Europe Before the First World War: What Were They Thinking?

Review – The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan

Amid a rash of volumes attempting to detail and explain the origins of the First World War, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace stand out. Both represent holistic, almost global attempts to analyse the various causes of the war; and both contain very thorough and very acute investigations into the character of the time before the continental conflagration broke out. MacMillan assessed European society before the war which nearly brought about its collapse, whereas Clark focuses on an analysis which takes in nation-states, alliances, diplomacy and the ever-present prospect of force (but these forces were not impersonal; as will be elucidated, much of European diplomacy in those days was built and conducted on the basis of personality and thoroughly personal reactions).

These books also present an insight into the grand and growing scope of historiography which surveys the war itself and that which led to its eventual shape and character. One of the most attractive and frequently examined questions in the whole of Western history is the great debate over what could truly be said to have caused the Great War.

Did war break out because of German aggression? This was often the major school of thought in Britain (especially when the two world wars were combined to create a kind of reverse Sonderweg: the ‘special path’ some German historians believed their nation had traced through history’s pages). Rather, was it the fault of the Russians? Was militarism – a favoured target for much of the 1920s and 30s, when a species of ‘new diplomacy’, exemplified by the League of Nations, attempted to do away with ‘power politics’ – the real cause? Or was the war down to nothing less than the systemic failure of European diplomacy? All of these are fascinating questions, but answering them straight off is not the historian’s role. Clark presents a very prettily-worded answer to the grand question, but it is not proscriptive, and it allows for a degree of intellectual movement and nuance which frustrated other historians of the period. His conclusion: ‘In this sense, the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.’

This sentence exemplifies a great strength of the two works. Both books do not suffer for trying to serve as a kind of universal history; though the works are themselves rather large, they are not and never seem to be tedious lists of events, names and correlations to the great many causes other scholars have already delineated. On the question of prose it must be said that both works are well-written and even elegant. They serve to repudiate the notion that academic writing has to be dull, and they do so in style. Both are also large books; both are scholarly and thoroughly researched and referenced; and both have achieved some success in terms of sales due to popular appeal. But popular is not the antithesis of scholarly. There is some snobbery, I think, among certain circles which implies that any book with narrative verve and above-average sales figures ought to be shunned on a matter of principle. These books trample such an observation.

It is that condition which gives both writers tremendous freedom; as they are not compelled to set to paper every event of interest, they are free to employ more unique examples, to examine mildly surprising avenues and, perhaps most importantly of all, to develop argument. It is the latter which makes reading both books such a pleasure. It is to be hoped that a somewhat different examination of the period in question can create a similar sensation.


Clark also paints a convincing picture of great upheavals in government. For centuries, he suggests, those who had ruled Europe had done so largely without consulting the will of the people; though many of the continental despotisms had fallen away in theory, actual governance was still the provenance of the elite. Largely while, male and in pre-existing positions of privilege, these rulers had latterly governed with all the self-confidence of those who knew that they had been born for the role. That fact, however, did not give those who ruled Europe in the pre-war years an overweening worldview entirely detached from the reality of the citizens and subjects they governed; in fact, many exhibited great conscientiousness about the pre-eminence their class afforded. Lord Lansdowne and Sir Edward Grey, both offspring of the British upper classes and both rather languid, aristocratic Foreign Secretaries, had a powerful sense of obligation at the heart of their public service. Andrew Roberts’ book The Holy Fox, a sympathetic biography of Lord Halifax, another deeply aristocratic Foreign Secretary, gives an insight into this attitude, which contained aspects of genuine elitism intertwined with an appreciation of duty; it was paternalistic and to a degree unenlightened, but it did prompt these men to go to great lengths in defence of their nations’ interests (though how positive an effect this attitude eventually had on the July Crisis which began the First World War is another question).

This attitude, however, was under threat from the forces of modernity. The press, a largely captive beast during much of the 18th and 19th centuries – witness, for example, the taxes successive British governments levied on newspaper production – was largely released from the pressure of following the government line. Educational and social advances, both of which worked to create a more literate, politically engaged population, coupled with this vast expansion in reading material to mobilise, and potentially to radicalise, the long-dormant political force of the lower classes. This created a great deal of anxiety among the rich and aristocratic; and this fear, tremendous as it was, transcended national boundaries, feeding insecurity into the worldview of the entire continent’s aristocracy. The power of the press was to be emphasised again – but in a very different way – when war arrived in Europe.


The press had a great deal to do with the upsurge in political literacy and participation among the lower orders, but it did not serve as a tool for their advancement and education in every instance. Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, which I have reviewed at length, contains a great deal on the ways in which the press was able to affect public mood upon the outbreak of world war. Ferguson identifies a ‘press gang’, which sought to use populist methods to sell the war. He notes that much of the British press remained unenthused about the idea of a war for Serbia until very late in the day; only when propaganda was centralised did the media in Britain become pro-war – and this swing in expressed opinion was tremendously consequential. Newsreels were carefully assembled to contain the right messages and shown to all cinemagoers; populist pamphlets were written with extraordinary speed and printed; newspapers published patriotic doggerel, much of which has – perhaps thankfully – faded into obscurity in the intervening years.

It is essential to remember, too, that this was not a singularly British phenomenon. Writing in 1933, the German propagandist Eugen Hadamovsky declared: ‘The German people were not beaten on the battlefield, but were defeated in the war of words’. The French were able, largely through techniques such as those described above, to lessen the impact of a series of mutinies in 1917, which could (in the most extreme estimation) have forced the Republic to quit the war in its entirety.

This, Ferguson argues, was one of the reasons why the war persisted; without press support, he suggests, the war parties of the European powers would not have been able to sustain the fighting, and nor would they have been able to justify the strain and privation which the constraints of wartime economy forced upon a continent.

Clark advances a not entirely dissimilar argument. For him, too, the press represented an important force in the formation and creation of the eventual conflict; but it was the novelty of this new force as much as its fabled influence which led to conflict. The press in all participating countries did not distinguish themselves in the period immediately preceding war. The papers in each nation were routinely filled with grotesque and largely unfounded horror stories concerning the apparent savagery of other nations. To counter the visceral and seemingly omnipresent unpleasantness which shaped the political climate of pre-war Europe, ambassadors were (pace Clark) perpetually remonstrating with governments; all were vexed by the hostile tone employed by a great deal of foreign newspapers, and many were willing to go as far as demanding that other powers employ censorship to keep errant journalists in line.

None of this was helped by the nakedly sensationalist character of much of what was written at the time. In London Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) had acquired the Daily Mail (which was once dismissed by the impossibly grand Lord Salisbury as ‘written by office boys for office boys’) and was busily transforming it into a truly populist rag. His paper was at the forefront of many patriotic campaigns; it gloried in Britain’s military, and especially in its naval prowess – the Mail famously served as the vanguard of a campaign designed to increase the number of Dreadnoughts built by the Royal Navy. Its slogan: ‘We want eight and we won’t wait’.

Furthermore, the Mail also helped to popularise the short-lived genre of ‘invasion literature’; exemplified by The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux, this minor literary movement stoked the deepest of British fears: being superseded by a new, emergent power. That power could only have been Germany, with its powerful and growing industry and its burgeoning population. Much as the title suggests, ‘invasion literature’ thrived on tales of plucky Brits facing a German landing or thwarting a German occupation force. It all appealed to the proprietor of the Daily Mail, who seized upon the possibility of publicity with alacrity. As Robert K. Massie, the author of Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War, has it,

Lord Northcliffe launched The Invasion of 1910 with sandwich men in spiked helmets and Prussian blue uniforms parading down Oxford Street, their boards proclaiming imminent invasion. Each day thereafter, advertisements advised which towns would be invaded the following morning in the Daily Mail.

Such things were not simply the stuff of escapist fiction. There was a genuine and deep-rooted fear at the heart of the British psyche, and it was exacerbated by tracts such as Made in Germany by Ernest Edwin Williams, which suggested that Britain was being deluged by German-made consumer products and advocated strict protectionism. A contemporary Spectator review surmised that ‘This book is full of alarming reading’. (By no coincidence, Williams later became a leader writer for the Daily Mail.)


Another interesting aspect of journalism in pre-war Europe was the prevalence of pieces designed to convey the views not of individuals but of governments. These articles – which have been termed ‘inspired’, perhaps a little ironically, by historians – littered the pages of certain newspapers, especially those which were seen as a designated mouthpiece of those in power. The idea was not an entirely new one; Napoleon famously had a very close relationship with the editorial aspect of Le Moniteur, and he used its pages to disseminate all kinds of propaganda. But what was truly unique about this element of the pre-war situation was the proliferation both of individual publications and governmental points of view, all of which vied to have their own perspectives reflected in wider public discourse.

Discerning the official view of those in charge sometimes took a great deal of skill, and it served as a time-consuming diversion for some of the world’s most senior diplomats.  According to Clark, they ‘constantly sifted through the press looking for inspired pieces that might provide the key to thinking of this or that ministry’. But it was not easy work; most governments maintained many different organs, which each served to distribute inspired writing. Confusion reigned. It was, as Clark writes, sometimes ‘difficult to know for sure whether a specific article was inspired or not’. These articles certainly served to fatten diplomatic pouches, but they were often unhelpful. Many a piece was identified, picked apart and made its way to foreign capitals under the entirely mistaken assumption that it was inspired by another government and that its content was in some way an indication of state policy. In this way the culture of journalism in the early 20th century – no longer dependent upon government but not entirely free of its influences – could be said to have set the scene for world war.


MacMillan, too, puts deserved emphasis on the nature of much fin de siècle culture in Europe. She quotes Count Henry Kessler, a contemporary aristocrat with connections spanning every major nation which was later to participate in the continental slaughter. He is an apt choice, and in his words (though they were written in the 1930s, long after the events he describes) a great deal of the spirit of the age can be discerned.

Something very great, the old, cosmopolitan, still predominantly agrarian and feudal Europe, the world of beautiful women, gallant kings, and dynastic combinations, the Europe of the eighteenth century and the Holy Alliance was growing old and weak, dying out; and something new, young, energetic, and still unimaginable was in the offing. We felt it like a frost, like a spring in our limbs, the one with muffled pain, the other with keen joy.

Something new was certainly in the offing, and it was not, as Kessler identified, to be met with entirely unmixed emotions. At the same time, there was both great change and advance and conservatism of tremendous strength. Some of this manifested itself in new doctrines of self-possession and emotional restraint; in others it gave rise to the exact opposite. Those who subscribed heartily to the latter deserve some attention; they were tremendously vocal, and one of their number fired what are too often referred to as ‘the fatal shots’, which served, in a sense, to begin the war.

On the Continent, passionate youths engaged in duels; their more cerebral but no less passionate compatriots read Nietzsche. The 19th century had brought nationalism and Romanticism in equal measure, and the two combined to make a potent and attractive political combination for many. The young Serbians who risked death – and some of them even welcomed it, lusted for it – in the fight against Austria-Hungary were prominent inheritors of this cocktail.

Clark conjugates a particular good analysis of the Serbian situation in which he arrives at the conclusion that pre-war Serbia was a kind of proto-terror state (think an Iran or ISIS of the Balkans) – and many of its sons were ready and willing to fight and die for their fatherland. Gavrilo Princip, the eventual killer of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Dual Monarchy, was one of these young men. In a lecture I attended last year, Clark spelled out this connection more explicitly. Noting that one of the weapons smuggled into Bosnia and later used by Princip and his compatriots included primitive explosives, and that they all carried cyanide capsules, Clark declared that they were the suicide bombers of the early 20th century. While such a comparison could be dismissed as glib, it does seem to contain some truth. These young men – many of whom were really just boys – were inducted into a kind of suicide cult; they were supported by shady elements within the intelligence apparatus of a failing state (for a modern equivalent, witness the apparent double dealing and sponsorship of Islamist extremism within Pakistan’s military establishment); and they willingly carried out acts of terror for political ends, all the while spurred on by dark theology and a fetishism of the macabre.

Elsewhere, however, a more rational outlook abounded. Europe on the whole experienced unparalleled development in the years leading up to the First World War. And this development manifested itself in many different guises: economic progress, political reform, a certain decline in barbaric and obscurantist spirituality. New technology began to enter the ordinary lives of millions; the values of the Enlightenment, which asserted individual liberty, economic freedom and free inquiry in matters scientific and moral, began to achieve a new prominence. Among Europe’s elites, certainly, but also among the people, there was a strong and almost unprecedented sense of hope. Nothing exemplifies this newfound optimism more than the Paris Universal Exposition: an exhibition designed to showcase the merits of civilisation (and the portentous image with which MacMillan chooses to begin her narrative). All the major powers took part, contributing examples of their development to be examined by a curious Parisian public. In many ways, the Exposition was symbolic – but not in the ways its organisers had imagined. Rather than demonstrating the direction of travel for Western civilisation, and advertising a cheerful image of what the world was set to achieve in the future, it instead represents a kind of ironic high point: the high water mark of pre-war civilisation. It represents the moment at which Europe gleamed brightest – before it descended into a tremendous period of darkness, with a darkness so deep that it would not be vanquished for almost an entire century.


One of the most interesting suggestions of Clark’s book is the idea that the statesmen of Europe were in the middle of what he terms ‘a crisis of masculinity’, in which traditionally privileged groups found their traditional influence and importance coming into increasing conflict with the rise in status of others: namely, women and ethnic minorities.

An additional addendum to this school of thought is the idea that it was the very masculinity of those who ran Europe in the pre-war era that both sowed the seeds for and triggered the eventual continental conflagration. That ‘hyper-masculinity’ caused the war itself is of course a fallacy, thoughd it is fascinating to see the ways in which this affected both the formation of policy and the individual emotions of those at the helm of great ships of state during that tumultuous time. Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War, for example, paints a tragic picture of the last days of peace; in his telling, politicians force themselves to work harder, to sleep fewer hours – all of it in a bid to do their patriotic duty. He describes an entire diplomatic system which by the end is built upon sleepless nights and shattered nerves: one moment the Kaiser orders champagne for all; seemingly minutes later his Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, is reduced to tears by the inflexibility of his own German war plans.

There are flaws with this analysis, however. McMeekin himself dismissed Clark’s suggestion as a ‘jargon-ridden [digression] into theory’ and put its genesis down to the ‘demands of political correctness’, which seems rather reductionist – and more than a little condescending. There is, as has been described above, significant evidence to support Clark’s proposition that many of the players in this unfolding drama saw the international political scene as little more than ‘a rural playground thronging with male adolescents’. He is certainly correct in pointing out that ‘it is striking how often the key protagonists appealed to pointedly masculine modes of comportment and how closely these were interwoven with their understanding of policy’.

Clark also points to a fascinating divergence within the history of gender which appears to have begun at the close of the 19th century. Whereas manliness had, he writes, once consisted of satisfying appetites – Clark here cites ‘food, sex, commodities’ – at the turn of the century this gave way to something ‘harder and more abstinent’. Such a view correlates heavily with much of what has been written about many of the participants of the July Crisis. Sir Edward Grey’s popular image as a self-reliant and reserved ‘outdoorsman’ was essential to his ‘identity as a public man’. Diplomats praised the ‘stiffness’ of other actors. Despite having lived his whole life in almost unimaginable imperial luxury, Franz Joseph, the Emperor or Austria-Hungary, ‘followed a strict and spartan routine’, according to MacMillan. This involved his waking at 4 a.m. and having himself ‘rubbed down with cold water’. The Emperor also ate briskly and simply, with a studied paucity of pleasure. (The young George Orwell would have sympathised. Describing his traumatic experiences at a minor English prep school in Eastborne, which he attended before and during the First World War, Orwell relates with obvious and justified disdain of the puritanical attitudes of his teachers. ‘A maxim often repeated to us’, he writes in “Such, Such Were the Joys”, ‘was that it is healthy to get up from a meal feeling as hungry as when you sat down’.)

Such an attitude took its toll. Many of the key military and political personages suffered what resemble breakdowns in the run up to and course of the war. The Russian ambassador to Serbia, Nicholas Hartwig, suffered a fatal heart attack in the course of visiting his Austro-Hungarian opposite number in early July; Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of staff of the Dual Monarchy, ‘combined the brittle persona of a belligerent martinet with a deep need for the support of women’, even going so far as to moving his new wife (the newly-divorced Gina von Reininghaus) into his headquarters in 1915; many more were left feeling alone, isolated and utterly without respite in one of the most pivotal points in modern history. René Viviani, the Prime Minister of France, spent much of a state visit to Russia doubled over in pain. Some historians have suggested that his ailment was the result of acute stress; and in any case, the fact that he attempted to carry regardless on further emphasises the extent to which this attitude actively hurt and undermined those who took its tenets to heart.

Many high-ranking figures in both the military and civilian politics suffered from a catalogue of stress-related complaints, among which Clark lists: ‘mood swings, obsessiveness, “nerve strain”, vacillation, psychosomatic illness and escapism’. Perhaps it is no wonder that war came to Europe; with these men in charge, such a conflagration was certainly on the cards; though it must be remembered that few actors in the course of history would have been sufficiently well-equipped to weather the maelstrom of crises which arose in the immediate pre-war period. It is certainly interesting to consider, however, the possibility of another generation of statesmen – Clark lists Bismarck, Salisbury, Cavour – facing the same challenges. Would they, who prized and exhibited the traits of ‘suppleness, tactical flexibility and wiliness’, have dealt with the march towards war more effectively? Would their conception of masculinity have allowed them to yield and accommodate when appropriate, to compromise if necessary? The counterfactual is an intriguing one, and it is to Clark’s credit that he includes this debate; regardless of what McMeekin wrote, the question of masculinity is far more valuable – and integral – than the ‘giant parenthesis’ he declares it to be.


The world is still living with the results of the First World War. As mentioned above, the 20th century was almost entirely shaped by its influences. But writers and readers can get lost in the blood and mud – or at any rate the ideas of those popular tokens of Great War-era inhumanity. What is really lacking from contemporary discourse is a sober and intellectually-informed discussion of the causes of that great event. When history, especially specialist history, is written for a small and esoteric audience, unsatisfactory writing results; jargon predominates; some arguments remain unattractive and poorly expressed. As it is we are left with a partial picture, one which – to an extent – distorts as much as it illuminates. These books and others like them are the essential element of a sensible tendency. They are not perfect, but nor are they the end of the debate – this essential debate, one which will continue to be discussed as long as history is written, and as long as humankind still feels the effects of what is likely to be the most consequential of conflicts in the history of the world.


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