Some Damn Foolish Thing

Thomas Laqueur

  • The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
    Allen Lane, 697 pp, £30.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 7139 9942 6

Fifty years ago, Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller The Guns of August taught a generation of Americans about the origins of the First World War: the war, she wrote, was unnecessary, meaningless and stupid, begun by overwhelmed, misguided and occasionally mendacious statesmen and diplomats who stumbled into a catastrophe whose horrors they couldn’t begin to imagine – ‘home before the leaves fall,’ they thought. It was in many ways a book for its time.

Tuchman’s story begins with Edward VII’s funeral on 20 May 1910. The king’s sister-in-law, the empress consort of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III, was there. So was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the aged Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. And so was Edward’s least favourite nephew, Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm loved and admired the British and they loved the kaiser: to him, the Times said, belongs ‘the first place among all the foreign mourners’; even when relations were ‘strained’, he ‘never lost his popularity amongst us’. Four years before Armageddon the German emperor was decidedly not the antichrist he would become. The book ends with the Battle of the Marne – ‘one of the decisive battles of the war’ – which ended the German hope for a quick victory and set the stage for four years of deadlock and misery.

Tuchman says nothing about Austria-Hungary and Serbia on the eve of the war, and nothing about the Russo-Austrian and Serbo-Austrian fronts once it began. ‘The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war,’ she thinks, and in any case nothing much happened there in the period she covers. More surprising is that in the first third of the book there isn’t a word about Serbia. The assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 goes by in two sentences, one of which, a quotation from the oracular Bismarck, may be all she needs: ‘some damn foolish thing in the Balkans’ would ignite the next war.

Why was this story so compelling in the 1960s? I think because at the height of the Cold War the world needed and embraced a morality tale of the sort Tuchman offered. It goes like this. In 1914, two opposing power blocs, each in the process of a massive and historically unprecedented military build-up, came to feel that it was more dangerous not to respond militarily to a relatively minor incident at the periphery of Europe than it was to do so. The precise nature of each stage of the July Crisis, or of earlier crises, is less important to Tuchman’s cautionary tale than the dénouement: the failure of the great power blocs to negotiate their differences and the catastrophe that this failure unleashed. For the generation immediately following the Second World War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the hydrogen bomb that the Russians exploded in 1961, little was left to the imagination about what could happen if a mistake on the order of 1914 were made again.

John Kennedy read The Guns of August as a parable of the Cuban Missile Crisis. ‘I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] “The Missiles of October”,’ his brother Robert quotes him as saying. ‘If anyone is around after this they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace.’ Following Tuchman, he believed that European statesmen ‘somehow seemed to tumble into war’, because of their ‘stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur’. He would not follow suit. (Appeasement, about which Kennedy had written his undergraduate thesis, might have come more immediately to mind and had less happy consequences.)

Judging from his hawkish counsel during the 13 days of the crisis, Lyndon Johnson was less impressed by Tuchman. But when Kennedy was assassinated he too had the First World War in mind, arguing that what happened in Dallas could plausibly be as badly misconstrued as the murder in Sarajevo had been fifty years earlier. A comparable mistake today, Johnson believed, could leave twenty million dead instantly.

Christopher Clark’s breathtakingly good book is, much more self-consciously than Tuchman’s, also a history for its – that is, our – times. An act of terrorism in Sarajevo – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife – led the Austrian government to make demands on Serbia. If not quite a terror state, Serbia had close links to terrorism and made no effort to hide its view that Austria had it coming. The boundaries between official state policy, the army and clandestine terrorist cells were blurred at best. The Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, may not have planned the assassination but he clearly knew about it in some detail and failed to pass on any but the most vague – in today’s terms ‘not actionable’ – warnings to Austria. Serbia had something to answer for.

Clark, however, begins with an earlier terrorist act, the grotesque murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga, by a small group of officers acting as part of a larger conspiracy. They found the royal couple cowering in a closet, tricked them into coming out, and riddled their bodies with bullets; they then bayonetted the corpses, hacked them to pieces and partially disembowelled what was left. The queen’s near naked and almost unrecognisable body was tossed over the balcony into a garden.

One of the plotters – Dragutin Dimitrijević, ‘Apis’ (the Serbian word for ‘bull’) as he was known – would in 1911 become a founding member of the secret, ultra-nationalist organisation Union or Death, a.k.a. the Black Hand. In 1913, he became head of the intelligence section of the Serbian general staff, a job that put him in a position to arrange to smuggle the weapons and ‘the boys’, as Clark calls them (Gavrilo Princip who fired the fatal shots, was a month shy of his 20th birthday), over the border into Bosnia. That same year, one of the officers who had participated in the coup of 1903, and was notorious for carrying with him a dried bit of flesh cut from Queen Draga’s breast, was pardoned at the army’s insistence for the murder of a less than enthusiastic recruit. Pašić, who had become prime minister in 1903 as a consequence of the murder and had close ties with the plotters, was still prime minister in 1914.

The governing classes of Serbia and the shadowy Black Hand were bound together by the policy of irredentism: a poisonous mixture of self-serving history and mushy metaphysics that seeks national redemption by regaining lost land and lost glory. The Serbian version is that losses to the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo – fought in 1389, ten kilometres from today’s Pristina – had left the south Slavs and the Serbs in particular stranded in strange lands under Muslim rulers. It was this defeat that had to be redeemed: where there was a Serb or someone who could be construed as a Serb there was – or ought to be – Serbia. This view motivated two deadly and brutal wars in 1912-13, in which first Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria clawed land away from the Turks and then Bulgaria lost much of what it had gained to its former allies. Serbia was the biggest territorial winner.

It was the history of the 16th and 17th centuries that brought the Habsburgs into this 20th-century story. Fast forward to 1908: the Austrian annexation of Bosnia that year infuriated Serbian nationalists, who felt betrayed by the European powers and in particular by Russia, which allowed it to happen. In 1912-13, Serbia invaded Albania, to whose independence Austria was committed. Its soldiers murdered three hundred Gostivar Muslims and threw them into mass graves; hundreds more were killed in small incidents before the Serbs, at Austria’s insistence and again with the backing of the other European powers, were forced to leave by the treaties that ended the Balkan Wars.

On the 525th anniversary of the Serbian defeat at Kosovo the archduke and his wife paid a state visit to Bosnia. It didn’t occur to anyone that this might have been an inauspicious date. But then, why should it have? Sarajevo’s civic architecture, its university, its hospital, its city plan were Habsburg; economic development had proceeded apace. The royal pair expected and got a warm reception. They were happy to be away from Vienna, where court protocol made their lives difficult. Moreover, 1913 and early 1914 seemed to contemporaries to be a golden time of peace and promise; few saw the darkness to come. Delusion, Clark suggests, contributed to the risky behaviour of key actors as they tried to sort through the fallout from that day.

But neither a history of terrorism in Serbia, nor irredentism and nationalism more generally, made a Serbo-Austrian, still less a Europe-wide war inevitable. An Austrian peace party, led by the soon-to-be murdered Ferdinand, had envisaged a sort of United States of Europe as the way forward; Ferdinand had prevailed over more bellicose colleagues at various tricky moments in the course of the preceding decades. And in Serbia too there were men of peace. Even in the negotiations over the Austrian ultimatum of 23 July 1914 there were many in Belgrade who were ready to compromise.

The Sleepwalkers is also a book for our time in its emphasis on contingency and the role of what Clark calls the multiple ‘mental maps’ in the decisions that were taken. The war in his account was not the consequence of two great alliances yielding to specific provocations. If anything, it was the opposite; it was the weakness and unreliability of the alliances, and the lack of certainty about who would be on whose side, that exacerbated the crisis of summer 1914 in the capitals of Europe. (Political scientists who have studied the question used to think that in only 25 per cent of cases did allies act as their treaty partners expected, which makes you wonder why statesmen make treaties in the first place. A more statistically sophisticated analysis of wars between 1816 and 1965 gets the proportion up to 75 per cent, but that still leaves plenty of room for chance. Those who took Europe to war in 1914 had every reason to be uncertain.)

Statesmen at various levels and in at least five countries were testing a system whose workings were beyond their comprehension. No single logic, no master narrative led to a determinable end. There were structural limits to policy-making. The dynamics of great power politics had been shifting for decades before 1914, as the rise of Germany and the rapid economic and military growth of Russia unsettled the system. Austria slowly shifted from being among the guarantors of peace in the Balkans to being seen as a threat. Clark tells this well-known story efficiently and with an important new twist that I will come to in a moment. But it does not drive his narrative.

The Sleepwalkers sticks resolutely to how and not why the war happened. Or rather, it responds to the question ‘why?’ with many answers to ‘how?’ as the years, weeks and then days pass during which various paths to peace were not taken until none was left. Clark’s story is ‘saturated with agency’. Many actors (the crowned heads of Europe, military men, diplomats, politicians and others), each with their own objectives, acting as rationally and irrationally as humans are wont to act, made decisions that foreclosed on others and collectively led the world into an unimaginable and un-imaged war. Collectively, they produced the greatest ‘black swan event’ in world history. In the absence of the Homeric gods or the providential wisdom of a monotheistic God to account for what seems so random, Clark’s narrative sophistication, his philosophical awareness and his almost preternatural command of his sources makes The Sleepwalkers an exemplary instance of how to navigate this tricky terrain. It is not only the best book on the origins of the First World War that I know but a brilliant and intellectually bracing model for the writing of history more generally.

*

Work on the origins of the war tends to fall to one side or the other of the necessity-contingency divide. There are the tragico-ironic stories that echo Tocqueville’s observation about the French Revolution: ‘Never was any such event, stemming from factors so far back in the past, so inevitable and yet so completely unforeseen.’ By virtue of its magnitude and consequences, the Great War must have great causes: the crisis of imperialism (that was Lenin’s view); nationalism and its conservative turn in the late 19th century; the forty-year arms race; the system of alliances; the domestic politics of left and right; or, as Arno Mayer, one of my own teachers, argued, great architectonic pressures, which began to sweep away the old regimes of Europe in 1789 and finally succeeded by 1918. (Two empires and one kingdom that had been party to the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 were swept away.)

These sorts of explanation offer analytic clarity but, Clark argues, at the expense of distorting the story: they ‘create the illusion of a steadily building causal pressure’, with factors piling on one another, ‘each pushing down on events’. Political actors become the puppets of outside forces: ‘Causes trawled from the length and breadth of Europe’s prewar decades are piled like weights on the scale until it tilts from probability to inevitability.’ This doesn’t, I think, preclude the view offered fifty years ago by Paul Schroeder, a leading American diplomatic historian, that the statesmen and politicians involved felt themselves to be in the grip of forces beyond their control and that this perception influenced their actions. Nor does it mean that some – indeed most – of the actors were not wrong about which ways these forces were moving. (‘We are within measurable or imaginable distance of real Armageddon,’ Asquith said on 24 July 1914. ‘Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.’) Human agency, however benighted, is everywhere in this book. But that doesn’t mean it is written to indict any one agent or the servants of any one nation or to make the case for inadvertency or pure contingency.

Those who emphasise contingency as the way to address the ‘why’ question tend to be interested either in counterfactuals or in laying blame or, more usually, in both. The case for the prosecution has to show that, but for the wilfully criminal behaviour or near criminal stupidity of the leaders of one country or another, the war would not have happened. Clark does not go down this route. Some historians would accuse him of being a wimp, but there is good reason for his rejection of the forensic turn. The actors themselves, as he points out, started the blame game before the war even began and thus distorted the historical record by virtue of what they published or lost, remembered or misremembered. Tens of thousands of books and articles have already been written to support almost every conceivable case for guilt based on self-serving evidence.

Passing judgment may sometimes be the task of the historian; but doing so is tricky. Probably no historical judgment in world history has been more dangerous and protean than the infamous article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, which blamed the war on German militarism and on civilian leaders who did what was necessary to make Germany a world power. Field Marshal, now President Paul von Hindenburg, dressed as colonel in chief of a Prussian regiment, told a great crowd in 1926 at the dedication of a war memorial at Tannenberg (where in 1914 Germany had destroyed the Russian Second Army) that German soldiers had marched to war in 1914 ‘with clean hearts’ and that Germany was ‘ready at any moment to prove this fact before an impartial tribunal’. Jews and socialist parliamentarians had been excluded from the ceremony. Soon after coming to power Hitler spoke at Tannenberg about Germany’s shame in losing a war it had never wanted. Clark says it isn’t up to him to determine whether some of Serbia’s complaints against Austria were justified or whether France had anything to fear from Germany.

A prosecutorial narrative has a built-in telos: the guilt of the accused. Historians gather and interpret evidence to prove a case which, in turn, may be motivated by a great variety of political and more broadly cultural interests. In the 1960s the German guilt hypothesis, for example, got a big boost from the research of Fritz Fischer and his school, who used a well-documented but slanted indictment of German militarism on the eve of the First World War as a way of expiating the sins of the Third Reich in the Second World War. Again, Niall Ferguson’s provocative and brilliantly argued The Pity of War blames the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, for dragging his mostly reluctant cabinet colleagues and thus his country into a war that spelled the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the decline of Britain as the dominant world power. Nothing, Ferguson argues, forced Britain to go to war over Belgium. But for Grey, no Great War.

Clark would not claim to be the first person to argue against historical scholarship as a brief for the prosecution. In his classic 1928 study, the American historian Sidney Fay wrote that a European and ultimately world war broke out in late July and early August 1914 because ‘in each country political and military leaders did certain things which led to mobilisations and declarations of war, or failed to do certain things which might have prevented them’ and that responsibility is thus to a greater or lesser degree widely distributed. This, in one sentence, is also Clark’s view.

But he would not want to downplay the sort of political contingencies that lend themselves to counterfactual history and to making the case for war guilt. He allows himself to wonder what would have happened had Grey, with his long-held belief that British foreign policy should focus on the German threat, not been foreign secretary and not managed to persuade his colleagues by 4 August that not meeting the German threat in Belgium would be more dangerous for Britain than meeting it. And what if Count Vladimir Kokovtsov, the doveish and conservative finance minister and chairman of the tsar’s ministerial counsel, had not been dismissed before the crises of 28 June and he, rather than the Germanophobe and wildly pro-Serbian foreign minster, Sergei Sazonov, had been the dominant figure in Russian debates about what was to be done? And what if the Austrians had attacked Serbia soon after the assassination, when they had the sympathy of much of the world but had not yet gone through all the negotiations that brought the world to war?

The Sleepwalkers resists both the big structural theories and causal explanations based on contingency alone. Like a chess analyst, Clark shows how each move and countermove by many different players led to a colossal checkmate. The first part of the book outlines the contours of the international system which in 1913 seemed to be entering an era of détente. Parts of the story are familiar: the German-Austrian Treaty (the dual alliance of 1879); the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894; the entente cordiale between France and Britain signed in 1904; and most dramatic of all, the convention of 1907 between the old adversaries, Britain and Russia. But, Clark argues, to see in these configurations the so-called alliance system that went to war in the summer of 1914 is a mistake: only in retrospect are the two sides visible. There was lots of treaty-crossing in the years before August 1914: Russia and Germany met in 1910 to settle questions about their interests in Turkey and Persia; France came to an agreement with Germany over their differences in Morocco in 1909. And while it is true that in Britain Germany had come to replace Russia – which in turn had replaced France – as the imagined great enemy, this was by no means a fixed view. Important voices still argued that the Russian threat to India and British interests in Central Asia were far greater than the German threat at sea or on the Continent. A major policy review was planned for 1915.

More generally, Clark makes it clear that the commitments that emerged to produce the great catastrophe were ‘not long-term features’ of the European system, but the consequences of numerous short-term adjustments. The loss to the Japanese in the war of 1904-5, for example, ended any serious Russian foreign policy aspirations in Asia and made European interests, i.e. the Balkans, the sole focus of its attention. Germany would not have become so prominent in British policy thinking if Grey and his supporters had not ‘gradually tightened their grip on British policy’.

But even to speak in this way is to assume that particular politicians or rulers spoke for their nations, that there were such entities as ‘France’ or ‘Germany’ or ‘Russia’ that made decisions about matters of life and death. This misses the terrifying truth that it was an illusion that those who made or executed foreign policy spoke for the nation or even for the governing classes. The executive power in Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary was an emperor who, in the imagination of many, spoke for his subjects as well as for the state, but in fact spoke for god knows whom, and not even consistently for himself – the kaiser for one was notoriously mercurial and unconstrained. Information flowed or failed to flow without oversight or order between ambassadors, staff and ministers; it was unclear, organisationally and constitutionally, who had decision rights. No one knew for whom the press in each country spoke or how susceptible individual policy-makers were to its pressures. Some of these difficulties obtain in high-level decision-making today, but Clark shows that matters were far worse in 1914 and that the uncertainty engendered by this cacophony of voices had a great deal to do with the way people responded to 28 June.

The Balkans had become a locus of instability on the periphery of Europe and a focus of Russian foreign policy. Insofar as war was expected this is where it would happen. (Serbia endured the heaviest casualties of all the combatants, losing almost a quarter of its male population aged between 15 and 49, almost twice as many as France and Turkey lost.) A second new factor was that France came to view the very real problems that Austria had with its near terrorist neighbour as little more than an opportunity for German gain. It is clear that neither the Russians nor the French, or the Serbian government for that matter, had the slightest interest in seeing Austria’s evidence for Serbian complicity in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Serbian press made clear that it rejoiced in the death of the archduke; from the French perspective the Balkans had become a place to stop Germany.

The only part of Clark’s analysis of the force fields of European political culture on the eve of the final crisis I find unconvincing is his discussion of what he calls a ‘crisis of masculinity’: ‘a preference for unyielding forcefulness over the suppleness, tactical flexibility and wiliness exemplified by an earlier generation of statesmen … was likely to accentuate the potential for conflict.’ It’s hard to say whether Bismarck was more secure in his masculinity than von Moltke but problems with masculinity have been at the heart of war since Troy. I doubt they were any more critical in July 1914 than at any other time.

*

Murder in Sarajevo: this moment in the story is well known but Clark tells it grippingly. Franz Ferdinand, a leader of the faction of the Austrian government that had for a decade been seeking a peaceful resolution to the Balkan problems, a happily married man, was enjoying his ride in an open car through the streets of Sarajevo with his wife, Sophia, by his side. Part of a six-car motorcade, he was not afraid, despite the fact that the Bosnian Croat leader had told him that, because 28 June was the anniversary of Kosovo, there was a sense of heightened nationalism among local Serbs.

If we could marry Monty Python to Greek tragedy we would get what happened next. Seven young men were waiting to kill the archduke; none of them today would make it in al-Qaida. The first was paralysed with fear. The second managed to throw his bomb but it missed its main target; the driver of the archduke’s car heard the percussion cap go off and accelerated. Sophia got a scratch and the passengers in the car behind were wounded. The would-be assassin botched his suicide and was quickly caught.

One might have thought that the archduke would now call it quits, but he insisted on taking care of the wounded and after that on heading to the town hall, where he made a speech. Three more assassins all froze, undone by fear, as he passed by; one reported that when he saw Sophia he felt sorry for her. After the public ceremony Franz Ferdinand decided that it might, after all, be best to cancel the rest of his programme but before he left town he wanted first to visit the wounded in hospital. His hosts had the good sense to change the planned route, fearing that yet another assassin might be waiting. The motorcade would go straight down the Appel Quay rather than make a right turn on Franz Joseph Street. But no one told the driver about the change of plan. ‘This is the wrong way,’ the Austrian in charge shouted as it became clear the car was pursuing the original route. The car had no reverse gear and had to be pushed to get onto its new route. ‘This was Gavrilo Princip’s moment.’ He rushed up Franz Joseph Street to the stranded car and, after some hesitation, shot the royal pair at point blank range.

Given what we now know, Clark’s story is like a horror movie. Can’t they hear the music? Don’t they know not to walk down a long back-lit hall? Franz Ferdinand and Sophia died almost instantly. The fate of the adolescent assassin is not within the chronological scope of this book but it speaks to the world-historical import of what he did. Princip was instantly captured, but wasn’t executed because he was too young. Instead, he was sent to the Austrian fortress at Terezin, where he died miserably in April 1918. His prison is better known today as the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where visitors can see his cell and his manacles amid the detritus of the Holocaust that he did a great deal to make possible.

The rest of The Sleepwalkers gives a week by week and then day by day account of the way the many possibilities for peace, or at least for a limited war, had been reduced to none by 4 August. Contingency became necessity. Perhaps because I write this in the weeks after Yom Kippur, I think of the phrase ‘the gates are closing’: the general European war that no one imagined came to be written in the Book of History. Or to put it in more secular terms, history became literature. The difference between a fictional narrative and one purportedly disciplined by the real world is that the characters in the fictional world cannot do other than what they do. But the world of human action, and especially of national and international politics, is far larger than even the most peopled novel or tragic play and those who act on its stage make choices that aren’t predetermined.

The beauty of Clark’s final two hundred pages is in the care, intelligence and authority with which he explains how disaster happened; how the crisis in its many forms developed and options for action became ever more limited. The filigreed elegance of his narrative is lost in summary but I will give two examples.

On 6 July it seemed that the German state was speaking with a single voice; in response to Austrian entreaties, the kaiser and his chancellor promised to support Austria, assuring it that the German army was ready for whatever happened: this is the famous ‘blank cheque’ that is said to have hastened the coming of the war and revealed how eager Germany was for it. But there is strong evidence to suggest that Germany intended nothing of the sort. Or, to put it differently, that few believed the German cheque would be cashed, seeing it as an effort to limit to a local war any conflict that might follow from Austria’s quarrel with Serbia. The army made no plans for a general war; the kaiser believed the war would be localised. And in any case, no one believed that Russia would actually go to war over Serbia. It had capitulated to Austria in 1913 and it was assumed that the tsar wouldn’t appreciate the anti-monarchical inclinations of the Serbian terrorists any more than the kaiser did. The Germans had also failed to grasp the significance of the pro-peace Kokovtsov’s removal from the chairmanship of the council of ministers; like the British, they believed the pro-German party was in the ascendant.

Nor had anyone fully understood how much a quarrel over Serbian independence was, as the deconstructionists say, ‘always already’ a part of the thinking of the French-Russian alliance. And finally, if the Russians really wanted to use this occasion to go to war, better now than later. Germany had recently co-operated with Britain over the Balkans so there was little reason to believe that it would become involved. Under the constraints of a deep opacity risk came to seem safer than caution.

The second example is the Austrian ultimatum that was finally delivered to Serbia on 25 July after a great deal of diplomatic dithering and a long drafting process that might have ended in a very different document. The supposed outrageousness of points 5 and 6 is often said to have made compromise impossible and to have assured a wider Balkan, if not a world war. The first of these demanded that Serbia agree to allow organs of the imperial government to play a part in the suppression of anti-Austrian subversion within its boundaries; the second demanded that Austria have a direct role in investigating the criminal network behind the assassination. France, Russia and of course Belgrade took this as an outrageous attack on Serbia’s inviolable sovereignty and to be tantamount to a declaration of war.

The Austrian demand was, as Clark points out, a whole lot less of an infringement of Serbian sovereignty than the 1999 Rambouillet Agreement, which Henry Kissinger described as ‘a provocation, an excuse to start bombing’. It was less of a provocation, to say nothing of a direct assault on Serbian sovereignty, because the core problem – irredentism – didn’t respect national boundaries and it was unclear what direct role Serbia had in the 28 June plan, even if it was committed to the ideology that motivated it. Furthermore, once Pašić and his colleagues focused on the ultimatum they were inclined to avoid a war by acquiescing. It was Russia that urged resistance; it was only on receipt of a telegram revealing that Russia had ordered mobilisation that the tone changed, and even then the response was evasive rather than dismissive. Meanwhile, Poincaré, the French president, had been in St Petersburg, making sure that his allies there kept the German danger clearly in mind. And even after all this, there were further moments of indecision before the gates really closed. On 29 July in response to the famous ‘Dear Nicky’ telegram from the kaiser, the tsar could not bring himself to sign the general mobilisation order. Finally, on 30 July, he did. A last small chance at least to contain a war came with Germany’s decision to force an ultimatum on Belgium to allow it passage through its territory instead of just marching in; and with the British debate over whether to get into a war over Belgium whose result was by no means predetermined. But, finally, on 4 August, all of the ‘how’ pieces of the puzzle came collectively into place.

Only on the very last page does Clark offer a general explanation for the big story and this is the one place where I think he is wrong on a question that matters. ‘The protagonists of 1914,’ he concludes, ‘were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.’ There are three things wrong with this. First, the ‘watchful calculated steps’ that he has been chronicling don’t constitute sleepwalking. On the contrary, as he has shown on page after page. Second, the evidence that he offers for the general blindness of the time is nothing more than a gesture based on a self-congratulatory leading article in the Figaro on 5 March 1913, extolling the ‘horrific force’ of French arms and the nation’s medical organisation, ‘that we may confidently describe as marvellous’. I agree that it was easier to imagine away the horrors of what was to be a ‘conventional war’ than it would be in our nuclear age, and this may be the reason the arms build-up of the Cold War – the biggest war in world history – has had no climactic dénouement; it is a story of the dog that didn’t bark.

But to see the Figaro article as an instance of sleepwalking is to miss the important question of exactly why perfectly alert contemporaries imagined the course of the war as confidently as they did, and why they couldn’t see the evidence before their eyes that modern warfare would be horrendous. One can only make guesses. Perhaps the memory of how destructive the new technology had been in the Franco-Prussian War was lost in the repression that followed the Commune, while the Russo-Japanese War had shown that a defensive strategy could gain a big advantage over an offensive one – and the big story of that war was about navies, not foot soldiers. Why Europeans should have remained unaware that in the American Civil War hundreds of thousands of men had been mowed down as they crossed open fields against the fire of new and more accurate rifles is puzzling. But the history of the imagination is not a history of sleepwalking, whatever else it is.

Finally, the metaphor of sleepwalking elides a horrible truth about history that Clark’s book makes so poignantly. The 19th-century way of putting it was to say that the ‘owl of Minerva flies at dusk’. Walter Benjamin puts it in a more 20th-century sort of way:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.