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A Quarrel in a Faraway Country, That Still Affects Us All
on 19 September 2016
For me this excellent book is a rarity; it prompts me to completely re-evaluate my understanding of a cataclysmic historical event - the causes of WW1. Mr Clark has a different starting point to previous accounts He examines in detail the rise of the Serbian state and the acts of terrorism commissioned or condoned by them, and the antagonism, particularly by Russia, towards the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s policy and actions in the Balkans. He then shows that the ripples these actions caused drew inthe other great European powers; France, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and the UK – which I list in that order as my take on their culpability for the mess that ensued – mixed into a toxic cocktail of capricious changes of allegiance and policy direction, expediency with respect to colonial trade-offs and the anticipated dismembering of the Ottoman Empire, and the perennial arms sales to regional proxies and other undesirables. The detail of the assassination in Sarajevo, conventionally regarded as the trigger for the conflict, is seen as the culmination of years of malevolence, rather than an almost chance event. Then follows the succession of ultimatums, army mobilisations, last-minute negotiations and ultimately the conflict itself. The convolutions during that summer of 1914, gave a crazy rationale to (my) previous interpretation – that the war was largely an unintended consequence of the “strategy by railway timetable” necessary to deploy large standing armies, in the early 20th century.
The book (presumably deliberately) sits as a parable for own times; state sponsored or tolerated terrorism (Serbia/IS), a blameable centralised bureaucracy (Austria-Hungary/EU) struggling to reconcile nationalist inclinations with the imposed greater good, and the dreary inevitability of the British desire to reap benefit from Europe whilst standing apart from it (Navy Dreadnoughts/Brexit). The comparisons are not an exact fit but the thread of intransigence and incompetence is strong throughout. With the centenary of the war’s outbreak now passed, books like this which avoid conventional (lack of) wisdoms or apportioning blame might help us to understand history and avoid repeating it, but I’m not holding my breath.