Tuesday, October 21, 2014


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Interview: Historian Christopher Clark On World War I's Lessons For Today

Would the world have gone to war if Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip hadn't assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914?
Would the world have gone to war if Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip hadn't assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914?

Christopher Clark's book on the outbreak of World War I, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914," has been called a masterpiece" by "The New York Times" and become a best-seller in several European countries. 

RFE/RL correspondent Dragan Stavljanin interviewed the Australian-born academic, who teaches modern European history at the University of Cambridge.

RFE/RL: If the Sarajevo assassinations of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife hadn't taken place on June 28, 1914, could World War I have been avoided? Many historians say that sooner or later there would have been some kind of conflict. What is your view?

Christopher Clark: If these assassinations had not occurred, Franz Ferdinand would have returned alive to Vienna with his wife. Now, he was not a very nice person, but he was someone who had absolutely consistently argued against any kind of military adventures in the Balkans, in particular against Serbia. He didn't like the Serbs, he was quite racist about all the Balkan peoples, as most Western Europeans were at this time, but he was not in favor of any kind of "kraftstueckle" as he called them, power plays, in Serbia. So, he would have continued to argue against any kind of policy of provocation or a military solution to the issues between Belgrade and Vienna. 

We also know that he was just about to sack Conrad von Hoetzendorf, who really was a pathologically aggressive and belligerent general, the chief of the Austrian General Staff, who had argued for a war with Serbia over 20 times. Now he'd argued so often for this that people had stopped listening to him. He was a genuinely dangerous figure. Now, Franz Ferdinand was about to sack him, because the two men had a lot of differences between them and the differences were mounting up. [Von Hoetzendorf] had just ruined his own reputation by allowing the Redl scandal to occur -- you know, Colonel Redl selling the entire mobilization schedule to the Russians, who were blackmailing him because he was homosexual. 

All of that happened right under Conrad von Hoetzendorf's nose. Many contemporaries observed that von Hoetzendorf was really a dead man by the time 1914 came around. He had lost his power and he was about to be sacked by Franz Ferdinand. Along comes the assassination and it does two things: it kills the most lively and powerful voice for peace and it elevates the prestige of the most dangerous and hawkish voice, Conrad von Hoetzendorf.

RFE/RL: But what about all the underlying issues that led to the war? Was there not a lot of conflict building up in the system anyway?

Clark: Let's imagine there is no war. There still has to be a solution -- at some point in the 20th century we have to solve the Polish question, at some point we have to solve the South Slav question, so there was still going to be conflict and there would still have been [something]. 

You know, the Austro-Hungarians may well have entered a phase where they either might have solved the question by finding solutions which were satisfactory to the nationalities that they hadn't found before, or by trying to shut down nationalist irredentism and failing and so on, but it would not necessarily have come to a European conflagration of the kind that broke out -- that's the key point. 

RFE/RL: During July 1914, following Franz Ferdinand's assassination, tensions steadily mounted, leading to the outbreak of World War I by the end of the month. In your view, who was most responsible for getting Europe to the point of no return?

Clark: In the end, we're looking at a Europe inhabited by great powers, each of which was, in a very egotistical and autistic way -- without respect, really, to the interests of the others -- pursuing its own interests and each of which was willing, for the sake of the pursuit of its own interests, to take the risk of a major conflict.

RFE/RL: But could we speak in terms of who was most responsible? Was it Germany?

Clark: A friend of mine asked me this the other day. He said, "Let's draw up percentages of responsibility" and he wanted it divided up between Germany and France and Russia and so on. I think if we are looking at the July crisis itself and it was a crisis provoked by the assassinations, then I think the "Blank Check," [eds: Germany's open-ended offer of support to Vienna] I would put that at the top of the list. 

The next one is the Russian mobilization. I think the Austrian declaration of war has to come fairly high up as well. In the end I would be apportioning the responsibility fairly evenly. 

But the thing is, it's not just about the July crisis. The July crisis occurs after the assassination, but by the time the assassination occurs the Balkans is already very seriously stirred up and the international situation is already very unstable and the peace is very fragile. 

The reasons for the fragility of peace, those reasons are very complex and they also have to do with great power manipulations. Why are the French paying the Russians? Why did the French in autumn 1913 agree to pay the Russians the largest loans in the history of finance? These are the largest international loans ever, and whose purpose is to grow a vast Russian Army of 2.8 million men with quadruple strategic railway lines leading to the German front. That's not a very good way of keeping the peace.

RFE/RL: After Napoleon's defeat in the 19th century, a relatively stable balance of powers was established for a time in Europe, then came the rise of Germany, and as we can see in the international world order today, when you have rising powers and some powers which are in decline, you can have a geopolitical situation that is fraught with uncertainty. Do you see parallels to the world today?

Clark: This is what's so disturbing about 1914 for today, that we are in a world which is very like the world of 1914, more and more so. When I first read about all this, when I first studied the subject, we were in a very different world, the world of the Cold War -- in the 1970s, when I was first reading about this at school.... In that world, 1914 seemed like Ancient Egypt; it seemed so different, this multipolar world of rising and falling powers and so on. 

But now we've got exactly that situation. We've seen in the last few weeks, the Ukrainian crisis has revealed the complete incapacity of the EU to form a shared view on these sorts of questions. My own view -- and in this I see a parallel with 1914 -- is that the causes of this crisis don't simply lie in [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's power plays, but that this a complexly caused crisis. And I don't want to assign blame, but I think the actions of the EU also helped to destabilize the situation in Ukraine.

RFE/RL: Balancing the forces of nationalism in a multiethnic state can be a challenge. Serbs and others in the Balkans are still arguing about whether the breakup of Yugoslavia was a good or a bad thing. Do you have a personal view on empires and federations versus nation-states?

Clark: I must say I used to like Yugoslavia  I was also in favor of Czechoslovakia. I'm also in favor of Great Britain. I think the Scots should not go away from England. I believe in these federal solutions, I think they're wonderful. You could easily imagine fitting Yugoslavia into the EU. You can still do that with the Balkans, I'm very much hoping that Serbia will become a full EU member. 

But the point is that I think these federal structures are good for human beings, for human flourishing. I think that the nation-state, by and large, has not been very good for human beings. it certainly hasn't been very good for the Germans, it hasn't been very good for the people who've had to live near to the Germans when the Germans got restless and decided to exterminate everyone else. It just hasn't been a very good solution for Europe's political affairs.

RFE/RL: What lessons can we draw from World War I today?

Clark: We mustn't be confident that we will see the next war coming 18 months in advance and have plenty of time to try and avoid it. It's not necessarily going to be like that. You know, we saw in the Ukraine crisis -- just think of how rapidly the relationship between Russia, the EU, and the United States has been transformed by the Ukrainian crisis.  It's a few months  The situation in the west Pacific  in the China Sea -- we've seen a deterioration now in relations with Vietnam because of the ramming of several Vietnamese frigates by Chinese ships. That situation could deteriorate very drastically, very, very fast. 

So I suppose one of the lessons of the book is that bad stuff can happen very fast and we need to be extremely vigilant and we need to focus not so much on recognizing that a war is coming in advance, but even before those signs appear, on building structures that can avoid naked, armed conflict.

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