Americans are fond of asserting that they saved Europe from tyranny in two world wars. In truth, nations seldom go to war for purely altruistic reasons. In both conflicts, the United States remained technically neutral for more than two years because Americans were reluctant to admit that their interests were threatened. When troops were eventually mobilized, their purpose was to defend America, not to rescue Europe.
This issue of interests nicely links two new books on the origins of the world wars. Both “The Sleepwalkers” and “Those Angry Days ” show how conceptions of national interest eventually led a people to war, convincing them that carnage is justified. Less directly, both books also touch upon the perception of Europe that World War I inspired. As Christopher Clark argues, “The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” This perception of Europe as a place of danger convinced Americans that they should remain neutral in 1939, even though their interests were genuinely threatened. Isolationism arose from the assumption that corrupt Europe could be ignored.
The outbreak of World War I is one of history’s most complex problems. Some 25,000 books and articles have been written on the subject, most of them seeking the elusive truth of culpability. This attempt to assign guilt has obstructed understanding because prejudice has polluted reason. In an attempt to separate himself from the mob of blamers, Clark starts from the premise that “the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime.” That approach results in what is easily the best book ever written on this subject. “The Sleepwalkers” is a work of rare beauty that combines meticulous research with sensitive analysis and elegant prose. The enormous weight of its quality inspires amazement and awe.
In addressing the war’s origins, Clark aims not to answer why, but to explain how. The question “Why?”, he feels, leads inevitably to the assignment of guilt, making truth elusive. “The Sleepwalkers” is not an inquisition but an inquest, a calm and reasoned attempt to unravel a complex problem. Along the way, resilient assumptions are discarded: The Serbs were not plucky freedom fighters; Austria-Hungary was not a doomed Empire; Great Britain behaved rather badly. The nation that fares best from this inquest is, ironically, Germany, traditionally the focus of blame. Clark believes that the tendency to condemn German behavior arose from an attempt to simplify the complex. This tendency was evident even while the crisis played out. French, British and Russian assertions about German aggression were “repeated, mantra-like, at every possible opportunity in dispatches, letters and departmental minutes, . . . [merging] to form a new virtual reality, a way of making sense of the world.”
Genuine aggression is, in fact, difficult to find. Every power that went to war in August 1914 did so to defend national interests. “The etiology of this conflict was so complex and strange,” argues Clark, “that it allowed soldiers and civilians in all the belligerent states to be confident that theirs was a war of defence, that their countries had been attacked or provoked by a determined enemy, that their respective governments had made every effort to preserve the peace.” A common feature among these actors was the readiness to contemplate war as a solution to perceived peril. Clark rues the “eloquent silence of those civilian leaders who, in a better world, might have been expected to point out that a war between great powers would be the very worst of things.” Embedded deep within this wonderful book is a tiny fact of superb irony: The car that took the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to a rendezvous with his assassin Gavrilo Princip had no reverse gear. The same could be said of Europe as a whole.