Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark is an unbelievably scholarly book, taking the reader, in almost real time, through the events leading up to World War I. I think it was way too detailed for my taste. I kept thinking, “Just ‘bottom-line’ me.” But for those who care about footnotes, this book is a masterpiece.

World War I was such an unbelievably horrific event, seemingly triggered by an assassination of an insignificant figure in the middle of nowhere. While that sentiment is largely true, Clark shows the story to be much bigger and much more complex.

I desperately wanted there to be a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” but this history doesn’t seem to play out that way. Everyone was looking out for their own country’s best interests and expansion, was suspicious of all the others, and blamed someone else for their own actions. In many ways, it defines the tragedy of human nature. He titles the book The Sleepwalkers because he believes the key decision makers “walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps. The outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of decisions made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgements they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand.”

The story begins with the dramatic killing of a king in Serbia. The nation was already volatile and the king’s murder surprised and saddened few. The nation found itself near the bottom of the Balkan heap and sought the greater glory of its imagined past, empire, and the reunification of the scattered Serbians. This did not sit well with its neighbors, particularly the Austria-Hungary empire with its close ties, and finally, annexation of Bosnia. With its large Serbian population, the Serbians were especially outraged at this obvious ploy to limit Serbia’s influence in Bosnia and frustrate its ambitions there. (I had to keep referring to the map, since I am clueless to this part of the world.) Although Serbia eventually ended up with a more stable government, those who would see a Greater Serbia rise to power, and would use terror to get there, reached to the highest levels and were uncontrollable by the official apparatus. 

During this time, Serbia cultivated a closer relationship with Russia. Russia had always been desperate for a path to the Mediterranean. It thought that perhaps, with a Greater Serbia ruling the Balkans and weakening the Ottoman Turks who currently controlled Russia’s path through the Black Sea, Russia would finally get its port. In fact, Russia became quite convinced that only war would open the door to its long-coveted path to the sea.

Meanwhile, Serbia with its economy in free fall, especially when compared to the prosperous Austria-Hungary, secured agreements for trade with and loans from the French. This further soured relations between Austria and Serbia. Serbia became politically allied with France as a result of the loans, which were used for political purposes. This created a vital interest in the area for France and it watched carefully for any hint of Austrian aggression against its client.

Meanwhile, as the fateful assassination approached, the Balkans experienced two wars. As the Ottoman Empire weakened, Italy, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria sensed an opportunity to remake the map. They went after Libya, Macedonia and parts of the Ottoman territory. Russia was able to ingratiate itself as a monitor when all was said and done to determine the resulting boundary lines. Thus Serbia became a client of Russia’s and under her influence. The whole area was in chaos as people became incorporated into new territories and national borders fluctuated almost annually. All the fighting left Russia with a close eye on Austria-Hungary for any sign of movement. Russia would amass soldiers at the border, prepared to invade should Austria threaten to step into the Balkan mess and assert dominance. 

The heir to the Austria-Hungary empire was a reformer named Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Serbian had reason to fear he would destroy their hopes for a Greater Serbia if he was able to reform to the extent that Serbian people within his empire would  be pleased to stay. Serbia had made herself a menace in her region, abusing the foreigners that found themselves within her borders. She did not need a reformer in the neighboring empire. 

So how did Europe get dragged into a third Balkan war and turn it into World War I? At this time, the European nations of Great Britain, France, and Germany were in a competition for dominance. Germany had been left behind in the race for Empire and felt it sharply. It decided to increase its military power to achieve parity with the British navy and perhaps earn some respect and the ability to threaten the far-flung British Empire. France, always fearing an invasion from neighboring Germany, relied on an alliance with Russia to keep Germany busy on its eastern front should it attack France on its western side. Russia saw an opportunity to ally with France, which had considerable leverage over the Serbians Russia sought to control. Britain, finding its empire constantly under attack and needlessly fearing a Russia powerful enough to make inroads, decided to keep its “enemies” close and ally itself with Russia as well. As the odd man out, Germany felt no other option but to ally with Austria and the fickle Italy. It was a weak arrangement, but all that was open to a country surrounded by allies. 

However, although the structure of alliances existed a few years before the war, the war was not foreordained. These were somewhat temporary agreements entered into as it became in each nations’ best interest. They were a snapshot of a particular time that unfortunately became a set of dominoes waiting to fall. Even so, the fickle nature of the systems of government in each of the nations meant that the attitudes and opinions of what was actually in the best interest of a particular nation was always changing. Most were monarchies in one form or another, but they also had parliaments and various ministers desiring more autonomy and power. In addition, almost every major ruler was a cousin to the others. This familiarity led to odd demands and concessions, and the inbreeding probably left more than one of them with mental disabilities. The result was a somewhat schizophrenic approach to foreign policy by each nation. No one was really quite sure what their own or the other nations might or might not do. That’s why nothing was inevitable. In addition, because of the constants shifts in power and position, each nations’ leaders had a sense that they were running up against the clock, and no one felt time was on their side. The alliances were thus very fragile and on hair-triggers. 

The archduke foolishly traveled to Sarajevo in Bosnia to glad-hand. He knew there was a large population of unhappy Serbians and he knew that Serbia sponsored terrorists activities designed to weaken the surrounding neighborhoods. He knew of the threat to his life and even after the assassins succeeded in wounding members of his convoy, he “bravely” decided to continue on. He put himself in perfect place for Gavril Princip’s bullet and the “shot heard round Europe.” He was not a beloved man and Europe did not mourn him. But neither was his murder to be forgotten. Instead, it became the pretext for the war many had assumed was inevitable and some actively desired. 

Austria suspected that the assassins were directly tied to the Serbian government, but couldn’t prove it. In fact, one of the top ministers was involved, but officially, the government had not sanctioned it. But Austria overplayed its hand and the continental sympathy by demanding, not only an investigation, but an official role in the internal affairs of Serbia. This was unacceptable and allowed Serbia to play the victim. Russia jumped at the chance to start a war it had been seeking to secure its access to the Straits by encouraging Serbia to rebuff all entreaties from Austria. In fact, once Russia made its will known, the situation was largely out of Serbia’s hands. The question now was, how were the other powers going to react? 

Russia first began mobilizing for war. It saw the mess as an opportunity to invade Austria should they make any move towards Serbia. Russia believed that Austria would use the assassination as a pretext to attack Serbia and be done with its troublesome neighbor. Austria rightly read the Russian mobilization as a threat and entreated her ally Germany to back her up. Without Germany, she would stand down, therefore she put the ball firmly in Germany’s court. And German felt that if it didn’t display its power soon, it risked becoming irrelevant. France had already been encouraging Russia in their alliance out of fear that Russia would renege when the activated Germany attacked France. This left British intentions unclear. 

Even though it appeared the Britain did not have a dog in this fight other than its tenuous alliance with Russia, Britain had internal problems that weighed heavily on its decision to enter. Ireland had been agitating for independence. The idea of Home Rule was debated and caused a lot of internal friction. However, for those opposed to independence, sending the army off on a foreign adventure made the prospect less likely. 

When the German demand for the Russians to stand down on the Austria-Hungarian border was refused, Germany declared war. As Germany prepared for war with France, knowing that would result from the whole affair, it knew it needed to go through Belgium. It pleasantly offered Belgium spoils of the war should Germany be allowed to pass through unimpeded. When Belgium refused and bloody horror resulted, Britain could make the moral case it was aiding one of its many allies and ship the army out of the country at the same time. 
World War I, and all its resulting horrors including World War II, had begun. Even at the time, many had no idea how they had gotten to this point. Even the leaders at the time could point to the actions of others as the cause. In fact, it was alway human nature and its lust for power and eminence that caused the war. Had the empires not sought to expand and protect their colonies, had Russia been able to work out a peaceful path to the sea, had Serbia and Germany not felt aggrieved and disrespected, had Britain not resisted Home Rule, had... who knows? The war happened because humans want what they want.

James 4:2 “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.”