Photographer:Fotograaf: Archive Studium Generale
Chris Clark to give Tans lecture on the First World War
MAASTRICHT. Who is to blame? That is the question that professor Christopher Clark raises in his latest book The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914. According to the Australian historian, an unequivocal answer cannot be given. His Maastricht colleague Georgi Verbeeck does not quite agree. Clark is scheduled to give the Tans lecture, organised by Studium Generale, next week.
It was Verbeeck’s idea; he is a member of Studium Generale’s programme committee, to bring Chris Clark to Maastricht. Why? Two reasons, says the inspired Belgian, also professor of German history in Leuven.
“In the first place, his bestseller Sleepwalkers is in line with the memorial industry surrounding the First World War.”
“Maybe that sounds somewhat negative, but it is true. Just visit the former Belgian frontlines, the area around Ieper, and you will see an unbelievable series of activities that are connected to the First World War. First, it has been quiet for a hundred years, more or less, and now suddenly all this commotion! I was there recently. It is quite obvious that many of these events have been set up from an economic or touristic viewpoint.”
And the second reason for inviting Clark?
“Because he wrote an important book, which has caused a lot of commotion, especially in Germany. Sleepwalkers is about Kriegsschuld. Who is responsible for the outbreak of the First World War? The debate is as old as the war itself. In the infamous Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, the Allied Powers stated that Germany had to accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage. It was Germany that invaded Belgium and France, not the other way around. The Alleinschuld was also necessary to justify the high German reparation payments of 132 billion Marks. Germany objected: France and Russia, after all, also had plans for invasions. It was a turbulent time. As Clark describes in his book, many countries saw a great conflict as a possible solution for a number of on-going problems. There were the considerable differences between France and Germany, for example, and the threatening dominance of Russia, which was arming itself to the hilt and was no longer viewed as the giant with feet of clay.
“At the beginning of the nineteen-sixties, sentiments began to change and even the Germans started to believe in their Alleinschuld. It was German historian Fritz Fischer who denounced the idea of shared responsibility of the superpowers. Doing unique research on archives, he discovered documents that he believed proved that Germany had provoked the war and had made detailed preparations. France had to be brought down first, after which it would be Russia’s turn. He also crushed the idea that people on the streets knew nothing about it; he believed that broad strata of the population supported the war. Fischer regarded the First World War as a full dress rehearsal for the Second World War, which could be squarely put on Germany’s shoulders. Belligerence was obviously in their genes. Those were the years when critical left-wing youths called their parents to account. Fischer’s theory continued to be the prevailing view until the end of the 20th century.”
And Clark puts an end to that?
“Yes, Clark puts the Germans’ so-called Selbsthass into perspective and labels Fischer’s view as ‘too critical’. He puts the shared guilt back on the table. Unlike Fischer, who restricted himself to German sources, Clark sketches a panoramic view with various perspectives. He puts all the national stories alongside each other and leaves the conclusion to the reader. But after 750 pages of sensitivities, motives and interests, one loses sight of the question of guilt, a question that is actually unanswerable. The story proves too complicated and nuanced."
“You might just as well say that Serbia is mainly responsible. It was a Serbian who killed the Austrian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The Balkan country saw this as an excellent opportunity to realise its 'pan-Slavist' dream at the cost of the Habsburg 'state of many races'. During the negotiations with the Habsburg dynasty, Serbia behaved provokingly and risky, partly because they were supported by big brother Russia. But Austria-Hungary also played for high stakes. A brief war with Serbia would distract the attention from its internal discord. The Habsburg dynasty, supported by Germany, tried to elicit a conflict by issuing a pithily formulated ultimatum, which it had brooded on for weeks. Vienna even became suspicious when signals were received that Serbia was going to agree. Eventually, Serbia refused because of a specific part and the declaration of war followed after all.”
That doesn’t sound like the political elites behaved like ‘sleepwalkers’.
“No, I don’t think that the title was very well chosen. It suggests that those in power didn’t take a good look around. I feel that this is a weak point in the book. To my mind, they knew exactly what they were doing. Of course they couldn’t surmise where it would all lead, but they did just accept it. Russia was certainly not sleepwalking. It was the first country to fully mobilise its troops. To the contentment of Berlin, which now had a good reason to go to war. The leader of the German navy, Von Müller, wrote the famous words in his diary: Stimmung glänzend. Die Regierung hat eine glückliche Hand gehabt, uns als die Angegriffenen hinzustellen.“
How do you view the question of guilt?
“What I like is that the story of the First World War has been ‘denationalised’ and is now a European Urkatastrophe. However, that does not mean that this is now about a night when all the cows turned grey. You have to remain critical as a historian. As far as I am concerned, responsibility lies more in Vienna and Berlin than in the other capital cities. Germany and the Habsburg double monarchy were immature democracies with strong autocratic traditions. In both countries, the military establishment outflanked the political one, while a trading nation like England doubted right up to the last moment whether they would take up arms. Many German historians do not share Clarks vision and - in accordance with Fischer - still put the blame on the then German regime.”
Clark sees clear parallels between the European climate of 1914 and 2014, as he discussed some weeks ago in the TV programme Buitenhof. Do you see similarities too?
"History never repeats itself. The world on the eve of the First World War cannot be compared with the world today. What Clark is referring to - and I agree with him there - is the dramatic consequences that a ‘one-off’ event could have, like an attempted murder, a terrorist attack or a regional conflict. The era of bipolar stability, which was typical of the Cold War, is over and we are again experiencing restless and uncertain times. In 1914, those in power in the European capitals lacked the intention and the possibilities to de-escalate. We do have those instruments now, in the form of international mechanisms and consultative bodies. And they are direly needed to prevent a repeat of the nightmare of 1914 – 1918."
Who is Christopher Clark?
Clark (1960, Sydney) is as professor of History in Cambridge, with a special interest in nineteenth-century Germany and Europe. His book Iron Kingdom (2006), on the history of Prussia, was a bestseller and won many prizes. The same goes for his last book, The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (2012), in which Clark shows that Germany does not bear the Alleinschuld for starting the First World War. According to The New York Times, the book was one of ten best books of 2012.
The Tans lecture (in English) will be on 12 November (20:00hrs.) in the lecture hall on the Tongersestraat 53, entrance is free