Saturday, August 23, 2014

1914: The Sleepwalkers

By now, I have read many accounts of the outbreak of WW I: Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August probably first, then accounts embedded in histories of England, Germany, Russia, or the Hapsburg Empire. This week, I read to the end of The Sleepwalkers,by Christopher Clark.

Tuchman's history is exciting, with ship chases, infantry engagements, towns burned, and troops sent to the front in taxis. It also, I gather, blunders on the actual schedule of mobilizations. She read the history of 1914 through the history of 1933 through 1945, a point that I certainly did not see when I first read the book 40 years ago.

Clark's history ends before the battles start. It appears to me that he reads 1914 through the history of the breakup of Yugoslavia, so that the Austrians and Germans come off better, the Slavs worse. But wherever the blame falls, I cannot read it except as the history of the suicide of Europe. As such, it is thoroughly depressing.Once one has read enough histories of WW I, each next one appears to asymptotically approach Karl Kraus's In These Great Times.

George Kennan's history of the development of the Franco-Russian alliance is worth reading along with The Sleepwalkers if you can find it. Many of the actors of 1890, when Kennan's history ends, were still active in 1914. It makes for less depressing reading, with fewer and smaller wars, and with coups d'etat that do not end in regicide.


  1. Thank you, George, you have added wonderful titles to my TBR list, titles that will feed my fascination with WWI (the truly "great" and horrible war) and the early 20th century with all of the world's follies, from which we still cannot escape. Isn't it odd that we are still encountering penalties from that era? I know the Tuchman, but you have added much more. Again, thanks.

    1. RT, you are very welcome.

      Well, the decadence of the Ottoman Empire could be said to have led to WW I. The destruction of that empire in that war is still being played out in Syria, Iraq, Israel, and its neighbors. Americans don't always pay that much attention to history, but it doesn't go away.

  2. Yeah, George Santayana was correct, but probably fewer than 5% of Americans (or anyone else in the world) has ever heard of Santayana and his warning about history's repetitions.