The question of how Europe stumbled into the horrific abyss of  the First World War, the catastrophe which The Economist once called ‘the greatest tragedy in human history’ is obviously of much more than purely academic interest. (Though it is chiefly academics who have been arguing about it ever since). As we approach the centenary of the conflict’s outbreak, one of them, Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, has written a magnificently detailed study of the diplomatic dance that led the continent up to and over the edge. The Sleepwalkers should be required reading for politicians and decision-makers fumblingly steering the world in our own age, an epoch perhaps even more dangerous than the era of 1914.

As Clark repeatedly emphasises, the literature on the war’s origins is immense and would take much more than a single historian’s lifetime to digest thoroughly, although the indefatigable Clark has made a pretty good fist of having done so. Hardly had the guns stopped firing when the combatant nations turned the battles of shot and shell into a new war of words. All of them published multi-volume official histories and white papers clamouring to justify their role in the war. Germany alone published almost 16,000 documents in 57 varieties of volume, dealing with 300 separate subject areas relating to the war. Interestingly, however, none of the official apologia issuing from Berlin included the smoking guns revealing how the war was actually the result of design, rather than accident – and a design with Made in Germany written all over it.

It was left to a straggle-bearded, bespectacled Jewish revolutionary, Kurt Eisner, a coffee house anarcho-socialist who found himself the unlikely leader of a red revolution in Munich – of all places – as Germany collapsed in 1918 to blurt out at least part of the truth about Germany’s role in the events of 1914. Propelled, blinking, into power, the idealistic Eisner, in the short time before he was gunned down by an outraged nationalist, arranged for the publication of secret papers he had found when he got his hands on the Bavarian state archives, proving that Germany had been quite prepared – indeed happy – to use the Austro-Serbian crisis of July 1914 to launch a pre-emptive strike against France, before turning the full might of its aggressive war machine upon France’s ally Russia. (Keeping fingers firmly crossed that Britain, as it had during the century since Waterloo, would stay out of a continental conflict).

Eisner’s confirmation of Germany’s ‘war guilt’ earned him a death sentence from a frenzied German Right and was drowned out in the subsequent self-pitying campaign against the war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty whipped up by the Nazis. So successful was this campaign of denial – not only in Germany but in the wider world, especially Britain – that the dominant, accepted narrative about the origins of the First World War was what we might call the ‘We were all guilty’ thesis: the idea that the conflict had been the result of rivalry between two European power blocs, leading to an arms race and an inevitable explosion. Essentially, it is this thesis of a Europe blindly stumbling into war more or less accidentally which Christopher Clark so eloquently reasserts.

In the long interim between Eisner and Clark, however, this thesis was comprehensively demolished, and once again by a German. In 1961 the historian Fritz Fischer published his seminal study ‘Deutschland’s Griff Nach der Weltmacht’ (literally ‘Germany’s Grab for World Power’ though the abridged British translation bore the far blander title ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’). For the first time, Fischer opened archives in both West and East Germany to prove that Germany had used the crisis triggered by the pistol shots in Sarajevo quite deliberately to spark a war. Irresponsibly, indeed monstrously, Germany’s ruling elite, urged on by its unstable and bombastic Kaiser, had gambled with the lives of millions to engineer a conflict that it hoped to win in weeks. As we know, things did not quite turn out like that.

Fischer was furiously assailed by Germany’s ultra-conservative historical establishment as a ‘Marxist’ and even a ‘traitor’ for demonstrating the culpability of Wilhelmine Germany so conclusively, and showing that Hitler’s road to war, far from being one madman’s aberration, was merely a continuation of traditional German foreign policy by more robust means. Despite the attacks on Fischer’s integrity, the evidence for his thesis was so overwhelming that it gradually found acceptance among virtually all serious historians of the period, both outside Germany and within it, where, according to one of Fischer’s followers, Imanuel Geiss; ‘The old innocence thesis from 1914-60 is dead. The retreat to the position of “we-all-slithered-into-war” is finally blocked. The predominant part of the German Reich in the outbreak of the First World War and the offensive character of German war aims is no longer debated and no longer deniable’.

To be fair, Clark does not deny it. He gets around the tricky question of German war guilt by the novel expedient of virtually ignoring it throughout almost all the 700 pages of his mighty tome. But when he finally deigns to notice Fischer and Geiss in his conclusion they are swatted away like irritating insects, on the surprising grounds that responsibility for the war is neither here nor there: ‘Do we really need to make the case against a single guilty state, or to rank the states according to their respective share of responsibility for the outbreak of war?’ Clark asks rhetorically, inviting the answer ‘No’. But I would answer with a resounding ‘Yes!’. Historians are not shy about saddling Hitler’s Germany with prime responsibility for causing World War Two, so why should they shrink from pointing the finger at Wilhelmine Germany for the outbreak of World War One?

Clark is, as his brief author’s biography makes very clear, such a Teutonophile that I am surprised that he doesn’t deliver lectures to the Cambridge History Faculty wearing a Pickelhaube. He also holds the ‘Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany’, although he doesn’t say whether this comes encrusted with diamond clusters and oak leaves. Clark even makes the case for Tirpitz’s aggressive expansion of Germany’s High Seas Fleet to challenge the Royal Navy – while admitting, a trifle wistfully I felt, that it never had a hope of success. In short, there is nothing here that would have displeased a denizen of the Kaiser’s Wilhelmstrasse – Germany’s equivalent of Whitehall – and it all fits very neatly into Germany’s traditional plea that all countries were equally guilty of launching the world war.

Equally guilty? Well, not quite. The nation at the heart of Clark’s narrative is not mighty Germany but a tiny, landlocked Balkan state, which had recently freed itself from centuries of domination by Ottoman Turkey, only to come under the palsied grip of the new sick man of Europe: the decaying empire of Austro-Hungary. If any country did in the old European order, in Clark’s view, it was this one: conveniently newly demonised all over again for its part in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, step forward into history’s dock little Serbia.

Clark’s case is a persuasive one. In his opening chapters he presents a brilliantly intimate portrait of Belgrade politics at the dawn of the 20th century as half comic operetta – Lehar’s The Merry Widow for choice – and half gangster soap – The Sopranos, say. In vividly telling detail, and gruesome vignettes, he demonstrates that Serbia was a near-barbaric gangster state whose officer class, to Europe’s horror, had just demonstrated their standards of civility by hacking to pieces their unpopular monarchs King Aleksandr and Queen Draga in a slaughter that would have put the worst French revolutionaries to shame. (I owe to Clark the grisly detail, first encountered by me in a Dennis Wheatley novel read in childhood and dismissed then as fiction, that one of the officers concerned carried round Draga’s severed breast in a suitcase, presumably producing it as a conversation piece at parties).

A secret society established by these savage regicides, the melodramatically named Black Hand, armed and financed the idealistic young Bosnians who shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, touching off the terrible sequence of events exploited by Berlin which brought the old order crashing down and ushered in the new age in a storm of steel that no-one had intended. Although I feel that Clark lets his German friends off rather too lightly for the lion’s share of responsibility for subsequent disasters, even dragging poor, well-meaning Sir Edward Grey into the dock alongside them, there is no gainsaying that this is a superbly written book, alive with telling insights, dramatic scenes and sparkling pen portraits of the protagonists. The whole demonstrates huge learning and a grasp of the sources that is truly breathtaking. Rarely for an academic, Clark writes like an angel too, and if I were in the dock of history like the Kaiser, it’s him I would choose to defend me.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark (Allen Lane. £30.00.697pp)

Nigel Jones is writing a study of 1914 for Head of Zeus publishing

Tags: First World War, Germany, History, Non-fiction, Serbia