Was the First World War inevitable 1
Why the First World War wasn't inevitable
Your book is called "The Sleepwalkers". Are you not relieving the decision-makers from their responsibility, because sleepwalkers are not to blame for what they do?
The metaphor has its limit. I found “sleepwalker” appropriate because the sleepwalker can, in a very limited sense, have intentions and take action. For example, he can prepare his breakfast at three o'clock in the night or pack his suitcases. What he lacks is a sense of the consequences of his actions. Nothing that happened in 1914 was not automatic, it was decisions made of one's own free will. Every decision maker had options. But they were convinced that they were acting under duress. So they have practically thought down to automatons.
Wasn't the First World War inevitable?
Not at all. There were alternatives. My colleague Holger Afflerbach from the University of Leeds has published an anthology: “The Improbable War”. One can even say that by July 1914 the war had become less likely and the signs were pointing to relaxation. The media wars between German and British newspapers had also subsided. Promising negotiations on state issues and the exchange of political prisoners began between Austria and Serbia. The alliances had become fluid and could easily have been torn apart. It could have turned out differently. If Europe had survived this summer.
Your analysis concluded that Germany was not the main culprit for the outbreak of war. Who then?
The book does not issue German foreign policy an acquittal, not at all. It is not about a relapse into the position of the interwar period. In hatred of the Versailles Treaty, the Germans presented themselves as innocent lambs who were attacked by their neighbors. This thesis is just as misleading as the thesis of German sole guilt. But the book is not primarily interested in the question of guilt. His question is: How did the war come about? To do this, one must carefully examine every decision that made war more likely. Only then can the question be asked: How is responsibility distributed? The answer is: more evenly than you think. There is no one primarily responsible. But there are those who are not responsible. Belgium, for example, which was attacked by Germany. In England both world wars are sometimes described as just wars, with Germany as a vicious and arrogant enemy. That is jingoism, exaggerated patriotism according to the motto: "We are right and we will fight."
But there are also arguments for a German war guilt. So far it has been considered a consensus among historians that Kaiser Wilhelm II made England an enemy by rearming his fleet. What's wrong with that?
Fleet building followed a flawed policy. There was no central idea, no common concept of a sea and a land strategy. Germany believed it could break out of its grip on the continent by building its fleet. It was also about colonies and Wilhelm's wish for a "place in the sun". In the foreground, however, was the desire to be taken seriously by the other great powers as an equal great power. In the eighties and nineties the Germans had repeatedly made the experience: Anyone who tries to gain influence in world politics without a significant navy will fail. One example was the Transvaal crisis in southern Africa, where the Germans also had interests but could not pursue them at all. Wilhelm was able to send his "Krüger dispatch", but could not send ships or troops. Navalism was the fashionable doctrine of the time, followed by the French, Russians, Japanese and Americans. All built new fleets. And the influence of the German fleet on British security thinking was grossly overestimated. The British easily won the arms race. The “naval panic” in the British media was triggered in part by proponents of naval construction in order to get government money. When emphasizing German sole guilt, there is also a bit of negative nationalism at play, an overestimation of Germany's importance.
Wilhelm II caused many diplomatic disasters through clumsy statements. You call him a "pain in the ass" in the book. Was he a bad cast?
Unfortunately, there was no selection process for the German Kaiser. He was installed in his position by dynastic biology. If he had been an ambassador, he would have been fired a hundred times. No employee could have afforded so many derailments and tactlessness. However, contemporaries knew that the emperor had a big mouth with little behind it. His tirades were notorious, but when the going got tough, he withdrew. In the military he had the reputation of an emperor of peace. They believed they could never wage war with him. An extremely contradicting figure. Sometimes his tirades also include healthy geopolitical insights. For example when he talks about the growing importance of Japan.
You wrote a biography about Wilhelm and believe that his appearances were reminiscent of a spoiled teenager. You secretly like him. Correct?
What I don't like is when a subject like the outbreak of war through demonization is made too easy for oneself. There is a lot of self-relief involved. But could I like Wilhelm? Sitting next to this Kaiser on a transatlantic flight would be fun for an hour. After a few glasses of wine there would be entertaining tactlessness. In the third hour, when you want to sleep slowly, it would be unbearable. An ordeal. With the other royals, Wilhelm was a horror figure. It was feared that they would be placed next to him. Tsar Nicholas had a horror of social encounters with him. He felt cornered and chatted down by Wilhelm. Wilhelm was the epitome of what was called "the club bore" in Edwardian England. In every club there was someone who chatted nonstop and only had boring things to say.
You cite a “crisis of masculinity” around 1900 ”as the mental background for the outbreak of war. What do you mean by that?
If you take a closer look at the reasons given by the actors for their decisions, and their language in general, one comes across expressions that have to do with masculinity. We stay tough, we have to demonstrate strength. To give in small would be an act of self emasculation. The British ambassador in Paris says: The Germans want to push us into the water and steal our clothes. In this I see a difference from an earlier generation of statesmen. They looked different too, they were thicker. Bismarck, for example, ate like a pig. These connoisseurs associated wisdom and cunning with masculinity, they tried to outsmart their opponents. It was a more flexible image of male behavior that had less to do with harshness and intransigence. The period around 1910 is an era of nervous breakdowns and duels. A crooked look was enough to be called to a duel. Many military men presented themselves as tight, stiff guys, but at the same time they suffered from this role model. The Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, a particularly bizarre example, longed for the company of women and had his wife come to the headquarters during the war. That was, of course, a gross faux pas.
You call the July crisis of 1914 “perhaps the most complex event of all time”. What can we learn from this today?
World War I reminds us that wars always represent failure, the greatest failure of human beings. It is so easy to overlook the joys of peace, to think peace is boring. Wars cannot be controlled, no other war shows this in such a terrible way as the First World War with its 20 million deaths. If the decision-makers of the summer of 1914 could have been transported by time machine to the battlefields of Verdun or on the Somme, nobody would have endured it. You would have collapsed.
The interview was conducted by Christian Schröder.
Christopher Clark's book "Sleepwalkers. How Europe moved into World War I" has been published by DVA (895 pages, € 39.99).
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