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Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914

Hanna Teichler
p. 197-199
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Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914, London: Allen Lane, 2012, 736 p.

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12014 is not just a year like any other: it carries the commemorative weight of crisis, war, and lost generations, and, at the same time, of liberation, freedom and new beginnings. 2014 represents the janus-faced character of the modern era, where life-changing innovations evoked alongside life-terminating modern warfare. The remembrance of three significant dates in modern history brings memories to the foreground of at whose expenses and through which abhorrent lessons the world we live in today came into being. This year, we commemorate the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the landing of the American troops on the coast of Normandy in 1944, and the breakdown of the DDR regime and the Wall in 1989. All these dates mark cornerstones in public memory of contemporary Europe, and strongly affected the global power structure. Somewhere in this triangle of 1914, 1944 and 1989, Europe was born as a reaction to the divisive forces which made mankind maneuver itself to the brink of destruction twice. The foundations were laid to the (seemingly) peaceful and prosperous world we know today.

2In 2012, historian Christopher Clark published a monumental work on the origins of World War I in Europe. The catchy title The Sleepwalkers  How Europe Went to War in 1914 already suggests that Clark seeks to break with a tradition which holds an important spot within First World War research: the almost paradigmatic effort to name a culprit, to acuminate the historical narrative towards identifying sole, dreadful and unmistakable guilt. Clark explicitly refuses to arrange the profusion of sources in a way which supports any teleological narrative. He writes: “There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.” (561). Accordingly, his work aims to retrace the steps which led to certain decisions in the wake of the July Crisis, and rather questions how the war broke out, not primarily why. The book reassembles a more nuanced picture of how one decision affected the other. The result of this chain of reactions was –  in its total scope and minacious outcome – unrecognizable to the key players at the time. The Sleepwalkers closely examines the structures of power within Europe, poses questions of where this actual power was executed and where not, and thus challenges the notion of “steadily building causal pressure” (xxvii) which led to an “inevitable” war.

3In his introduction, Christopher Clark starts with the time-and-again striking statement that it only took the world 37 days from the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg, to the unleashing of an inferno that would extinct entire generations. Introducing his study with this statement might already raise awareness within the attentive reader that this rather short time period between the event and the outbreak could just be an excerpt, a detail from an utterly more complex narrative lingering in the background. In the following, Clark describes what the historian encounters while trying to take up the manifold argumentative threads that so many before him have produced and weave them into a cloth that lacks apologetic moments or accusatory undertakings. Faced with an oversupply of sources, which often present an undersupply of valid information, Clark describes a “world war of documents” surrounding the matter (xxii). Entire volumes of official records had been produced by officials, politicians and key decision makers even before the war was ended and the treaty of Versailles signed. These official records, however, are frequently characterized by “tendentious omissions” (xxii). Memoirs of decision makers either presented themselves to be absolutely uninformative, and even if their “little recollections” proved valuable, the protagonists were often concerned with self-justification (xxii). It is these key representatives, their roles and their position within the ephemeral, but rather obscure power structure in their respective countries that Clark carefully revisits.

4The Sleepwalkers is divided into three parts. The structure already reflects the trajectory that the developing argument will undertake in the following. Part One readjusts our “common knowledge” of the Sarajevo assassination as being the point-of-origin of the first modern war. The author illuminates how symbolic events such as the assassination of the Archduke and his wife were turned into stories, which took up a life of their own and were exploited as narratives on which an ideology was built. In fact, the seed was planted long before the assassination in Sarajevo. Clark depicts the inherent political instability within the Balkan sphere which had been a reason for international confrontations for decades. Furthermore, he sheds a light on the political tensions which arose within the surrounding states. In this first part, Clark makes it abundantly clear that the origins of war are located within continuing irredentist discourses and endeavors of Balkan nationalism in general, and South Slav nationalism in particular. The latter was informed by the fear of Serbian identity being grinded down within the multinational commonwealth of Austria-Hungary. As Clark remarks, the 20th century and the Balkan wars of the 1990s have further contributed to rendering Serbian nationalism a “historical force of its own right”. Part Two continues the development of Clark’s argument by a dissecting of maps, alliances, and international relations. The narrative skillfully establishes a pattern of ententes and alliances, and shows how they shifted throughout the development of the crisis. Indeed, the German-Austrian Treaty, the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain in 1904, and the convention of 1907 between Britain and Russia, are structures whose allegedly indubitable relations are only visible in retrospect. Part Three counts down the days and recounts the last decisions (or decisions that were not taken) which led to the outbreak of a war which was framed to be highly improbable.

5As Thomas Laqueur (‘Some Damn Fooling Thing’, London Review of Books 35 (23), 2013) has also observed, the title The Sleepwalkers does not support the point that Clark is making here. In his introduction, Clark explicitly mentions the “watchful calculated steps” that decisions makers undertook in the months and weeks preceding the outbreak of the war (xxvii). These “calculated steps” do neither constitute sleepwalking, as far as my understanding of the concept goes, nor did Clark make any attempts to exonerate the protagonists from failing to take conscious decisions. Nevertheless, Christopher Clark is a master of his sources, balances and counterbalances them marvelously, concerned with representing scenes and episodes in an almost artistic manner. The narrative is constructed not to topple over a language that keeps the reader at a scientific distance. The author balances the proportion between developing his theory, his argument, and thus deploying methodology – and the steady flow of his beautiful prose. Given that Clark’s point is that he sought to expose the layers of agency in The Sleepwalkers, his narrative is saturated with agency of the historian. However, Clark touches upon the role of the historian only in passing. He acknowledges that access to First World War narratives and the conclusions that we contemporaries draw are a matter of viewpoint, social and scholarly contexts, and experiences we (re)make. A discussion of his role, that of the historian, as an architect of history in the making seems utterly absent. Clark’s work contributes to deconstructing the master narrative of exclusive German guilt. That is in itself a very postmodern endeavor, though something which Clark is unaware of or does not consider it important enough to elaborate on. The question of guilt is closely connected to German self-awareness and identity construction. Certain aspects of national identity were constructed as a reaction to this question. Clark mentions the Fischer school and the effects this debate had on the reevaluation of Nazism and the Third Reich. A commentary from the author on the disruptive, yet constructive potential of his work, remains absent.

6In his introduction, Clark already makes one of the most interesting points. He reframes the First World War as a “modern event”. A modern crisis, in his terms, is characterized through the existence of “suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles” (xxv), thus reminding us of the acts of terror which so profoundly shook the world during the 2000s. He goes on:

Behind the outrage of Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extra-territorial, without a clear geographical or political location, it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization. Indeed, one could even say that July 1914 is less remote from us  less illegible   now than it was in the 1980s. (xxv)

7Yes, modern warfare, if you may, is characterized through scattered groups which base their raison-d’être on rather conservative world views and rigid morals, pretending to defend their formative principles. Clark’s modern enemy has become abstract, impersonal, a sleeper or fanatic amidst us. Clark did find some striking similarities between the Black Hand of Serbia and the suicide warriors of the 21st century. However, first and foremost, in my opinion, the July Crisis is a modern event, because it already entailed the doom of the national concept. It heralded the end of the nation, for it carried the seed of supranational structures. As Clark has convincingly shown, the key decision makers in 1914 were caught between alliances on the one hand, forged to prevent intrusions into the respective national sphere, and competing interests within these alliances on the other. As a consequence, the entire system became not only unpredictable, but also, paradoxically, posed a looming threat to itself. It was characterized through mutual distrust and an ambiguity in behavior that could only lead to uncertainty at best.

8That in itself might not be a surprise or an extraordinary conclusion, but it already opens up a range of new readings and classifications of the origins of war, in particular with regard to contemporary controversy over the shape of the European Union. Europe is a result of many of the aspects that Clark reiterates; it is a supranational structure which seeks to bridge national interests and provide an overarching peaceful narrative that was absent in the years preceding the outbreak of the war. That doesn’t alter the fact that the European founding narrative has become more and more contested. In 2014, Russian neo-imperialism or Putin’s opportunism has led the European realm at the brink of another “improbable” crisis. The Russian government was in fear that an association treaty between the Ukraine and the EU might lead to a furthering of power imbalances for the benefit of the Western culture, and to a strengthening of perceived European hegemony. As a consequence, Putin intervened and forcibly annexed the Crimea. The EU is clearly struggling to establish a common attitude towards this situation.

9The recent success of anti-European populism casts another dark cloud over the EU project, pointing at an unsettling tendency to reiterate the concept of nationalism. Whilst one may share or deny some of the issues that people may have with the European union, one aspect remains striking: although we might find ourselves in the era of many “posts” – postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism  the idea of the nation is by no means dead. The threat to stop sacrificing national superiority and independence on the altar of the European community became a mighty currency when the European (financial) system found itself standing at the abyss. The foreshadowing of countries being ready to restrain the influence of the EU on national sovereignty disturbingly reminds us of how the alleged certainty of alliances was watered down in the weeks preceding the war. Clark claims that supranational institutions which today set the framework of policy making were non-existing in 1914, and that the international system as a whole became unpredictable due to mutual distrust and ambiguous politics. In the European crisis we encounter today, many of those counterforces are identifiable, and the inter-relationships between the European players are again oscillating between interdependency and competing national interests. Although the public opinion seems to remain against European intervention in the Ukrainian crisis, and a war today is framed as being beyond improbable, the conclusions that Christopher Clark has reached alarmingly remind us of the reasons why Europe is existing in the first place, and has all the right to continue doing so.

10Of course, the publication of The Sleepwalkers predates the Ukrainian crisis. Nonetheless, one might still want to pose these question to Christopher Clark: What are the implications of his work for the postmodern tendency to revisit the national concept? What is the role of the historian in constructing and contesting master narratives and collective identities? What meaning do his findings hold for those structures which were a direct result of the World Wars?

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Hanna Teichler, « Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914 »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 118 | 2014, 197-199.

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Hanna Teichler, « Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914 »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [En ligne], 118 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2015, consulté le 30 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Hanna Teichler

Goethe Universität (Frankfurt a. Main)

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