The Sleepwalkers : How Europe Went to War in 1914, Paperback
4.5 out of 5 (4 ratings)


This is the pacy, sensitive and formidably argued history of the causes of the First World War, from acclaimed historian and author Christopher Clark.

This book was the winner of the Financial Times Books of the Year 2014.

It was a winners of Sunday Times and Independent Books of the Year 2012.

This book was also the winner of the Los Angeles Times History Book Prize 2014.

The moments that it took Gavrilo Princip to step forward to the stalled car and shoot dead Franz Ferdinand and his wife were perhaps the most fateful of the modern era.

An act of terrorism of staggering efficiency, it fulfilled its every aim: it would liberate Bosnia from Habsburg rule and it created a powerful new Serbia, but it also brought down four great empires, killed millions of men and destroyed a civilization.

What made a seemingly prosperous and complacent Europe so vulnerable to the impact of this assassination?

In The Sleepwalkers Christopher Clark retells the story of the outbreak of the First World War and its causes.

Above all, it shows how the failure to understand the seriousness of the chaotic, near genocidal fighting in the Balkans would drag Europe into catastrophe. Reviews: " of the most impressive and stimulating studies of the period ever published. " (Max Hastings, Sunday Times). "Easily the best book ever written on the subject...A work of rare beauty that combines meticulous research with sensitive analysis and elegant prose.

The enormous weight of its quality inspires amazement and awe...Academics should take note: Good history can still be a good story." (Washington Post)."A lovingly researched work of the highest scholarship.

It is hard to believe we will ever see a better narrative of what was perhaps the biggest collective blunder in the history of international relations." (Niall Ferguson). "[Reading The Sleepwalkers], it is as if a light had been turned on a half-darkened stage of shadowy characters cursing among themselves without reason...[Clark] demolishes the standard view...The brilliance of Clark's far-reaching history is that we are able to discern how the past was genuinely prologue...In conception, steely scholarship and piercing insights, his book is a masterpiece." (Harold Evans, New York Times Book Review). "Impeccably researched, provocatively argued and elegantly written...a model of scholarship." (Sunday Times Books of the Year). "Superb...effectively consigns the old historical consensus to the bin...It's not often that one has the privilege of reading a book that reforges our understanding of one of the seminal events of world history. " (Mail Online). "A monumental new volume...Revelatory, even revolutionary...Clark has done a masterful job explaining the inexplicable." (Boston Globe). "Superb...One of the great mysteries of history is how Europe's great powers could have stumbled into World War I...This is the single best book I have read on this important topic." (Fareed Zakaria). "A meticulously researched, superbly organized, and handsomely written account Military History Clark is a masterly historian...His account vividly reconstructs key decision points while deftly sketching the context driving them...A magisterial work." (Wall Street Journal). "This compelling examination of the causes of World War I deserves to become the new standard one-volume account of that contentious subject." (Foreign Affairs). "A brilliant contribution." (Times Higher Education). "Clark is fully alive to the challenges of the subject...He provides vivid portraits of leading figures...[He] also gives a rich sense of what contemporaries believed was at stake in the crises leading up to the war." (Irish Times). "In recent decades, many analysts had tended to put most blame for the disaster [of the First World War] on Germany. Clark strongly renews an older interpretation which sees the statesmen of many countries as blundering blindly together into war." (Stephen Howe, Independent Books of the Year).

About the author: Christopher Clark is Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St Catharine's College.

He is the author of The Politics of Conversion, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Iron Kingdom.

He is widely praised around the world, Iron Kingdom became a major bestseller.

He has been awarded the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: European history
  • ISBN: 9780141027821



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Showing 1 - 4 of 4 reviews.

Review by

This is a compelling and comprehensive account of the origins of the First World War. I imagine that we all learned at school that the war was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip. That certainly acted as the catalyst ("The shot that was heard all around the world" ...), but the political tinder had already been laid and would, doubtless, have sparked into fire sooner or later even without that assassination.Clark gives histories of political developments over the previous forty years in all of the countries of Eastern Europe, setting the context for all of the conflicting tensions that were besetting the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the deep-rooted mistrust between Republican France and the monarchies of Germany Russia and Britain, whose kings happened all to be cousins and grandchildren of Queen Victoria.All four of those countries had been pursuing ardent colonial ventures, and had already come close to conflict at various points around the world. A complex network of treaties (many with secret, conditional clauses) had kept the world functioning in relative peace for a while, but the clock was already ticking down to all out conflict.Clark's book is fascinating, and goes into exhaustive detail (with more than 2,000 footnotes!), but never loses the reader's complete attention. The issues he addresses are complicated and extensive, but he explains them with great clarity.

Review by

This is a complex and highly detailed account of the events leading to the outbreak of the First World War. As we approach the centenary of this event, it is a timely book, and I hope that the popular accounts of the events of 1914 that we are going to see in the next twelve months base their analysis in a large part on this book.Clark starts with a blank slate, and draws out the various factors that led to war. Unlike many others, he starts with the assassination of the Serbian King Alexandar and Queen Draga in 1903 (which I was not previously aware of) by factions within the Serbian military. His narrative then continues to detail the acquiescence of the Serbian government which was prepared to countenance the presence of extra-legal groupings within the Serbian Army who acted outside of the chain of command. This was only partly because they were pursuing the populist policy of rebuilding 'Greater Serbia', they also shared with other European military General Staffs the opinion that they were the sole arbiters of military policy and were not subject to any oversight or control from the civil authority.This theme is then taken up with the roles of the various monarchs in Europe, who enjoyed varying degrees of constitutionality but nearly all of whom considered that their opinions carried weight in determining foreign and military policy. As Clark develops his theme, he begins to outline the passage of events as the two major power blocs jostle for advantage, and in the course of the telling, exposes further weaknesses in the political systems of the time. He exposes the jostling for power and influence within the various European governments, though oddly he does not make the final step to highlighting the lack of what we now know as "collective responsibility"; yet this is another causative factor leading to war. The idea that Ministers in any Government now would not only plot and factionalise against their colleagues (which still happens) but would actually promote policies that were directly at odds with the declared aims and objectives of their leaders, is now unthinkable and would be political suicide for anyone so minded to do that.Clark also highlights the role of the growing popular press in driving public opinion, and (late in the book) talks about the "accepted wisdom" of the time amongst political commentators and governments that Austria-Hungary was a nation in decline and had no right to demand that its legitimate national concerns be addressed by Serbia after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. There are some interesting hints that suggest that a general war could have been avoided; paradoxically, if Austria had gone to war with Serbia in July 1914, immediately after the assassination, then that might have been viewed as a justifiable punishment for an act that many tacitly recognised even then had shadowy figures in the Serbian establishment at its back. But delays in mobilising troops, issuing ultimatums and waiting for not only the replies but also the reactions from other European capitals meant that by the time Austria was ready to move, both militarily and politically, then others had activated their plans, drawn their conclusions and arrived at their political positions; and the dominos toppled accordingly.The one thing he does not concentrate on directly is the effect of the arms race that took place between Britain and Germany in the twenty years leading to 1914. It is a subtext, but not specifically mentioned as a factor (though I was possibly looking for this, having recently read Robert Massie's 'Dreadnought', which covers that subject in detail).I have found in the past that some authors have an irritating tendency to draw direct but not necessarily appropriate parallels with modern-day life and events when writing history. Clark's instances of this are comparative few, but they are well-drawn; given the extent to which history repeats itself, especially in a complex and multi-player arena such as Europe, I was pleased that I did not find this irritating. His modern parallels were well-chosen and thought-provoking.Indeed, this book tells us as much about our modern situation. Throughout the book, I found myself considering events since 1914, and how we managed to avoid another war of such destructiveness. All the elements have been present at different times, especially since 1945; but perhaps because of the lessons learnt from the First World War, we have been fortunate to avoid such a general conflagration, especially when the risks are now so much higher.

Review by

From the sadistic murder of the Serbian royal couple to the pots of anti-wrinkle cream of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire Chief of Staff, this serious book shows that the devil of understanding the unthinkable, the start of a world war over a minor Balkanic question, is more often than not, in the details. An impeccable style and the art of asking simple questions such as who governed? where? make this book attractive for the amateur of complex issues. Through good maps and a great choice of vintage photos it is a must read to understand European history drawing in the rest of the world. For having stood in the footprints of Princip in Sarajevo, whom I always thought had started World War I chain of events, the reading of Christopher Clark's book went further in that it helped me visualize networks of alliances and the reasons why they tumbled like dominoes pushed by a mischievious finger.

Review by

In a dugout in northern France, sometime in 1916, three British soldiers try to make sense of one of the most complicated questions of modern history:<i>PVT. BALDRICK: The way I see it, these days there's a war on, right? and, ages ago, there wasn't a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? and there being a war on came along. So, what I want to know is: how did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?CPT. BLACKADDER: Do you mean, "How did the war start?"PVT. BALDRICK: Yeah. […] I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry.CPT. BLACKADDER: …I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.PVT. BALDRICK: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.CPT. BLACKADDER: Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort NOT to have a war. […] You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war.PVT. BALDRICK: But this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?CPT. BLACKADDER: Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.LT. GEORGE: What was that, sir?CPT. BLACKADDER: It was bollocks.</i>(pause)<i>PVT. BALDRICK: So the poor old ostrich died for nothing.—Richard Curtis &amp; Ben Elton, </i>Blackadder Goes ForthSo this is the explanation to beat, so far, in my admittedly very limited understanding of the causes of the First World War. <i>The Sleepwalkers</i> is the big modern book to examine the question, and it was greeted with adulatory reviews by a historical community that saw in it a long-awaited replacement for Barbara Tuchman's <i>The Guns of August</i> from way back in 1962.It is often elegantly written, and very extensively researched – it's not unusual to check the footnotes and find nearly a dozen different sources adduced to back up the thread of a single paragraph. This is great. Unfortunately, these feats of compression often result in rather dense, stodgy prose that examines events from a viewpoint that I found far too abstract. Pages and pages of material describe the action on a disembodied state level, like this:<i>The French government focused from 1911 onwards on strengthening Russian offensive capacity and, in 1912-13 on ensuring that Russian deployment plans were directed against Germany rather than Austria, the ostensible opponent in the Balkans. Increasingly, intimate military relations were reinforced by the application of powerful financial incentives. This policy was purchased at a certain strategic cost, because betting so heavily on enabling Russia to seize the initiative against Germany inevitably involved a certain reduction in French autonomy. That French policy-makers were willing to accept the resulting constraints is demonstrated by their willingness to extend the terms of the Franco-Russian Alliance specifically in order to cover the Balkan inception scenario, a concession that in effect placed the initiative in Russian hands. The French were willing to accept this risk, because their primary concern was not that Russia would act precipitately, but rather that she would not act at all, would grow so preponderant as to lose interest in the security value of the alliance, or would focus her energies on defeating Austria rather than the ‘principal adversary’, Germany.</i>A bit of this is good; whole chapters' worth quickly gets dull. It was probably partly my fault – I happened to read this at a time when I could only really read last thing at night or first thing in the morning, and I found myself constantly nodding off and having to reread paragraphs several times.Attempts to humanise things by sketching the major personalities involved have their own problems, mainly because the major personalities involved number in the hundreds. I normally hate reviews that go on about all the confusing foreign names, but honestly in this one I was still struggling with the cast list by the end of the book. Kokovtsov, now is he the Russian foreign minister? Or is that Sazonov? Or Sukhomlinov? A reference to Hartwig – he's the Austrian ambassador in Berlin, right? No, the German ambassador in Vienna. Oh wait, neither, he's the Russian ambassador in Belgrade…and so on.This isn't just a stylistic issue, I think it points up a fundamental problem with the whole book – there's no narrative thread to help you join it all together. The reason it's so hard to follow some of these discussions is because their relevance to 1914-18 is often very unclear. Most of the book is given over to examining various early-twentieth century diplomatic crises like the Bosnian annexation crisis, the Agadir crisis, the two Balkan wars – but there is an irritating lack of clarification over how these issues bear on 1914. As a result the book had, to me, a rather staccato feel.When, after 400 pages, you finally reach the assassinations in Sarajevo, the effect is like watching a boxed set of Open University lectures and finding <i>Iron Man 3</i> on the last disc. These chapters are fantastic – but they're not really the point of the book.For what it's worth, I took three major lessons from it all. The first is to do with the lumbering mechanism of the alliance system that was in force before the war, whereby countries were roped together like mountaineers for safety: and when one fell, everyone else got dragged down into the crevasse. Hence why England, France, Germany and Russia somehow ended up fighting to the death over a glorified border dispute in the Balkans. Because the alliances had ‘tied the defence policy of three of the world's greatest powers to the uncertain fortunes of Europe's most violent and unstable region’.The second lesson is the sheer amateurishness of contemporary international relations – not just the incompetence of some of the people involved, but the total lack of any trans-national system or process for resolving inter-state disputes. These systemic problems were made even worse by the fact that there was really no clear governmental decision-making process in many of the states involved (as Clark puts it, ‘the volatility inherent in such a constellation was heightened by the fluidity of power within each executive’).And the third lesson – a consequence of the other two – is the utter pointlessness of the conflict. No one had a good idea of what was being fought for, no one really had much to gain, and, in short, the poor old ostrich really did die for nothing.