Review of “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” by Christopher Clark

As Clark points out in his introduction, historians started debating the cause of the first World War even before it began! For it did seem inevitable to many at the time, although the eventual scope – resulting in the mobilization of 65 million troops and ending with the destruction of three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million more wounded, was unanticipated. Clark notes that while a few leaders warned of “Armageddon” and a “war of extermination” and “the extinction of civilization”, they didn’t really believe it. They also made glib observations on the glory of arms. To this extent, he opines, “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.”


Clark bemoans the difficulties of sorting through the oceans of documents on the war to get to the real facts behind its genesis, and of separating history from historical revisionism, an inevitable result of any conflict in which the victors usually control most of the narratives. [He reminds us that our moral compass – in our tendency to assign blame on the one hand, or perceive justified actions on the other – has shifted as well.] In addition, there are gaps in the records; the many “secret societies” involved did not keep records, nor did we have the benefit of someone smuggling an IPhone into their proceedings to record them for posterity.

Thus, Clark maintains that he is not going to get into why the war happened; rather, his intention is more “to look closely at the sequences of interactions that produced certain outcomes.”

This distinction may sound like hair-splitting, but it does serve to allow him to concentrate his history on what actually happened rather than what didn’t happen or what might have happened, the last two “contingent” approaches characterizing a number of recent books about the Great War. (See, for example, my review of The Lost History of 1914, Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began by Jack Beatty, here.) On the other hand, he can’t really avoid talking about historical events and the international economic, social, and political situation of the time.

In this 1914 British lithograph, Britain is shown as a bulldog, France as a poodle, Germany as a dachshund, Austria-Hungary as a nogrel, Serbia by a wasp, and Russia by a steamroller

In this 1914 poster originally produced in Britain, Britain is shown as a bulldog, France as a poodle, Germany as a dachshund, Austria-Hungary as a mongrel, Serbia by a wasp, and Russia as a steamroller (perhaps the artist was unacquainted with the Russian Wolfhound)

The “Sleepwalkers” of the title are the foreign policy decision makers of the major powers. Clark contends that they stumbled into the war, in part because they grossly misunderstood the motivations of the other principal actors. A sub-theme of the book is that the decision-making apparatuses of all the powers except France were diffuse and confused, without clear chains of command. They were all monarchies whose kings or emperors who were no longer absolute rulers, but who exerted an ill-defined amount of power on their countries’ foreign policies. [Nevertheless, the tendency of these rulers to consider prolonged vacations a divine right of office enabled their war ministers to work themselves up into frenzies of paranoia, champing at the bit to effect pre-emptive strikes.]

Helmuth von Moltke, German Chief of General Staff

Helmuth von Moltke, German Chief of General Staff, blamed by some for instigating the War

Clark calls the crisis of July 1914 the most complex event of modern times. Much modern scholarship of the war downplays the role of Serbia, implying that the prevailing confusing interlocking system of alliances was bound to produce a widespread conflict eventually. But Clark argues that in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, it is more difficult to envision Serbia as “a mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as an historical force in its own right.”

Therefore, Clark begins his narrative not with the Sarajevo assassinations of 1914, but with the assassinations of Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga in 1903. He observes:

…the conspiratorial network that had come together to murder the royal family did not simply melt away, but remained an important force in Serbian politics and public life.”

That network (sometimes known as the “Black Hand”) was still extant in 1908 when Austria-Hungary inflamed Serbian resentment by annexing the formerly Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus were Belgrade’s aspirations to creating a “Greater Serbia” dashed. The Serbian public was furious, and a new mass movement grew sprang up overnight “powered by this wave of outrage.” This dangerous dynamic in Serbian society still obtained when the unlucky Archduke Francis Ferdinand came visiting the newly absorbed provinces on June 28, 1914.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (shown here with his wife Sophie, also killed), on June 28, 1914, is commonly thought to have been the trigger for WWI

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (shown here with his wife Sophie) is commonly thought to have been the trigger for WWI

The archduke was murdered in Austrian territory. So what was the role of the Serbian government of Prime Minister Nikola Pašić? Although the Black Hand was not an official organ of the Serbian state, Clark concludes, “It is virtually certain that Pašić was informed of the [assassination] plan in some detail.” The government of Austria-Hungary was understandably incensed by the murder, but was unable to prove Serbian government complicity in the immediate aftermath. Nevertheless, key Austrian decision-makers determined that only a military response would do. The Austrian reaction set in motion the immensely complicated series of diplomatic and military maneuvers (such as making sure that Germany was on board) that ultimately resulted in the outbreak of World War I five weeks later.


A simplistic description of the war as a conflict between the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Russia, France, and Great Britain) does not do justice to the complexities of interlocking alliances and “understandings” that bound the Great Powers to assist one another in the event of mobilization for armed conflict.

Clark assiduously describes this maze, stating:

The chaotic interventions of monarchs, ambiguous relationships between civil and military, adversarial competition among key politicians in systems characterized by low levels of ministerial or cabinet solidarity, compounded by the agitations of a critical mass press against a background of intermittent crisis and heightened tension over security issues made this a period of unprecedented uncertainty in international relations.”

Clark does not ascribe blame for the war. He says, “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.”

Péronne in northern France,during the Battle of the Somme, 1916

Péronne in northern France,during the Battle of the Somme, 1916

Evaluation: This is a long and densely packed history centering on the five weeks leading up to World War I. The emphasis is therefore on relatively minute events rather than sweeping generalizations about historical trends and long-festering causation. Nevertheless, the author includes a comprehensive background description of the military and diplomatic situation in each of the great powers. His description of numerous key individuals is masterful. To summarize this 550+ page account would take many more pages than is appropriate in a review. It is an excellent addition to the voluminous literature of the causes of World War I, but is probably not primarily for the casual reader looking for an overview of the war.

Moreover, I should note that his theory of “sleepwalkers” goes against the conviction of other WWI scholars, who either blame Germany outright, or tend to see the onset of WWI in a similar light as some analysts view the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Important policy makers wanted this war to happen, and the military-industrial complex supported their enthusiasm. The rest, as they say, is history.

Rating: 4/5

Note: Maps, photos, and voluminous notes are included with the text.

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2013

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