The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark book cover image

Wide Awake: Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” and World War I

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an eminently readable account of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I. Written in a narrative style, but rich with detail and innovative arguments about the origins of the war, Clark’s work is meant for a general audience but will also appeal to scholars looking to broaden their understanding of the events leading up to World War I. Clark is well versed in his subject matter. He is currently the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University with a focus on European history. His prior works include a study of Christian-Jewish relations in Prussia (The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941, Oxford University Press, 1995), a general history of Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Penguin, 2006), and a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Longman, 2000).

In The Sleepwalkers, Clark attempts to fundamentally change the way the origins of the war are discussed. Rather than trying to make a claim about who bears the most responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, the author is instead more concerned with the agency of individuals within the state power structures, the decisions they made, and why. Using a wealth of primary documents in state archives as well as secondary sources, Clark brings these “characters” to life in a story that begins with the assassination of King Alexander and Queen Draga in Serbia in June of 1903 and ends with European mobilization in August of 1914.

The scope of Clark’s narrative is impressive, despite being limited. The focus is placed primarily on Serbia, the Habsburg Empire, Russia, Germany, and France. Clark goes into detail regarding meetings, conversations, letters, and press publications in these countries. Other nations that played important roles in World War I are only touched upon briefly, including Italy, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire. Does it make sense to limit the narrative to these countries? For the most part, yes. Clark demonstrates that the rivalries between Russia and the Habsburgs and between the French and the Germans were the driving forces behind the outbreak of war; the assassination of the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria-Hungary by Serbian assassins was simply a pretext used by these nations to pursue other goals. On the other hand, Clark positions the ongoing decline of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of Ottoman lands to other states as a primary cause of continuing unrest not only in the Balkans, but in Europe as well. If the loss of Libya to Italy and Russia’s longstanding conflict with the Ottomans over the Dardanelles and Bosphorus was so crucial in laying the groundwork for the events that led up to World War I, why was the Ottoman Empire (the so-called “sick man of Europe”) not given a greater place at the table in Clark’s narrative?

The role Clark attributes to the Ottoman Empire in The Sleepwalkers ties into one of his larger themes, in which he presents the alliance bloc system as a driving force behind the outbreak of hostilities. The new bi-polar system (Entente vs Central Powers) developed out of an earlier multi-polar system which hinged on the maintenance of the status quo, including the propping up of the Ottoman Empire as a vital part of the European political establishment. The formation of powerful alliance blocs coupled with the linkage of diplomacy to military power, as well as the lack of available colonial territories to barter and trade away in international diplomacy, created a situation that was inherently volatile. Clark writes that war was not inevitable, that it was the result of actions taken by individuals. The evidence Clark presents strongly supports his thesis. Clark clearly shows that the French elite were agitating for war to regain territories previously lost to Germany. Russian elites were looking for an excuse to finally capture the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. They understood that they would likely trigger a continental war, but decided to push forward with their plans anyway. These players were not sleepwalking towards war; they were wide awake, even if they were unaware of the scale of the consequences their actions would bring.

One of the larger problems with Clark’s work is that he places so much emphasis on Serbia and Serbian history when his narrative clearly shows that events in Serbia and Sarajevo were merely a pretext that France and Russia used to start a war that they hoped would allow them to achieve their own national goals. The amount of space in the book devoted to Serbian history seems disproportionate to the country’s influence on events. Without Russian backing, would a larger continental war have started at all? In his introduction, Clark writes that he is not interested in placing blame, but based on the evidence he presents, Russia is responsible for the start of World War I. Serbia was not a part of the Entente Alliance of 1907. Had Russia not intervened on its behalf, the treaty stipulations would not have been triggered. Germany, by contrast, comes across as an underdog in The Sleepwalkers.

Two minor issues stood out to me in this book. One is the mention of but lack of development of the idea that a new trend in masculinity affected diplomatic relations between the countries involved. The second is the repeated use of “public opinion” to explain events without developing the reader’s understanding of the actual relationship between the media or government and the public. Who was “the public”? The elite, or all classes? What was the literacy rate? Did people consume news by reading or through word-of-mouth in public spaces? Did people understand that some news was camouflaged diplomacy? Clark indicates that the outbreak of war surprised rural populations in Russia and France and they did not understand what was going on, so how could “public opinion” have played such a crucial role in government policy formation?

Overall, Clark’s presentation of the backdrop to World War I in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is brilliant. It is written in a way that is informative and yet entertaining. He opens an old topic to fresh discussion by revealing the complicated web of interactions between individuals in the state governmental systems, calling into question anew who is responsible for the start of World War I, even if that is not the author’s intention. More importantly, Clark’s work is a solid reminder that wars do not start themselves; people start wars and bad decisions by people in key positions can have devastating consequences.

Response: Selim Deringil’s “The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876-1909”

By Uncredited [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Abdulhamid II in 1908. By Uncredited [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Selim Deringil’s book, The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876-1909, is an attempt to find a more balanced and realistic interpretation of the reign of Abdulhamid II than that proposed by either the Turkish left, which demonizes the period, or that of the Turkish right, which places Abdulhamid II on a pedestal. He accomplishes this by stepping outside of the modern argument and presenting Abdulhamid II’s reign and the Ottoman state in the context of the larger world, as perceived by the Ottoman elite in Istanbul. According to Deringil, the main problem facing the Ottoman Empire during this period was one of legitimation, a problem faced by all autocratic empires during that time period, and Abdulhamid II’s reign was an extended period of contest with other Great Powers to legitimate and protect the image of his Well Protected Domains.

To legitimate his rule of the multiethnic Ottoman state in a period that showed increasing signs of national consciousness and hostility from outside powers, Abdulhamid II had to manage his government’s image on two fronts: internally and externally. He had to ensure loyalty from his diverse citizenry and manage the empire’s public image abroad. Essentially, he was focusing on maintaining the three pillars of the Ottoman Empire as posited by Reşid Paşa: the Islamic nature of the state, Ottoman rule, and the continuity of Istanbul as the capital of the empire.

Within the empire, Abdulhamid II focused on efforts at reforming the sharia and the educational systems, both for the purposes of maintaining the Islamic character of the state and both as a response to Western influences. Western legal codes had become codified, so the Ottomans felt compelled to codify the sharia as well, to justify its image as a modern state. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of codifying the sharia was that it removed a lot of the leeway individual jurists previously had when interpreting the law and applying it to cases. Also, the appearance of missionary schools created a problem for the Ottomans. Part of the state’s legitimacy was based on the Islamic character of the majority of the Ottoman’s subjects. Abdulhamid II feared that missionary schools would lead to large conversions of Muslims to Christianity, both removing his base of legitimacy and creating a situation where Ottoman subjects might feel greater loyalty to a foreign government.

One of the examples used, to justify this belief, was when the Maronite community bodily supported the French state during a war, but did not volunteer to enlist during the Ottoman’s war with Russia. To prevent this from happening, the Ottomans monitored, regulated and attempted to prevent missionary schools from being opened, utilizing many resources and man-hours on what ultimately proved to be a waste of time. The Ottomans realized the only way to compete with foreign education was to provide better local, Muslim services. Perhaps they could have done that if they hadn’t invested so much time, effort and resources into trying to prevent missionary schools from opening?

In a related push for domestic legitimacy, Abdulhamid II’s pushed for Islamic orthodoxy through education and forced conversion. A carrot-and-stick method was used to gain a conversion and then education facilities were established and teachers were posted to the areas to ensure the locals followed state Hanafi Islam. Deringil discusses the case of the Yezidi Kurds at length, showing how this policy of ensuring the conversion or correction of local Muslims could result in unintended consequences. In the case of the Kurds, mixed signals led to junior Ottoman officers engaging in violent behavior that only solidified resistance to central authority among Kurds. This also resulted in a loss of image in the international community.

International image management was also an important part of maintaining political legitimacy for the Ottomans. International press was closely monitored with the Sublime Porte frequently instructing local consulates and ambassador’s to issue rebuttals. The Ottomans also ensured that they were represented in any event that other Great Powers were participating in, such as World Fairs and Expos. The Ottomans often used their influence to shut down productions that they felt would insult the national honor and integrity of the Ottoman Empire. There was a Western tendency to make exotic the normal life of the Ottoman Empire, and to some degree the Ottomans internalized those images while fighting against them, as shown by their willingness to name their horses in World Fair exhibitions. The Ottoman’s preoccupation with ensuring a positive image in the world press was an effort to present themselves as a modern state, with just as much right to exist as a Great Power as Germany or Russia.

Selim Deringil’s book is a valuable and interesting resource that sheds light on how the Ottoman Empire interacted with other world powers in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, how it was similar to other world powers and how it guarded its political legitimacy both domestically and abroad. His attempt to humanize and normalize the Ottomans is an important step in breaking the stereotype of the Oriental ‘other’, so that we can better understand the development of the modern Middle East.

Response: Norman Itzkowitz’s “Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition” and Leslie Pierce’s “The Imperial Harem”

In Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition, Norman Itzkowitz presents an account of the period traditionally considered to be the rise of the Ottoman Empire. His account is complex, explaining that the ghazis weren’t driven by a purely religious zeal for the conquering of new territories, though that was certainly a part of it, but also for economic and psychological reasons (11). He explains the process by which new areas were incorporated into the empire and ends his book with an explanation of the Ottoman world view at the height of their power, thinking little of Europe and only then as a backward place of no consequence, which Itzkowitz claims resulted in a feeling of complacency reinforced by the Islamic abhorrence for bid’a, or innovation (105-107).

In the reading, I was struck by the fact that much of the land the Ottomans gained in Europe was done through a long process of vassalage and annexation. Even more so, I was surprised to see that many lords offered their allegiance to the Ottomans willingly, as in the case when Stephen Dushan died (14). Obviously there were still wars, but when compared with other empire builders, the Ottoman’s methods come across as more gradual, purposeful and efficient. If local lords were convinced they wanted to be a part of the empire, then there wasn’t as much chance of them quickly rebelling, though according to Itzkowitz’s account, there were plenty of times when land and cities were reconquered multiple times. I also found it to be very telling of the status of corruption in local Balkan governments, that the Orthodox church peasants often preferred Ottoman rule to Christian rule because the taxes were more fair. Reading modern ideas back into Ottoman times, I’ve heard people say that it wasn’t good to be a religious minority in the Ottoman empire, because no matter how good they were treated, they were still considered second class citizens, and treated as such, but if that’s the case, then how much worse were they treated by their governments prior to becoming Ottoman citizens? And was it really a bad move?

I found it interesting that the fact that some families tried to safeguard their positions by converting their lands into waqfs, which the sultan Mohammed II then began confiscating anyway (29). It made me wonder if there were different tax codes relating to property that was in waqf status, and if this was an ancient form of tax evasion that the sultan became aware of and tried to stop. Also, the author characterized Suleiman the Magnificent’s anti-Hapsburg alliance with France in the early-mid 1500s as being in the “ghazi spirit” (34). Was this stated in some primary source document? Or is this the author applying the complicated idea of what ghaza is that he developed to describe behavior in the early Ottoman period to the ongoing conflict for political and territorial gain in the 1500s?

Itzkowitz mentions that the period during which Kosem and Turhan were competing for power was known as “The Sultanate of the Women,” but I think Leslie Pierce would disagree and argue that this period began with Hurrem, almost a hundred hears earlier in the 1520s. Hurrem gained Suleiman’s undivided attention, causing him to break with tradition and give her multiple sons, marry her and move her into his palace.

Pierce’s descriptions of how sexuality and reproduction were used for political purposes was extremely detailed and extremely informative regarding the evolution of the nature of succession practices in the Ottoman empire. I found it extremely interesting that sexual control was exerted not just over women, as is popularly depicted, but also over men, to render them politically insignificant. It’s easy to see an essentially captive male offspring as unthreatening, but I think it was a bad solution to the problem of creating stability, because the confinement seemed to weaken the Ottoman line physically and mentally and almost led to its collapse. It’s odd to think that the Ottoman empire was saved by the sexual ability of a mentally retarded man who was the last living Ottoman male.