The Sleepwalkers is one of the most thorough books I have recently read. It attempts to describe and make sense of the factors that led to WWI. The author attempts to discover the real causes beyond the notion that the war was inevitable. It’s a nearly impossible task that I think Christopher Clark does quite well. His findings do not provide a clear or simple answer but it is comprehensive and much better than the tired tropes we learned about in high school history class.
I think that one of the most interesting, and also depressing, aspects of the lead up to WWI is that no one really wanted a war. While that is an oversimplification and contradictory to what I just said that I loved about the book, it represents one of the larger lessons I learned and I am trying to summarize. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that WWI was avoidable, but the leaders of the major powers were not bent on a war. Excessive posturing and precautions, that included the buildup of military forces created a scenario wherein nations felt obligated to defend themselves from the growing threats.
Another fascinating aspect was the relationship between Tsar Nicholas of Russia, King Wilhelm of Germany, and King George of England. They were all related and communicated with each other privately outside of official channels. Particularly interesting were the “Willy-Nicky” letters, nicknames used by Wilhelm and Nicholas and exchanged while trying to avoid war.
The book gets its title from the apathetic nature of those officials who, essentially, let the war happen by “sleepwalking” through their responsibilities. This book is not a fast or easy read. It does not go into great detail for specific battles and conflicts. That said it does go into great detail of the less than sexy causes of war. It is fascinating and is must read for history buffs.