No single government or nation deserves blame for World War I. But the question remains: How could such a calamity have occurred?

March 22, 2013, 4:57 p.m. ET

When the Lamps Went Out

No single government or nation deserves blame for World War I. But the question remains: How could such a calamity have occurred?

By WILLIAM ANTHONY HAY

The historian Fritz Stern described World War I as “the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.” It takes only the barest knowledge of the war to grasp his point. The war and its appalling slaughter strained combatant nations to the breaking point. By the end, it had overthrown dynasties, shattered empires and reconfigured the map of Europe—unleashing all sorts of political forces and intensifying sympathies and resentments that would themselves wreak havoc on history. In various ways, as we now know in retrospect, World War I helped to bring about the Russian Revolution and yet another world war.

How could such a calamity have occurred? Or to put the matter more pointedly: Who caused the war, and for what reasons? Such questions have made the origins of World War I the great whodunit of modern history. The political implications of assigning blame have only heightened the importance of the answer.

The Sleepwalkers

By Christopher Clark
Harper, 697 pages, $29.99

In “The Sleepwalkers,” Christopher Clark sets out to investigate, as his subtitle has it, “how Europe went to war in 1914.” A masterly historian whose previous books include “Iron Kingdom,” a history of Prussia, Mr. Clark notes that debates over the origins of World War I began before the war itself did, as diplomats and politicians strove to justify their ever more provocative decisions. And when the fighting ended in November 1918, a war of documents ensued—selectively edited records of governments and armies. Postwar personal memoirs, consciously or otherwise, described prewar events from a perspective that included the fighting that followed. In victorious nations, of course, the German kaiser became an object of special revulsion. Determining exactly what happened in 1914, and why, came to be an increasingly daunting task.

Historians themselves have generated a tremendous literature—in 1991, the last time anyone counted, there were more than 25,000 books and articles on World War I. Some focused on structural dynamics; more than a few read like a prosecutor’s brief. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor, seconded by Barbara Tuchman many years later, argued that World War I was the result of rigid plans, railway schedules and treaty commitments—in effect, it was the endpoint in a chain of events that was virtually unstoppable once it had been set in motion.

In the 1960s, Fritz Fischer, a German historian, indicted Germany in particular for the war, arguing that the Germans had seized upon the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914—and the Balkan crisis that followed—to break out of the encirclement that the Germans perceived to be threatening them. In Fischer’s view, the Germans sought (and provoked) a quick war to thwart the growing might of France and Russia on the brink of industrializing. Other historians soon opposed Fischer’s views, not least German scholars who believed that Fischer’s interpretation was really an attempt to demonize German nationalism, as if to reveal early forms that would anticipate the rise of Nazism.

Mr. Clark rejects the idea that any single government or individual deserves preponderant blame for the war. He observes that the outbreak of World War I “is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.” The war, he concludes, “was a tragedy, not a crime.”

“The Sleepwalkers” offers a rich analysis of events in Vienna, Paris, St. Petersburg, London and Berlin, showing how various factions in each capital outmaneuvered their opponents to push particular agendas, less out of a desire for conquest or aggrandizement than out of a felt need to gain an advantage on perceived enemies—to check a rising threat or achieve some long-sought end: security, national pride, the legitimation of imperial authority, even the advancement of a cherished cause. The pan-Slavists within the Russian court, for example, possessed a fervent sympathy for Serbian nationalism and a loathing of Austria’s attempts to crush it. Such sentiments would eventually play out in Russia’s mobilization along its border in July 1914, after Austria issued its ultimatum to Serbia, whose fanatical nationalists were behind the archduke’s murder.

Mr. Clark’s account vividly reconstructs such key decisions points while deftly sketching the context driving them. He shows how a decision in one capital led to a countermove in another and yet another, quickly narrowing all possible courses of action. Of course, a dynamic of cascading effects among rival nations was not suddenly new in the early 20th century. But the failure to contain it proved to be momentous. One of Mr. Clark’s themes is the breakdown on the stable international order that had allowed Bismarck to convene the Congress of Berlin in 1878, a gathering aimed at preventing a recent clash between Russia and Turkey from drawing the great powers into a general European war.

By the summer of 1914, Mr. Clark shows, the systemic checks and balances that had given Europe a “long peace” had disappeared. Even the smallest crisis risked becoming a test of political will. The great powers “rolled the iron dice,” to borrow a phrase from Bismarck. They chose, for various reasons, to escalate conflict rather than tamp it down, to grab a chance instead of exercise caution. At crucial moments, they elected to pursue their own narrow interests, forcing rival governments to pursue theirs as well and thereby creating a self-reinforcing cycle of challenge and response. War was the result, though it may never have been the intention.

To trace the origins of the breakdown, Mr. Clark opens with an assassination in Belgrade rather than Sarajevo. The murder of Serbia’s king and queen in 1903, he implies, shook Europe’s stability in such a way that it would never fully recover. With the royal murders, Serb nationalists intensified their quest for the kind of land expansion and independence that the Italians, not so long before, had managed to achieve for themselves. In both cases, nationalists could only meet their goals at Austria’s expense—and, in the case of the Balkans, also at the expense of the Ottomans.

For various factions within Austria, the assassination of the archduke in 1914 called for an act of decisiveness and clarity: an assertion of legitimacy. For France, it was a welcome sign of Austria’s growing weakness, a goad to shoring up the French strategy of avoiding another one-front war with Germany and its allies by helping Russia to industrialize and by wooing the British. (The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 haunted the French mind.) In Britain, Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary—eager to put Germany, which he considered a political bully and an economic rival, in its place—made security commitments with the French that never went before king or cabinet, let alone Parliament. These commitments helped to compel Britain’s rush to war when Germany, by way of neutral Belgium, entered France in August 1914.

Mr. Clark stresses that monarchs in key nations—particularly Russia, Austria and Germany—provided the only effective coordinating point for major decisions, but they found imposing their authority difficult. Interest groups within their governments maneuvered to direct policy toward their own desired ends. In Russia, the czar lacked the temperament or knowledge to set his own course and wavered instead between competing factions before ultimately backing hard-liners and their French partners. In Germany, ministers kept the erratic Kaiser Wilhelm away from policy decisions. However tough his rhetoric, Wilhelm typically flinched at the real prospect of war—though the military factions within his government did not.

And what about the people who would do the actual soldiering and fighting? “There were isolated expressions of chauvinist enthusiasm for the coming fight,” Mr. Clark writes, “but these were the exception. The myth that European men leapt at the opportunity to defeat a hated enemy has been comprehensively dispelled. In most places and for most people, the news of mobilization came as a profound shock, a ‘peal of thunder out of a cloudless sky.’ ”

Even so, citizens proved ready and willing to serve. They felt, Mr. Clark says, a “defensive patriotism.” The causes of the war had become so complex, he notes, that “soldiers and civilians in all the belligerent states” came to believe that “theirs was a war of defence, that their countries had been attacked or provoked by a determined enemy.”

Once combat began, heavy casualties followed by stalemate brought out many dangers that the statesmen in each country had failed to appreciate. And of course starting a war proved easier than ending it. Having staked their public positions, rulers and the controlling factions behind them preferred to up the ante rather than admit error. War aims crafted partly to justify an original decision—and the sacrifices that it had brought about—made compromise difficult. Only when exhaustion set in, during 1917, did some politicians and rulers propose accepting less than total victory to avoid further loss. But the warring governments chose to press the conflict to its bitter end. Hubris played a role in the tragedy, but as Mr. Clark shows so compellingly in this magisterial work, so did the dynamic of escalation and its consequences.

—Mr. Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University, is writing a life of Lord Liverpool, British prime minister from 1812 to 1827.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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