Image courtesy of the New York Times. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

Review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark, 2012 Harper Collins Publishers New York, NY.

By Kenneth Upsall, Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Reserve

Christopher Clark does an excellent job detailing the root causes of nationalism, economic pressures and diplomacy which led to Europe’s descent into World War I. Clark cites a profusion of primary sources to dissect the pre-war social and political landscape. More than a dry academic work, Sleepwalkers is well written and fast moving, while unsparing in the details that add to the narrative. Clark believes there was a shared political culture in pre-war Europe that created a “multipolar and genuinely interactive” (p.561) environment and facilitated the most complex geopolitical event of modern times.

Clark concedes there is no theory of the war’s origins which cannot be supported from the vast amount of available history, he quickly establishes that official histories from the belligerent nations are inevitably skewed to meet political ends and individual memoirs have been egotistically twisted to deflect blame from their principals. This assertion separates Sleepwalkers  from its cousins; Catastrophe: 1914 Europe Goes to War (2013) by Max Hastings and Barbara W. Hastings seminal account of the summer of 1914 The Guns of August (1962),  both veer toward blaming German ambition for the diplomatic crisis of 1914. These two works also spend the majority of their time focused on military operations of the combatant states, while Clark keeps Sleepwalkers focused on the events leading up to 28 July.   

The survey begins in 1903 with the Serbian coup that dispatched the ruling monarchs and shifted domestic political control to an ultranationalist ideology which would provide a catalyst for the events of the next decade. In charting Great Power foreign policy, Clark highlights that individuals from the periphery of policymaking did have a disproportionate effect on a states decision-making process. A variety of strategic objectives are examined throughout the book; French desire to hem in a Germany attempting to consolidate the  gains of latter 19th Century actions, Russian assertion of a sphere of influence in the Balkans and Austro-Hungarian desire to tamp out growing nationalistic and insurgent sparks fanned by pan-Slavic ideology.

Hindsight always provides perspective on any event. Knowing 65 million troops would mobilize then sustain over 40 million casualties while three empires were wiped from the map adds an incredibly compelling element to Clark’s analysis of events. Parallels to contemporary diplomacy can be construed from many areas of emphasis. Clark adeptly outlines striking similarities to Serbian involvement in iridescent organizations to contemporary state sponsored terrorism. Also, the personal relationships involved within Europe’s diplomatic circles provides for some interesting thought about present-day geopolitics. Sleepwalkers stresses that instead of being an inevitable conflict, The Great War was the result of miscalculation and misunderstanding by diplomatic and political actors across Europe in the lead up to and aftermath of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in June of 1914.


Kenneth Upsall is a Staff Sergeant in the US Army Reserve. He received a Masters of the Arts in Diplomacy from Norwich University in 2013 and works for the US State Department. The views shared here are his own and do not reflect the thoughts or policies of the Department of Defense, US Army or US Department of State.