The Sleepwalkers

  • by Christopher Clark
  • Narrated by Derek Perkins
  • 24 hrs and 54 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

The Sleepwalkers is historian Christopher Clark's riveting account of the explosive beginnings of World War I. Drawing on new scholarship, Clark offers a fresh look at World War I, focusing not on the battles and atrocities of the war itself but on the complex events and relationships that led a group of well-meaning leaders into brutal conflict. Clark traces the paths to war in a minute-by-minute, action-packed narrative that cuts between the key decision centers in Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Paris, London, and Belgrade, and he examines the decades of history that informed the events of 1914 and details the mutual misunderstandings and unintended signals that drove the crisis forward in a few short weeks.
Meticulously researched and masterfully written, The Sleepwalkers is a dramatic and authoritative chronicle of Europe's descent into a war that tore the world apart.

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What the Critics Say

"For those who enjoy excellent scholarship joined with logical composition and an easy style of writing, save a (wide) spot on your bookshelf for Clark's work." (Kirkus)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Very interesting take on a complex problem

If you are really into political/diplomatic history, you will like this book. A more casual reader coming to the topic for the first time might be a bit overwhelmed by the length and detail. The narrator, who is British, does a very good job, including in pronouncing all the various names, place and foreign phrases, which usually is the key stumbling block in books of this type.

As the author notes, the origin of the First World War is one of the most complex and written about issues in political and diplomatic history. Depending on the era, historians and other have tried to answer such questions as: who was guilty for causing the war, and was the war inevitable due to structural factors of the political environment (rigid military alliance structures and war planning, militarist attitudes in Germany and other countries,for example) or was it largely due to contingent factors (chance events, interplay of personal factors among key actors, etc), which would imply that it could have been avoided.

The author's argument is a complex one that I won't summarize here, but, while acknowledging that structural factors were significant, he definitely comes down on the side of those who say the war could have been avoided. One valuable part of the book is that he goes into detail on the internal political maneuvers in each country and within the policymaking apparatus in each county. He notes that political shifts in each country often led to incoherent and shifting policy statements by each country, which made it difficult for the other countries to get a good read on what they were up to. He does this not only for the major powers, but also for Serbia, which you don't often see. His description of Serbia in 1914 reminded me of Serbia in the 1990s, and also of Pakistan from the 1980s to today.

Now on to a more controversial topic. The author claims he is not interested in the issue of war guilt. I suspect he is being disingenuous. I believe he comes down quite hard in blaming Serbia, Russia,France, and Britiain for primary responsibility for the war. He does this not by engaging in polemics against these countries or in favor of Germany and Austria, but by simply spending more time discussing the machinations of Serbia and the Entente powers, while spending less time on Germany. Paradoxically, this makes the book more interesting because most books on the subject do the opposite, perhaps with the opposite goal in mind. So you get insights on topics you might not normally see addressed. On the other hand, and maybe I'm too suspicious, I think he is being a bit sneaky here. When he does discuss Germany, he will offer a brief, bland acknowledgement of things he can't get out of (von Moltke's lust for preventative war, German militarism), but try to limit its impact by saying, it didn't have an impact on the policymaking process, other countries did the same thing, etc. Also he basically says that Austria had the right to deliver the ultimatum to Serbia and enforce it.

But in summary, I would say that this is a very valuable and worthwhile book to listen to, if you like this sort of thing a lot, even if you don't agree with all of his conclusions or even his approach in general
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- Steve

The cheerleading for Clark needs to stop.

Any additional comments?

It is encouraging to see that some criticism of the recent revisionist school of First World War responsibility represented by Clark has finally been surfacing after so much effusive glad-handing. Let me submit, however, that it will take a more comprehensive and wide-ranging critique to expose the fallacies of equality of responsibility with which Chris Clark, for all his many merits, has so effectively beguiled the field.

First, let it be said those merits are not thin: in some cases a more evenhanded telling of the crises that preceded the war; the resurrection of under-appreciated events like the Italian invasion of Libya; the focusing on the inner workings of the various European power centers; what should be the nail in the coffin of the assertion that the Serbian response to the Austrian ultimatumtl all but accepted its demands; a fuller appreciation of the desire of significant elements within the French and Russian governments for war under the right circumstances; proof that the July Crisis was not a calculated and long-planned German plot designed to bring about a preventive European war. All this coupled with vivid and adroit writing and some genuinely new and original research are not virtues to be discarded without admiration.

However, measured against that, in Clark's book The Sleepwalkers and his many stump speeches since promoting its thesis, there are essentially misdirecting rhetorical devices, omissions of events, and incomplete presentations of fact that have been used to understate German and Austrian recklessness and responsibility for this malign war and its baleful consequences.

To name a few: his artificial construct of asking how and not why the war came about in order to give a veneer of objectivity to his work and divert focus from factors that indicate greater German responsibility; his insistence that only others play the "blame game" when he does as well; his disdain for presentism while presentism underpins his work; his omission of events in Germany which undercut an understanding of the distinctive features of the German war plan and its determinative role; his use of already discredited assertions by Fritiz Fischer as a foil to highlight the supposed virtues of his thesis; his downplaying of the German-initiated naval race and his incomplete presentation of scholarship on it; his flawed analogies between circa 1914 events and relatively current ones to engender sympathy for German and Austrian actions; his failure to distinguish between affirmative and conclusive actions and responsive and inconclusive actions that led to war and the way the difference appropriately impacts war responsibility.

Yet, about the only thing even some of his cheerleaders have found difficult to swallow is his use of the sleepwalkers metaphor for his title. Even there they seem unaware of why he must have used it: true sleepwalkers are not blamed for their actions.

It would be my hope scholars within the field would start to explore Clark's failings "head-on" as well as his virtues. The signs are not good. The adulation and financial success that has greeted The Sleepwalkers seem to have swept much of the academy. Some who should be his critics seem almost giddy and overcome with envy when they speak of it.

However, perhaps the attractive complexity of the July Crisis and what Clark has rightly called its freshness for today will undermine this trend. We can only trust that what has been called the "long debate" is far from finished. Luigi Albertini wrote some seventy-five years ago, "the final, definite responsibility for the outbreak of the war lies with the German plan of mobilization, while the primary responsibility--and this must never to lost sight of--rests on the actions of the Central Powers who thought they could frighten the other Powers by their strength and thus 'localize the conflict,' but made a thorough miscalculation." It was true then. It was true 100 years ago. It is true today.

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- Norm Frink

Book Details

  • Release Date: 11-25-2014
  • Publisher: Tantor Audio