Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

As stupid wars go, the First World War takes some beating.  Nobody could really claim victory - it was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, France never recovered as a military force, Austro Hungary vanished off the map and Russia was taken over by murderous freaks - a fate which befell Germany not long after.  This cracking history looks at all the players in the run up to 1914 and asks - what the hell was wrong with them?

Not the biggest player, but the one which fired the starting gun.  To generalise - a bunch of crazy bastards.  One top soldier for years kept a souvenir of an earlier coup against the Serbian royal family - the Queen's breast, hacked off after her murder.  Nice.  These were the kind of people in important roles in Belgrade, and were heavily implicated in the murder of Franz Ferdinand.  Serbia's refusal to help Austra Hungary get to the bottom of the assasination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne led directly to war.  And just a reminder - Britain was on Serbia's side.

A strange, unwieldy construct with two prime ministers and governments, but one head of state.  Serbia was a real thorn in their side, although the best bet for good relations between them would've been Franz Ferdinand becoming Emperor.  This book argues that they had genuine beef with Serbia over the assassination, and perhaps if they'd struck quickly the conflict would've been contained.  Instead those few weeks gave everyone else time to get stick their oar in, with disastrous results.

Serbia's ally, and the reason it started getting out of hand.  There's this idea of Pan-slavism - a historic brotherhood between the Balkans and the Russians, but the alliance may have had more to do with Russia trying to muscle in on the peninsula as the Ottoman Empire retreated.  They wanted control of Bosphorous as a way to get their warships into the Mediterranean.  There was also a deep dread of Germany in Russia, and an escalation of hostilities was the perfect way to get them out of the picture.

Often painted as the villain of the piece, but comes out quite well in this account.  Dragged into things through an alliance with Austro Hungary.  Not helped by Kaiser Wilhem, who seems to have been a total buffoon.  Senior politicians appear to have spent much of their time keeping this dingbat away from any important decision making.  They had to act quickly when it appeared that Russia and France were using this Balkan crisis as an excuse to gang up on them.

Led at this time by the apparently bonkers Raymond Poincare, who really wanted to smash Germany.  For some time before this France had had a crisis of confidence in military affairs because of the Dreyfus Affair.  At this point the pendulum was swinging the other way, things were a lot more gung-ho, and the time seemed ripe for France to have its revenge for the Franco-Prussian War.  There's a fantastic section in the book when President Poincare visits Russia with his rather naive prime minister Rene Viviani, who becomes increasingly sick and neurotic as he realises that everyone around him is rushing headfirst into war.  One of the few people in this book with a a bit of common sense.

Of all the sleepwalkers, Britain was the most....sleepwalky?  Continental matters weren't really on the agenda at this time - Ireland (surprise surprise) was the big issue of the day.  Things were mishandled by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who appears to have been too clever for his own good.  He preferred subtle understandings to cast-iron guarantees, which meant none of the other countries really knew where they stood with him.  He led the Germans to believe that Britain would stay out of things, apparently forgetting that they had a treaty to defend Belgium's neutrality.  Sir Edward then went full tilt into war mode, backed enthusiastically by (surprise surprise again) Winston Churchill.

So, no big villain in this account - just a lot of idiots and nutcases.  And, I suppose, short memories.  This happened after a long period of peace in Europe, and people really seem to forget what war is like.  It reminded me of the run up to the first Iraq War: the excitement about having a proper war again for the first time in years, and the conviction that this time it would all go to plan, and we'd all be home for Christmas.

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