By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Far I hear the steady drummer Drumming like a noise in dreams. –A.E. Housman
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, is a wonderful, magisterial diplomatic history of how Europe went to war in the summer of 1914. (Read it, and The Guns of August will never seem the same; for one thing, Clark shows clearly how players in chancelleries all over Europe wanted war; it’s not just down to the Germans.) Thomas Lacquer in the London Review of Books:
The Sleepwalkers is also a book for our time in its emphasis on contingency and the role of what Clark calls the multiple ‘mental maps’ in the decisions that were taken. The war in his account was not the consequence of two great alliances yielding to specific provocations. If anything, it was the opposite; it was the weakness and unreliability of the alliances, and the lack of certainty about who would be on whose side, that exacerbated the crisis of summer 1914 in the capitals of Europe….
Statesmen at various levels and in at least five countries were testing a system whose workings were beyond their comprehension. No single logic, no master narrative led to a determinable end. There were structural limits to policy-making.
Clark’s story is ‘saturated with agency’. Many actors (the crowned heads of Europe, military men, diplomats, politicians and others), each with their own objectives, acting as rationally and irrationally as humans are wont to act, made decisions that foreclosed on others and collectively led the world into an unimaginable and un-imaged war. Collectively, they produced the greatest ‘black swan event’ in world history.
Some may think we’re seeing a similar collective failure of elite decision making — assuming one views millions of dead as a failure — in the drama of Grexit, should its resolution ultimately be the dissolution of the European Union. After all, if we abstract realpolitik, and normal human characteristics like greed, the lust for power, and class interest away, we are still left with the laudable desire to avoid another one of the Great Wars that have saturated European soil with blood, bits of twisted metal, and unexploded ordnance. 2015 – 1945 = 70 years without a major European war, and that’s a tribute to Europe and European institutions, including the European Union. If those institutions are at risk, that’s a very big deal; in fact the prospect fills me with foreboding, especially since Europe includes two nuclear powers.
We’ve been talking a lot about the decision-making, on all sides, during what I will label the Greek Debt Crisis — hat tip, German banks, for getting away clean — about European decision making, especially in the process of “negotiation.” I’m now going to quote three long-ish episodes from The Sleepwalkers, all of which focus on different aspects of the decision-making after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist on 28 June 1914. I hope we can use these episodes from the complex, chaotic, and most definitely not mechanistic past as lenses to look at the present. History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.
Decision Makers: Kaiser Wilhelm II
After the Austrians decided for war (see below), they drafted a telegram to Serbia that contained an “ultimatum” so worded as to provoke Serbian rejection, and thus casus belli. Here is how the Kaiser heard about it, what he did, and what happened. From pp. 520-523:
During these hot July  weeks, the Kaiser was taking his Scandinavian cruise. Extended journeys by ship, mostly in the Baltic, had long been a fixture in William II’s summer calendar. They enabled him to escape from the tension, complexity, and sense of impotence that dogged him in Berlin. On board the royal yacht Hohenzollern, surrounded by agreeable sycophants who could always be press-ganged into imperial amusements, the Kaiser could be master of all he surveyed and give free rein to the impetuous currents of his personality. …
[On 19 July], Wilhelm was shocked into a state of “high anxiety” by a telegram to the Hohenzollern from the Secretary of State for foreign affairs, Jagow. The telegram contained nothing essentially new, but it warning that an ultimatum was now planned for 23 July and that measures were to be taken to make sure the Kaiser could be reached “in case unforseen circumstances should make important decisions [mobilization] necessary brought home to Wilhelm the scope of the crisis that now loomed. …
When Admiral Müller suggested that the ultimatum meant that war was imminent, the Kaiser energetically contradicted him. The Serbs, he insisted, would never risk a war against Austria. Müller interpreted this — correctly, as it turned out — as a sign that the Kaiser was psychologically completely unprepared for military complications and would cave in as soon as he realized that war was a real possibility. …
At ten o’clock that morning [of 28 July] The Kaiser dashed off a letter to Jagow in which he declared that since Serbia had tendered “a capitulation of the most humiliating kind,” any reason for war has now been eliminated.”
[The Kaiser’s] comments during the crisis suggest that, unlike those figures in Berlin and Vienna who saw the ultimatum as a mere pretext for military action, he regarded it as an authentic diplomatic instrument with a role to play in resolving the crisis and that he remained wedded to the idea of a political resolution of the Balkan problem.
A fissure had opened within the German decision-making structure. The view of the sovereign was at odds with that of the most senior political decision-makers. But the fissure was soon closed. The most remarkable thing about the letter to Jagow of 28 July is that it was not acted upon. Had Kaiser Wilhelm II enjoyed the plenitude of power that is sometimes attributed to him, this intervention might have changed the course of the crisis and possibly of world history. But he was out of touch with developments in Vienna, where the leadership was impatient to press ahead with the strike on Serbia. But, more importantly, having been away at sea for the better part of three weeks, he was out of touch with developments in Berlin. His instructions to Jagow had no influence on Berlin’s representations to Vienna. [Chancellor] Bethmann did not inform the Austrians of Wilhelm’s views in time to prevent them from issuing their declaration of war [on Serbia] on 28 July.
In moments of crisis, the personal characteristic of decision makers placed in positions of great, or ostensibly great, power really do matter. (If Louis XVI had not been a vaccillating monarch who made his decisions on the basis of the last person who talked to him, he might have kept his head. And if Charles I had been capable of backing down from a decision once taken, he might have kept his.) This is true even if those characteristics are that staff keep them out of the loop until its too late. One can only wonder how many decisions in the Greek Debt Crisis have been structured by bureaucrats and Sherpas writing the bullet points. Finally, how many of the deadlines and ultimatums in the Crisis can be sorted into the game-playing pretext bucket, and how many into the “authentic diplomatic instrument” bucket? And do all the players sort their buckets in the same way? Are their “mental maps” the same?
Decision Making: The Austro-Hungarian Empire
Clark describes the nature of Austro-Hungarian decision-making as they wrote their ultimatum and made the choice to go to war with Serbia. From pp. 428-430:
It is worth touching once again on the oddities of the Austro-Hungarian decision-making process. [Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Leopold] Berchtold, disparaged by many of the hawks in the administration as a soft touch incapable of forming clear resolutions, took control of the debate after 28 June [when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Serbia] in a rather impressive way. But he could so this only through an arduous and time-consuming process of consensus-building. The puzzling dissonances in the documents that track the emergence of the Austrian decision for war reflect the need to incorporate — without necessarily reconciling — opposed viewpoints.
Perhaps the most striking defect of Austrian decision-marking was the narrowness of the individual and collective fields of vision. The Austrians resembled hedgehogs scurrying across a highway with their eyes averted from the rushing traffic. The momentous possibility of a Russian mobilization and the general European war that would inevitably follow was certainly glimpsed by the Austrian decision-makers, who discussed it on several occasions. But it was never integrated into the process by which options were weighed up and assessed. … [One reason for this] was that the hive-like structure of the Austrian political elite was simply not conducive to the formulation of decisions through the careful sifting and balancing of contradictory information. The contributors to the debate tended to indulge in strong statements of opinion, often sharpened by mutual recrimination, rather than attempting to view the problems facing Vienna in the round. The solipsism of Austrian decision-making also reflected a profound sense of geo-political isolation. The notion that Austro-Hungarian statesman has a “responsibility to Europe” was nonsense, one political insider noted…. But the most important reason for the perplexing narrowness of the Austrian policy debate is surely that the Austrians were so convinced of the rectitude of their case and of their proposed remedy against Serbia that they could conceive no alternative to it….
In short, the Austrians were in the process of making what decision theorists have called an “opting decision,” one in which the stakes are unimaginably high, the impact transformative and irrevocable, levels of emotion elevated, and the consequences of not acting potentially lasting. Decisions of this kind may acquire an existential dimension, i that they promise to re-invent the decision-making entity, to fashion it into something that it was not before. At the core of such decisions is something rooted in identity that is not easily susceptible to rationalization. This is not to suggest that Austrian decision-making was irrational. … Yet at the core of the Austrian response — to an extent that does not apply to any of the other actors in 1914 — was a temperamental, intuitive leap, a “naked act of decision,” founded in a shared understanding of what the Austro-Hungarian Empire was and must be if it were to remain a great power.
Yves, by tracking the negotiation process in the Greek Debt Crisis in near-real time, has been creating the sort of record that will help future historians, if any, produce passages of similar scholarship (leaving aside more contemporary implications). Obviously, the Austro-Hungarian empire’s decision-making process was creaky, and some parallels to today’s European Union might be usefully drawn by readers more knowledgeable than I am; I have to say, though, that “the debate tended to indulge in strong statements of opinion, often sharpened by mutual recrimination” and “the solipsism of Austrian decision-making” ring true for me today. I also wonder if the fragility of this “empire,” as a collection of sintered together nationalities who had in part or in large part surrendered their sovereignty, is a parallel to the baroque European “ever closer union.” (You think the filibuster is complex? Try European politics!) Finally, the Austrians were quite right: The decision for war was existential. And their empire ceased to exist. Today’s Europeans, on all sides, also view their decisions in the Greek Debt Crisis as existential.
A Decisive Moment: Prime Minister Viviani of France
French President French President Raymond and Prime Minister René Viviani have sailed the Baltic to Saint Petersburg on the battleship France to consult with Tsar Nicholas on the state of the alliance between France and Russia. From pp. 445-46:
During an embassy dinner [in Moscow on 21 July] — a splendid affair in [his] honour — Poincaré sat next to [Foreign Minister Sergei] Sazonov. To his dismay, Poincaré found Sazonov preoccupied and little disposed to firmness. “The timing is bad for us,” Sazonov said, “our peasants are still very busy with their work in the fields.” In the meantime, in the petit salon next door, where the less important guests were being entertained, a different mood prevailed. Here, a Colonel from Poincaré’s entourage was heard proposing a toast “to the next war and to certain victory.” … Later that night, after a reception by the municipal assembly, Poincaré found himself sitting in the back of the imperial yacht with Viviani and [Russian Amabassador to France Count Alexander] Izvolsky, who had travelled back from Paris to take part in the meetings. Izvolsky seemed pre-occupied — perhaps he had been talking to Sazonov. Viviani appeared “sad and surly.” As the yacht sailed along toward the Peterhof in virtual silence, Poincaré looked up into the night sky and asked himself, “What does Austria have in store for us?”
The next day, 22 July, was particularly difficult. Viviani appeared to be having a breakdown. It came to a head in the afternoon, when the French Prime Minister, who happend to be seated at lunch to the left of the Tsar, seemed to find it impossible to answer any of the questions addressed to him. By mid-afternoon, his behavior had become more outlandish. While Nicholas and Poincaré sat listening to a military band, Viviani was seen standing alone near the imperial tent, muttering, grumbling, swearing loudly and generally drawing attention to himself. [French Ambassador to Russia Paleologue’s efforts to calm him were to no avail. Poincaré’s diary registered the situation with the lapidary comment: “Viviani is getting sadder and sadder and everyone is starting to notice it. The dinner is excellent.” Eventually it was announced that Viviani was suffering from a “liver crisis” and would have to retire early.
Why the prime minister was feeling so poorly is impossible to establish with certainty. [It is likely that] Viviani — a deeply pacific man — was alarmed by the steadily intensifying mood of belligerence at the various Franco-Russian gatherings. That is certainly what [French attaché Louis] de Robien thought. It was clear [to him] that Viviani was “overwrought by all these expressions of the military spirit.” On 22 July, de Robie noted, the talk was of nothing but war — “one felt that the atmosphere had changed since the night before.” He laughed when the marines who crewed the France told him that they were worried about the prospect of coming under attack on the home crossing, but their nervousness was an ominous sign. The highpoint was Thursday 23 July — Poincaré’s last day in Russia — when the heads of state witnessed a military review involving 70,000 men against a backdrop of military music… Particularly striking was the fact that the troops were not wearing their elaborate ceremonial uniforms, but the khaki battledress they had worn for training — de Robien interpreted this as yet another symptom of a general eagerness for war.
This passage has haunted me since I read it; alone among the European decision makers whose actions and communications Clark catalogues so minutely, Viviani — as I read the passage — saw World War I coming, saw the snaky head of the Medusa, and was possessed with dread and horror, rightly, as all those who surrounded him raised toasts, cheered, sang songs of war, and selected the appropriate uniform for the great day. Then, in their millions, Europeans rushed into the bloody sinkhole, cherishing their identities and waving their flags as they did so. We would do well to pay heed to our Cassandras today.
I don’t have the sociological or political chops to read the past into the present, and in any case history, including current history, forms only chaotic patterns. However, I hope a careful reading of Clark’s book will at least help unknot some of our thinking, feeling, and saying on the Greek Debt Crisis; and we might remember that, at least in 1914, the best and the brightest were not very good, and not very bright, no matter which side they were on.