Tag Archives: Christopher Clark

Was the Accelerating European Arms Race Responsible for the Outbreak of the First World War?

The European arms races which characterised military life after the turn of the century could certainly be stated to have increased tension, fed into a culture of militarisation, and provided impetus for the increasingly aggressive actions of national governments in the run up for the war. There are many other factors, however, which also could be said to have made war either more likely or even, possibly, inevitable. Continue reading

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Did the System of European Alliances Cause the First World War?

The tangled web of European agreements and alliances has proven a permanent feature of the literature which has sprung up around debating the causes of the First World War. This school of thought gained prominence in the 1920s, when there was a general move towards internationalism and some small regrets about tarring Weimar Germany with the brush of its predecessor’s responsibility for beginning the Great War. Nevertheless, and despite this seeming datedness, the theory attracts a lot of support; tales of systemic failure, it could be argued, diminish individual responsibility and make people and nations feel better about their own role in events. There are other opinions on the matter, however, which range from blaming the actions of a single power – most often Germany – to blaming abstract concepts such as militarism, nationalism and even, as Christopher Clark writes in his book The Sleepwalkers, a ‘crisis of masculinity’, which is held to have caused European diplomatic and political leaders almost to destroy themselves and their nations out of little more than a collective sense of psychological necessity. Continue reading

What Are a Historian’s Most Important Skills?

The purpose of history (at least according to Leopold von Ranke) is ‘to show how things actually were’. There is much debate about the exact meaning of this phrase – does it provide a warrant only for literalism and the stating of fact, or does it give license, for example, for historians to write about how the past was in essence? – but much of the central tenets of Ranke’s own empirical history have been broadly accepted. What is not so concrete, however, is the question of what skills and traits a historian ought to exhibit. After all, it takes a certain skill to write empirically, and it takes a certain knack to assemble facts into the form of historical writing, but true skill in the writing of history is something less easy to define; it contains something higher, something nobler – and something infinitely more subjective. But the best historians – in short, those who master both substance and style – can achieve something greater than the result of Ranke’s rather prosaic observation; their works can contain and aspire to the literary – and they can attract the permanence of true art in the process. Continue reading

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). Continue reading