Opponents of arms deliveries to Ukraine often use Christopher Clark’s book “The Sleepwalkers” to argue about the path to the First World War. Now the historian says whether he himself sees parallels to 1914.
In 2012, the Australian historian Christopher Clark published the study “The Sleepwalkers”, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In it he describes how the great European powers slid into the First World War in 1914.
Since the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine, opponents of arms deliveries in particular have warned that this could now happen again. What does he say about it himself?
Question: Mr. Clark, are we sleepwalking into a world war like in 1914?
Answer: I don’t see a strong analogy here, quite the opposite. What I wanted to do with the book at the time was to show that there is often no simple answer to how a war comes about. It’s often very complex.
Question: So in your eyes there is no parallel to 1914? Do you see more differences than similarities?
Answer: Before the outbreak of today’s war, I saw parallels: the cat-and-mouse game of mobilizing troops reminded me a lot of the winter of 1911-12, when it happened along the Austro-Hungarian-Russian border Reich repeatedly came to mobilizations and counter-mobilizations. But otherwise I mostly only see differences.
Question: What are the differences?
Answer: The European continent is not divided into two large alliances in a binary manner. At that time it was an absolutely essential part of the problem that Europe was divided in two. Today, on the other hand, Russia is quite isolated on the European continent. In addition, the structure of the causes of this war is completely different, because this war began with a brutal act of military aggression, with the invasion of another country. It was very different in 1914. It started with a very tricky crisis surrounding an assassination attempt in Sarajevo. It’s something completely, completely different now. There is an actor who acts.
Question: Is the analogy perhaps not World War I at all, but World War II, when a determined aggressor went on and on?
Answer: I understand why people make this comparison, but I’m skeptical. Behind this comparison lies the equation Putin equals Hitler. That always leads to a dead end. Putin is not Hitler. He doesn’t want to wipe out any group of people. The claim that he would commit genocide in Ukraine is simply false. Its armed forces commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, but not genocide. I would advocate that we assess the matter a little more differentiated and with a cool head.
Question: In Germany, many people fear that support for Ukraine will escalate and that we will be drawn into the war ourselves. How big do you think this risk is?
Answer: I would say: Yes, there is a risk that an overdose of reactions will lead to escalation, but the much greater risk is that you allow this criminal act to take place through an underdose of reactions, by saying: «You get away with it , if you simply invade a neighboring country.” If this message were sent, we would really have to brace ourselves for further crises.
Question: There is a striking contrast between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s robust stance and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decidedly cautious stance. Who do you like better?
Answer: I would very much prefer Scholz to appear. The problem with Boris Johnson is that he wrote a book, a biography of Winston Churchill. And in that book he made a startling discovery: that he and Winston Churchill are the same person. Against the background of this war, he sees himself slipping into the Churchill role. This is embarrassing and ridiculous. In its substance, British politics is not bad, but it is designed and implemented by others, Boris Johnson being just the clown dancing in front of the curtain.
Question: And Olaf Scholz?
Answer: As far as Olaf Scholz is concerned: I think this hesitation is absolutely right, and it also befits the statesman of a peace-loving nation. I think Olaf Scholz hit the right note. I am also thinking of his speech in Düsseldorf, when he was drowned out by the hooting of the crowd, when he said: It must seem cynical to a citizen of Ukraine when he is told to defend his country without weapons. That was a great moment.
Question: Do you think it is right that Scholz and Emmanuel Macron continue to try to keep in touch with Putin?
Answer: I think this is absolutely essential. There is no other way. And although it’s a truism, it’s also important for me to say: this isn’t about Russia, it’s about Putin. Of course he has many supporters, but many, many Russians are also against it and even had the courage to say so publicly. Russia is still part of Europe. We must not fall back into the old tendencies: “Well, that’s how the Russians have always been.”
Question: Are we experiencing an epochal break with the Ukraine war and are we now entering a different era?
Answer: The epoch break that does not occur is interesting. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and some Chinese politicians have often spoken of the end of the Western era in recent years. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to enter a post-western era anytime soon. But on the contrary. The West is in a stronger position. NATO is still fully functional, and the EU is holding up too, despite some tensions, especially from Hungary. The apocalyptic dreams of a transition into another age have diluted like soap bubbles. It’s not over with the west yet. But it’s not over with Russia either. You can’t write off Russia. No matter what the outcome of this thing, you have to build in a proper role for Russia in the future.
ABOUT PERSON: Sir Christopher Clark, born in Sydney in 1960, went to West Berlin on a scholarship in 1985 to study medieval history, but then discovered the subject of Prussia. Since 2008 he has been a professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge. In 2015 he was knighted by the Queen for his services to British-German relations. This Thursday he received the Charlemagne Medal in Aachen. Since the year 2000, the prize has been awarded to personalities or institutions who have rendered services to European unification and the development of a European identity in the media.