Causes of First World War explored by Cambridge historian

A century after the First World War, the cause of this great global conflict is still up for debate, writes Matthew Price

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christopher Clark
Allen Lane

The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is approaching. The Second World War may have killed more people, but the Great War was arguably the transformative event of the 20th century. It destroyed several empires, created the modern Middle East, maimed a generation of young men, brought new and frightful weapons onto the battlefield - gas, tanks, the airplane - and ushered in an era of violent upheaval across the globe. One can argue how straight a line you can draw between the two conflicts, but if there was no First, no Second would follow.

A century on, the causes of the war are still very much up for debate. The literature on the subject is truly vast, but it's amazing that the fevered output of generations of scholars has created little consensus about, what, exactly, led a Europe at peace into a catastrophic conflict. Germany has reaped a lion's share of the blame for plunging Europe into war, and for issuing the infamous "blank cheque" to Austria-Hungary to avenge the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was shot in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb.

This was the war's proximate cause. Austria-Hungary would declare war on Serbia a month later, setting into motion a cascade of mobilisations by Russia, Germany, France, and Britain. As for the long-term factors that propelled Europe into war, historians have looked to militarism, nationalism, the arms-build up, diplomacy, psychology and codes of masculinity and honour, to explain why the First World War happened. It's an impossible question to answer satisfactorily.

The Cambridge historian Christopher Clark is the latest to try his hand. The author of an acclaimed history of Prussia, Clark is keen, as his subtitle states, to explain how Europe went to war. He is sceptical of broad "remote and categorical causes" such as nationalism, but his approach is provocative, even if his argument leaves itself open to some pointed questions. Pinning the blame on Germany is too reductive, but Clark downplays its role in the rush to war to an almost startling degree. Germany is almost a ghostly presence. He is right to look elsewhere - Russia, for example, which was the first of the belligerents to mobilise - but Clark muddles the issue of German culpability.

The Balkans was the spark, but Clark puts even more stress on the region's centrality. "The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it came the First World War, " Clark writes. Readers may find themselves bewildered in the book's opening section, which takes us deep into the thicket of Serbian politics. "Plucky little Serbia," Clark argues, was actually a deeply destabilising presence in pre-war Europe, a violent, near lawless country that had witnessed the brutal murder of its own king by a cabal of regicides. Many government officials had shadowy links to Serb terrorist groups who harboured dreams of a greater Serbia. (Echoes of the 1990s.) It remains a matter of debate how much official Serbia aided Princip, but Clark suggests the links between the assassin and Belgrade were hardly tenuous.

Instead of looking to bloodless abstractions such as nationalism and militarism, Clark attends to the short-term shocks evident in the geopolitical system in the years immediately prior to 1914. The author subjects these events to a painfully close reading. In 1911, the Italians struck at the Ottoman Empire, taking the African provinces that are now Libya. A year later, a loose coalition of Balkan powers - Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria - fought a bloody war with the Ottomans (the First Balkan war), nearly pushing Turkey out of Europe altogether. (A second Balkan war followed, as Serbia and Greece turned on Bulgaria.) Another instalment in Europe's vexatious "Eastern Question," these conflicts marked a crucial development. During the 19th century, Britain had stood with the Ottomans as a check on Russia, who had designs on the Turkish Straits. No longer. Germany would soon stand in Britain's place as Turkey's ally, setting off alarm bells in Russia.

Adding to this combustible mix was the state of European alliances. Between the 1880s and 1914, Europe went from a multi-polar system to a bi-polar continent of two camps, The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy), and The Entente Powers (Russia, France, Britain). On the face of it, it was quite absurd that Britain found itself allied to Russia, its antagonist for much of the previous century. As Clark stresses, there was nothing inevitable about the First World War. Once, Austria-Hungary and Russia had worked together to resolve Balkan tensions. But in 1908, Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia, "devastating what remained of Austro-Russian readiness to collaborate on resolving Balkan questions." Russia saw itself as the protector of Slavs, and claimed the Balkans as a sphere of influence; it also coveted the Dardanelles to ensure its ships access to and from the Black Sea.

At the same time, France drew ever closer to Russia. The French, ever suspicious of German power after the devastations of the Franco-Prussian War, looked for partners to check Germany. Enter Russia. But the alliance merely drew France (and Britain) into the Balkan morass, Clark argues. "By the spring of 1914, the Franco-Russian Alliance had constructed a geopolitical trigger along the Austro-Serbian frontier. They had tied the defence policy of three of the world's greatest powers to the uncertain fortunes of Europe's most violent and unstable region." The stage was set.

Clark calls the month following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand "the most complex and opaque political crisis of modern times." And indeed it was. Even with all the plethora of sources in French, Russian, German, and Serbian, explaining the path to war is a trying task for a historian. Clark sees no grand designs at work; just a fumbling series of moves and countermoves by factions and lobbies within the respective governments in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, St Petersburg and Belgrade. Clark is surely right that the Austria-Hungarian case was just: the heir to the throne had been savagely murdered, and the empire deserved more than evasions and doublespeak it got from Belgrade. In light of the calamities Serbia endured during the war - no other belligerent would lose a higher percentage of its population - it is perhaps easy to overlook Serbia's brazenly insensitive response to the assassination.

But the weight of Clark's argument is that it compels a reorientation of vision about the events of 1914. He addresses, however briefly, the war talk of Austria-Hungary and Germany. Other historians will no doubt take issue with Clark's historiography. Yet he is indisputably correct in his contention that "the crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of shared political culture". For Clark, all of Europe was culpable: "there is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character." They all did it.

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.