THE First World War (1914-1918) was an epic human tragedy that resulted in 20 million military and civilian deaths.
How did this cataclysm happen? Debate over its origins has produced a vast historical literature.
Many historians have attempted to assign blame for the conflict to a single state, but this approach is rejected by British historian Christopher Clark.
In his massive new book, The Sleepwalkers, he argues that the war must be understood in terms of the multilateral relations among the five European great powers: Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The interactions among these states in the prewar period were exceedingly complex, and this complexity is reflected in Clark's study, a highly nuanced account, part narrative and part analysis.
Clark emphasizes that he is concerned with how the war came about, rather than why. He is more interested in an interpretation that underscores agency: the actual decisions made by policy-makers, rather than vast impersonal forces like imperialism and nationalism.
As Clark writes, "the outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of decisions made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgments they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand."
The involved nature of relations among the great powers evoked by Clark defies summary within the compass of a brief review. Clark's account of Britain's decision to enter the First World War on the side of France and Russia, and against Germany and Austria-Hungary, conveys a sense of the flavour of his analysis.
In public, the justification for Britain's intervention in the war was a moral obligation to its ally France and a commitment to uphold the neutrality of Belgium, which was likely to be compromised as the Germans had already announced their intention of invading France through Belgian territory.
However, neither France nor Belgium had figured prominently in the discussions of the British cabinet in the days before to the British declaration of war on Aug. 4, 1914. Indeed, even as late as the final week of July, much of the cabinet was opposed to British intervention.
Clark suggests that the real factors underpinning the British declaration of war were political and strategic.If the cabinet of Britain's Liberal government had decided against intervention, foreign secretary Edward Grey and prime minister H.H. Asquith likely would have resigned.
This would have triggered the downfall of the government; avoiding this outcome was a strong inducement to support intervention.
Strategic considerations were also crucial. From an imperialist perspective, Britain wanted to appease Russia, which was a potential threat to its interests in Asia.
From a continentalist perspective, Britain wanted to maintain the balance of power in Europe and contain Germany.
Thus, Clark writes, "in the conditions of 1914, the logics of global and continental security converged in the British decision to support the Entente powers [France and Russia] against Germany and Austria."
Clark depicts the decisions that inexorably ended in a world war -- one policy at a time. The protagonists of this tragedy, he says, were "sleepwalkers:" they were "watchful but unseeing ... blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world."
This study greatly enhances one's understanding of the complex international relations that led to the First World War.
Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.