No, I am not Lady Macbeth, who, guilt-ridden walked in her sleep. Unlike this wretched lady, I don’t have blood on my hands (“out, damned spot!”), although I have entertained murderous feeling towards my invading neighbors. We will get back to this matter in the next blog. The truth is that I spent August and September in Calvisson in the south of France engrossed in reading the 667 page book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. The book stands out because its author, Christopher Clark, offers the readers a clear and readable account of the July 1914 events, a bellicose and tangled period which led to the First World War bloodbath (some 15 million lives were lost). Apparently, more than 25,000 books or articles have been written on WWI. The Sleepwalkers makes a fascinating reading and has already been translated into two dozen languages. Not book club material, The Sleepwalkers was nonetheless the book that many of my friends read this summer. Our exchange of views made the reading even more stimulating.
Clark’s objective was to comprehend how Europe was led into war rather than who was responsible for the conflict. The spark was the assassination of the unpopular Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by a Serbian-sponsored young hotheaded nationalist. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. One month later, to punish uncooperative Serbia, Austria-Hungary declared war on this small Balkan country. It was a “preventive” war because delay in attacking would have involved greater risk. However, the domino effect resulting from the regional alliances unleashed a global conflict, the extent of which the warmongers, or sleepwalkers, had not anticipated.
Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
The sleepwalkers were an improbable bunch of diplomats, aristocrats and army brass, many past their prime. They all knew one another well and except for the French, they were serving monarchs who knew each other even better since they were closely related. Three of them were cousins, and two were Queen Victoria’s grandchildren. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, called Willy by his cousins, was the most colorful of the three and the least liked. What the trio lacked in grey cells it made up in extravagantly waxed facial hair. King George V of Great Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia looked so much alike that they could have been clones; they wrote to each other as Georgie and Nicky. Willy, Nicky and Georgie were known to have a pathological aversion to social progress; the first two were conservative autocrats and WWI wiped them out. Fortunately, Georgie was content to be a powerless constitutional monarch: he kept his job. In the meantime he had changed his surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more British-sounding Windsor.
Nicky & Georgie
It would be wrong to think that WWI was a family feud; the kinship was all façade. The defensive alliance network overrode the biology in spite of the many telegrams exchanged between the cousins in a desperate attempt to cool tempers.
So during the month of July 1914, the sleepwalkers played with fire, got burned and put their European house on fire. Clark gives a detailed portrait of the dozen or so key players in Russia, France, Germany, Serbia, Great Britain and Austria-Hungary. It was obviously a male world, a world where the elaborately waxed beards and mustaches were the visible front for asserted manliness. According to Clark, these men were caught in “a crisis of masculinity”. This statement does not shock me. By easing social, gender and racial mobility, the Industrial Revolution in Europe had created a crisis of masculinity and entitlement in the male elite. For many men, war was regarded as a way to regain lost ground and honor. Plenty of this swagger was showcased in the second season of the British television series Downton Abbey.
French men were particularly tormented. After their humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent loss of Alsace-Lorraine (1870), the government resorted to resurrecting the duel, the ultimate art of manliness, and a confirmation that bravery was the exclusive attribute of the elite. Europe was returning to the time of chivalry and the cult of masculinity was plainly evident in the days leading up to the armed forces mobilization.
Clark reveals that many governments were not fully focusing on the seriousness of the situation particularly in France and Great Britain, the two countries which had a modicum of democracy. The later was in the process of granting Home Rule to Ireland and the former was captivated by one of its trademark politico-sexual scandals. The murder trial of Mrs. Henriette Caillaux ex-mistress and new wife of former minister Joseph Caillaux, opened on 20 July. Coincidently, the conservative and nationalist President Raymond Poincaré was visiting his ally Tsar Nicholas II in Saint Petersburg. Apparently, the trial so much worried Poincaré that he was distracted from his diplomatic duties. Mrs. Caillaux had shot dead Gaston Calmette, the editor of le Figaro, a right wing “yellow” newspaper. Mrs. Caillaux was acquitted of murder on the ground of crime passionnel on July 28, the day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
The story is worth telling because it epitomizes the socio-political shenanigans of the Third Republic. In a nutshell, the plot went like this: Caillaux, a left-wing politician, twice cabinet minister was routinely harassed by Calmette. In addition to threatening to publish Caillaux’ s love letters to Henriette, the editor wanted to disclose official wires confirming Caillaux’ sympathy for Germany. In a pathologically Germanophobe country, Caillaux was no poster-boy for übermensch! In case Poincaré did not officially deny the existence of these cables, Caillaux would release the president’s compromising secret correspondence with the pope. The blackmail paid off, and for good measure, Poincaré told the judges that leniency was in the French government’s interest. Political interference in the justice system apart, the verdict confirmed that women were not rational human beings and could not control their emotions. Manliness was spared.
French President Raymond Poincaré
The English saying: “too many cooks spoil the broth” neatly applies to the meddlesome parties in July 1914. The convergence of exacerbated and fanatic nationalism, racism, state disintegration, imperialistic ambition and conquests, military expansion and upgrading, and testosterone led to a situation whereby war was a likely outcome. Ensnared in the vise of rival alliances, the parties were duty-bound to fight; there was no way out. The double assassination in Sarajevo was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” to use another idiom. Contrary to many writers and historians, Clark brings new elements to debunk accepted myths (the Kaiser’s fault) but refuses to join the “blame game”. His book is even more stimulating as readers can come up with their own ranking of culprits.
Kaiser Wilheim II
First on my guilty list is Russia for propping up its stooge, pan-Slavic-obsessed Serbia. To this end, the Tsar’s cabinet and ambassadors resorted to emotional manipulation and to faking documents. Russia rushed mobilization although it did not have the means to fulfill its ambition. For me it is the capital sin.
Second comes Serbia, a rogue state even by 20th century standards. Its reckless racial (ethnic cleansing) and nationalist pursuit destabilized the Balkans, exacerbating the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The country got away with it until pay-back period came when Kosovo, regarded as the cradle of pan Slavism by Serbia and Russia, declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.
France comes third. France, led by Poincaré, was viscerally anti-German and longing for revenge. Hatred blinded many politicians as well as the media. France understood that it was too small to confront alone its more populous neighbor and joined Russia and Great Britain (The Triple Entente) to rebalance the forces. France may have been demographically disadvantaged, but in compensation it had become the financer of the military splurge of both Serbia and Russia.
Then come Germany and Austria-Hungary. I am no apologist for Germany. I lump them together because without German support, Austria-Hungary may have not launched its offensive on Serbia. After all, Austria-Hungary was the wounded party. It was fin de regne, empire decadence in Vienna, but Berlin was on the ascent, growing economically, militarily and politically. According to Clark, Germany has been wrongly blamed for starting WWI. The Kaiser’s paranoid and erratic behavior gave wrong signals. In order to stop the German expansion binge, the war became unavoidable. Nonetheless, Germany regarded France as its traditional enemy not Russia.
Finally, Great Britain became drawn into the Entente by default principally fearing Germany’s naval expansion. By gobbling up pieces of the Ottoman Empire, Italy inspired other countries to do the same. Last come the Young Turks for speeding up the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.
Obviously this ranking is the work of the author of this article, an emotional amateur. The 100 year anniversary of WWI coincided with the Russian land grab in Eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis is no repeat of the July 1914 events mainly because the involved parties so far seem to understand that posturing and taking actions should not be combined. Today’s power brokers also know that the weaponry at their disposal may be Armageddon. This was not understood in 1914.
Fortunately, I did not sleepwalk like Shakespeare’s superwoman but crime was often on my mind. Tossing in bed, I mulled over elaborate plans to stop my neighbor’s cats from trespassing on my property days and nights. She has four fearless, bad-mannered and unfriendly cats which lounge on my deck chairs, dig my plants and take the garden for an oversize litter box. In spite having invested in all sort of cat repellents from motion detecting ultrasound, lemon spray, to pigeon spikes I am constantly one upped by the feline hordes.
Calvisson cats have no useful purpose; neither pets nor feral beasts, they roam endlessly the village and only come home for feeding. They are becoming very unpopular with the inhabitants. Sometimes I feel like adopting a dog, this beats everything for a cat lover like me! I rather remind myself that after horses, cats were the most “commissioned” animals during WWI. Some 500,000 cats were in active duty in the trenches on both sides, and many more served on navy ships. On the other hand, only 60,000 dogs were drafted. Since Egyptian time, cats have been a common fixture as shipmates. In the trenches, they were drafted as mousers to hunt rats which infested the ditches. They also acted as mascots and soul mates for the downhearted soldiers. The three royal cousins had their official yachts, Nicholas II was even photographed with a pampered cat mascot on his laps.
In the trenches with the guys.