All entries for Monday 09 March 2015

March 09, 2015

Monday Morning Muesli

On Friday I read yet another plaudit for Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Sleepwalkers? To judge from the title the great powers went to war in their sleep, without a conscious decision to do so, an interpretation that should let everyone off the hook. At least, the sleepwalking defence has been known to work in a criminal court for defendants accused of murder and rape, so I guess it could also cover the initiation of aggressive wars.

The Sleepwalkers has been sold across the world -- most notably in Germany, where it has been a best seller -- on its title and its great reviews. But the title continues to mystify me, for Clark does not appear to believe it himself. In his introduction (p. xxvii) he writes:

The story this book tells is ... saturated with agency. The key decision makers -- kings, emperors, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders, and a host of lesser officials -- walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps.

So, not asleep at all. And he concludes his book (pp. 561-562):

Did the protagonists understand how high the stakes were? [Yes, at some length]. They knew it ...

Again: not asleep. What's going on? You can't help wondering if this is a case of an author trapped by a working title that was written into the contract with his publisher before he knew what he would say. Maybe Clark felt he could rescue himself at the last moment by adding the words I missed off the end of the sentence that I just quoted:

They knew it, but did they really feel it?

Then, a brief allusion to the horrors of modern warfare, which those protagonists apparently did not "feel"; and the final sentence of the book:

In this sense 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.

But the way I read this, Clark's complaint is not that these guys were asleep! It is rather that in the majority they were soldiers, trained (as John Keegan once described in The Face of Battle) to respond to the emergency of combat with military professionalism, not unsoldierly panic. When they foresaw horror and extinction with one part of their brain, they were thinking with the other half about how to manage it. And in that spirit they went to war.

It's an interesting point, and an important one, too, if you want to ask why the professional soldiers had such influence in the secret councils of Berlin, Vienna, and St Petersburg in the summer of 1914. But it has absolutely nothing to do with sleepwalking.


Thursday this week will see the Warwick Summit on Protest, which follows some unfortunate events that took place on campus at the end of last term. I wasn't a witness and I don't claim any special insight. I did respond to the survey that followed, along with 578 other staff and students of the university. The survey and responses have now been dissiminated behind the university firewall; here's mine. I don't plan to attend the summit, so this will be the limit of my contribution.

  • Please tell us about any concerns you have in relation to protest on campus, including those relating to recent events?

There is a right to protest within the law. This right needs to be upheld. Protests on campus that go beyond that by involving trespass (occupations) or violence have been quite rare. The Warwick Summit should think carefully before basing general conclusions on things that happen infrequently.

  • Please tell us if there is anything you would like to see done differently in relation to protest in the future?

While occupations and violent protests on campus have been rare, they are also polarizing events. In that setting emotion can override calculation, so that over-reaction on either or both sides is predictable. Those who exercise their right to protest should carefully consider the potential for violence in their actions. An example is occupations, which are always forceful (because they forcefully deny other people legitimate access to a space). Moreover, occupations avoid interpersonal violence only by exploiting surprise.

  • Do you have any questions that you would like to see addressed at the summit?

In response to the December events I have heard demands for a self-policing campus (or "police off campus"). This would be a mistake. When crimes are committed, the victims have a right of access to the law. University officials, academics, and students are not trained for crime prevention or investigation, nor should they be. There will always be a need for police on campus.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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