between the pre-1914 conflict and the nuclear age was the absence of the nature of the conflagration which could result from war. Austria-Hungary was ruled by a repressive regime in 1908 annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ironically, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was not because it was feared he would continue the repressive regime of his uncle but because he supported reforms which would have assigned more autonomy to the Slavic lands and undermined the Serbian irredentist policy. That policy was based on the myth that the Battle of Kosovo had left the south slaves, including Serbs, in lands occupied by Muslim rulers. Such lands had to be redeemed and refashioned as Serbia. This formed part of two Serbian wars in 1912-13 in which Serbian atrocities abounded. In addition, a variety of Slavic races were government by the non-slavic Austria-Hungary who were condemned because they were not Slavic.

Clark's argument that no one was to blame for what happened is based on the idea that there was a purpose in the policies which led to war. Clark's extensive search of historical archives throughout Europe reveals there was an absence of statesmanship and a lack of checks and balances on those making decisions. In Britain most of the Cabinet were not privy to Edward Grey's diplomacy and Foreign Office decision-making. The Emperor Franz Joseph was surprised by the severity of the note to Serbia authored by his Foreign Minister, Leopold Berchold, drawing attention to the possibility that Russia might intervene. To this extent Clark takes the view that the pressure of events led to the inevitability of war which many, including Britain, thought would not involve them. Both before and after the war politicians began the blame game based on prejudicial interpretations of their own failures. The Versailles Treaty blamed Germany and, in particular, its militaristic culture. Post-war politicians claimed Germany was forced into a war it did not want. Clark takes the view that while countries did not want war they failed to take action to prevent it.

One is left with a sense of 'If only". If only the Archduke had not visited Sarajevo on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. If only the driver of the car carrying the assassinated couple had been informed of the change of route. If only the couple had left after the first failed attempt on their lives. The same is applicable to the decision-making process in which decisions were often outside the control of those who were nominally responsible for them. In addition, there were serious misjudgments about where each countries' long term interests lay and how the events of 28 June impacted on policy. When Austria wanted to investigate the role of Serbian subversives the Serbian government took it to be a declaration of war, although they knew who was responsible. Each act resulted in a response and ultimately a war which no-one outside Serbia wanted.

Although no without its critics Clark's analysis is a masterpiece of historical writing and will be an essential reference point for all future studies of the subject. The receives five stars is because it cannot be awarded ten but ten out of ten is what it deserves. Buy it.
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on 18 August 2014
Of all the books that have come out to celebrate (if that's the word) the beginning of the First World War exactly a century ago, it is to be doubted that there will be a more important one than this one. In this magisterial account, Christopher Clark takes us behind the scenes of all the protagonists, showing the bluster, posturing, confusion, conflicting agendas (even within the protagonists) and pride that led to what is in essence history's biggest traffic accident. Who was to blame? Professor Clark points the finger at - everyone. A total failure of comprehension and imagination led to a war that nobody wanted, and ultimately the destruction of four empires and the mortal wounding of a fifth. Professor Clark's final sentence says it all:

"...the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world."

Be warned; this is a book with a huge cast and full of complex, interlocking events. It requires patience to read. It also requires one to ignore the fact that we know what the final result would be and put ourselves in the shoes of the leaders of those days, obsessed by contemporary power politics, full of national and imperial hubris, and fearful of decline and irrelevancy, especially in the eyes of the rest. It is well worth the effort. It also has surprising echoes of the present day. I hadn't realised that early 20th century Serbia was full of desires for the unification of all Serbs, including the holy ground of Kosovo in Bosnia-Herzogovina, scene of a mediaeval battle against the Turks, but which had never actually been part of Serbia. As a result, Belgrade was willing to countenance (unofficially) terrorist activity against the Austrian rulers of Bosnia-Herzogovina, which led directly to Gavrilo Princip and his gun in Sarajevo on that summer day in 1914.

100 years on, human beings have not really changed. States still foster national pride and still jockey for position to achieve what they see as their rightful positions vis-à-vis other states. One could see similar blunders and miscalculations happening again. We can only hope that, in this centenary year, all our alleged "statesmen" read this book and learn from it.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 11 February 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Christopher Clark has written an in-depth, detailed and lucid account of how the First World War came about rather than concentrating on the why. As anyone who has had a mild interest in the causes of this most horrific conflict will understand (I studied it at Degree level) the causes are multifaceted. It is too simply complex a subject to merely point at one nation as the culprit (i.e. Germany) or to decide that one single event (like the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife) was the single trigger for the outbreak of the war.

Clark describes the situation in the Balkans quite masterly and its place in the lead up to the conflict, the early 20th century wars in this region, the search for Serbia independence and Austria's position in relation to this. He puts into perspective the significance of the two blocks of allies and this

He doesn't exonerate the Germans but similarly does not give Fischer's thesis the prominence it has had in the past. He does not believe that any one nation or group of individuals sought war (and certainly not on this scale and devastation). He therefore does not hold with the view that any single country (or empire) should be wholly, or even mainly, blamed for the conflict. He sees the conflict as "a tragedy not a crime".

Clark therefore concludes without really giving anyone ultimate blame or seeking to list the nations' guilt in order of blame. Perhaps some will not be content with this outcome - a victim has been found but with no one convicted of the "crime" but for one I found this refreshing.
Personally yes I DO believe Germany deserved some, possibly the largest proportion, blame but each of the other nations involved - Austria, Russia, France, Serbia all played their part and were more intent on defending their own interests/power/empires than ensuring peace.
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on 11 August 2014
Extremely thoroughly researched account of the events leading up to the outbreak of World War . I particularly appreciated the descriptions of the actual assassination itself in Sarajevo, a convincing narrative. Also the highly complicated history of Serbia and its struggle against Austro-Hungary is clarified . I did find the long foreign policy intricacies somewhat less absorbing than the rest of the book but I learned a lot and the author has done an incredible amount of work to elucidate the mindsets of those politicians and leaders of the time to explain how the outbreak of war finally came about.
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on 27 June 2014
This book covers the run up to the First World War, with a heavy concentration on the Balkans, and in particular on Serbia and its various backers and opponents. The perspective is very much about how the Great Power manoeuvring around the Balkans led to the disaster. In that sense it's slightly unconventional : for example, German power politics and naval conflict gets very little coverage, compared to the Balkans. It's almost an afterthought what happened when the Balkans pulled the trigger.

It paints a carefully crafted, readable and fascinating picture of the governments of the time, with their deep internal conflicts (in many countries the army and the civilian leadership seem to have been at odds, for example, but even the foreign ministries chopped and changed as influence went from one person to another); their failure to understand the viewpoints of other countries; and the almost universal belief that the war was somebody else's fault and so unavoidable.

It's hard not to recommend this book if you have even a casual interest in the topic. It's an unusual viewpoint, but it's very well done indeed.
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