Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christopher Clark

He was in Freiburg, Professor Christopher Clark from Cambridge, and gave a lecture in perfect German and in the framework of the Saturday University: Die Schlafwandler - Wie Europa in den Ersten Weltkrieg zog (The dreamwalkers - how Europe went to war in the First World War).
Professor Clark and a lady announcing his lecture
Red Baron went early to get a seat in front (ears and eyes obligent) and found the Audimax of the University already half full. At 11 a.m. s.t. the auditorium was fully packed and when Professor Clark started his lecture at 11 a.m. c.t. some latecomers had to stand.

Had all those people come to listen to what you read in many reviews of Clarks book: Germany was not to bear the blame for the outbreak of the Great War? It is amazing; more than 250 000 copies of the history book of nearly 1000 pages have already been sold in the German edition not counting the upcoming holiday season. Two months ago another known specialist, Professor Gerd Krumeich, teaching in Freiburg remarked at the end of his lecture about the Great War somewhat jealously: How can anyone read such a book? Read mine; it is shorter (Juli 1914. Eine Bilanz, 362 pages).

There is a difference in opinion between the two historians about the war. A nuance is that Clark thinks that all the actors in 1914 are guilty, whereas Krumeich states that Germany takes the Lion's share. In his lecture, however, Clark made it clear that the Schuldfrage (question of guilt) is not the main objective of his book. The question that concerned him was the circumstances of how the European countries slipped into the Urkatastrophe (seminal catastrophe). The Great War destroyed four empires (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire) and cost ten million lives of young men.

September 2014: Gerd Krumeich (right) and Christopher Clark (left) discussing in the presence
of a "moderator"at the German Historians Day in Göttingen (©Ziko/Wikipedia)
The years before the war were a time of great instability. One international crises followed another with Germany mostly acting impolitically. Who had the power in the European capitals? Clark said structural deficiencies in the decision making reminded him of Heisenberg's Unschärferelation. Is the uncertainty principle now valid in history?

This was a Steilvorlage (hand on plate) for Red Baron. In the discussion I said that in physics the Heisenberg uncertainty principle meant that if you fix one parameter of an object, e.g., its speed then its location is known only with an uncertainty. I asked the historian whether he could clarify his statement. He answered what he meant was that when in those days you approached a government official for a decision he (women regrettably were no decision makers in those days) would shrink back, i.e., taking no fixed position. Clark admitted:  I have to work on the uncertainty metaphor.

Reading Clark's book is "heavy" although Red Baron bought The Sleepwalkers as an e-book. Having read only four fifths of it so far I promise to come back to it.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Manfred,
    I have read Prof. Clark's book (in English) and find it illuminating and compelling--also worth finishing. But I do not have a deep background in other WWI literature, so my opinion weighs less for that. I am about to read Alexander Watson's Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, so I will have some more context after that. (The latter is even thicker than Clark's book--you should definitely get it as an ebook!) -jim lattis

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