How the Lamps Went Out

By Clark, Christopher; Purdue, Aw et al. | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, September 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

How the Lamps Went Out


Clark, Christopher, Purdue, Aw, Shook, Karen, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


Strategy, bellicosity, blunder? A.W. Purdue weighs a fresh look at the Great War's deadly genesis.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

By Christopher Clark

Allen Lane, 736pp, Pounds 30.00

ISBN 9780713999426

Published 27 September 2012

With the approach of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, attention focuses on how the "Proud Tower" of early 20th-century European civilisation came to an end. Great questions are posed: was early 20th- century Europe an essentially stable society or one riven by dissension and dissatisfaction; was the war an accident with the guns, already primed, going off by themselves as politicians and monarchs ceded control to generals, who themselves found their actions dictated by war plans and mobilisation timetables; were one or more nations particularly culpable in willing a war that was to prove so destructive; was there an appetite for war among the populations of the European states or was the supposed enthusiasm for war a myth; or did, as the title of Christopher Clark's book suggests, the great powers of Europe sleepwalk into catastrophe? The crisis of 1914 is a complex subject and it is a virtue of this comprehensive study that no attempt is made to provide a simple answer.

The traditional approach to the origins of the war has been to distinguish between long-term or structural reasons for the conflict, primarily the ambitions and fears of the great powers and the dangers of opposing alliances, and the immediate or contingent causes, the events of June- August 1914. Thus the tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and the crisis caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand can be seen as simply the spark that set off a small Balkan powder keg, which in turn ignited a major war. Clark changes the balance between the structural framework of great power dissension and the disputes on Europe's fault line, the Balkans, by placing the latter centre stage. He maintains the scenario by which international relations and the rivalry of the great powers formed the context - allowing the Austro-Hungarian reaction to the assassination to set off a chain reaction that led to a catastrophic conflict - but integrates the context and the particular crisis by demonstrating the centrality and sensitivity of the Balkans to European politics.

Pre-1914 Europe was, Clark argues, increasingly unstable. He describes the shift from the late 1880s, when there was a "multi-polar" system in which the great powers' interests and rivalries were in precarious balance but there was a degree of fluidity, to what had become, by 1907, a bipolar Europe divided between two alliances. His argument follows the consensus of diplomatic historians in seeing Germany's decision in 1890 not to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia as a crucial step in this process as it paved the way for the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894. In 1914, the Franco-Russian Alliance, to which Britain had become loosely committed, faced the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary to which Italy, an unreliable partner, was tenuously attached. The two opposing alliances were not ordained to go to war with each other, although the military conventions attached to both added a febrile dimension, and previous crises to that of the summer of 1914 had been resolved. What gave Sarajevo the seismic implications that led to a European conflict was the way in which, Clark observes, "the loose network of the continental alliances became interlocked with conflicts unfolding on the Balkan peninsula".

The Eastern Question - the long-drawn-out decline of the Ottoman Empire and its failure to maintain its grip on its Balkan territories - had, from the beginning of the 19th century, created a power vacuum that provided opportunities for Tsarist Russia and dangers for the Austrian Empire, while the emergent Balkan states were divided, expansionist and unstable. The end of the pro-Austrian Obrenovic dynasty in Serbia, with the brutal assassination in June 1903 of King Alexandar and his consort, Queen Draga, changed the balance of power in the Balkans. …

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