The Sleepwalkers

I read Christopher Clark’s 2012 book, The Sleepwalkers, in the Spring earlier this year (here’s a link to Thomas Laqueur’s review in the LRB) and the centenary of the British declaration of war–which is where the book ends its narrative–seems a good day on which to recycle a couple of remarks and post them here.

I thought it was an excellent book, though I was a bit surprised by the title as I made my way through it. The imagery of sleep-walking led me to expect Clark to be arguing that the powers of Europe somehow drifted into a major conflict, without ever quite intending to. But what I was repeatedly struck by were the sheer number of quite extraordinarily belligerent actors that I encountered along the way, and I ended up a bit surprised that continental war didn’t break out much earlier than 1914. My favourite of these was Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of the Austrian general staff, who in 1913 recommended war against Serbia to his superiors on no fewer than twenty-five occasions.

For general magnificence, though, it is French diplomat Paul Cambon takes the prize:

Underpinning Cambon’s exalted sense of self was the belief–shared by many of the senior ambassadors–that one did not merely represent France, one personified it. Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 until 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with [Foreign Secretary] Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognized words such as ‘yes’. He firmly believed–like many members of the French elite–that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.

Clark has now ended up as the new Regius Professor at Cambridge–well done him–which means that whereas a few years ago both the Oxbridge Regius chairs in History were held by people called R. Evans, now they are both held by Australians, with three out of these four straightforward Germanists, and the fourth a scholar of the history of Habsburg Europe.

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