A review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Six little boys tussle in a sandbox, pushing and shoving, sometimes openly, sometimes when none of the others are looking. One of them, a runt, is getting the worst of it, but he’s a vicious little guy and manages to hold his own within his own tiny corner of the sandbox. The biggest boys exert the least effort but command the most space. They all look confident, but secretly they’re terrified of one another, leading them to combine forces in a constantly shifting pattern of partnerships to fend off the others.
This is the image that comes to mind of Europe in the summer of 1914 from reading Christopher Clark’s new inquiry into how the First World War came to be. Naturally, Professor Clark had something much more grown-up in mind when he wrote the book. After all, he is a Fellow at St. Catherine’s College at the University of Cambridge, where he received his Ph.D. in History, and we all know that a Cambridge Don would never indulge in such belittling imagery.
In all fairness, to put the event in proper perspective, “The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires [Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian], 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded. The horrors of Europe’s twentieth century were born of this catastrophe.”
With The Sleepwalkers, Clark muscles into the seemingly endless debate about why and how all this came to pass. Not that anybody on the street is talking about this stuff, of course. But among modern European historians these questions pass for excitement, and no wonder: the Great War is generally taken as the climax of the well-ordered Victorian Era that launched the human race with a lurch into the 20th Century. The origins of the cataclysm that upended tens of millions of lives are variously found in Prussian militarism, the colliding interests of European empires, the arms race, the profit motive among arms merchants, and other cross-border phenomena, but Professor Clark apparently will have none of this. He’s a practitioner of that brand of history that finds truth in the quotidian details of human interaction — in short, in the day-to-day decisions of living, breathing human beings tossed together in a crisis that nobody foresaw.
In the first of its three parts, The Sleepwalkers thus explores the political environment, highlighting the major players in each of the contending nations — Serbia, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, and England — in the years running up to 1914. Part II takes a broader look at the Continent, discussing the interplay of the leading states in the closing years of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. In outline, the stable alliances of the late 1880s had given way to a bipolar system by 1907, with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (loosely) Italy facing off against the interlocking fortunes of Russia, France, and Great Britain. Clark asserts that “[t]he polarization of Europe’s geopolitical system was a crucial precondition for the war that broke out in 1914.” Then, in Part III, Clark delves deeply into the day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, decisions of the leading players from June 28, when Gavrilo Princip shot to death the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, until the early days of August, when all the chips had fallen into place and war was declared on all fronts.
In Clark’s view, “1914 is less remote from us — less illegible — now than it was in the 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, a system of bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.” Although Clark makes it easy to see history repeating itself in small ways — for example, the genocidal course pursued by Serbia in the 1990s was little different from its behavior in the decades leading up to 1914 — it’s difficult to see the parallels to most of today’s international crises. Surely, Professor Clark wouldn’t pretend that the U.S. invasion of Iraq — one of the seminal events of our times and perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in American history — was anything but the result of hubris and colossal miscalculation on the part of an ideology-driven clique within the U.S. government.
Disagreements aside, however, The Sleepwalkers is an outstanding piece of work. Professor Clark’s knowledge of the period he writes about is both broad and deep, and he writes with grace and verve that’s highly unusual in academic circles.
The 10 best mysteries and thrillers I’ve read in 2012
1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.
2. Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith
The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a World War II hero and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. The book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow.
3. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the 13th and latest in Smith’s best-known series of novels about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of the small, land-locked nation of Botswana, bordering South Africa. To my mind, it’s one of the best. As always, the story revolves around the lives of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her consistently exasperating assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi.
4. The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson
The events that take place in 2008 in the Midnight House — a site in Poland where prisoners in the “war on terror” are interrogated and often tortured — are so explosive, and so shocking, that they lead to an upheaval in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, end the career of a senior U.S. intelligence official, and spark a series of brutal murders. There’s nothing subtle about this gripping novel.
5. The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones
This finely crafted novel revolves around an obscure Russian bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin, a lifer in the Ministry of Oil and Industry who controls a large share of his country’s oil and gas industry, the world’s largest. His front man is an English expat lawyer in Moscow, Richard Lack, whose cozy life in Moscow begins coming apart when a Greek oilman, one of the many wealthy businessmen Malin has cheated, decides to unmask Malin’s fraud and put him out of business.
6. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
It is late in 1938, with Europe on the brink of war. With Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the tragedy of Kristallnacht unfolding in the background, an Austrian-born Hollywood film star named Fredric Stahl has come to Paris at the behest of Jack Warner to star on loan to Paramount Pictures in a war movie. The resolutely anti-Nazi Stahl finds himself targeted by Nazi operatives intent on enmeshing him in their propaganda machine.
7. Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky
Paretsky’s 14th V. I. Warshawski novel begins with seeming innocence with a gaggle of tweener girls dancing under the moonlight in an abandoned cemetery. Soon enough, however, we find ourselves enmeshed in the mysteries of some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens as well as a roomful of other indelibly drawn characters who illustrate Chicago at its best — and its worst.
8. 36 Yalta Boulevard, by Olen Steinhauer
The third novel in Olen Steinhauer’s outstanding Central European cycle is set in 1966-67. Brano Sev, a World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman in an unnamed Soviet satellite country, has been exiled to work in a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do. The ensuing complications threaten not just to end Brano’s career but possibly his life as well.
9. The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction. As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”
10. Criminal, by Karin Slaughter
In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.
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