A world War 1 Historians Dinner Party



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Review and comparison of Clark’s “Sleepwalkers” and McMeekin’s “July 1914″


Key points

  • Both McMeekin and Clark point to Russia’s mobilisation as a key factor in the outbreak of war.

  • Great quote by Clark: “The outbreak of war in 1914 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.” Clark makes a case for the war as a tragedy, not a crime: in his view there is a smoking pistol in the hands of every major character.

  • Austria’s ultimatum was reasonable in face of Serbian separatism. Serbian response is traditionally marked as conciliatory but Clark labels it as diplomatic equivocation (use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself)

  • The men involved were keeping up a typically “stiff upper lip” style of militaristic masculinity, “sure of their own moral compass, but unknowingly impelled by a complex interaction of deep-rooted cultures, patriotism and paranoia, sediments of history and folk memory, ambition and intrigue.” They were, in Clark’s term, “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

Full article here: ‘The Sleepwalkers’ and ‘July 1914’ – NYTimes.com



My highlights of the article:

  • In “The Sleepwalkers,” Christopher Clark, a professor of modern European history at Cambridge, describes how within 10 days czarist Russia’s ministers had created a narrative to justify Russia taking up arms for its “little Serbian brothers” should Austria-Hungary try to punish them.

  • Austria-Hungary in turn had by July 4 sent an envoy on the night train to Berlin, where the Kaiser had just rebuked an official urging calm: “Stop this nonsense! It was high time a clean sweep was made of the Serbs.” So Austria-Hungary got its famous “blank check,” and 37 days after Sarajevo the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire later in the year and eventually Bulgaria) were at war with the Entente powers (Russia, France, the British Empire and also Japan, as well as, in months or years to come, Italy and Romania).

  • The historiography of World War I is immense, more than 25,000 volumes and articles even before next year’s centenary. Still, Clark, and Sean McMeekin, in “July 1914,” offer new perspectives.

  • We get an indication of the ambiguities at a crucial point on the evening of July 29. Czar Nicholas II, having just agreed to general mobilization, is handed a telegram, appealing to him not to do just that. It is to “Nicky” from his third cousin in Berlin, Kaiser “Will.” Nicky instantly rescinds the order: “I will not become responsible for a monstrous slaughter.” Less than 24 hours later, kinship and prudence succumb to patriotic rhetoric and inflated estimates of Austrian military power.

  • Both authors put a stake through the heart of a common narrative that has Germany mobilizing first so as to spring the preventive war its generals had long advocated. It didn’t. Clark documents how Berlin’s political and military leaders stuck to their blithe belief that any conflict could be localized. Russia’s mobilization, he says, was “one of the most momentous decisions of the July crisis. This was the first of the general mobilizations.” McMeekin says that Russia’s crime was first in escalating a local quarrel by encouraging Serbia to stand up to Austria-Hungary and then accelerating the rush to war. He faults Barbara Tuchman in her classic “Guns of August” for misdating Russia’s mobilization two days later than it was ordered. He is no apologist for Germany. In “The Berlin-Baghdad Express” (2010), he nailed the Kaiser as a half-crazy jihadist inciting Muslims against Anglo-French interests in the faltering Ottoman Empire, but his 2011 book “The Russian Origins of the First World War” lived up to its title.

  • McMeekin is intent on indicting the men and nations he considers guilty. He could have entitled his book “J’accuse.” It’s his third with a polemical thrust. Clark declines to join McMeekin in what he calls “the blame game,” because there were so many participants. He argues that trying to fix guilt on one leader or nation assumes that there must be a guilty party and this, he maintains, distorts the history into a prosecutorial narrative that misses the essentially multilateral nature of the exchanges, while underplaying the ethnic and nationalistic ferment of a region. “The outbreak of war in 1914,” he writes, “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.” Not having a villain to boo is emotionally less satisfying, but Clark makes a cogent case for the war as a tragedy, not a crime: in his telling there is a smoking pistol in the hands of every major character.

  • Still, his objectivity does not equate with a bland neutrality. By a stringent line-by-line analysis of the terms of Austria’s 48-hour ultimatum to Serbia and the Serbian reply, Clark demolishes the standard view that Austria was too harsh and that Serbia humbly complied. Austria demanded action against irredentist networks in Serbia. It would have been an infringement of sovereignty, yes, but Serbian tolerance of the terrorist networks, and its laid-back response to the Sarajevo murders, inhibit one’s sympathy with its position. Clark describes Austria’s ultimatum as “a great deal milder” than the ultimatum presented by NATO to Serbia-Yugoslavia in the March 1999 Rambouillet Agreement for unimpeded access to its land. As for Serbia’s reply, so long regarded as conciliatory, Clark shows that on most policy points it was a highly perfumed rejection offering Austria amazingly little — a “masterpiece of diplomatic equivocation.”

  • In sketching the characters of the key players, Clark makes a fascinating point I’ve not seen before: not simply were all the political players in the drama male, but they were men caught in a “crisis of masculinity.” He cites historians of gender who argue that at this particular time “competition from subordinate and marginalized masculinities — proletarian and nonwhite for example” accentuated assertiveness. You’d expect the military men to exude testosterone, and they do, but Clark is struck by how ubiquitous in memoir and memorandums are pointedly masculine modes of comportment, and how closely they are interwoven with their understanding of policy. “Uprightness,” “backs very stiff,” “firmness of will,” “self-castration” are typical modes of expression.

  • The brilliance of Clark’s far-reaching history is that we are able to discern how the past was genuinely prologue. The participants were conditioned to keep walking along a precipitous escarpment, sure of their own moral compass, but unknowingly impelled by a complex interaction of deep-rooted cultures, patriotism and paranoia, sediments of history and folk memory, ambition and intrigue. They were, in Clark’s term, “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” In conception, steely scholarship and piercing insights, his book is a masterpiece.


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