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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 10 April 2018
This book is book-ended with a fantastic beginning and a page turning ending.
The beginning delves into the irredentism of Serbia. The populist nationalism that inspired and directed young Serbians looking to build upon the gains from the 2 Balkan wars of 1911/12 as well as earlier historical episodes such as the regicide of the Serbian King Alexander in 1903.

Chris Clark is brilliant in these opening chapters. He also excels in the last quarter of the book which studies and details the July Crisis of 1912 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I came away actually wanting more. I did not want the book to end as the crises, made real by Clark's vivid style of writing, was not only educational but exciting and scary with equal measure. I learned a lot in that last part of the book.

The problem is the big fat middle. It just kept on going. Clark drowns the history telling with too much detail. He goes back to the 1840s and lays down why the Balkins became a hot potato, why there were cross-alliances between member states of Europe, why politicians and statesmen sleepwalked into the disaster that was the Great War. He lost me on more than one occasion when he talked about the minutiae of various ambassador actions and thinking.

I can understand what Clark is trying to accomplish. That the outbreak of the Great War was the sum of many very small parts, that over time, resulted with hubris and mis-understanding. But oh boy I did not think it needed 400 pages (relatively dry) to make that point.

This book needed to be reigned in. It needed an editor to say "summarise this" or "be more concise". On more than one occasion I skipped several tens of pages because Clark was losing me in the detail and began to lose focus on the bigger picture. I mean if you are interested in who said what to whom in the nth degree (dating back to the turn of the century) than this could be the best book on the origins of the First World War, but at one point I was on the verge of chucking it in.

But I am glad I did not, simply because the chapters on the July Crises are so damn good.

Its a difficult book to "recommend" if you are new to learning about the Great War, but my advice would be to read Part 1 and Part III and to skim Part II and read up on the history of The Agadir Crises, the 2 Balkan Wars and the Franco-Russian Alliance on Wikipedia.

My final word of the book. After reading it I came to the conclusion that a big war in Europe was inevitable. The assassination was the catalyst but all the elements were already there for imperialist nation states to have a go at each other
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on 6 June 2015
Will change the way you look at the causes of The Great War

For a historian to admit they don't hold all the answers to why an event happened is astonishing.

Lesser historians may cite lack of evidence or understanding, allowing the ambiguity and speculation to rumble on for years, thus becoming a self-fulfilling philosophy. Not Clark.

By Clark's own admission, the evidence is overwhelming. Libraries are packed to the rafters with books on the subject, archives groan under the weight of reams of official documents, detailing why governments took the steps they did. And yet... we are none the wiser.

Clark argues that a case could be made to blame any country for starting the Great War.

As I said, this disarming honesty, this frank admission, and a focus on HOW the war started, rather than WHY the war started, is an insightful, and refreshing take on The Great War.
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on 24 July 2014
‘The Sleepwalkers’ (2012) by Christopher Clark was recommended to me and I soon realised why it has become a controversial analysis of the origins of the ‘war to end all wars’. The title reminded me of Hitler’s declaration that‘I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker’ (14 March 1936), stated days after the ‘triumph’ of the re-occupation of the Rhineland. ‘Providence’ was to lead him into the mess, carnage and disaster of World War II. The same might be said for the principal personalities in this book.

President Wilson’s 14 Points (Jan 1918) – an exercise in hindsight or ‘shutting the stable-door’!– included ‘Open covenants openly arrived at’ and Clark expertly details the’ secret diplomacy’ going on both WITHIN and between governments. However, he doesn’t mention espionage (e.g. MI5 began in Oct 1909, FBI in 1908 and France reactivated the Deuxieme Bureau in 1907) which often revealed OR distorted such activity.
Clark is able to sum up whole problem areas in a sentence or two. Here are some examples. ‘The mismatch between national visions and ethnic realities made it highly likely that the realisation of Serbian objectives would be a violent process’ (P.26). ‘The extreme inconsistency of the Kaiser’s utterances makes an assessment of their impact difficult’ (P.179). Analysing the origins of World War 1 requires ‘understanding sustained rapid-fire interactions between executive structures with a relatively poor understanding of each other’s intentions, operating with low levels of confidence and trust (even within the respective alliances) and with high levels of hostility and paranoia’ (P.240). The July 1914 crisis (to generalise from one analysis) involved a ‘panicky lack of focus, the preference for swollen metaphors over clear formulations, the employment of histrionic devices to achieve an emotional effect, the juxtaposition of different perspectives in the absence of a unifying meta-narrative’ (P. 401).
Clark’s analysis of the last weeks of peace is masterly As regards Austrian diplomacy he writes: ‘The Austrians resembled hedgehogs scurrying across a highway with their eyes averted from the rushing traffic’ (P.429) – e.g. far from Germany’s ‘blank cheque’ revealing a masterminding of events, due to suspected links the Austrians withheld their ultimatum from Berlin till 22 July (days after it was known in Paris and St. Petersburg). Delivery was delayed till French and Russians leaders were no longer together: the Serbs, however, delayed replying till after they were sure of Russia. The Serbian response was certainly not the surrender usually described and ‘may have have looked messy, but it was a masterpiece of diplomatic equivocation...... a subtle cocktail of acceptances, conditional acceptances, evasions and rejections....the text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands... a highly perfumed rejection on most points’ (PP 464-466). Russia was excited at the prospect of achieving long-held ambitions, with exaggerated self-confidence and misread the effect of mobilisation, In Britain, Grey ‘plotted, as so often before, a meandering path that steered clear of straightforward commitments’(P. 491) and both country and government were divided. France faced a similar state of indecision involving ‘the complex triangulations of a French policy that had to mediate between the hard imperatives of the Franco-Russian Alliance and the fuzzy logic of the Anglo-French Entente’ (P. 506). Regarding Germany, Clark insists nothing ‘suggests that they viewed the crisis as the welcome opportunity to set in train a long-laid plan to unleash a preventive war on Germany’s neighbours’(P.521). Perhaps not, but they didn’t have any Plan B alternative to the Schlieffen Plan etc.as Germany was swept along in the general rush into war. The Kaiser MAY have believed Britain would stay neutral if Germany didn’t attack France, but did anyone really believe Germany could risk just concentrating on the eastern front? Throughout Europe there was ‘reflex deflection of responsibility that placed the onus of deciding between peace and war on another’s shoulders’ (P.537). For several days Britain threatened not to back France. Older studies stress the balance of power in Europe threatened by Germany but revisionist works concentrate of British GLOBAL challenged by an expanding Russia.. ‘British intervention on the side of the Entente offered a means BOTH of appeasing and tethering Russia AND of opposing and containing Germany’ (P547) is Clark’s suggestion on the topic. Personally I think Clark gives too much weight to British desire to aid ‘gallant little Belgium’ and it was rather a question of the ‘monster’ of European diplomacy etc. out-running its Frankenstein ‘masters’.
The book is far more ‘even-handed’ than several studies I’ve used and so no surprise that it’s proved very popular in Germany. However, Clark sometimes may be trying too hard. In 1914 Germany agreed to bail out a bankrupt Bulgaria but Clark insists ‘This did not reflect some long-laid plan to draw Bulgaria into the clutches of the Triple Alliance’ (P.277). They also offered loans to the Serbs. Then the French (backed by Russia) offered Bulgaria a loan. Clark insists, “.... the plan was to persuade the Bulgarians to accept the loan and then pressure them at a later gate into changing their government’ (P.277). The loan was rejected. Clark cites evidence for the French plan but none for his comment re’ the Triple Alliance. I think BOTH groups were trying to recruit / neutralise BOTH Balkan states – just like later policies by the USA and USSR (e.g. Egypt 1955).
So what don’t I like in the book? There’s no bibliography. Although the extensive end-notes quote numerous sources, the MAJOR authorities used should be listed to make clearer the APPROACH to the subject and so reveal its strengths and limitations. One critic has referred to the absence of treatment of the OPPOSITION to war (e.g. Lenin) or indeed the ‘Marxist interpretation’ (not confined to Communists) of the approach to war. Surprisingly there is no mention ANYWHERE of Jean Jaurès, leading French socialist and advocate of peace, who was assassinated (31 July), as a ‘traitor’ just as France slipped into war, undermining the opposition campaign. The planned strikes throughout Europe to stop the war proved abortive. The author largely ignores the growth of technology (e.g. radio, telegraphy) which too rapidly exposed shortcomings (e.g. during the last month of peace). He also overlooks the GENERAL rise in prosperity and aspirations among the masses which increased pressure on the ‘movers and shakers’. Perhaps too much attention is given to the ‘jitter-bugging’ of tiny groups involved in Balkan politics. To evoke a metaphor, in essence they were the cracks and leaks in the piping, it was the nature of the contents of the plumbing system that proved the danger. Even so, I’m still awarding 5 stars to what is the best analysis of the subject I’ve ever come across – and for introducing me to a lot of historical data I didn’t know!
Why my title? During the decades spanning 1900 international diplomacy had become a sea of mud, created out of improving technology, growing aspirations and competition for resources. As Clark often indicates situations had become beyond the abilities of those expected to control them. Unfortunately, I don’t think international diplomacy is in any better condition today.
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on 27 February 2015
This is a very complex book about finding the cause to the First World War. It is not possible to point to one specific cause to the start of the war. Christopher Clark makes a fantastic job in showing us the various events that lead to this terrible war.
”The European continent was at peace on the morning of Sunday 28 June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek arrived at Sarajevo railway station. Thirty-seven days later, it was at war. The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded. The horrors of Europe’s twentieth century were born of this catastrophe; it was, as the American historian Fritz Stern put it, ’the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. The debate over why it happened began before the first shots were fired and has been running ever since. It has spawned an historical literature of unparalleled size, sophistication and moral intensity. For international relations theorists the events of 1914 remain the political crisis par excellence, intricate enough to accommodate any number of hypotheses.”
This is the opening paragraph of the Introduction to Christopher Clark’s eminent book on how Europe went to war in 1914, The Sleepwalkers. Tremendous praise has been given to the book, and it has been called a master piece. You can’t call it anything less. It is magnificent. Clark gives such detailed accounts on events, you wonder how he has been able to research it all.

Christopher Clark is an Australian historian, working at the University of Cambridge. In 2015 he was knighted for his services to Anglo-German relations. His earlier works include The History of Prussia, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 and Kaiser Wilhelm II.
”This book thus strives to understand the July Crisis of 1914 as a modern event, the most complex of modern times, perhaps of any time so far. It is concerned less with why the war happened than with how it came about. Questions of why and how are logically inseparable, but they lead us in different directions. The question of how invites us to look closely at the sequences of interactions that produced certain outcomes. By contrast, the question of why invites us to go in search of remote and categorical cuases: imperialism, nationalism, armaments, alliances, high finance, ideas of national honour, the mechanics of mobilization. They why approach brings a certain analytical clarity, but it also has a distorting effect, because it creates the illusion of a steadily building causal pressure; the factors pile up on top of each other pushing down on the events; political actors become mer executors of forces long established and beyond their control.
The British historian A.J.P Taylor and the American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that ’the war was a result of rigid planning, train schedules and treaty commitments. That is, it was the final stop in a chain of events that could not stop the train, once it started’. It is a very good description and after having read Clark’s book you can see how all decisions from the persons and countries involved, although aimed at not starting a war, on the contrary, lead directly to war.

In 1903 Alexander I of Serbia was killed by a secret network called The Black Hand. The same network that eleven years later organised the murder of the archduke of Austria-Hungary. Christopher Clark considers this to be the very start of the actions that finally led to the outbreak of the First World War. Germany was accused of escalating the conflict, but Clark means they were not alone in their paranoid imperialism. None of the great powers wanted war, but due to how events happened, they walked like sleepwalkers into the war, without anyone being able to explain how it happened.

Europe at the time was at a cross road and political changes were in the air. The imperialistic powers of Europe, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Osman empire, Russia, Great Britain, France and Italy were all conspiring to secure their power base. New times were waiting and people were opposing their governments. Clark considers that this totally, illogical conflict is based on how Europe looked before 1914. It was an unstable, hereditary monarchy, hit by ethnical conflicts and nationalistic fractions. The elite suffered from a lack of virility and needed somehow to show their masculinity. Could it be that the war started because the elite and generals felt threatened by the earlier marginalised proletariat?

There is not one separate government or individ which could be accused of having started the war. Clark notes in his conclusion that:
”The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime. Acknowledging this does not mean that we should minimize the belligerence and imperialist paranoia of the Austrian and German policy-makers that rightly absorbed the attention of Fritz Fischer and his historiographical allies. But the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia. The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture. But it was also multipolar and genuinely interactive - that is what makes it the most complex event of modern times and that is why the debate over the origins of the First World War continues, one century after Gavrilo Princip fired those two fatal shots on Franz Joseph Street”
So much have been written about the First World War. Last time someone counted, in 1991, there were more than 25 000 books an articles written about this disaster. If you are interested in the causes and want to have an overview of events, I can highly recommend this book. The book is almost 600 pages, written in rather small text (at least my pocket version), but it never gets dull. Wonderful prose, easy to read and told in a way that makes it hard to put the book down, once you get into it. It just confirms that the history of real life is much more exciting than any fictional story.

What amazed me, was how supposedly, responsible emperors, kings and politicians acted. Many times due to small reasons of self interest, making a decision without a proper back ground, without thinking of the greater picture, a lack of knowing what the others were doing, interpreting what they were doing, rightly or wrongly. It was like these people were sitting with the map of Europe and made their next move with a chess piece. Rather scaring.
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on 16 April 2016
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand over an obscure Serbian nationalist issue drew Europe into the worst military, political and social catastrophe yet. Those are well documented elsewhere; this book explain how a small spark in Balkans developed into worldwide conflagration. Colonial and economic rivalry tangled the whole continent in a web of alliances which at the opportune moment in the summer of 1914 pitted old continental powers against each other and warranted their destruction.

As the title suggest, the author is somewhat sympathetic about the players and does not necessarily attributes sinister intentions to them. A sobering read about unintended consequences.
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on 27 July 2014
An excellent in depth analsis of the national, international and personal issues that culminated in the biggest catastrophe in the history of Europe. The author fills in the geo-political background of the previous decades that eventually led to the two armed blocs facing off against each other by mid-1914. The Balkan Wars of 1912/13 are described in detail and the variouc crises arising from them as well as those of previous years (Morocco, Italian invasion of Libya etc) are given their place in contributing to the conflagration. The personalities and foibles of the various statesmen involved is also taken into account. If ever there was an argument against monarchy then this is it, as preening 'royals' play with the lives of millions in vain attempts to uphold thier houses while at the same time their ministers and generals either egg them on or try to circumvent them. Highly recommeded for anyone with an interest in history.
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on 22 January 2018
How did WW1 happen? How did the assassination of an austrian prince by a serb lead to a general war in Europe? This book examines the events that lead up to the war. It shows that while the assassination did trigger the war, the war was more a result of an inherently unstable political environment waiting for a trigger. A must read!
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on 16 December 2016
This is my favourite book on the Origins of the First World War. Truly fantastic.
Margaret MacMillan's 'the War that Ended Peace' is also good but Chris Clark pips it here in my view.
Margaret perhaps has the edge when analysing the characters and backgrounds of the key players involved. However I felt that Chris Clarke's was the more comprehensive account.
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on 30 March 2015
It is a detailed, multi-layered account of the last years, months and days before the breakout of World War I. The narrative is engaging, the characters are well fleshed out, the sources are many and varied. Yet the greatest thing about this book is that it is not another propaganda story; it does not follow the familiar narrative of good and bad guys. Supporting his words with a thorough research of historical documentation, Clark demonstrates that the responsibility for the catastrophe of the Great War rested on the shoulders of many men on all sides, numerous as they had been.

Clark's book makes it evident that in wars there are no good or bad guys; all guys believe that they are good and theirs is a just cause, and in this belief all of them are usually wrong.
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