Waking up in World War I

The Sleepwalkers Book Review

by Darrah Lustig

In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s latest contribution to the immense historiography of World War I, Clark establishes a convincing link between the nationalist-led regicides of Serbia’s King Alexander and Queen Draga in 1903, and the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914. The action commences in the halls of the palace in Belgrade, as twenty-eight Serbian army officers mercilessly butcher and mutilate the young king and his ill-fated queen. Following the bloody revolution, Serbia transitioned to a more genuine parliamentary democracy and allied more closely with Russia. However, Clark focuses on tracing the conspiratorial network that orchestrated the regicide and its evolution into the Black Hand, which would ultimately sacrifice the Archduke in its pursuit of a greater Serbia.

The initial connection between early Serbian insurrection and Austro-Hungarian encroachment on the Balkan Peninsula structures Clark’s approach to a broader survey of European history leading up to the war. Clark concentrates on the periphery and looks first to Serbia for the historic root of the conflict before shifting his gaze to the Dual Monarchy and finally, the Central Powers. While Clark warns against the distorting effects of finger pointing and of “demonizing the Serbs and their statesmen,” he himself falls into this very trap. In revealing the many provocations and confrontations between Serbia and Austria, Clark casts Serbia in an unsympathetic and violent role that significantly colors his exposition.

In his investigation into the inner workings of the Central Powers, Clark examines the July Crisis in significant detail. Aided by personal letters, official briefings and telegrams, Clark provides insight into both the decision-making process and the decision makers themselves who are as wildly colorful and eccentric as they are anxious and uncertain.

Clark breathes life into historical figures that have grown dull with time and academic distance. The lovelorn Conrad, obsessing over forbidden women, and the ridiculously inappropriate Kaiser Wilhelm, making rude dinner conversation, add humor to a comprehensive account of the polarization of the continent.

A cast of characters or chronological overview would be helpful in navigating the dense historical material, as Clark does not flesh out all relevant people and places. Nevertheless, his elegant prose and attention to detail make for an absorbing, whirlwind read that challenges firmly-held beliefs about the origins of World War I.

Clark establishes two particularly compelling theses that he argues with great conviction. From the outset, Clark maintains that war was not inevitable as the title of the book – The Sleepwalkers – suggests. Rather, it was a product of increasing political and emotional pressures that proved to be insurmountable by the individuals who bore the brunt of their weight. Secondly, by approaching the conflict from the periphery, Clark challenges the trope of German culpability most famously advanced by the Fischer theory. In a surprising twist, Clark suggests that a “crisis of masculinity” in which the male decision-makers found it necessary to prove their virility in shows of strength and brute force may have provoked armed conflict – an observation that is both darkly humorous and deeply sad.

Clark is most adept at exploring the human element of war in which hope and fear emerge as central themes – hope that war will not come to pass and fear that it will. More frightening than the immediacy of war or questions of guilt and responsibility, is Clark’s ultimate contention that World War I was induced by “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” In a post-war world, these hopes and fears are still very much alive. Clark leaves his readers on the brink of war only moments before the world is to be jolted awake – into the clutches of a living nightmare.

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