joi, 20 noiembrie 2014

The Sleepwalkers - How Europe went to war in 1914

I am always amazed at how decisions taken by a handful of powerful figures can alter the course of humanity. The story of how the First World War started in 1914 fits perfectly in the setting of the early 20th century Europe, when great monarchies struggle to manage vast empires. The Austro-Hungary Empire appears as the main character in the story, with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on the 28th June 1914 igniting a diplomatic and military mobilization. Another important role is played by Serbia, which foster the terrorist movement for the unification of all Serbs and was responsible for the assassination.

Christopher Clark brilliantly presents the course of events that lead to the murder of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, while detailing the background conflict between alliances forged in the pre-war wars. Great Britain’s alliance with both France and Russia allowed her to maintain vast colonies in Asia and Africa, while not endangering its North African stronghold from France and Germany military advances. On the other hand, the Russian Empire wanted to obtain control in the Bosporus straight and also suzerainty over the newly formed Balkan states: Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Serbia. Germany was advancing both technologically and economically in the world stage and this enabled the empire to provide assistance for African States in the independence struggle against France and Great Britain. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was ethnically too vast to be united and also employed a slow bureaucratic system that would prove to be a premise of its demise.

When you read about these economic and political subtleties, you cannot stop and be amazed with the way in which the emperor and kings played such an important role in both maintain peace and also engaging in war. Austrian-Hungarian Empire was portrayed by the international press as an oppressor of the newly independent Balkan states and as a dying empire, with Germany as the main supporter for its external policies.

The book is a monumental work on how the First World War broke in the summer of 1914, and after reading it I gained more knowledge about the intricate political work of empires and states. The external affair cabinets were powerful in dictating directions for alliances and the influence with which the ministers exerted this is astounding. Even though I cannot claim to understand all the reasons for which Europe engaged in a global war, it is clear that all the key decisional figures were ready and anticipating the war as necessary for the establishment of new order. Looking back through the lenses offered by knowing past events it is hard to imagine how such a war was necessary. Sadly it happened and was the deadliest conflict in human history. 100 years later it is necessary to understand how WW1 started, in the hope of preventing such catastrophes from ever happening again.