When Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, there was no outpouring of collective grief. The archduke was not charismatic, had few friends and was selected as heir only because the emperor’s son had committed suicide. How could his death have led to a war into which the major world powers—Germany, Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, Britain, Italy, plus the Ottoman Empire and the states of the Balkan peninsula—were soon drawn? How did a conflict that was first known as the Third Balkan War mutate into what we now call World War I, a war in which more than 15 million people were killed and empires were destroyed? Noted historian Christopher Clark is keenly aware of the difficulties in finding answers to these questions. As he writes in his painstakingly researched, masterfully written and wonderfully readable new book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, “There is virtually no viewpoint on its origins that cannot be supported from a selection of the available sources.”

In this ambitious and richly textured overview, Clark is more concerned with how the war came about than why. Rather than focus on large concepts, such as nationalism, imperialism or an arms race, he deals with how the key decision-makers arrived at the choices they made when faced with the 37-day July Crisis that led to war. Clark goes back to the years before the war, in some cases many years before, to understand the alliances or treaties that bound certain states together. As he explains, “Alliances, like constitutions, are at best only an approximate guide to political realities.”

Readers are introduced to a large and diverse cast of decision-makers, many of whom had known each other for years. Because of these long-term relationships, Clark writes, “Beneath the surface of many of the key transactions lurked personal antipathies and long-remembered injuries.” The best known of these were the three imperial cousins: Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and King George V of England. As we see, though, the early 20th-century monarchs only had a relatively modest impact on actual policy decisions. Often it was ambassadors or military commanders who either developed policies or took policy-driving initiatives.

Article 231 of the Versailles Peace Treaty stated that Germany and her allies were morally responsible for the outbreak of the war. But Clark argues that “the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to subscribe to paranoia. The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture.” He brings that culture vividly to life for readers. The Sleepwalkers is certainly one of the best books on World War I to be published in recent times.

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