“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the First World War represented the sort of worst case scenario, the worst imaginable initial condition for the twentieth century,” said historian
Christopher Clark in a talk given at Georgetown on April 10, 2014. Author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Clark marks the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in his in-depth examination of the origins of the cataclysmic events of 1914 that led the world to war. His book was recently nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, is one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year, and is the focus of much public conversation in the United States and across Europe.
A Contemporary Question
The objective is to make a century old question contemporary; one hundred years after the fateful June day that saw the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Clark’s work draws striking parallels between the lead up to 1914 and the current international landscape. “The debate is old, but the subject is still fresh,” maintains Clark.
Tracing the events of June 28, 1914, he makes history feel contemporary. The day starts not with “prancing horses,” but with a motorcade. Cue the film of JFK in Dallas, 1963. It starts not with vast armies, but with “a squad of suicide bombers.” Cue the film of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, 2001.
Clark, who serves as Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge University, argues that the current international landscape more closely resembles that of 1914 than typically assumed. In a multipolar world with rising powers (China), angry declining powers (Russia), a weary hegemon (United States), and proliferating regional crises, “it’s a world that’s much less transparent, much more unpredictable, and I would suggest, much more dangerous and much more like the world of 1914 than…the world of bi-polar cold-war stability.”
Refreshing the Narrative
“It seems to me that 9/11 reminded us of the power of an event – the power of an event that is freighted with symbolism, and deliberately so.” Operating under the assumption that a single event, or string of events, is “capable of changing the chemistry of politics,” The Sleepwalkers demonstrates that, “actually, events do matter.” Furthermore, Clark utilizes what he argues is a novel approach to the events leading up to 1914.
In contrast to the vast body of work on the First World War that starts and ends attempting to answer the question “why did the war come about?”, Clark’s work begins by asking, “how did the war come about?”
Beginning by asking “how” instead of “why” forces Clark to trace the sequence of decisions that precipitated war, rather than the individuals making those decisions. This war “…had to be chosen. A decision had to be made…for this war to come about. And I didn’t want the people who were making these decisions to appear as the mere executors of anonymous forces over which they had no control and which they were powerless to resist.”
This lecture is part of The War to End All Wars 2014 lecture series, organized by Georgetown
Professors Anna von der Goltz and Peter C. Pfeiffer. “1914 Revisited: How Europe Went to War” was sponsored by the BMW Center for German and European Studies, the Department of German, and the Department of History at Georgetown University.