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Weighing the evidence
on 25 October 2012
The Sleepwalkers opens with a spectacular chapter on the regicide of the Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga by Serbian Army assassins on 11 June 1903. Embroiled in the conspiracy, intrigue, plotting, purges, liquidations, thuggery, and assassinations that accompanied its quest to re-establish the medieval empire of Stepan Dušan, the kingdom of Serbia was the rogue state par excellence. Easily half of The Sleepwalkers’ text deals with the conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia as it was acted out amidst the instability of the Balkans before the First World War. This does not cover new ground, but Clark does add more detail and insight into the many problems this region faced in the pre-war years.
In analysing the Balkan and other conflicts that have troubled Europe since the turn of the twentieth century, Clark is critical of conventional accounts that fault Germany for consistently pursuing ill-conceived diplomacy. Some of his criticisms are legitimate. Nevertheless, the assumptions behind his account of pre-war European diplomacy that the British Empire, France, and tsarist Russia could not tolerate a major power in Central Europe (evoking the old encirclement theories) are less convincing. Some of his arguments are dubious; others are plain wrong.
Clark maintains that the confrontation between the British and German empires over the latter’s naval build-up had run its course with the building of HMS Dreadnought in 1906.(p.148-50) This is hard to fathom. The construction of a German armada was not the only reason the British government decided to abandon its long-cherished principle of ‘splendid isolation’ (along with its longstanding German-friendly policies), but it surely played an important part. There was no international rule forbidding aspiring powers from building large and expensive battle fleets, but they had to have a reason. Britain had an empire; Germany did not. In the free-trade world of the century preceding the outbreak of war in 1914, Germany had no need of a huge array of battleships to protect its merchant's vessels. The construction of all-big-gun, heavily armoured, steam turbine-powered ships commenced by Britain in 1905 did indeed turn the ‘naval race’ decisively in its favour. Still, Germany persevered with its costly and eventually futile naval build-up. Nor is political damage once done always easily corrected. All told, Clark does not present evidence to correct the still widely held interpretation of the decline in British-German relations.
Clark’s treatment of German and British industrial output and trade performance by the early twentieth century is also questionable.(p. 165) It is true that, in global terms, Britain’s share had declined while Germany’s had sharply risen. This did not mean, however, that Britain’s economy had taken a sharp downward trend. The opposite was the case — it was still growing at the rate of 4.2 per cent per annum during the pre-war years. But the cake of world trade had grown immensely, with the USA now the leading power. No doubt, some branches of British industry were hurt by German competition, but the empire still provided for flourishing trade. To cite a few scaremongers in Britain as evidence for Handelsneid establishes little.
The claim that Bethmann-Hollweg nullified the decisions taken at the ‘War Council’ meeting of December 1912 is wrong. First, other than increasing the size of the army — something Bethmann-Hollweg fully supported — no decisions were made. Second, the chancellor and the civilian government were subordinate to the Kaiser, and not vice versa. Clark’s overall depiction of Bethmann-Hollweg as a dove is more than questionable.
Clark on the other hand uses the term 'conspiring' when he refers to Franco-Russian consultations but applies no comparable label to Austria-Hungary/German discussions. This is ironic because surviving documentation suggests that the 'conspiring' label arguably would have fit the content of the Austria-Hungary/German discussions, whereas the specifics of what the French & Russian discussed during Poincare state visit are pretty much lost to history. And at least according to the report by the British Ambassador to Petersburg have been far less provocative than what is known to have been discussed between Berlin and Vienna.
Clark doesn't mention the double game played by Germany illustrated by the message sent from Berlin to Vienna on the 27 July saying Austria-Hungary should ignore any British mediation proposal that Berlin might later forward to Vienna. It was only being forwarded to keep the British happy.
In fact (not mentioned by Clark) on 8 July, a senior Austrian official wrote that there was complete agreement with the Germans; Serbia must be attacked "even at the risk of a world war that is not ruled out [by Berlin]."(This letter printed in Günther Kronenbitter, "Krieg im Frieden": Die Führung der k.u.k. Armee und die Großmachtpolitik Österreich-Ungarns 1906-1914, 2003,p. 472)
Also, when Clark mentions intelligence developed regarding Austria -Hungary's intentions before the actual publication of the ultimatum to Belgrade. ( pp. 427-8) Clark fails to acknowledge that this could have in any way influenced Russia's estimate of how it needed to respond to discourage an attack on Serbia. The Russians have just received confirmation of Austria -Hungary bad faith (i.e. of its intention to wage a punitive war against Serbia without first exhausting peaceful alternates to secure redress short of war). And that hence Russia might have thought it to be reasonable that to discourage Vienna from ever crossing the threshold of war, Russia would shift to a deterrence-based approach while concurrently signaling their willingness to negotiate and the absence of any immediate intent to go to war. Russia's stance thereby didn't preclude Vienna from seeking reasonable redress from Serbia; it only obliged them to forgo a premature, punitive war as a means of obtaining that redress.
And so, it is true, that in the weeks following the assassination, Russia's decision-makers reacted with alarm to the rumors that Austria might be planning to start a war that raised the fear the same as previously with Bosnia would happen. After the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria, an additional conquest of Serbia would not only have been a blow to Russian interests, it would also, more pertinently, have cordoned off the southern Balkans from Russia with a strip of territory controlled by Germany's allies
On 18 July as the German Ambassador Pourtalès would thus write to Bethmann-Hollweg, Sazonov warned Germany that `Russia could not tolerate it if Austria took military measures' and that Russian politics while pacifist would not be passive. "La politique de la Russie . . . est pacifique, mais pas passive [The policy of Russia is Pacific but not passive]." (Sazonov spoke in much the same vein to Italian Ambassador Carlotti: tel. Carlotti to San Giuliano (no. 6421/ 5), 18 July 1914, Documenti Diplomatici Italiano (4) XII, no. 342: Russia's policy was one of `pacifismo' but not of `passività'.) Yet right from the beginning also, Sazonov was hopeful that `reason will gain the upper hand over the belligerent tendencies at Vienna'.( Tel. Sazonov to Shebeko (no. 1475), nine/ 22 July 1914.) This is hopeful that `reason will gain the upper hand over the belligerent tendencies at Vienna would remain so until 31 July as evidenced by the Telegram of the Tsar to the German Emperor that same day
David Alan Rich in The Tsar's Colonels: Professionalism, Strategy, and Subversion in Late Imperial Russia concluded that Russia's moves rather were intended primarily for `political' reasons (in the hope to deter Austria from attacking Serbia). And that Russia `sought to reassure Germany that Russia was not about to start a general war'.
Heinz Hohne concluded the same, Foreign Minister Serge Sazonov simply wanted to use pre-mobilization as a diplomatic move to put pressure on Vienna, much as he had done in the fall of 1912 during the First Balkan War.(H. Hohne, Der Krieg im Dunkeln: Macht und Einfluss des deutschen und russischen Geheimdienstes, 1985, pp.126-28.)
In other words, Russian leaders settled on a limited response, a partial pre-mobilization against Austria, which was intended to serve as a warning, while meanwhile hoping diplomacy would be able to avert a war.
Neither is there any evidence supporting Clark's remark:`The robustness of the Russian response fully makes sense only if we read it against the background of the Russian leadership's deepening anxiety about the future of the Turkish Straits.'(p.484.) Others, including Ronald Bobroff in his book Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits' (2006), have shown that Russia, in contrast, labored to keep the Ottomans neutral in 1914.
But the Russians had an interest in preserving the status quo balance of power in the Balkans. By threatening to overrun Serbia, Austria-Hungary threatened to overturn that balance. Russia acquiesced in Austria-Hungary 's annexation of Bosnia and pressured Serbia to do the same. It was prepared to yield to keep the peace. It was hardly outrageous for Russia to expect Austria-Hungary to exercise similar restraint about Serbia. Russia didn't demand Austria-Hungary give up its pursuit of redress. All that can be said for sure was that it rejected a pre-mediated punitive war as the opening bid to obtain that end. A key Russian staff conference in November 1912 furthermore had underlined the crucial importance of not allowing the Austrians to defeat Serbia and then turn on Russia with their whole army.
It also adds little credence to The Sleepwalkers that Clark presents French President Poincaré as a prime mover in the events of July 1914 that led to Russia’s mobilisation at the outbreak of war, (p. 449-50) a claim previously made by German propaganda in the Weimar Republic (See Robert Boyce,The Great Interwar Crisis and the Collapse of Globalization, 2009, p. 119) ; or his dismissing as a diversionary manoeuvre the attempts of the Russian foreign minister to find a diplomatic solution to the Serbian problem. (p.483)
The arguments following the discovery of new documents during the 1960s and 1970s concerning Germany’s responsibility for the outbreak of war, on the other hand, are dismissed in a few sentences. (p.560) Nor does the evidence supports Clark’s claim that the Germans were reluctant to make military preparations until the end of July. (p.416) There is a considerable amount of evidence to the contrary. The German army leadership and von Moltke, in particular, had for months before the Sarajevo assassination been calling for preventive war. The one reference Clark does include, an ultimatum drafted by Moltke demanding that the Belgium government permit a German advance through its territories, was also drawn up well before the end of the month.
As for when Clark hints at Russia's 'guilt' based on the above-mentioned partial pre-mobilization `the period preparatory to war' having been ordered on 26 July (in the districts Kiev, Odessa, Kazan, and Moscow), it cannot be disputed that it was Austria-Hungary who was the first to declare war on another country, namely Serbia. Mobilizations did not necessarily have to lead to war, as Russia's statesmen were keen to highlight on many occasions (although this did not apply to Germany, where in fact due to the constraints of the so-called Schlieffen Plan it necessarily did), but declarations of war did lead to war - and while some aspects of the July Crisis are a matter of interpretation, the timing of the declarations of war is one of those rare 'facts' in history that cannot be disputed. What remains contentious, however, is the intention behind partial mobilizations and declarations of impending states of war, and the inevitability, or otherwise, of such measures leading to the outbreak of war.
While one could argue, as Clark does, that German war planning was based on countering a perceived threat on two fronts, which allows it to be interpreted in a defensive light, that has to be balanced against the fact that the Germans had abandoned planning for the possibility of a war limited to the Eastern Front two years earlier. This meant that the guarantee they gave the Austrians also has to be understood as absolutely guaranteeing that if the Russians refuse to allow Serbia to be steamrolled, the war definitely will 'not' be limited to the East. It would become a continental war because the Germans' active war plan wouldn't allow it to be anything else but. Again, as noted, there was no contingency plan that didn't involve attacking France, and doing so in a manner that would violate the neutrality of Luxembourg and Belgium. I would suggest that in this context, that is a more pertinent consideration than the allowance that the German war plan isn't by itself inherent proof of the desire to initiate offensive war on a continental scale.
In fact, it is curious how little attention the German leadership paid to the alternatives to war as a way of breaking their so-called encirclement.
Another issue here is the so-called 'short war illusion.' To understand this phenomenon, the warnings of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the uncle of the namesake who in I August 1914 got the Kaiser to order the attack in the West, are highly germane. Pondering in his years of retirement the lessons of the Franco-Prussian War in which he had led Prussia to victory against Napoleon III, he came to the conclusion that a future war could no longer be fought among the Great Powers of Europe, Such a war, he was convinced, would be a Volkskrieg, a people's war, that no belligerent could hope to win. Everything should, therefore, be done to avoid a major European war.
The problem was that if this insight of an old war horse had been followed by his successors, it would have made large armies and the planning of a major war superfluous. Although his nephew and his comrades never openly refuted Moltke the Elder's wisdom, it seems that for their own profession's sake they wanted to make great wars fightable and winnable again. Hence they adopted Schlieffen's idea of annihilation and added to it the notion of a lightning war. Brutal attack, swift advances into enemy territory and total defeat within weeks had become the way out of the military professional dilemma that they faced in the era of People's Wars. This explains the illusory claim that circulated among the soldiers on the Western Front, that victory would be achieved within months and that they would be home again by Christmas 1914. It is against the background of the feeling that a preventive war could be won by the Central Powers that a fatal decision was taken by a few men in Berlin and Vienna that pushed Europe over the brink. This means that there is no need for scholars to go on a round-trip through the capitals of Europe with the aim of finding out that other decision-makers were more responsible for the First World War than the two emperors and their advisers. Berlin and Vienna continue to be the best places for historians to look closely for clues as to why war broke out in 1914.
It thus would, no doubt, have made for a more complete, if even longer, account if Germany’s sleepwalkers had received the same attention as those of France, Russia, or Serbia in Clark’s book. If that had been the case, the overall impression of Germany’s role would have surely been less positive.