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Who was to blame for the First World War?

A new book looks at the many culprits who caused the catastrophe

By on Wednesday, 28 November 2012


Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
by Christopher Clark
Penguin, £30

As the centenary of the Great War approaches, and with Europe still in many ways reliving the trauma, we continue to ask how it went wrong. Sleepwalkers, subtitled, “How Europe Went to War in 1914”, reads rather like a detective story in which we know a terrible crime has been committed but must watch as an unlikely series of events unfolds before our eyes.

It was, after all, a period of growing prosperity among all the major powers, of industrial revolution and improving education standards and international trade. Rather than a time of rampant nationalism, the years before 1914 were marked by unusual harmony and peacefulness. Extreme nationalists like the Pan-German League or the Union of the Russian People were weak and prone to farcical splits.

British public opinion, meanwhile, was becoming steadily more pro-German from 1912. Christopher Clark says that antagonism co-existed with “multi-layered cultural ties and a deep admiration of the country’s cultural, economic and scientific achievements”.

So where did it all go wrong, and who was to blame? Everyone to an extent, according to Clark, including tsars, kaisers, generals, Italians, liberals, the Daily Mail and, of course, the Serbs.

The book opens with the fatal stabbings of the Serbian king and queen in 1903, assassinations that introduced what was basically a democratic constitution into this backward country where literacy rates dropped to 12 per cent in some regions. Yet Serbia’s young men were obsessed with a romantic nationalism that was violent, sacrificial and irredentist, a fantasy built on the medieval empire of Stepan Dusan that ended at the Battle of Kosovo on June 28 1389, a date that would later take on great meaning.

The cult of violence ran through Serbia’s military and paramilitary, in such groups as the Black Hand, the official logo of which featured a circle bearing a skull, crossbones, a knife, a vial of poison and a bomb. It was the duty of all Serbs “to save Serbdom with bombs, knives and rifles”. Among the colourful figures in its military was Vemic, an officer who carried a piece of flesh from Queen Draga’s breast in his suitcase.

Serbia’s neighbour, Austria, also had its problems. In its 516-strong parliament, German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Croat, Serbian, Slovenian, Italian, Romanian and Russian were all permitted. No translators were provided, and there was no facility for recording speech in German, unless the deputy provided a translation, which they often didn’t. And yet rather than being “Europe’s second sick man”, as the Serbs claimed, Austria-Hungary was booming. The empire enjoyed 4.8 per cent annual growth in the years before war.

Austria was becoming ever more progressive. The Habsburgs established a Galician Diet, a regional legislature for the Ruthenes and a Ukrainian university. Franz Ferdinand wanted to create a “United States of Greater Austria”, with 15 member states. Such was the success of reform that the Russian foreign minister suggested setting up a similar concession to Poles.

There were troubling developments, of course: warmongers and the early signs of racial supremicism in Austria’s generals, who mixed Darwin and Hobbes in their view of conflict between Germans and Slavs. Italy drew closer to its Latin “step-sister” France, Serbs and Russians were united by Slav Orthodoxy, while Britain and Germany had good relations in the 1880s and 1890s. They were “friends and allies in ancient standing” in the words of one newspaper. Britain’s chief rival was Russia, which threatened its trade with India and China. Clark maintains that even Germany’s navy, which caused increasing paranoia in the early 20th century, was not a threat to the islands and was chiefly built to command respect in colonial disputes.

Late into the colonial game, Germany was increasingly anxious for its rightful spoils, so that in 1897 foreign secretary, Bernhard von Bülow, famously (and ominously) said: “The time when the German left the earth to one of his neighbours, the sea to the other, and reserved for himself the heavens where pure philosophy reigns – these times are over. We don’t want to put anyone in the shadow, but we too demand our place in the sun.”

Despite Kaiser Wilhelm’s various indiscretions and mental problems – at a dinner in 1904 he offered the King of the Belgians northern France if he helped him defeat France – Clark maintains that his personality played little part in the tragedy that followed.

Rather, it was the decline of Turkey that brought around the events, starting with Italy’s unprovoked invasion of Libya in 1912. The European powers, contemptuous of the decrepit Muslim empire, turned a blind eye to naked aggression. Yet a horrific precedent had been set.

Later that year Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro launched a “holy war” to finish off the Turkish presence, with the Bulgarians coming within miles of Constantinople.

A second war inevitably followed. Bulgaria lost most of its prizes and many of its men. Serbians continued to rampage across Albania until they were cowed by an Austrian ultimatum – a lesson the Austrians remembered. When the great Habsburg reforming prince decided to visit the contested south Slav province of Bosnia on June 28 the following year, all the pieces were in place for a great tragedy.

Heavy with European diplomatic political detail, Clark’s book is not for the casual reader. The pace is slow until, like any good story, events begin to speed up. If there is any criticism it is that Clark, author of the much-praised Iron Kingdom, downplays Germany’s war guilt and perhaps places too much emphasis on France’s responsibility. But that, of course, is a subject that will be debated until end times.

  • Templar

    We found out at Fatima, that war is a punishment for sin.  The world could have bypassed the Holocaust and the Gulag if only Our Lady’s requests were heeded.  Even now, it is not too late for the Holy Father to establish the Five First Saturday devotion of reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary throughout the world, but what are the odds of that happening?  

  • U.S. Guest

    Yes.  And now she is allegedly appearing in Yugoslavia.  Guess she pays attention to history — and geography.  Do we ?

  • U.S. Guest

    Excuse me.  I should have said “Former Yugoslavia.”

  • Anon

    1911 in Britain saw the introduction of the National Insurance Act, also tentative applications for pensions by poor factory workers ( “started work aged 8 years” ). Personally, I am not under too many illusions about why tens of thousands of men were marched to their deaths in 1914.

  • Corbus

    The seeds of the conflagration may well have been sown in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. This was the first evidence of an emergent European power whose efficiency and industrial nous was second to none. After Bismarck clove the German states and expanded its vast European empire through to that Russian buffer, Austria-Hungary.
    Once this was done, it was all eyes fearfully to the east, whose investment in Europe lay among the somewhat politically dissolute nations of the Balkans, especially Serbia. Since Austria was an immigrants melting pot trouble lurked between it and the militant elements of Serbia. This brought Russia and the master nation of mainland Europe, Germany, to loggerheads after the assassination of the Archduke.
    The social contracts of europe’s burgeoning industrial nations meant that a vast army of impoverished workers would become available for conflict. The days of limited type military excursions: South Africa, Northwest frontier etc, were about to change into a cataclysmic stalemate: the first of the world wars. Rotten monarchies, ludicrous mores of heroism and intransigence in the face of opposition by the social elites and a capacity to whip up nationalism among hordes crushed political reason. If nations could rearrange borders at a whim then the guarantee at the turn of the 20th century was of at least another 50 years of european unrest, ended arguably with the removal of the iron curtain (which makes that 90 years but without conflict and instead, a cold war).
    Recent offerings by Ferguson, Stone, Strachan, Brose…the list is long give some variety, but all essentially agreed on the causes.
    It is difficult to decompress the origins of the war in anything less than a book. I still love, darkly, Edward Grey’s (1916 British foreign secretary) horrified forecast that “the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our time”. I look forward to reading this book.

  • Benedict Carter

    The philosophies and ideologies of the 18th and 19th centuries were to blame. 

    The neo-Darwinism of pre-war German intellectuals, the utilitarianism and nationalism of the English, the infatuation with “rationalism” by the French, mixed in with overwhelming pride on the part of everyone provided the box of TNT lit by Princip and his Serbian state terrorist backers and further fanned by an Austro-Hungarian Emperor pushed into demanding an unreasonable Ultimatum by a wholly amoral Chief of Staff. 

    In the History of Redemption the First World War and all the horrors that followed it (the Russian Revolution, the millions of Communist murders, the forced famine of the Ukrainian peasantry, the crimes of the neo-pagan Nazis and on and on) were the result of the errors that infected mankind from the “Reformation” onwards that by the 18th century had led to an effective rejection of God.

  • Benedict Carter

    VERY allegedly. Medjugore is a sham from start to finish. The faithful are actually banned from going there by a decision of the vatican years ago, but who pays attention?

  • paulpriest

    I was taught that WW1  was instigated because The Allies – having blockaded Chile [the only major global source of saltpetre for ammunitions - believed a lightning 'resolutionary' War would release the tension and indeed be 'over by Christmas' because there wasn't enough available ammo for it to continue any longer. Unfortunately Fritz Haber's artificial nitrogen-production process [discovered a decade earlier but basically ignored because French chemists were using calcides to make cheap acetylene] ensured the Old Empires had a profusion of weapons to extend the tragedy for years longer than anyone anticipated.

  • Sandy Weaver

    The Medjugorje apparitions, such as they are or were, are demonic.  The spin off “good works” are a classic scam with most donations being creamed off to the underworld.

  • Julie

     You failed to mention your “facts” about the donations going to the “underworld.” Please state your facts if you want readers to believe in your message.

  • Psalm 91

    “years ago?”….this just in:

  • Sandy Weaver


    If you are unaware of the criminal underworld behind Medjugorje I suggest you start doing some “due diligence”.  I can’t do it for you, not least because you would not accept what I say.  The Vatican will be well aware of the criminality and its final judgment on Medjugorje will take it into account with the obvious conclusion.  I say all this as a devout Catholic who fully accepts Guadeloupe, Fatima, Lourdes and Kibeho in Rwanda, and other apparitions of Our Lady that the Church has declared to be worthy of belief.  Medjugorje is far far worse than Garabandal or Bayside.

  • andy_can

    What a BS is this “pseudo analysis”! So now we know – Serbia & Bulgaria are to be blamed for WWI. All those kaisers, tsars and similar tyrants were OK chaps, maybe with “only slight mental problems” but still much better than illiterate blood thirsty Serbians…. Rewriting of history? So the authors think that the general public is that stupid? What a bloody mockery – all these empires: Russian, German, Austrian, Turkish – were oppressive Prisons of Nations. Every few years were there bloody uprising of peoples yearning national freedoms. Nothing about this… simply this Vienna 1815 treaty European order had to collapse….