19.00: Christopher Clark
You would be forgiven for shrugging your shoulders on hearing there has been yet another book published on World War One. But with the centenary of its outbreak now less than a year away there will be plenty more to come. Therefore it was no surprise that Christopher Clark spent a large chunk of this event explaining why he has written Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.
Clark’s lecture, accompanied by slide-show, conveyed the basics: Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the geo-political context, and most importantly the impact of the Balkan wars of 1912-1914. He was an entertaining speaker, at one point launching into some impressive operatics to provide audio accompaniment to one of his slides. The key point to remember about 28th June 1914, he said, was that Europe was still at peace and, according to the best-informed statesmen, any conflagration on the continent was unlikely. Thirty seven days later this was irrefutably not the case.
In 1991 American historian John Langdon estimated there were 25,000 articles and books on the origins of the First World War. Clark gave four categorical reasons why he felt he needed to add to this. First, a historiographical reason. He noted that Fritz Fischer’s ‘psychopath in the park’ hypothesis – which pinned the blame solely on Germany for disrupting a quiet European picnic – is too simplistic. Instead of asking ‘why’ , Clark wanted to ask ‘how’ the war came about: which were the political decisions that led to war? Second, to stress new patterns of emphasis, most notably the Italian attack on Libya in 1911. Without this invasion the Balkan conflict may not have arisen. The third reason was to take account of new trends in literature that looked at the globalised aspect of the war. The fourth was to take advantage of under-exploited sources, most notably the Belgian envoy reports from St.Petersburg, Paris and Berlin.
Emphasising the ‘raw modernity’ of the Great War, Clark drew similarities between the world now and at the beginning of the 20th century. The events of September 11th 2001 have also proved the power of a single event to change history. With reference to this, he quoted Princip: ‘I want to burn like a torch for my people’.
Clark’s claim that the Great War was ‘perhaps most complex crisis of any time ever’ was a strange note to end his lecture on, especially for a historian determined to avoid simplistic statements. How do you measure the complexity of the world?