Monday, March 2, 2015

The Sleepwalkers

Phew! I made it. Ultimately as an e-book Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers did not add up to 1000 pages, as Professor Krumeich had spread around, but only 666. Suddenly on page 562 I had reached the end of the text with the remaining pages being annotations and references. This happened already last December but due to the murders in Paris and the following events around Charlie Hebdo I had to change priorities. Here now comes my account about The Sleepwalkers:

At the end of the 19th century all nations were greatly influenced by a misunderstanding of Darwin's theory of evolution: When in competition only the strongest will survive. Somehow in strange contrast the key political players in the years before August 1914 were men caught in a crisis of masculinity and as Clark continues: Following the Sarajevo assassinations the understanding of policy was marked by "uprightness,” “backs very stiff,” “firmness of will,” and “self-castration”. The actors in this European tragedy were men driven by patriotism and paranoia, by ambition and intrigue. They were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world. How did their attitude project on to the political situation on the evening of the Great War?


Among European nations the British with their Calvinistic mindset felt they were the chosen people. Britannia was not only ruling the waves but large parts of the world too.

The French had long regarded themselves as Europe's cultural masters with their language being the lingua franca on the Continent. They had not forgotten the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the 2nd Reich. By financially supporting the Russian military build-up France exerted pressure on Germany. Along these lines the construction of railroads running east-west for rapid troop movement seemed to be most effective.

Russia suffered fron an inferiority complex*. At the beginning of the 20th century the tsar wanted to change this status. In building up military strength he intended to set Russia's role as determining power at the Balkans with eyes firmly riveted on the Dardanelles still under Osman control. Following the Sarajevo assassinations and Austria's ultimatum to Serbia the Russian foreign minister Sazonow stated: Were Russia to abandon its ‘historic mission’ to secure the independence of the Slav peoples, she would be ‘considered a decadent state’, would forfeit ‘all her authority’ and her ‘prestige in the Balkans’ and ‘would henceforth have to take second place among the powers’.
*and still feels inferior and even humiliated. President Putin recently said about his European neighbors: They need our raw materials but they always regard us as a second-class nation. In another context Putin remarked that the sanctions the Western countries had imposed on Russia were meant to prevent Russia's strengthening. He continued that even without Crimea and East Ukraine this would have happened.

And Germany? It was not the fleet race that annoyed the British but rather the economic strength of the 2nd Reich becoming a fierce competitor on the world market. Germany, a nation born late, suffered (and still suffers) from a fact that Henry Kissinger had competently described: Being too big for Europe, too small for the world. Still, as Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow said in the Reichstag (German parliament) on December 6, 1897: Mit einem Worte: wir wollen niemand in den Schatten stellen, aber wir verlangen auch unseren Platz an der Sonne (In one word: We don't want to eclipse anybody but we demand our spot in the sun too). Austrian author and satirist Karl Kraus commented: Der Anspruch auf einen Platz an der Sonne ist bekannt. Weniger bekannt ist, dass sie untergeht, sobald er errungen ist (The demand for a spot in the sun is known. It is less known that, when the spot is achieved, the sun will set). How true.

Facing the Triple Alliance of 1907 (France, Great Britain, and Russia) and with the constellation discussed above in mind the German Generalstab (general staff) was convinced that a European war was inevitable. Considering the Russian progress in armament, the 2nd Reich was better off with an early date. At the beginning of the 20th century German generals insinuated that by 1916 the Russian steamroller would be ready to roll over Germany. The idea of a preemptive war was in the air. Clarke writes: Historians have rightly criticized the rigidity of German military planning, seeing in it the fruits of a political system in which the army pursued its own dreams of ‘absolute destruction’, free of civilian control or oversight.

The domination of military over civilian power in Germany was what US senators emphasized in their debate before America entered the European war. In his speech Senator Swanson from Virginia called for a crusade when he said: Now, since Russia has taken her stand with the nations of the earth that believe in self-rule and stand for self-government* this terrible war is purely a battle between democracy and autocracy, and there should be no question of the attitude of this Government, or where, when challenged to enter, it should align itself. It is the democracy of the world against German Prussianism, Austrian absolutism, and the unspeakable Turk, who is a stench in the nostrils of the Christian nations of the world and ought long ago to have been driven not only out of Europe but out of the Holy Land, which he has despoiled.
*Senator Swanson is referring to Russia's February Revolution. On March 8, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated and was replaced by a Provisional Government, an alliance between liberals and socialists, who wanted political reform. They set up a democratically elected executive and constituent assembly. At the same time, socialists also formed the Petrograd Soviet, that later in October took over with dictatorial power.

Following the Sarajevo assassinations the French government considered a war with Austria-Hungary as an optimal starting point for a continental war with German forces being tied at the Balkans. Otto von Bismarck had already predicted in 1888 that some damned foolish thing in the Balkans would one day trigger a great European war and the Chancellor had continued: The whole of the Balkans are not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Now the situation had arrived. In a last-minute effort the kaiser sent a telegram signed Willi to his cousin Nicky, asking him to take back the order for general mobilization. And Tsar Nicholas followed up: I will not become responsible for a monstrous slaughter. 

However 24 hours later all this was forgotten. War propaganda had taken over. Clark writes about Russian-French falsifications of documents with the French producing a telegram trying to make Berlin appear the moral fulcrum of the crisis by blaming Germany for six days of war preparations that, however, had not happened.

On the other side of the Channel the British were still hesitating. Was it really possible that a quarrel on the Balkans could draw the Triple Entente powers into a war when none of the three was directly attacked?

While the French had convinced the Russians to cut loose, the British Cabinet decided on August 2 to march along only if one of the following conditions were met: An attack by the German fleet on the undefended Atlantic coast of France* or a  substantial violation of Belgian neutrality would compel us to take action.
*The fleet agreement of 1912 between the Entente powers had left the defense of France's Atlantic coast to the British fleet with the French fleet concentrated in the south assuring the British commercial routes in the Mediterranean.

In the minds of many statesmen, the hope for a short war and the fear of a long one seem, as it were, to have canceled each other out, holding at bay a fuller appreciation of the risks ... and

One thing is clear: none of the prizes for which the politicians of 1914 contended was worth the cataclysm that followed. Did the protagonists understand how high the stakes were? ... and

As Professor Krumeich had asked at the end of his talk on the outbreak of  World War I: Why didn't they use the telephone?

They were just sleepwalkers!
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