C.Clark: Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to war in 1914

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I have reservations about an extent to which studying history is ‘useful’ from the applied perspective. Historical method, in my view, has limited potential to identify more or less general and reliable regularities in the social mechanics from the economic policy point of view.

Thus the criteria on which books, such as Clark’s Sleepwalkers, should be judged are literary and entertainment value. Anyway judging it more rigorously is well beyond my expertise.  Instead of providing a review of the book (which was done by many more qualified individuals) I’ll just share three ideas that I pondered when reading the book:

  • Civil/military divide within the government. Clark provides an overview of the military-civil conflicts within the governments of the Entente and the Triple Alliance. The story is the same across Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, France and UK: the defense minister is lobbying for higher tax revenue to be allocated for modernization of the military while the finance minister more or less vigorously opposes military spending build up. The conflict lost none of its topicality in one hundred years it seems. There’re some interesting details on the Russian situation with the clash between the P.Stolypin successor PM&Finance Minister Kokovtsov and Defense Minister Sukhomlinov. Clark quotes Nicolas II telling Kokovtsov (p.218): “In your conflicts with Sukhomlinov you are always right. But I want you to understand my attitude: I have been supporting Sukhomlinov not because I have no confidence in  you, but because I cannot refuse to agree to military appropriations”.
  • Monarchy. The idea itself is quite original: let’s employ the same techniques that we use to improve domesticated animals to selection of country leaders. Why would anyone accept it as normal? The power of status quo, I suppose. However, what Clark argues is that at the operational level the monarchs’ discretion has been materially limited by late XIX century. As far as I understood, the web of blood relationships between the monarchs of Europe served as an alternative less formal diplomatic communication channel, however the messages that have  been transmitted were formulated or at least heavily influenced by professional bureaucracy. The same goes for internal affairs. The telling quote is on p.184: “Nicholas II could favor this or that faction or minister and thereby undermine the cohesion of the government, but was unable to set the agenda, especially after the fiasco of the Russo-Japanese War”.
  • Ideological homophily. What the book illustrates is how persistent are personal opinions. For the likes of Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf no amount of evidence could challenge the necessity of aggressive action against Serbia. What’s worse is the ability of such individuals to strategically influence the composition of their own ministries and the government in favor of others who share their vision or avoid challenging it. The result seems to narrow the ‘field of vision’ and the set of alternative courses of action.

Overall the book is highly recommended reading. Probably the last time I’ve enjoyed the book so completely was ‘Farewell to Russia’ by A.Levandovsky (thanks to VG for this).

Otherwise, just a handful of quotes:

  • On international finance, p.30: ” […] fragile debtors like Serbia […] could secure loans on reasonable terms only if they agreed to concession of fiscal control that amounted to the partial hypothecation of sovereign state functions. For this reason among others, international loans were a political issue of the highest importance, inextricably wound up with diplomacy and power politics.”
  • On investor relations, p.231: “Early in 1905, the Russian were distribution GDP8ooo a month to Parisian press, in the hope of stimulating public support for a massive French loan. “
  • On fiscal priorities, p.32: “In 1905, pressed to ratify a new revenue source, the peasant dominated assembly of Skupstina chose to tax school books rather than home distillation. The result was a strikingly low rate of literacy, ranging from 27% in the northern districts of the kingdom to only 12% in the south-east”
  • On the choice of the assassination target, p.49: “[…] the archduke was not targeted on account of any alleged hostility to the Slavic minorities in the Austro-Hangarian Empire, but, on the contrary, because, to borrow the words of his assassin, Gavrilo Pricip, ‘as future Sovereign he would have prevented our union by carrying through certain reforms’. […] The targeting of the archduke thus exemplified one abiding strand in the logic of terrorist movements, namely that reformers and moderates are more to be feared than outright enemies and hardliners.”
  • On the use of press by officials, p.195: “From behind the scenes key officials lime maniacally Germanophobe Maurice Herbett […] used his extensive newspaper contacts to sabotage negotiations by leaking potentially controversial conciliatory proposals to the French press before the had been seen by the Germans. […]”

Short resume of the book  by the author:

C.Clark: Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to war in 1914