Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Sleepwalking into World War

I just finished reading The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark. It is a magisterial book, beautifully written, exhaustively researched, accessible to the intelligent lay reader (I hope I am one) and I suspect a necessary text for historians of the 20th century and students of government.

Clark tells how war in the Balkans and pan Slav ideology led to the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. He then goes on to trace the chain of decision making in the governments of great powers of the time -- Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Germany, and Britain -- as well as smaller countries -- Serbia, Belgium -- that led to a general war in Europe, and indeed to the global conflict we now call World War I.

Clark's thesis is that the war arose out of the actions of men (he mentions few women) who were understandable real characters. Like sleepwalkers, they awoke in the fall of 1914 to discover that they had somehow arrived at a place they did not choose by a process they did not understand. Some were very smart and knowledgeable, others not so much. Some were not well, all were under great pressure, some rose to challenges while others sought to avoid them. They sometimes arose in the middle of some nights to deal with new developments, often held long meetings marked by controversy, and traveled in conditions that sometimes denied them access to information that we take for granted. Yet the assassination took place on June 28th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28th, Germany and Russia declared war on each other on August 1st, Germany and France declared war on each other on August 3rd, and Germany invaded Belgium on August 4th leading to a British declaration of war on Germany that same day; Europe transformed from peace to war with breathtaking suddenness.

All the leaders are described as working on the bases of myths that they had come to believe from their past experience as well as from information flowing to them. They had grave difficulties predicting the future course of events; indeed they had grave difficulties in each country understanding the positions of other countries, in part because those positions were in flux and in part because of secrecy and dissimulation. Chiefs of state (monarchs in all these states except France) were influential, holding on to and exercising the remnants of the total power once wielded by their ancestors. Cabinet officers were not united in their views and formed shifting coalitions; prime ministers sought to achieve adequate backing for actions including mobilization for war, and for declarations of war itself. Military leaders debated policy with foreign policy leaders, and both with those responsible for government finance. All were concerned with the press (which they sometimes sought to influence) and the views of the elites in their countries. These people were concerned not only with the issue of war or peace, but also with the global competition for land and wealth in which their countries sought advantage.  Clark's is a history that does not play the blame game, but rather seeks to show how a hugely complex process led to an outcome that few if any had predicted -- a war that changed the course of the world up to our own time.

Source The war was global in that the empires involved their colonies in Africa and Asia. The USA declared war in 1917


1914 was a moment in history when empires ruled most of the world. The leaders of the great powers were seeking to expand and protect their empires - colonies that could be exploited for raw materials, that created markets for their goods, and that were enriching their home countries as well as other areas of influence in which their corporations could invest and profit. As author Clark notes from time to time, the policy makers in the imperial capitals were actively pursuing imperialist policies:

  • England and Russia were engaged in the great game in Central Asia.
  • Russia was concerned with the Ottoman controlled water passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean (through which a great deal of its commerce flowed) especially as Bulgaria extended its territory south in the Balkans, was competing with the Ottomans for naval superiority on the Black Sea, and was concerned about other great powers control of the eastern Mediterranean.
  • France had a colonial empire in Africa, and was using its Mediterranean fleet to project power in that sea.
  • Germany was extending its power in Europe as well as competing for colonies in Africa.
Clark depicts decision makers in these imperial capitals acting as if their desires for conquest and profit were completely normal and justified their behavior. French leaders are willing for their country to go to war with Germany in part to regain Alsace and Loraine, lost to Germany in the 19th century. Russian leaders are willing for their country to go to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany to keep Russian influence in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary was willing to go to war in part to protect its interest in the Balkans.

In 1914, there was a widely held theory of balance of power. Each of the great powers recognized that it could be defeated in war by a combination of other great powers; lesser powers were even more vulnerable. The solution was to establish mutual defense treaties. Thus either Austria-Hungary or Germany would intercede on the other's behalf if that other was attacked. There were similar treaties linking France, Russia and Britain; Britain was a signatory to a treaty guaranteeing the safety of Belgium. Leaders in these countries had not realized that the network of treaties could result in a chain reaction. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia declared war on both Austria-Hungary and Germany, Germany declared war on Luxembourg and Belgium in order to invade France, and Britain responded by declaring war on Germany. Other nations followed in what became a general war -- one that seemed hugely excessive a response to an assassination in Bosnia.

Almost all the leaders are described as failing to recognize the existential risks to which they were exposing their countries and their governing classes. We now know that the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist at the end of the war; Germany lost its colonies and was bankrupt by the war and the peace treaty it was forced to accept. Even the British Empire began its transition to a Commonwealth of nations as a result of the war. Monarchies fell in Russia, Germany, Turkey, Austria and Hungary. The leaders of these countries did not act as if they realized that they were risking their countries, their governments and their class' control of their nations. Had the war gone differently, France and Britain might have suffered even more than they did.

One conclusion that I drew from the book was that the leadership described was too weak to be given the responsibility for decisions of such magnitude. In many countries, hereditary monarchs were soon to be replaced by people who emerged from democratic processes, or at least from the struggle for power in non-democratic societies. Ruling elites were broadened, even in the victor countries. 

Clark points out that new international institutions began to be established after the war to take the responsibility for reducing the threat of world war. The League of Nations was the obvious one, to be replaced by the United Nations after World War II.

A few of the leaders of great powers were cited by Clark as recognizing how terrible the war would be but most did not. (Counting both military and civilians, there were an estimated 20 million killed and 30 million wounded in the war.) Nor did the leaders seem to empathize with the men who would be killed in service, nor with the civilians who would suffer as "collateral damage". The general impression I got from the book was that most of the leaders of these countries didn't imagine the human suffering that they were unleashing, nor care how great it might be. Clark notes at the end of the book that the common people sometimes responded to the news of war with resignation, sometimes with sorrow.

Decision making by leaders appeared often to be based on myths such as pan Slav solidarity and "the honor of the nation" rather than human rights and the welfare of people. I wonder if decision makers suffered from a bias that the status quo would continue in spite of and after the war. The book suggests that many considered this major crisis for their country though the narrow lens of their administrative responsibilities: e.g. soldiers on how to mobilize and fight a war, politicians on how to stay in office in spite of the crisis.

I suppose I come away from the book thinking that technological improvement resulted in a huge increase in human capacity in the preceding centuries. Those societies that first mastered the technologies used their increased power to create global economic and governance systems based on coercive power that they controlled. They cobbled institutions together to manage these larger entities, based on the models from the past. In the crisis of 1914, those institutions failed catastrophically, leading to years of global war. Societies made major institutional changes in response to the war, but they too failed leading to World War II.

Makes one wonder what crisis our societies will face, and how well our institutions will deal with them. Clark reminds us, that ultimately, it is fallible people, much like ourselves who try to muddle through as best they can.

Previous posts relating to the book:


John Daly said...

As a result of World War I, territories of the Ottoman Empire became protectorates, Germany lost its colonies, important British colonies became member nations of the Commonwealth, and Russian territories in Europe became independent. After World War II, Africa and British colonies on the subcontinent got their freedom. While Spanish colonies had gotten independence earlier, the 20th century saw decolonization essentially completed, in part as a result of two world wars and the Cold War.

John Daly said...

I am reading The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham. In the chapter about the horrors of King Leopold's Congo Pakenham mentions that England and France signed the Entente Cordiale as a deal giving Morocco to France and in return giving England a free hand in Egypt. Germany was not pleased by this new alliance of France, England and Russia (as Russia was already allied with France). Thus the roots of World War I go back to the scramble for Africa by European imperial powers.