Book review: 'Sleepwalkers' recounts war no one wanted or expected

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Here's hoping that a Chinese translation of Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers" will be published soon. As grindingly poor, strategically weak North Korea ratchets up and then tamps down its doomsday rhetoric, leaders in Beijing and Washington would be wise to spend a few hours with Mr. Clark's book.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, "The Sleepwalkers" offers a detailed account of how European leaders ended up in a war that no one wanted or expected.


By Christopher Clark
Harper ($29.99).

Not that the major players didn't get fair warning. In 1887, for example, Russia came close to invading Bulgaria. The dispute resulted from nipping off a piece of the tottering Ottoman Empire that Tsar Alexander III's ministers thought was too close to the Bosporus. A spat with Bulgaria easily could have devolved into a war between Russia and Austria-Hungary, Mr. Clark writes. Such a conflict then could have dragged Britain in on the side of Vienna.

"The Bulgarian crisis highlighted for a moment the immense danger latent in the instabilities of the region," Mr. Clark writes. "[The] activities of an unimportant lesser state might one day inveigle two great powers into a course of action tending towards war."

When North Korea invaded its southern neighbor in 1950, the result was limited, but still brutal, war between the United States and China, ending in stalemate. A second round on the Korean peninsula would be immeasurably worse. Similarly, when war came to Europe in 1914, the Bulgarian lesson was ignored and the seminal tragedy of the 20th century played out for the next four years.

In "The Sleepwalkers" Mr. Clark describes the complex story of how the war happened. People and personalities mattered, and the author's focus is on human agency as much as economics and historical forces. The book offers well-drawn portraits of the feckless, the reckless and the clueless "sleepwalking" down the path to disaster.

Mr. Clark opens his book with small-scale slaughter: the 1903 assassination of the Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga by supporters of a rival dynasty. Unfazed by the idea of harming one of God's anointed, the plotters murdered the royal couple and as many supporters they could find.

Mr. Clark draws a dotted line between the Serbian killers of their own monarch and the assassination team that succeeded in murdering Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo in June 1914. Ironies pile on top of ironies in the world of Balkan politics. One reason the murderers targeted Franz Ferdinand was because he was seen as more sensitive to the Slavic minorities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Mr. Clark quotes Gavrilo Princip, the man who shot the archduke and his wife, as fearing that when Franz Ferdinand became emperor, his reforms would have weakened Serbia's case for taking control of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Franz Ferdinand's death offers evidence for the bitter adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

Mr. Clark concludes that the outbreak of the war was not a crime attributable to one person or one country but rather a tragedy, with a "smoking gun" in the hand of each major player. Perhaps. Germany's Wilhelm II still gets my vote as the most reckless.

In 1904 the German Kaiser tempted Belgium's King Leopold with new territory in northern France as long as he cooperated in the event of war. "Nice country you got here," Wilhelm, in effect, tells him. "It would be a shame if something happened to it."

"When Leopold, taken aback, replied that his ministers and the Belgian parliament would hardly accept such a fanciful and audacious plan, Wilhelm retorted that he could not respect a monarch who felt himself responsible to ministers and deputies, rather than to the Lord God."

Then came the threat: Were Belgium not to cooperate, "purely strategic principals" would require invasion and occupation, the Kaiser said. "Leopold is said to have been so upset by these remarks that, when rising from his seat at the end of the meal, he put his helmet on the wrong way round."

Mr. Clark, a professor at England's University of Cambridge, tells a complicated story. "The Sleepwalkers" is not an easy read, but the effort is worthwhile. The journey he describes shows how a few hesitant steps in twilight can end with a plunge into tragic darkness.


Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.


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