Clark, Christopher: The Sleepwalkers

archdukeThe proposer indicated that the reason for selecting a book about the origins of the Great War was obvious. The 100th anniversary of WW1 was understandingly receiving much attention. The BBC had shown some excellent programmes and the articles on its website were well worth a read. As Fritz Stern said ‘The Great War is the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. Before turning to ‘The Sleepwalkers’ some context would be helpful.


The proposer indicated that in 1964 on the 50th anniversary of WW1 he was in 6th format school.  There were no Advanced Highers in those days so in history class WW1 was studied for a whole term. The British narrative was much as now: there was a great deal of emphasis on the horrors of trench warfare with 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the worst day for casualties in British history and 3rd Ypres or Passchendaele receiving much attention. The war poets, particularly Wilfred Owen, fitted into the theme. ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ which had recently opened as listened to with its emphasis on the ineptitude of the British generals.  Alan Clark’s book ‘The Donkeys’ also recently published mined the same ground. Incidentally Clark admitted later he had made up the ‘lions led by donkeys’ quote from Ludendorf.  The most significant British book published in 1964, however, was John Terraine’s ‘The Educated Soldier’ which attempted to rehabilitate Haig as the commander of the largest army ever put in the field by Britain, 60 divisions, and the victor of one of the greatest victories in British history, the 100 day campaign in 1918 which caused the Germans to seek the Armistice.

Interestingly the most widely read account in the UK of the First World War published a few months after OWALW in 1963 for the 50th anniversary was AJP Taylor’s ‘The FWW; an Illustrated History’ which sold 250,00 copies by 1990.The book was the first short popular narrative of the whole war and was dedicated to Littlewood. From start to finish Taylor depicted the war as a succession of accidents, the product of human error. Statesmen miscalculated. War was imposed on the statesmen of Europe by the railway timetables of mobilisation. He also claimed that the ‘lions led by donkeys’ applied to all the generals. The war was beyond the capacity of generals and statesmen alike.

The other distinctive British reinterpretation of WW1 was the excellent BBC TV series ‘The Great War’ aired on the new BBC 2 channel in 26 episodes in 1964 as the centrepiece of the BBC commemoration which achieved huge audiences.  Corelli Barnet and John Terraine were the principal scriptwriters and the programme was intended to be a robust defence of the British army and generals against the likes of Clark and Taylor. But while the script was balanced, the visuals overcame the words and the British narrative was reinforced.

It would be fair to say that Terraine’s view of the War and the successes of the British army and generals is widely held today by military historians but, despite their efforts, in popular perception in Britain the Great War has remained a saga of personal tragedies, illuminated by poetry, fiction, eg Pat Barker and Birdsong, and popular TV, eg Blackadder, a subject for remembrance rather than understanding.

This is a peculiarly British perspective; none of the other participants see it this way and it is instructive to consider why. One answer is that Britain in 1914 was not fighting directly for the defence of the homeland. All the other countries thought they were; Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary justified aggression as an act of pre-emptive defence.

The causes of the war have long been an issue everywhere including in Britain. German aggression has been one answer enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles but others have argued that the war just happened through the failure of European diplomacy. While the Terraine view of the military War is broadly accepted by military historians there is no such consensus on the causes of the War. In the 1960’s the ‘Germany was the aggressor’ view received a huge boost from the writings of Fritz Fischer, Professor of History at Hamburg, and his followers such as Imanuel Geiss. Fischer argued that Germany used the crisis of Sarajevo to seek to grab world power. The ‘Fischer thesis’ was that Hitlerite expansion was no aberration but part of the dynamic of German history since at least Bismarck. The proposer had heard Fischer speak during his time at Edinburgh University in the 1960s doing history and also heard AJP Taylor who supported the Fischer thesis. The Fischer thesis became the dominant view of the origins of WW1, not least because Fischer and his followers were German. Not surprisingly the main opposition to the Fischer thesis came from Germany.   

Given the attention produced by the centenary of the War, it seemed a good idea to choose one of the many books published recently. Why ‘The Sleepwalkers’?  As can be seen from the blurbs, many reviewers have said that it is the best account yet of the origins of the First World War. Even one of those opposed to the Clark thesis, Max Hastings, is quoted on the front cover saying ‘One of the most impressive and stimulating studies of the period ever published.’

Understanding the causes of the War is complicated by the huge amount of source material. Over 25,000 books on the origins of the war had been published at the last count 20 years ago. Clark makes the point that the sources are so extensive they help to explain why the outbreak of the War has proved susceptible to such a bewildering variety of interpretation. He says in his introduction ‘There is virtually no viewpoint on its origins that cannot be supported from a selection of the available sources’


The majority of members of the Book Group did not find the book an easy read. Some disagreed. It was a dense, detailed analysis of the origins of the War and difficult perhaps to engage with for those unfamiliar with the period. Nonetheless almost everyone enjoyed the book, found it engrossing and stimulating with a good structure and narrative prose style.

One thought the work read like an academic thesis and as such made for a difficult long-winded read. It was beyond the redemption of editing. More significant perhaps was Clark’s interpretation and presentation of “facts” which this reader found unconvincing. While the number or references was impressive he felt that he could have presented a counter position had  he selected different sections from the same documents. In short he did not trust Clark.

Another liked the presentation from individual country viewpoints, and the highlighting of the tribal nature of humans. But the overall problem with the book was that it became a shopping list rather than a concise reasoned analysis or argument. By droning through the entire Serbian parliament and greater Slav-dom etc. etc. for 100 pages the point was lost. There was a difference between a ‘paper, a thesis’ and a log-book. This was a log book.

What was also worrying that by presenting the ‘chains of decisions’ in enormous detail, he sought to submerge the key points under a wave of trivia.

Another became progressively more disenchanted the more he read. He was so surprised by Clark’s pronounced Germanophilia that he had to look up his biography. And it turned out that Clark was not an expert on the First World War period, but was an expert on German history. He had studied in Berlin, married a German wife, and been awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit by the German Government. His pious renunciation of the blame game was disingenuous, as his objective, as noted by Bogdanor, was to exculpate Germany and Austria-Hungary as far as possible from their responsibility for starting the War, while pointing the finger of suspicion at all other possible candidates.

This reader was not convinced by Clark’s attempt, and, because of what he viewed as remarkably partisan omissions and distortions, by the end he also ceased to trust that anything he said was the whole truth. He would have much preferred if Clark had been upfront and said that as a German expert he was going to write a book that set out the German perspective on the events.

Members were not convinced by the psychobabble aspects of Clark’s analysis, eg the ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the title was also criticised. Only in the last pages does Clark explain the reasoning for the title: ‘ The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, blind to the reality they were about to bring into the world’. This is unconvincing. The ‘watchful, calculated steps’ he had chronicled did not constitute sleepwalking. Secondly the American Civil War should have shown the protagonists of 1914 what modern war would be like. 

There was also some debate as to whether the book was an academic or popular work. It was agreed it fell between the two. It was too detailed to be a popular account yet assumed too much knowledge to work as a general introduction. 

One argued that despite its populist title, its initial narrative drive sagged too much to be a popular read, but it was too partisan, and too compressed in its argumentation, to rank as serious academic revisionism.

Inevitably there was discussion of Clark’s thesis of the origins of the War.      

The proposer pointed out that in Clark’s view the War was not inevitable.

The War had specific causes, principally the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the most successful terrorist act in history. Franz Ferdinand favoured a federal Habsburg empire, giving all the Slavs equal powers, a major threat to an expanded Serbia including all South Slavs. In addition he was strongly opposed to war with Serbia let alone Russia. From the Serb point of view he was their prime target.

Even so, argues Clark, the Austrian response to Serbia only become a general European War because the Russians, allied to the French, supported Serbia. Clark pointed out that the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia was less draconian than the NATO one of 1999. One’s view of the legitimacy of the Austrian action will influence one’s assessment of the actions of Russia, France and Germany. Initial UK reaction was supportive of Austria. If Austria had immediately conducted a policing action against Serbia no one would probably have intervened. There are good reasons, explained  Clark, why they did not and this enabled opposition to Austria to grow. Even then many people in UK opposed support for Serbia and autocratic Russia. Germany’s crass attack on France and Belgium silenced critics.   

While there has been general praise for ‘The Sleepwalkers’ it is fair to say not all have been convinced by his thesis. Some members of the Group argued that, in the words of Vernon Bogdanor, ‘It is the most sophisticated and penetrating of all attempts to shift responsibility for the war away from Germany and Austria Hungary’. They considered that Clark was misleading in this attempt. For example, Clark says that Edward Grey the British Foreign Minister ‘showed no interest in the kind of intervention that might have provided Austria with other options than the ultimatum’. One member pointed out that Grey in fact made six proposals for international talks to Germany which were ignored. After the war Grey regretted he had approached Germany rather than Austria.  Not just Britain but France and Russia had argued for international talks to resolve the problem of the assassination, and only Austria-Hungary and Germany had refused to countenance such a solution.

The same member pointed out that mobilisation is quite different to a declaration of war, and that Clark lazily conflated the two. He also pointed out that whether there was a difference in the case of Bosnia between a protectorate and annexed territory might seem arcane, but that it was important to the outbreak of hostilities.

Others suggested that Clark’s discussion of the Austrian ultimatum showed him at his worst. No unbiased person could equate Milosevic, a war criminal, with Pasic. After a two-page rant about how the UN’s ultimatum in 1999 was worse than Austria’s, he limply concedes that Austria’s ultimatum was designed not to be accepted (did his editor insist on this?). Moreover the world had moved on a lot since 1914 and to compare the UN and Austria-Hungary is a jest not a serious piece of analysis. A serious analyst might rather have referred to contemporary reaction to the ultimatum – such as that of Grey, who turned pale and said it was “the most formidable document I had ever seen addressed by one State to another that was independent.”

Clark is over critical in a personal way of those with whom he disagrees. He downplays the German preparations for war and willingness to attack Russia and France. Some pointed out that Clark was seeking to redress the argument away from German responsibility and the book should not be read in isolation. 

Clark argues he is concerned with how the War happened not who to blame. His view is that responsibility is collective. The majority view in this country is that German aggression is to blame, as argued in the Treaty of Versailles. That has been a controversial view ever since; there is still no consensus on the causes of WW1. The view people take will depend on various factors including inclination and nationality. For example American reviewers of Clark, eg Professor Thomas Laquer in the London Review of books, have been broadly supportive of the Clark thesis, unsurprisingly as neutrals in the War until 1917. In his classic 1928 study the American historian Sidney Fey argued for shared responsibility for the War, essentially Clark’s view.  

History of course is written from the perspective of the times in which the writer is living.

Clark makes the interesting point that developments in our time, eg terrorism and suicide bombers, mean we have less sympathy with a rogue terrorist state such as Serbia, particularly after their violent irredentist nationalism in the 1990’s. Equally we are now more sympathetic to the Hapsburg Empire, a model for the EU. Almost all Hapsburg territory is now within the EU; a major exception is Western Ukraine.

Clark’s emphasis on contingency rather than necessity for war origins also fits into post-modernist theory which has influenced historical analysis as much as other disciplines. Agreement on the origins of World War 1 is not achievable. 

The discussion in the group reflected this. Some members were more persuaded by the Clark thesis than others. Others felt that Clark was not to be trusted, and that his book had received much more attention than it merited. There was general agreement, however, that the book had been an excellent and stimulating choice.