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Posted on Jun 27, 2014 in Books and Movies

The Sleepwalkers – Book Review

The Sleepwalkers – Book Review

By Steven M. Smith

the-sleepwalkersThe Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. Christopher Clark, Harper Collins, 2014. 562 pages of text, 36 illustrations and photographs, 7 maps, and 103 pages of chapter notes. $29.99 (hardback), $18.99 paperback.

The year 2014 marks the centennial of the start of World War One and there are a lot of books about how the war started. Sleepwalkers gives readers a nuanced picture of each player in the drama in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Christopher Clark brings out how terrorists and political in-fighting in the European countries became the deadly combination that ignited war.


Many readers skip a book’s introduction, wanting to get to the main part of the story. That would be a mistake with The Sleepwalkers, as Christopher Clark discusses the state of historical views and writing that lead him to write this book:

“This book thus strives to understand the July Crisis of 1914 as a modern event, the most complex of modern times … The key decision makers … walked towards danger in watchful, careful steps. The outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of decisions made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgments they could on the basis of the best information they had on hand.”

His research found striking parallels to our own time. “Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extra-territorial, without a clear geographical or political location; its links to any sovereign government was oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization.”

The book has three parts: “Roads to Sarajevo,” “One Continent Divided,” and “Crisis.” “Roads to Sarajevo” focuses on the Balkans, starting with a military coup in Serbia by pan-Slavic extremists who continued to influence the government’s policies, even after they fell out of power. Austria tried reforms to be more responsive to its diverse ethnic groups, turning into the “Austrian-Hungarian Empire.” The reforms de-centralized Imperial parliamentary government, which had the effect of making the Imperial monarchy even more powerful. Since the reforms singled out the Hungarians as the first group to have their own parliament, the Hungarians used that power to slow down, if not prevent, the reforms that included other ethnic groups, leading to more dissatisfaction inside the empire.

“One Continent Divided” shows the political aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. This part goes into the dissolution of the European system of overlapping alliances—which had prevented a general European war between 1815 and 1886—and the political in-fighting within Austria, Russia, France, Germany, and England. By 1907 the political landscape changed to have two major alliances: England, France, and Russia on one hand (the Triple Entente) and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy on the other (the Triple Alliance).

The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it became the First World War …  . Conflicts and crises on the south-eastern periphery, where the Ottoman Empire abutted Christian Europe, were nothing new. The European system had always accommodated them without endangering the peace of the continent as a whole. But the last years before 1914 saw fundamental change.

In 1911, Italy defeated the Ottomans in Africa, “triggering a chain of opportunist assaults on Ottoman territories … The system of geopolitical balances that had enabled local conflicts to be contained was swept away… creating a set of escalatory mechanisms that would enable a conflict of Balkan inception to engulf the continent within five weeks in the summer of 1914. ”

One aspect of political in-fighting, even within totalitarian countries, was factions secretly paying newspapers and journalists in their own and other countries to print specific stories (called “inspired” by contemporaries). “[I]nspired press functioned as a form of deniable, sub-diplomatic international communication that could achieve a deterrent or motivating effect without binding anyone to a specific commitment … Once it was known that a particular newspaper often carried inspired pieces, there was the risk that indiscreet, tendentious or erroneous reports by the same paper would be mistaken for intentional signals from the government.” This risk was seen many times, embarrassing governments and causing ministers to resign.

Even the weakest monarchy during this time had more power than they do now, and politicians schemed and maneuvered to get the monarch’s favor. “The Europe of fast cruisers, radio-telegraph, and electric cigar-lighters still carried at its heart this ancient, glittering institution yoking large and complex states to the vagaries of human biology.” Many had access to the most secret government documents and had authority over their country’s military. “Dynastic institutions and networks structured the communications between states … meetings between monarchs continued to take place throughout the pre-war years; indeed they acquired a heightened importance; creating a parallel plane of interaction whose relationship to official diplomacy was sometimes difficult to ascertain.” The royal and imperial families were so intertwined with inter-marriage, Clark jokes, that “Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 1914 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.”

The last part, “Crisis,” starts with a detailed examination of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. “The Sarajevo murders, like the murder of President John F. Kennedy at Dallas in 1963, were an event whose hot light captured the people and places of a moment and burned them into memory… The news seemed so horrific, the Russian ambassador in Vienna reported, that many at first refused to believe it.” The heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne was unpopular among the people and his own family to the extent that “There was thus no outpouring of collective grief when the news of the assassinations became known. This helps to explain why the assassinations have always been named for the place where they occurred, rather than for the victims. (By contrast, no one refers to the murder of John F. Kennedy as the ‘Dallas Assassination’.)” While unpopular, the archduke’s assassination was seen as an assault on “(W)hat he stood for: the future of the dynasty, of the empire and the ‘Hapsburg State Idea’ that unified it.”

The Austrian investigation reached the pre-ordained verdict that the Serbians were behind the assassination and the system of alliances caused mobilizations, ultimatums, more mobilizations, and fighting.

The last chapter, “Conclusion” starts with Rebecca West’s observation:

’I shall never be able to understand how it happened’… It was not, she reflected, that there were too few facts available, but that there were too many. That the crisis of 1914 was complex has been one of the central contentions of this book … the complexity of the 1914 crisis arose … from rapid-fire interactions among heavy armed autonomous power-centres confronting different and swiftly changing threats and operating under conditions of high risk and low trust and transparency.

The Sleepwalkers justly became a New York Times “10 Best Books of 2013” because of the depth and quality of the research and the clear delineation of the events. As you can see from the examples, Clark’s style is very literate, sometimes dense and provocative. The book has a strong narrative, so it is not easy to just dip into randomly without getting lost. I strongly recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in how WWI started.

Steven M. Smith has been an contributor since 2010. He has a life-long interest in history especially the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. He was the owner of The Simulation Corner gaming retail outlet in Morgantown, West Virginia, until 1983. He is currently a member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society and works for Lockheed Martin in Baltimore, Maryland.


  1. I have a different opinion : the book is not woth its money : it’s only an attempt to whitewash Germany for the outbreak of WWI.

  2. Thanks for this timely review. I have ordered the book.

  3. You wrote: “One Continent Divided” shows the political aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1887.”

    Please check your timetable, I haven’t heard of any major European confrontation in 1887. The Franco-Prussian war was in 1870-71.

    • clgenda, you and Jim Cobb are correct: the Franco-Prussian War was in 1870–71. I don’t know that one got past me when I was editing, but thanks for catching the error. I’ve made the correction in the article.

    • In an earlier draft I had a paragraph about the treaties in 1887 (German-Russian Reinsurance Treaty and Britain-Italian-Austrian Mediterranean Agreement of 1887) that were formed in response to French and Russian moves against the Ottomans. I felt it was too long and detailed for the review, so I removed it. In the process, I accidentally removed the years for the Franco-Prussian War and left in the years for the treaties. I’m sorry I didn’t catch that before I sent the review to Armchair General.

  4. The Franco-Prussian War was 1870-71. I would strongly recommend Geoffrey Wawro’s “A Mad Catastrophe: The Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire”.

  5. From what I can see there are three main culprits to the war. The great was France. Its leaders were in St Petersburg following the assassination egging on the Russians to what purpose? The French have still sealed their achieves? For what reason other to hide their guilt.

    Second the Serbs. They armed, trained and financed the terrorists from the highest levels of the Serbian government. Austrians demands were understandable, and Serbia’s refusal to accommodate Vienna are rather obvious.

    The Czar is the key player. Had Russia not become involved there can be little doubt that this regional conflict would have been over within a few months. Russia had no vital national interests at stake, was in the midst of intern political disputes and had not recovered from a disasterous war in the Far East. How could Russia benefit from another war? Worse how did it know that its allies would back her knowing that the Germans would back Austria? Yet the Czar plunged ahead on a disasterous course.