Interview: Christopher Clark, Author Of 'The Sleepwalkers' A new book by Christopher Clark describes the series of events that precipitated one the most complex and catastrophic conflicts of modern times. "It seems to me that our world is getting more like 1914, not less like it," Clark says.
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Stumbling Into World War I, Like 'Sleepwalkers'

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Stumbling Into World War I, Like 'Sleepwalkers'

Stumbling Into World War I, Like 'Sleepwalkers'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

One hundred years ago, European statesmen - emperors, prime ministers, diplomats, generals - were in the process of stumbling or, as Christopher Clark would say, sleepwalking into a gigantic war. "The Sleepwalkers" is Christopher Clark's history of how Europe went to war in 1914. That is, it's a history of Europe in the years leading up to World War I, a war that claimed 20 million lives, injured even more than that and destroyed three of the empires that fought it.

Clark is professor of modern European history and a fellow of St. Catharine's College at the University of Cambridge in England. And he joins us now from Cambridge. welcome to the program.

It's great to be here.

Reading about Europe and European diplomacy of the period between 1900 and 1914, I kept wanting to believe that this all would be impossible today. Please tell me it is.


CHRISTOPHER CLARK: I wish I could tell you it would be impossible today. I mean, I must say I was struck by the opposite insight, namely that it seems to me our world is getting more like 1914, not less like it. You know, we're just starting to come to terms with the fact that we're no longer in a world that is disciplined by the standoff between two nuclear hyperpowers. And what we're drifting back into now is a polycentric world with many potential sources of conflict.

So, in some ways, our world is drifting back towards 1914, even as the ocean of time between us and the First World War gets larger and larger.

SIEGEL: But for several decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world assumed that global war was something unthinkable. In the period that you're writing about, people not only considered it thinkable but in some cases admirable, desirable and easily achieved.

CLARK: Yes, there were those who welcomed war. I think the ones who welcomed were in a small minority. The great majority, though, accepted war and were prepared to accept a war as long as they could be persuaded that it was being forced on them by somebody else.

SIEGEL: But you devote a chapter to the question of masculinity in Europe in the early part of the 20th century; to be strong and stiff was a good thing and war demonstrated those virtues.

CLARK: Absolutely and a colleague asked me, she said, are there any women in your book? And I suddenly was rather appalled to notice that this is a story involving men only. But I hadn't really thought about what that meant.

You know, I don't want to beat up on men in that sort of self-hating way that some men get into. But I do think that there was something special about the kind of masculinity of these male statesmen at this particular moment, the period up to 1914. I think masculinity was particularly brittle and uncompromising. And I think that was a perilous development.

SIEGEL: The spark that ignited the First World War was the assassination by Serbian nationalists of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo. At the time, Bosnia-Herzegovina - that's where Sarajevo was - was under Austrian control. Serbian nationalism was rampant. And you make a very interesting observation. For some reason, it was assumed by statesmen throughout Europe that the Serbs owned the future, they were dynamic, and that the Austro-Hungarian empire was a doomed thing of the past.

And the assumptions of statesmen, in effect, became self-fulfilling prophecy.

CLARK: Yes, so this is something that struck me very much when I was working on this problem. The degree to which statesmen - politicians, diplomats and other functionaries, ministers and other functionaries in the foreign ministries in other places in the government - trapped themselves in narratives of their own making. And one of these was this idea that Austria was a doomed, anachronistic construct, which is a morbid edifice which is about to collapse.

The are narratives spun by the enemies of Austria, clearly this is not something you'd hear so much in Berlin or in Vienna itself. And on the other hand, that the young Balkan nations were precisely that - young, virile, full of future. And, of course, part and parcel of those narratives was an acceptance of the vitality and the positive value of nationalism, as a force that was going to carry the future before it, with ethnically homogeneous populations.

And, of course, Austria-Hungary was anything but that. It was not ethnically homogeneous; it had 11 official nationalities and a few more unofficial ones.

SIEGEL: And it had a parliament where people debated in whatever language they chose and it wasn't translated.

CLARK: Well, exactly...


CLARK: You had a parliament where you could speak in any one of the 11 official languages, and there was nobody there to translate it. So nobody knew when the Czech deputy stood and started to give a speech, was he actually giving a speech or was he just reading out passages from the Czech highway code?

SIEGEL: There is one episode leading up to World War I that I want you to describe. And I confess that until reading your book, it accounted for about one sentence of my knowledge.


SIEGEL: And that was until 1911, Italy seized Libya from the Ottoman Empire. Turns out to have been a little war, but a very significant one and one full of precedent.

CLARK: Yes, it was a very odd experience because I was writing about the Italian assault on Libya in 2011, exactly 100 years after this war had taken place. And suddenly the newspapers were full of headlines saying: Airstrikes on Libya, you know, Benghazi, Homs, Tripoli and so on. And these were exactly the place names that were coming up in my reading at the time, in my writing.

It is an odd fact that just over 100 years ago, the Italians attacked Libya; it was an unprovoked attack. Libya was at that time, it wasn't called Libya, it was actually three different provinces but it was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. And it's the Italian attack on Libya that started this helter skelter of opportunist assaults on the Ottoman patrimony that produces the two Balkan Wars and that make the First World War possible

SIEGEL: People in the Balkans looked at what Italy was doing on the Mediterranean shore and said, it's time to start carving up the Ottoman Empire, pronto. It's time for us to take action, too.

CLARK: Absolutely. There's endless evidence of that. They're all saying: look what the Italians are up to. Now it's our turn. And in fact, the Balkan Wars break out before peace is even being signed over the Italian-Turkish struggle in Libya. And it's a fascinating war in lots of other ways, too. It's the first war to see aerial bombardments, for example, with hand thrown bombs from planes. That also with, from dirigible with racks of up to 250 bombs, which could be thrown by teams of bomb throwers.

So, this is a very interesting and almost completely forgotten war today, but a very interesting one and one which plays a very important role in bringing this about, or making the First World War possible. So I think we need to give the Italians their small place in the sun.


SIEGEL: They can claim some responsibility and also the beginning of air war - they inaugurated air war.

You observe, I think in the introduction, that statesmen with ostrich plumes coming out of their helmets seem like very antique characters. But in the age of the European Union and trying to hold together the eurozone, some of the things that were happening then are not so antique as they might have seemed a few decades ago.

CLARK: Yes, I was - you know, as I was finishing the book, the euro crisis was raging and, indeed, it's still raging. I don't if raging is the right word now, we've all got so tired of it. It's whimpering perhaps, rather than raging.

But the euro crisis did make me think about parallels with 1914 and about the question of whether we've actually got more intelligent - politically intelligent - as a species. Because, you know, you look at the euro crisis and you see that all the leaders in Europe had one fear in common. They all feared a meltdown of the currency. But that fear that they had of a catastrophic outcome was not, in itself, enough to bring them into sort of a consensual position, to force them into collaborating with each other and finding common solutions.

And in that respect, I did find myself reminded of the behavior of the statesmen in 1914, because none of the individuals who brought about this war - at least none of the civilian leaders who were really responsible for it - actually wanted war. And certainly none of them wanted the war that actually happened between 1914 and 1918. But they got it, nonetheless. And there's something very somber and depressing lesson in that.

SIEGEL: Professor Clark, thank you very for talking with us.

CLARK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Christopher Clark, professor of European history at Cambridge University, is the author of "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914."

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