One of the reasons I wanted to read Christopher Clark's epic book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 was its rampant popularity in Germany. Why, when Germany is keeping the 2014 centenary fairly low key, is a detailed history book such as this so popular there?
Well, one reason is that the book explains the complexity of events, relationships, myths, commitments and errors that led to the bloodbath, and makes it clear what Germany's role actually was. To put it really simply: how did Austria's need for revenge against Serbia for the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife turn into a wider conflict that killed millions and ended up with the blame being pinned solely on Germany. This is Clark's question, too. The Treaty of Versailles reads differently in the light of this treatment. Clark says:
We need to distinguish between the objective factors acting on the decision-makers and the stories they told themselves and each other about what they thought they were doing and why they were doing it. All the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections and interests masquerading as maxims. (p.558)
He then concludes:
… the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.
The 'they' he refers to are the politicians. But, there are, of course, others. And of particular interest are the media. Newspapers were used by the political classes to propagate the myths the politicians wanted developed, and they also propagated the myths they themselves wanted to believe in – a greater Serbdom, the German monster, etc. Nothing new here, then. But, this reinforces a point I have made many times – one that irritates the hell out of some journalists – which is that the media do not only hold the powerful to account, but need to be held to account themselves because they are also a 'power'. Which is why the Daily Mail's myth-building about immigrants (for example) is not somehow neutral, but shapes myths that lead to preferences and actions that take on a self-justifying life of their own. (Clark refers at one point to how 'the public interest' actually means 'published interest'.)
The other element of Clark's book that disturbs is one I mentioned earlier: blame. In his narrative – which is so detailed it can give you a headache – it is clear that the essential conflict was between Serbia (which lied through its teeth and was supported in its fantasy by Russia) and Austria-Hungary. Caught between Russia and France, Germany had to sort out its own alignments and see where the alliance bloc axes might fall in the event of conflict between Serbia and the Habsburgs. Until very late on, the conflict was not about Germany, and Germany was trying not to get involved.
But, we need someone to blame. Germany got nailed with the whole shebang, which led to its own gnawing sense of injustice, which sowed the seeds of further conflict, which just shows that the only outcome worth going for is one of justice and not simply triumph. So, what happened to the guilt of the French, the Russians and the British? Or, which was where the whole thing began, of the Serbs?
There is much that could be said, but Clark's book is essential reading in 2014 as we begin to remember the events of 1914. Selective remembering in a way that simply accords with the particular myths we want to preserve (usually in order to address current realities) is tempting, but ultimately inadequate. If Europe's great powers, blinded by the assumed demands of their complex alliances, sleepwalked a world into its bloodiest war (using the latest technology to devise ever better ways of killing people – and laying waste to the Myth of Progress tied in with assumptions about the triumph of science… divorced, of course, from the base realities of human failure), shouldn't any commemoration do justice to the facts and be shaped around penitence?
Perhaps each act of commemoration should include politicians admitting their limitations and failings and asking for understanding and forgiveness from the people? Perhaps those who shape our worldview by their representation in the media should admit their place as 'powers' and myth-builders and confess to their limitations and weaknesses? And then the rest of us should ask forgiveness for believing the stuff that is poured upon us and for denying our responsibility to understand the interplay of politics, media and myth?
This isn't a gripe. It is a real concern arising from a reading of history that cannot but leave anyone with their brain engaged and conscience alive feeling disturbed. As I wrote in my last post, how does this bear on our understanding of Russia's resurgence and its machinations in the Crimea and other parts of its old empire?
These questions do not go away. The forms might change (1914 did not have television or the Internet), but the substance doesn't. Human beings are collective myth-builders and responsibility-deniers, shapers of events and re-shapers of the stories of those events. That is how we are. I guess I am asking that we just publicly admit it.
[Addendum: A crucial sentence got lost when I posted this earlier. It reads: “And religious leaders should renounce the 'God on our side' game that gives violence a rationale that cannot be justified.”]