Wednesday, March 05, 2014

"Sleepwalking" and the First World War

In this 100th-anniversary year of the demise of the unfortunately Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the unpleasantness which followed, one of the themes the historians and publicists are debating is what is currently known as the "sleepwalking into war" idea, after Christopher Clark's book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2013).

Briefly put, this concept spreads the question of war guilt promiscuously all around, blaming the whole thing mainly on blundering missteps by more-or-less well-meaning statesmen who were earnestly trying to preserve peace. Since the actions of the Great Statesmen from the aftermath of Franz Ferdinand's assassination to the postwar Treaty of Versailles look more like the work of bandits and highwaymen, even summarizing the "sleepwalkers" notion seems hopelessly corny to me.

But corny often plays well in politics. And, of course, we Exceptional Americans know that "we" got into the war because of the perfidy of the Germans and Kaiser Bill's sneaky U-Boat warfare. And Woodrow Wilson could be the secular Savior who made the world peaceful and safe for democracy if all those corrupt Europeans had been willing to let him run things his way.

The "sleepwalker" notion is particularly attractive to German politicians and publicists who would like to see their country get away from all this peace and international law nonsense and start acting like a Real Country in the world again. Albrecht von Lucke discusses this phenomenon in Der nützliche Herr Gauck Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 3/2014, which I plan to comment on in a separate post.

John Dos Passos used a version of the "sleepwalker" idea in his 1962 popular history Mr. Wilson's War:

To Europeans too the peace had seemed unbreakable. While rich Americans dreamed of Europe poor Europeans dreamed of America. In those peaceful years each could try for the fulfillment of his hopes. While the British Navy assured peace on the seas, the European order overflowed the globe. With time and money a man could travel anywhere, except for a few blank spots where the natives were unruly, or the dominions of the Czar and the Turk where passports were required, secure in life and property, without any official's by your leave. The poorest cobbler in Przemysl or Omsk only needed the price of a steerage passage to Ellis Island to try his luck in the Promised Land.

"If you didn't know the world before the war," old men told their sons, "you've never known what it is to live."

During that last July of the old order only the most sophisticated students of European affairs had any inkling of the rancors and hatreds and murderous lusts fermenting behind those picturesque façades. Realization of the extent of the calamity came slowly. The assassination of the archduke was shrugged off as a continuation of the Balkan disturbances that had been relegated for years to the back pages. When the Czar's armies were mobilized in the name of Slavic brotherhood it could be explained away as a measure to distract the downtrodden Russians from the manifold wrongs and oppressions they lived under. But when the Kaiser answered by alerting his generals and the French called their citizens to the tricolor it was plain that Europe had gone raving mad.
The First World War was certainly madness. But then I hold to the old-fashioned idea that war is always a failure of diplomacy. Of course, we always have the option of deciding it's the Other Side who's responsible for the failure of diplomacy.

But if we take this to mean anything other than that the general public was shocked at what a broad war had broken out, it's really untenable. Germany was ready to rumble with France. Austria-Hungary was champing at the bit to whack Serbia. France wanted to take Alsace-Lorraine back from Germany and to generally get revenge for their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Britain had a worldwide empire to defend against potential colonial competitors. Italy wanted to take South Tirol/Trentino away from the Habsburgs and also to make Albania a colony without Austria-Hungary getting in their way.

There had also been widespread public polemics in Austria-Hungary against the Balkan countries and Russia and public encouragement of having a war in the expectation it would be a clean and uplifting way to solve pending international problems - problems in the Balkans, which is what Austro-Hungarian foreign policy had focused on for decades. Militarist agitation, in other words.

So it really wasn't completely unexpected to anyone that was following the news, especially in Austria-Hungary, Germany and France.


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