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The “very modern” crises of 1914

~ NNA series: The upheavals of the First World War ~

Von: NA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner
2014 sees the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, often referred to as “The Great War”. It is already clear that the general public have a keen interest in everything relating to the war, its causes and dramatic consequences. Accordingly, NNA is publishing a series of reports on this theme. A best-selling book by Australian historian Professor Christopher Clark - “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” – is concerned with the origins of the war. NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner went to hear a lecture by the author, and her account below launches our series. MAINZ (NNA) – “But in our lives there was nothing to return to: nothing remained of our past, no echo came back from it. We were destined to be caught up in a dire crescendo of things history otherwise only sparingly inflicts on a single country, a single century…” In his book “The World of Yesterday”, Stefan Zweig paints a striking picture of the radical changes that the outbreak of the First World War brought with it for Europeans. His generation, he said, had “ploughed through every conceivable kind of catastrophe”. Set adrift from steady employment, homeland, the past and all previous stability, it seemed to this author that his generation, which in childhood had experienced the world, and the empire, as a “place of safety”, had been catapulted into the void. Experts and historians are currently astonished that this catastrophe of the early twentieth century has kindled such public interest as the centenary comes round. Why has it? The demand for tickets to attend Professor Christopher Clark’s lecture in Mainz was so great that the regional office for political education had to commandeer the City Hall’s large auditorium, and even then there was not space for everyone. Dangers of a multipolar world In his introduction, Clark described the crisis in July 1914, with the attack on the Austrian Crown Prince in Sarajevo that started the war, as “very modern”. In 2001, similarly, the world had experienced the “transformative power of an event” in the attack on the World Trade Center. “These events actually brought the 1914 situation closer to us, made them less distant,” said the historian – who, having lived in Berlin in his student days, speaks excellent, unaccented German. Likewise, recent events in the Balkans, specifically the inconceivable horror of the Srebrenica massacre, had sensitized the world to the “sometimes murderous energy” of nationalism in that region where the war originated. The current geopolitical situation, Clarke continued, also has greater affinity with the situation in 1914 than, say, the Cold War period: “We now live,” he said, “in a dangerously multipolar world which has succeeded the relative bipolar stability of the Cold War era.” Who was to blame for the war? Clark, who teaches at Cambridge University, examines the systemic causes of the war in his book. Who was to blame for the war is, he says, a question “older than the war itself”. Looking back now through the lens of the Nazi era and the Holocaust, the First World War appears in retrospect to have been only one stage on the journey towards catastrophe. Academic discourse has for a long time been dominated by discussion about Germany’s singular path into the modern era; but this debate has been “heavily morally weighted” in a way that “must be seen as the very opposite of unprejudiced insight”, said Clark. In his research, the historian has countered efforts to allocate blame by compiling a panorama of events, participants and their own testimonies, seeking to reconstruct the complex pieces of the jigsaw into a whole picture of the war’s origins. In Clark’s opinion, for instance, the role of Serbia has been marginalised in previous research and in the nearly ten thousand books written about the war’s causes. Drawing on various transcripts of discussions between politicans in affected countries such as the Entente powers of France and Russia, Clark presented his audience with diverse aspects of the communiqués which – despite all the different perspectives of those involved – had one thing in common: in words and thoughts they all anticipated the war as an unavoidable event. This was true of the prime movers in governments of all the countries involved in the conflict. A political solution was not considered. In subsequent discussion with the audience, Clark stressed that “Austria made a knee-jerk decision to enter the war. It is astonishing that so little risk analysis was undertaken”. As a major power, Austria had seen no alternative to mobilising its forces against Serbia, although neighbourly collaboration to investigate the murder of the Crown Prince and his wife could have led to a different outcome. In all participants Clark also detects a certain view of manhood, along with a somewhat inflexible stance in the politicians concerned, which closed the door on possible peaceful solutions: “An earlier generation of politicians – people such as Bismarck or Carvour – would not have responded so rigidly to the crisis.” Sleepwalkers Responding to audience questions, Clark dismissed the thesis that economic interests had been a cause of the conflict: “That was not decisive, the causes were neither economically nor strategically motivated.” Germany’s economy had been experiencing an upsurge at the time, and the start of the war in fact interrupted this. Common to all participants, said Clark in summary, was a failure to look carefully at what was happening or to draw the proper conclusions, and it was this, among other things, that moved the author to choose the title of “Sleepwalkers” for his book. All protagonists had however been aware that the war would not be confined to a small scale but would lead to widespread slaughter. Asked by his audience how, in the light of his research, he considered such a war could be avoided today, Clark pointed primarily to regional crises. As an Australian, he said, he was particularly worried about the East China Sea, a dangerous zone where unyielding positions on all sides were repeatedly leading to escalation. Clark also drew a parallel with the situation in Europe, a crisis culminating as he finished the last chapter of his book. While there had been general awareness of the nature of the crisis, here too it had not proven possible to overcome national self-interest and egotism. Systemic view In his review of Clark’s “Sleepwalkers” in H-Soz-u-Kult, an online academic journal, Jost Duelffer praises Clark’s study of documentary sources in particular: “No other historian has so closely studied archive sources, research literature, and later testimonies from participants, to ‘map’ mindsets and outlooks – diverse even within each country – of such a large number of those involved, and shed light on their daily actions.” Clark’s fluent, unpretentious and empathic style, he says, enables the reader to feel his way right into “the mentality of this era, which was after all very different from ours”. In relation to the German Reich, to which a whole generations of historians have ascribed sole blame for the outbreak of war – as set in stone, too, in article 231 of the Versailles Treaty – Clark’s book offers a markedly different perspective. However, its reviewer does not consider this the reason for the book’s great success in Germany: “This does not seem … very plausible, since it has become an accepted international standard (amongst historians) to seek a systemic view of Europe as a whole society of nations, both now and into the future, and to highlight the overall dynamic between them.” Alert to contemporary needs The “catalogue of terrors” unleashed by the First World War includes around nine million dead and 20 million wounded soldiers, many of them cruelly maimed, six million civilian victims, four empires laid waste, and a ruined Europe collapsing into a global financial crisis that in turn allowed National Socialism to come to power, with all its devastating consequences for the whole continent. Among its victims must also be counted the writer Stefan Zweig who wrote the words quoted to begin with. He could not cope with the upheavals to which his generation was exposed. Zweig wrote the foreword to the book which analyses these incisive changes, “The World of Yesterday”, in exile in Brazil in 1944, the year he committed suicide. He states there that he was a “defenceless, powerless witness”, and testifies to the “unimaginable collapse of humanity into a barbarianism it was thought to have long outgrown.” Given our current, multipolar political situation, and the impossibility of keeping track of all that is happening in the age of globalization, Clark’s book is a warning not only to the political protagonists but to everyone in civil society to be alert to contemporary needs and maintain the greatest possible presence of mind in relation to unfolding events. END/nna/ung/mb Bibliography: Christopher Clark: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Harper, 2013 Stefan Zweig: Die Welt von gestern. Erinnerungen eines Europäers. Frankfurt, 1997 Item: 131231-01EN Date: 31 December 2013 Copyright 2013 News Network Anthroposophy Limited. 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