European Affairs

"The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914." by Christopher Clark. HarperCollins. 736 pages and "1913. The World Before the Great War." By Charles Emmerson. Public Affairs. 526 pages.     Print Email

michaelmosettigOn a rainy late Autumn morning in Central Hong Kong, more than five thousand miles from the bloodied battle fields of Flanders and now close to a century away from the outbreak of the war from which Europe has arguably yet to recover, a small crowd clustered at the city's Cenotaph to observe Remembrance Sunday one day before Armistice Day when  World War I  ended on November 11, 1918.

On the edge of a China and Asia that is now ascendant as Europe  was a century ago, Hong Kong paid tribute officially  to dead of both World Wars in a ceremony that reflected its British colonial past with bands and bagpipes but its new reality concluding with the Chinese National Anthem. Joining local officials and civic groups laying wreaths of red poppies were consular officials  and military officers from Europe and  the United States and contingents from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the British dominions that achieved their modern nationhood in the decimation of their soldiers in the failed strategies of British politicians and generals at Gallipoli, the Somme and Flanders.

In post-colonial Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of  Europeans  work and live side by side with  their North  American  and Aussie and Kiwi and Asian counterparts and millions of Chinese in a dizzying chase for money, one still sees in the first days of November red poppies in lapels. It's the Commonwealth  symbol of remembering , reflected in a poem from a Canadian officer and still recited in school rooms: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow, beneath the crosses row by row."    And at the Hong Kong Cenotaph, as in ceremonies in Britain, Belgium and France, the audience shouted out the final line of another famous World War I poem:

                       "They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.

                        Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

                        At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

                        We will remember them."

Amid such enduring emotions and memories, it is hardly surprising that the coming centenary of the outbreak of World War I is already producing a flood of books. Among the better known authors joining the rush are the prolific historians Max Hastings and Patricia Montgomery. And their words, presumably, are only the beginning.

But a somewhat lesser known Cambridge historian, Christopher Clark,  has already turned out the book about the war's origins that no serious scholar or student of those times will be able to ignore. In a word, The Sleepwalkers, is nothing short of brilliant. Whether it will attract  the same kind of attention from more general readers is debatable, given its detail of the Balkan crises and wars that pre-dated Sarajevo 1914 and its highly nuanced and subtle approach to the evolution of European alliances that made conflict more likely. This is not Barbara Tuchman's  eminently readable  The Guns of August (1962),  which drew such a wide readership including President Kennedy with its vivid focus on a few causes and triggers for the war. Of course, as I remember from graduate school in those days, that book also drove professional historians crazy, perhaps in part out of jealousy for a best-seller status they would never achieve.

 And as Clark observes, English-language historiography, much less German,  has swing back and forth. Initially  most of the blame was directed to Berlin and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and also to political leaders being consumed by forces they let loose but then could not control, including military mobilizations. A later view, which Clark describes dismissively, attributed the war to men in helmets plumed with ostrich feathers and  to an Edwardian costume drama mentality. A more recent view is of the conflict as an almost inevitable result of the decline of the Ottoman empire and the struggles that set off in the Balkans. Clark tends to fall more into that camp, though hardly viewing the catastrophe as inevitable.

Clark is hardly plowing new ground. As he notes,25,000 books already have been devoted to the topic from  dozens national perspectives and in dozens of  languages. He asserts that unlike many previous historians, he is looking more to the how than to the why of the origins of the war. Admittedly that is a fine distinction. 

For this author of several previous books on Prussia, the outbreak of the war was not an Agatha Christie drama which ends with a smoking gun in the hand of a culprit standing over the corpse. 

"There is no smoking gun in this story, or rather there is one in the hands of every major character."

And he adds: "The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture. But it was 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 the two fatal shots of Franz Joseph Street."

The author also acknowledges that history is also a product of the time in which it is written. In some ways July 1914 is less remote to 2013-14 than it was to historians and citizens just a few decades ago. We are in a much more parallel time of crumbling  empires and rising nations. Even the current woes of the European Union cast a more sympathetic light on the Austro-Hungarian Empire's attempt to manage a multi-national agglomeration. The Balkan conflicts of the 1990s were a sharp reminder of the lethality  of that region's nationalisms, including the bloodshed in Sarajevo, where the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sofie were murdered by a Serb nationalist on June 28, 1914, setting off the July crisis and August war. Then there is  Serb nationalism, itself, viewed sympathetically in the years immediately before and World War I and into and beyond World War II but now as much associated with war crimes as valor. And there are the modern parallels to and consequences of cross-border terrorism. As Clark grimly notes, "9/11 exemplified the way a single, symbolic event can change politics irreversibly." 

 What Clark sets out in more than 600 pages of carefully argued text is the evolution of a European political system that went from somewhat balanced alliances into two polarized groupings  --one involving France, Russia and Britain and the other Germany and Austria-Hungary.  But even the first grouping was not originally or primarily directed against Germany but the product of imperial competition in Central Asia, the Black Sea and North Africa. But under French prodding, it turned more anti-German as did  the evolution of British policy under a small group attached to  Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. In that period, the German Empire and its erratic Kaiser Wilhelm II went from being perceived as an occasional irritant to an overwhelming threat. And Austria-Hungary, once seen as a critical element in the European balance of power, increasingly was viewed across Europe as an anachronism whose time had passed and  whose basic security interests were ignored by the other powers, even as it made such critical mistakes as the annexation of Bosnia in 1908.

These  evolutions in ideas and diplomacy then unfolded in a series of blunders following the Sarajevo assassination, including the partial Russian mobilization that helped turn a Balkan crisis into a wider European conflict, British vacillation and Germany's ultimatum to Belgium, which as Clark writes, gave the allies a sense of moral superiority through the remainder of the war.

As he weaves this complex web, Clark paints  many lively and fascinating portraits and character studies of the protagonists, from France's premier and president  Raymond Poincare always pushing Russia to a more anti-German stance, and that country's Ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, serving in London for 22 years and never even speaking English and even calling for a translation of "yes" in his conversations with Grey, who spoke no French.  And Grey, whose mastery of evasion helped lead Britain into cul-de-sacs from which it could not ultimately retreat. Even First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, voiced the thought that a German invasion through the south of Belgium might not trigger British entry into the war. And then there were the rivalries in Vienna, the more pacific and reformist Archduke Franz Ferdinand locking horns with the military chief Franz Graf Conrad,von Hotzendorf,  who had the bizarre idea that a great military victory might make it socially acceptable in Viennese society for him to marry his already married mistress. 

These stories may seem grimly amusing in retrospect. But  they illustrate another major contention of Clark's work -- that the absence of transparency in European decision-making helped produce the bad decisions that led to war. French premiers appointed weak foreign ministers to preside over the Quad d"Orsay, whose cadre of family-linked diplomats were a power center to themselves. Russia had an authoritarian but weak Tsar whose ministers and advisers were in constant conflict. Austria-Hungary was presided over by an aging  Emperor who was more a bureaucratic manager than ruler. Kaiser Wilhelm vacillated among his chancellors and generals but comes across as less of a menace than in most studies. And the ruling houses of Britain, Germany and Russia were all related through Queen Victoria, but those personal connections were not enough to stop a war..  

Ultimately, Clark sadly writes: the hopes of the leaders for a short  war and their fear of a long one  cancelled each other out.

"In this sense," he concludes, "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."

1913. The World Before the Great War

A much happier world, that of 1913, comes from another Cambridge professor, an Australian Charles Emmerson.

He portrays a time, when many Europeans including the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, and British journalist Thomas Wickham Steed,  thought of Europe as a community, an expression that would not be evoked again until the 1950s and 1960s. 

As Emmerson writes, "To be a European-- to be a European man in particular -- was to see oneself at the center of the universe, from which all distance was measured and against which all clocks were set."

And Emmerson reminds that those years before the first war were also a time of economic globalization and inter-dependence, free trade, growing migration and even tourism (at least for the reasonably well off), of advances in technology that quickly reached average people, whether Henry Ford's automobiles or the widespread use of telephones in Berlin. London was the center for global finance, but New York was beginning to reflect America's growing economic power. There was an inter-connectedness about that world that would not reappear until the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, nearly 80 years after the assassinations in Sarajevo.

Emmerson does not limit his look at that world to Europe. He paints sketches of 20 cities, from London and Paris, to Washington, New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, Melbourne and Winnipeg, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires  Tehran and Tokyo, Shanghai and Peking. Some invariably are better than others. He is devastatingly on target in describing how Woodrow Wilson and his Southern cabinet members re-segregated civil servants in government departments. He seems to have a less keen grasp on the sense of impending doom that permeated fin-de-siècle Vienna and its creative classes.

But these two books together are a terrible reminder of how wrong decisions and policies can bring irreparable damage to thriving civilizations or, as Emmerson asserts, even more dangerously reveal  that lurking beneath a progressive and civilized veneer is  the capacity for great barbarism.  Emmerson concludes his book with the story of a German intellectual, returning from the trenches  to his home near Weimar and to a library full of books in a number of languages. They remained undamaged by the war. But the world they symbolized, what Stefan Zweig described as the "golden age of security," would never return.

And in these recent weeks of memory and approaching anniversaries, I have tried to transmit some of these lessons to my students at Hong Kong Baptist University, the graduate students mostly from mainland China and the undergrads from Hong Kong. This war may seem remote, but their generation holds a frightening parallel with their contemporaries of a century ago -- elites in an ascendant country in a rising part of the world. Europe's youth in 1913 saw nothing but a bright future ahead, just as these Chinese youngsters do now. But it  can all change --very suddenly and with little warning, I tell them.

As the Remembrance Sunday ceremony ended at the Hong Kong Cenotaph, the rain dissolved into typically sultry humidity. Perhaps the mounds of poppies would gently wilt in the heat and would not be blown away in a storm, as the dreams and aspirations of a generation of European youth were a century ago.                                                                                     

Michael D. Mosettig is a former PBS NewsHour foreign affairs producer and a visiting senior lecturer in the journalism department of Hong Kong Baptist University.