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

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.