A leading historian of the outbreak of the first world war has urged admirers of his work among Germany’s political elite to stop drawing comparisons to the conflict in Ukraine, warning any parallels between 1914 and 2022 are flawed.
Cambridge academic Christopher Clark’s account of the complex logic behind each of the main actors’ entry into the global conflict, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, was an international bestseller after its publication in 2013. The book struck a particular chord in Germany, where it provided a counterview to a prevailing narrative of national war guilt and has sold more than 350,000 copies.
Sleepwalkers found particularly avid readers among German political leaders. Angela Merkel urged her ministers to read the book, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited Clark to debate the art of diplomacy, and the late ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 2014 drew parallels between 1914 and the Ukraine crisis in his last article for Die Zeit, entitled Us sleepwalkers.
In recent weeks, the chancellor Olaf Scholz cited Clark’s book in one off-the-record conversation with international media as a case study in how irresponsible politicians could goad each other through bellicose rhetoric into a conflict that wasn’t in their interest. He has reportedly assured other journalists that he would become “no Kaiser Wilhelm”, the German emperor who led his country into the war.
But Clark stressed that the dynamic behind the outbreak of the first world war bore little resemblance to the current situation in Ukraine. “People don’t want to step forward, they don’t want to show their heads over the parapet, they don’t want to risk an escalation,” the Australian historian told the Guardian in an interview in Berlin. “It’s easy to understand in the German case why there is an anxiety there.
“So they look for, and then to, an event that brings home the dangers of precipitous action – 1914 works for that, of course. The only problem with 1914 is that the analogy is so flawed.
“There is no analogy between 1914 and the situation in Ukraine now”, Clark said. “The first world war began in an incredibly complex, around-the-houses way. Whereas in the case of the invasion of Ukraine, in 2014 and this year, it’s quite clearly a case of the breach of the peace by just one power.
“It’s a very different set-up. There’s no Balkan crisis, there’s no sequence of will-they won’t-they decisions. Europe is not divided into a binary pair of alliance systems. In Europe, at least, Russia is isolated this time.”
Clark also rejected comparisons between the current geopolitical situation and that on the eve of the second world war, one favoured by those who accuse Berlin of appeasing Moscow. “I don’t see it being like 1938 either, and Putin is not like Hitler,” he said.
“Hitler had a profoundly racist philosophy, where the Germans were a biomass that was going to expand across the European continent. A better analogy would be with the opportunist Russian predations of the 19th century – most of which we in the west don’t know much about, because they were at the expense of the Ottoman empire. The world in general is more and more like the 19th century: multipolar and unpredictable.”
Clark, who was knighted by the Queen in 2015 for his services to Anglo-German relations, expressed some sympathy for the predicament of Social Democrat Scholz, who has faced criticism for being slow on delivering promised military support to Kyiv.
Frustration with German prevarication was not a new phenomenon, he said, citing an editorial in the Times of London in the run-up to the Crimean war of 1853 that urged Prussia to align itself more strongly with forward-thinking European powers. “The impatience with Germany scratching its head is also not new.”
What was often overlooked, he said, was a centuries-old divide among Germany’s intelligentsia between those who were committed to an alliance with France and Britain, and those “who believed Prussia or Germany should never do anything the Russians weren’t happy with”.
“If there is a threat from outside, most political systems will respond by rallying,” Clark said. “But in Germany that doesn’t work around this question. The Russian question divides the country.
“Scholz is not a snake-oil salesman,” said Clark, the current regius professor of history at Cambridge. “Those who attack him for not saying enough should also bear in mind how appalled everyone would be at the spectacle of a German chancellor who wanted to get stuck in. I think it’s quite right for a German chancellor to be seen to be reluctantly drawn into a conflict rather than seeking the opportunity to demonstrate Germany’s prowess.”
Nonetheless, he stressed that Germany’s government risked losing credibility in Europe at a pivotal moment in history. “I understand Scholz and I thought I understood what he is trying to do, a policy of increasing commitment to the assistance to Ukraine. As long as that is the case, it’s fine to talk the long game and speak quietly rather than wave a big stick. But if you are speaking quietly and carrying a twig, that’s not so great. You need to follow up with concerted action.
“The dangers of simply letting Putin have his way in Ukraine are immense and unfathomable, and his language makes this clear. He’s talked about the long-term material consequences for Finland, for example. And Putin is not someone who says something and then forgets about it.”
Upon its release, Sleepwalkers was received by some critics as a deliberate challenge to the arguments of historian Fritz Fischer, who in the 1960s had shaken the country with the thesis that Germany was solely responsible for the outbreak of not only the second but also the first world war. The British historian John Röhl warned that Clark’s book amounted to a Freispruch or “acquittal” that would once again lead Germany down a wrong path.
Instead, Clark said, the exact opposite of what the ill-readers of his book predicted happened. “Sleepwalking became a cipher for saying let’s not do anything precipitous or risky at all. The war-mongering charges turned out to be completely beside the point.
“I don’t think there is any risk now of sleepwalking,” he added. “Now everyone is wide awake because Putin has woken us all up.”