The Sleepwalkers, Reviewed by Josh Doyle – Raso


The history of the genesis of the First World War has been addressed by countless historians due to its complex nature. Historians point to structural conditions, the attitudes of each state’s specific leaders, the prevailing ideologies of the time and the arms race, among other things, as the causes of the conflict. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, though it works with an immense collection of sources and accounts, presents a simpler explanation; the leaders and foreign policy makers of pre-War Europe simply did not realize the consequences of their actions and so continued to perpetuate volatile and inconsistent policy and discourse. His focus on diplomatic and other governmental decision-makers has benefited First World War by providing a more in-depth analysis of the personas in the diplomatic scene of pre-war Europe. Clark’s work presents its easy to understand thesis through an unchallenging literary style and the research that Clark has done, his interpretations of that research, and the methodology he uses to alleviate his sources’ limitations, especially state-managed archives, are very effective.

Merits as a Work of Popular History

Clark uses a narrative style full of description and character building, making The Sleepwalkers’ central arguments accessible to a non-academic audience. Despite the book’s length, Clark does not use lengthy paragraphs and his sentences are concise. Though the length may intimidate some, the content and writing in the book should not be a concern to a lay audience.

Clark’s narrative style could easily lend itself to the writing of a novel. He rarely uses complicated or obscure words and does not employ academic concepts or theories that a lay reader would not understand; instead, he uses colloquial and exciting language to draw the reader into the story and drive the narrative. For example, when writing about Bulgarian concerns over Macedonia, Clark writes that Bulgaria was “anxious to secure Salonika before the Greeks got their hands on it.”[1] The colloquial phrase “getting one’s hands on something” is not typically found in a serious work of scholarship, but it works well in this instance. It is a phrase that every English native speaker understands and so allows Clark’s point to be readily understood. Additionally, the phrase can convey children grabbing for the last morsel of some treat, which is true to the mood that Clark tries to evoke here.

Clark’s narrative style is found not just in the everyday nature of his language, but also in his descriptions. His writing effectively evokes settings and portrays historical figures as real life characters. For example, Clark provides a detailed background of Sir Edward Grey, the longstanding British foreign secretary, which includes his family upbringing, education and an account of his pastimes. He refers to Grey’s own notes as well as British and foreign writings about Grey and compares many accounts to distill Grey’s personality.

Clark’s literary style in The Sleepwalkers allows him to retain and appeal to an audience who might be intimidated by the size and detail of the book. It produces a narrative history, keeping the reader interested and desirous to read more.

Clark’s arguments are also easy to understand. He argues that the diplomats and policy makers of pre-war Europe acted as “sleepwalkers” and unknowingly led themselves into a world war. Rather than appealing to academic theories or using historical jargon, he consults the memoirs of relevant figures and compares them with contemporary newspaper accounts and official governmental documents. Further, his comparisons and analyses are explained in layman’s terms. Though his conclusion, that all the actors are culpable and no individual actor should be blamed, may not satisfy a reader who seeks a simplistic “good guy/bad guy” narrative, his methodology is sound. It is not a challenging task to understand the progressions that Clark makes throughout his book, and the conclusions that he reaches based on his evidence are well-grounded and easily understood.

Merits of Methodology, Research, and Interpretation

            Clark explains simply and clearly the methodological problem of working with state archives. Clark explains that any First World War historian is confronted by an oversupply of archival evidence. He advises that much of this information is suspect due to the politicized intent of state archives. For example, German archival collections attempt to dispel the “war guilt” thesis; French collections attempt to counteract this; and Russian archives portray the buildup to the First World War as an autocratic and bourgeois process that countered the interests of the working class. He also explains that the memoirs of many statesmen and other key decision-makers have been sanitized to remove any possibilities of guilt, or are simply extremely vague regarding the events prior to the War. He notes that even the memories of many of these figures, when interviewed by an American historian in the 1920s, were hazy, spotty, and surprisingly immune to self-doubt.[2] He also remarks on the secretive nature of many of the period’s diplomatic exchanges.[3] Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Clark researched state archives, decision-makers’ memoirs and newspaper articles extensively and intensively. It is evident that the depth and breadth of Clark’s research has benefited his book as it allows him to overcome the limitations of relying only on state-managed archives.

Clark’s recognition of state-managed archives’ shortcomings is a good first step to addressing the problem. His methodology is founded upon this recognition. For discerning the truthfulness of state-managed archives and filling the gaps found in many of the relevant figures’ memoirs, Clark consults as many sources as possible.  This strategy is effective for it allows him to compare sources which contain similar claims with slightly different information. For example, Clark used this method with success when attempting to ascertain the truth of reports that Serbian military forces were carrying out atrocities in 1913 occupied Albania.

Though the Serbian government denied these atrocities, Clark looks to messages from Austrian, British and even Serbian diplomatic officials that countered its claim. He writes that the Austrian Consul-General in Skopje reported on these atrocities, and that these reports mostly accorded with those provided by British regional officials. He points to messages the Serbian envoy in Vienna sent to Belgrade which stated that the French ambassador was concerned by the atrocities and that the Serbian envoy advised the Belgrade government that these complaints might have “very bad consequences.”[4] He also consults a Viennese newspaper article in which a Serbian minister was quoted as saying Serbia might be “forced to take measures on her own account” to deal with Albania-Serbia border troubles, though caused by Serbian atrocities.[5]

In instances such as this, consulting solely the Serbian sources might give the false impression of a government whose actions are misunderstood. Alternatively, consulting solely the British or Austrian sources would have revealed only the possible existence of these atrocities. By consulting Serbian and other sources, both governmental and media-based, Clark provides a more complete view of the issue and confirms the atrocities and sheds light on the Serbian government’s reaction.

Clark’s methodology has also allowed him deep insight into the relationship between states’ foreign policy and the domestic and world presses. By consulting these sources in order to confirm the factual basis of many events, he also discovered the personal opinions of statesmen and other decision-makers regarding the effect of public and press opinions. This section of the book is especially interesting because it is analogous to the current situation in many countries, in which extreme opinions are much louder than those of moderates. It is noteworthy that even early 20th century diplomats recognized that the press, especially nationalist or extreme press, could not be trusted to reflect accurately actual public opinion.[6] It is in examinations such as these where Clark’s effective interpretation of evidence is most obvious for the logic of the conclusions he draws from his research is apparent.

Take, for example, Clark’s examination of Russian foreign minister Sazonov’s view of the press. Clark examines statements given by foreign minister Sazonov. He writes that it was well understood that Sazonov “affected an attitude of contempt towards journalists and their opinions” but goes on to write about how Sazonov cleverly used the Russian press to make Russia’s intentions palatable to foreign powers. He cites a confidential Russian circular to its ambassadors in which Sazonov urged them to direct foreign officials to read Russian press to understand the domestic challenges faced by the Russian government.[7] If Clark had merely taken Sazonov’s public words at face value and failed to consult official documents that contradict those words, Clark would have failed to provide an insight into the character and actions of this key official. Clark reaches the conclusion that Sazonov, like many other decision-makers for whom Clark provides examples, understood the limitations and frustration of published opinion, but still utilized it as a tool to express foreign policy or discern the possibilities of another state’s foreign policy. It is through his careful research and transparent methodology that Clark is able to reach this conclusion without controversy.

In conclusion, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an accessible, if lengthy, account of the diplomatic tensions that led to the First World War. The methodology he employs is effective at redressing the issue of politicized state archives and sanitized official memoirs, while the language and styles employed in the book, as well as its relatively uncomplicated thesis, make his work accessible to a lay audience. Though the book is long and detailed, it would be a fascinating read for anyone, academic or not, with an interest in the First World War. It provides a simple and clear argument presented in an unintimidating fashion that is supported by excellent scholarship.


[1] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, (New York : HarperCollins, 2012) p. 253

[2] Clark, pp. xxiii-xxiv

[3] Clark, p. xxvi

[4] Clark, p. 113

[5] Clark, p. 286

[6] Clark, p. 229

[7] Clark, p. 265

One response to “The Sleepwalkers, Reviewed by Josh Doyle – Raso”

  1. Bernard Maftei says:

    I really enjoyed your review of Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. My main concerns with Clark’s work is that in attempting to summarize and simplify the history of World War I for the comprehension of the layman, he might have engaged in historical reductionism. In other words, by simplifying the historical narrative, the author might have omitted crucial details relating to the complex interplay of European political structures. In my opinion, your review would have benefited from adopting a more critical stance on the book’s appeal to a reductionist and simplistic approach.
    However, your incorporation of Clark’s archival analysis in your review provides a unique perspective on the limitations of historical analysis on politicians and political institutions. As you pointed out, politicians often utilize the media as a tool towards furthering their goals. The incorporation of Russian foreign minister Sazonov’s view of the press strengthens your argumentation and provides the reader with a concrete example.
    Overall, although I enjoyed your review, the incorporation of concepts taken from authors such as Hayden White (examining the author’s political inclination and it’s impact on the attribution of guilt) and Michel-Rolph Trouillot (the destruction of archives during wartime and the silences it produces) would provide more complete framework for your review. Lastly, the author’s claim that the policy makers of pre-war Europe acted as “sleepwalkers” is in accordance with Marc Bloch’s critique of historical determinism; the fact that historical narratives don’t always follow a linear trend immersed in causal determinism.

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