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The Sleepwalkers

How Europe Went To War in 1914

By Christopher Clark
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The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War in 1914 by Christopher Clark

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers takes a fresh look at the outbreak of the First World War, focusing on the alliances established among Europe’s nations in the years leading up to 1914. In his compelling and masterful account, Clark examines the decisions, both big and small, that led to the outbreak, and investigates the common belief that the war was an inevitability.

This is a Blinkist staff pick

“These blinks present a clear and convincing explanation of how the world slid into the First World War. They suggest that the nations and empires of Europe ended up in conflict almost by accident. I found them fascinating, not only because of their description of politics 100 years ago, but also because of what they tell us about the world today.”

– Thomas, English Editorial Lead at Blinkist

Key idea 1 of 11

The many alliances and connections between policymakers played a crucial role in the war’s outbreak.

The First World War was one of the biggest catastrophes of the twentieth century. It pitted the armies of most European countries and their empires against each other and led to millions of deaths.

But why did it start in the first place? Which country was to blame?

Although there is no simple answer, many historians have put much of the blame on the alliance system, a network that aligned each country either with another or against it. Most of the European powers had alliance treaties with others, meaning that if one country in the chain should be attacked, that country could depend on its allies to come to its aid.

For instance, the tiny country of Serbia was allied with Russia, which protected it from an attack by Austria. Austria itself was allied with Germany, which promised to respond if it were attacked. And Russia was allied with France, against the threat of a German attack.

However, while the purpose of the alliance system was to combat the threat of conflict, it actually increased the inherent risk in European power politics. If a war broke out in one region, the alliance system could trigger a chain reaction that would lead to a Europe-wide conflict.

The risk was further amplified because the alliance system had associations with some of Europe’s most unstable regions, such as the Balkans.

The Balkans, in the south-eastern corner of Europe, had once been dominated by the Ottoman Empire. But the Ottoman Empire was in the process of collapse, and in the power vacuum, both Austria and Russia aimed to expand their interests to the area and were prepared to use force.

However, their objectives were complicated in that many different nationalities shared the same space: Slavs, Germans, Bosnians, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians all lived, unsegregated, in the area. This made the area hard to control, and volatile.

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