“The Sleepwalkers”, Christopher Clark

This sort-of review was composed as part of an evaluation of a Victoria Uni Continuing Education course in March, 2014.

The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark, 2012, Penguin

Christopher Clark has written a book on ‘how Europe went to war in 1914’ entitled “The Sleepwalkers” (2012).   (Apology – I’ve cherry picked quotes from the book to illustrate the questions I’m trying to raise, but hopefully I’ve not misrepresented what he said.)

After 500 pages of detailed, disciplined and nuanced analysis of the nations, players, and events leading up to the war (400 of which I could only bring myself to skim mostly) he finally breaks free with a rousing conclusion. Actually making fun of those who seek to assign blame:  “Then there is the problem that the quest for blame predisposes the investigator . . . . . to show that someone willed the war as well as caused it. In its extreme form, this mode of procedure produces conspiratorial narratives in which a coterie of powerful individuals, like velvet-jacketed Bond villains, controls events from behind the scenes in accordance with a malevolent plan.”

If blame is the wrong thing to do, then look to something broader:  “But the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia. The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture. . . . . . . “

What I have come to understand about WW1, beginning way back with assigned reading in my US high school required literature class of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, is summed up I think by Dr. Clark:  “One thing is clear: none of the prizes for which the politicians of 1914 contended was worth the cataclysm that followed.”  (Any criticisms of Remarque’s book that it does not accurately enough reflect the war at the front miss the point of the book or are willing to be used as pro-war, pro- empire propaganda.)

Finally, Clark observes that many of the players realized, even though their war strategies all evidenced hope for quick success, that it:

“. . . . might drag on for years, wreaking immeasurable ruin. British PM Asquith wrote of the approach of ‘Armageddon’ . . . French and Russian generals spoke of ‘war of extermination’ and ‘extinction of civilization’. They knew it but did they really feel it? ”  “In this sense, the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

After that brilliant conclusion, I humbly raise these questions: what dreams (empire)?, what were the overriding cultural/historical influences at work to raise the requirements of empire so high and make the risks so easily accepted?, how are these influences still at work today in our historical context?

Richard Keller

01 April, 2014


2 Comments on ““The Sleepwalkers”, Christopher Clark”

  1. Dennis Dawson says:

    “They knew it but did they really feel it? In this sense, the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world” (Christopher Clark). In our (possibly impossible) task to understand the carnage of WW1, I need to understand whether this comment is consistent with the widely reported view that the ‘public’ were supportive of a war “which would be over by Christmas”. The visual images (photos and films) of men smiling and waving their arms as they entrained for the battle front are haunting. Did the generals really know different and were the ‘public’ kept in the dark and / or duped? I am sure this has been considered and maybe even in Clark’s book (I have a long list of reading and Clark is not at the top).

    • Dennis,
      It is hard to imagine the NZ generals, or even the government, were unaware of the thoughts of their European counterparts quoted by Dr Clark. It’s a good question. There was dissent here in NZ, but how much and under what duress? That’s another good question.

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