Guns of August

The Utterly Pointless First World War

Was World War I a necessary fight against German militarism, or was it completely avoidable? Michael Bishop on a new history.


On June 28, 1914, a diplomatic crisis began that led in five weeks to the First World War, a cataclysm that claimed millions of lives and ruined countless more. Under blue skies in Sarajevo, terrorists with shadowy links to the Serbian government killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the rickety but splendid Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. Vienna issued a strident ultimatum to Serbia, and Germany took the side of the aggrieved Empire; Russia, driven by Slavic solidarity and confident that her ally France would join the fray, mobilized against Germany; and Britain, outraged by the German violation of Belgian neutrality, reluctantly came to the aid of France. The conflict that followed was the end of a world, and unleashed horrors that made the 20th century the bloodiest in history. European civilization shattered like a glittering chandelier fallen on a marble floor.

The centenary of the Great War (as it was known until the Second World War) is nearly upon us, and the first salvos of a barrage of new histories have arrived. Mightiest among them is The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark, a fellow of St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, who argues that the war’s origins are the most complex of all historical problems. And while he admits that one can never fully understand the disaster, he presents as spacious and convincing a treatment as has yet appeared.

Pity the poor historian, who must swim in a vast sea of official documents and self-justifying memoirs, wary of linguistic ambiguities and gloomily aware that the veil of secret diplomacy can never fully be pierced. Generations have struggled to explain how the assassination of an uncharismatic royal in a provincial Balkan town could have unleashed such destruction. Austria might have been justified in retaliating against Serbia for the latter’s complicity in the murders, but that every major power leapt into the fray still beggars belief.

The Versailles treaty officially declared Germany’s war guilt, but Clark finds fault in every European capital. He decries the search for “velvet-jacketed Bond villains” hatching a “malevolent plan.” “The outbreak of war,” he argues, “was a tragedy, not a crime,” and its creators were “blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

Clark’s thesis may seem familiar; modern readers are steeped in the notion of the war as a tragedy. The poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; the image of troops as “lions led by donkeys”; and the poisonous consequences of the peace have all made the struggle seem to many a colossal waste. But most recent histories depict it as a necessary fight against German militarism. So was it utterly pointless, or a “Great War for Civilization”? And who started it? Germany? Russia? (Clark even casts a baleful glance at Italy, whose 1911 invasion of Libya sparked a feeding frenzy on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire.) Thus are the historiographical trenches dug for the centenary.

Diplomatic history demands much of the most determined reader, but Clark’s prose is clear and laced with color. Most histories of the Great War must deal with the Sarajevo murders in cursory fashion, but the focus on 1914 and the substantial scale of The Sleepwalkers allow for more detail. His account of the assassinations is vivid and moving, and one winces at the ramshackle security procedures that put the archduke and his consort in harm’s way. As they drove in an open car on a riverside quay, the terrorists clutched pistols and bombs in their various places along the river. One of them hurled an explosive at the royal conveyance, but succeeded only in injuring the occupants of a following automobile. The unflappable archduke pressed on with the day’s program, visiting City Hall and enduring the embarrassed mayor’s official welcome. After their strained reception, they planned to visit their wounded countrymen before leaving the city. Officials had meanwhile altered the published route, but the royal chauffeur was either confused or uninformed, and made the most fateful wrong turn in world history. As he realized his mistake and stopped the car, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb member of the assassination squad, stepped forward and fired two shots. The wounded archduke begged his unconscious wife to stay alive for their children, but within the hour both were dead.

As good history must, The Sleepwalkers abounds with ironies: The royal visit to Sarajevo occurred on the 14th anniversary of the morganatic oath sworn by the archduke to secure his sovereign’s reluctant consent to marry his betrothed. More significant, June 28 marked the 525th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, when the Ottomans crushed a Serbian uprising. Oblivious to the latter, Princess Sophie delighted in being by her husband’s side amid pomp and ceremony, a privilege denied her in Vienna because of her modest origins and the emperor’s disapproval.

And in the summer of 1914, the British were more concerned with Belfast than the Balkans. The Liberal government had passed a Home Rule bill for Ireland over the objections of the Lords, and the army was threatening revolt. Clark further argues that senior military officials favored continental intervention so as to head off Irish independence. Thus did the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” (in Churchill’s resonant phrase) help make a local quarrel a global catastrophe.

The broad sweep of The Sleepwalkers seems at first to belie its central thesis. Clark argues that the Sarajevo assassination was a pivotal cause of the conflict, not merely an excuse for jostling empires to commence an inevitable war. The story of July 1914 is “saturated in agency”; Europe’s leaders were not driven over the brink by vast, impersonal forces. Rather, after weeks of clumsy diplomacy, they consciously led their nations into battle. This might call for a tight focus on the summer of 1914, but Clark’s narrative ranges back over decades. The fatal shots are not fired for nearly 400 pages. But the diplomatic diversions give the reader a greater sense of contingency. The alliances and enmities that were to sustain four years of warfare were hardly set in stone; in the decades preceding 1914, Russia and Germany were bound by treaty, and Britain and Russia were bitter rivals. And the royal houses of Europe were almost all linked by blood. It all makes the savagery seem even more arbitrary and unnecessary.

The First World War was the worst act of political malpractice in history. The frock-coated statesmen, bred to service in a world of Victorian certainties, lacked the flexibility and foresight to avoid disaster. (According to Clark, the “hypertrophic forms of masculinity” then prevalent favored “unyielding forcefulness” over “suppleness.”) They were not pushed; Clark dismisses the “myth that European men leapt at the opportunity to defeat a hated enemy.” And some knew the risks of continental, industrialized conflict; British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith feared “Armageddon,” while others foresaw the “extinction of civilization.”

But the war came, and from the Bolshevik revolution to the rise of Hitler, the consequences were horrific. Prussian militarism was unlovely, to be sure, but the Kaiser was no Führer. The game was not worth the candle. Christopher Clark reminds us that the “Great War for Civilization” was an unwitting suicide pact.