Four Burning Questions for Christopher Clark, finalist for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature

Christopher Clark is a professor of modern European history and a fellow of St. Catherine’s College at the University of Cambridge, U.K. Clark has been selected as a finalist for the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature for The Sleepwalkers : How Europe Went to War in 1914. Clark talks to the Reporter about writing, WWI and what winning the Cundill Prize would mean for his work.
Christopher Clark has been selected as a finalist for the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature for The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. The winner will be announced on Nov. 20. / Photo courtesy of Christopher Clark

Christopher Clark is a professor of modern European history and a fellow of St. Catherine’s College at the University of Cambridge, U.K. Clark has been selected as a finalist for the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature for The Sleepwalkers : How Europe Went to War in 1914. The Cundill Prize, now in its sixth year, features a $75,000 U.S. grand prize, the most lucrative international award for a nonfiction book. The winning title will be announced on Nov. 20. 

Your book is about the events leading to the Great War – what were the main factors or conditions which lead to WWI?

I was afraid you’d ask this question! There have been many books that aimed to enumerate the factors and conditions – or in other words the ’causes’ – that gave rise to this war. My book takes a different approach. It is less interested in the question of why the war happened than of how it came about. Questions of why and how are logically inseparable, but they lead us in different directions. The question of why invites us to go in search of remote and categorical causes – imperialism, for example, or nationalism, or the arms-race cycle. This way of proceeding brings a certain analytical clarity, but it also has a distorting effect, because it creates the illusion of a steadily building causal pressure; the factors pile up on top of each other, pushing down on the events; political actors become mere executors of ‘forces’ long established and beyond their control. By contrast, the question of how invites us to look closely at the sequences of interactions that produced certain outcomes.

Like all wars, this war was brought about by decisions and I was interested in trying to understanding the agency of the men (they were all men!) who made those decisions. These powerful individuals – kings, emperors, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders and a host of lesser officials – walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps. The outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of choices made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgements they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand.

So, rather than listing causes, the books follows the many paths that led to war, seeking to identify the decisions that brought war about and to understand the reasoning or emotions behind them. Of course one can distil various general factors and conditions from the story as I tell it – a pervasive sense of anxiety about the future that made all decision-makers feel that they were working against the clock, geopolitical shocks that placed the system as a whole under pressure (the Italian war on Libya, for example, or the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913), the deepening entanglement of great-power politics with regional tensions on the Balkan peninsula, and so on. But none of these things pre-destined Europe to the catastrophe of 1914. There were always choices – which is why I focus the account on the attitudes, reasoning and behaviour of the key decision-makers.

Please describe what level of dedication it takes to produce such a comprehensive piece of historical literature? What type of regime do you follow?

The key to this, as to all historical problems, is to read and re-read the sources, and absorb as much as you can of the secondary literature. I was lucky in that while there have been many, many brilliant studies of particular aspects of the outbreak of the First World War, encompassing studies of the problem on a European scale are much rarer. The challenge was to find a narrative structure that did justice to the current state of research, allowing the most compelling arguments from the literature to connect with each other, but also accommodated the texture and insights of the most important primary sources. Getting the structure right was one of the toughest challenges with this book – I ran through generations of diagrams with fins, tubes, wings and arrows and tried them out on friends and colleagues. I’ve never worked so hard on the fundamental structure of a text.

But the biggest challenge of all – for all historians, I imagine – is finding the time to write. My writing routine involved turning up early in the morning at Caffè Nero on King’s Parade in Cambridge, ordering a coffee and writing until the place filled up with undergraduates and got too noisy. There are several of us who work in this way every morning and it’s nice to work in silent company. I should add that I would never have been able to finish this book if I hadn’t missed various committee meetings along the way!

Writing a book is a fairly solitary task. But I benefited hugely from conversations with colleagues and students. There were many of these conversations, but I would ike to single out one friend in particular, my colleague John A. Thompson at St Catharine’s College, a specialist in US history and a man of extraordinary intellectual generosity. Whenever I ran into an impasse, it was wonderful to be able to talk it through with John. His historical insight and his analytical temperament helped me to navigate through many confusions.

What do you hope readers of The Sleepwalkers will come away with when they read it?

The biggest challenge when I set out to write this book was simply to understand the crisis of 1914 – a crisis that I believe was the most complex of modern times, perhaps of all times. So I suppose my first hope would be that readers take away a sense that they too have understood what happened in that terrible year. And of course there are other things: a sense of immersion in the drama of those events, not for the sake of escapism, but as a way of grasping their cumulative logic; a view of the decision-makers of 1914 that is free of condescension and balances critique with human sympathy; a heightened awareness of 1914 as a moment in European history; a sadness at the recklessness with which a cohort of wealthy, educated and cultured European men plunged a continent at the height of its powers into four years of carnage, and a vigilant eye on contemporary power politics and the management of risk by the politicians of today’s world.

How important is the Cundill Prize and literary awards in general? What kind of effect would winning one have on your work?

The Cundill Prize is hugely important to historians. It isn’t just the personal recognition, important as that may be for individual careers. It’s the fact that the Cundill Prize – by which I mean not just the generously endowed prize itself, but also the ceremony and the publicity surrounding it – speaks to a broader public of the importance and value of history as a domain of enquiry. Conversely, the Cundill validates within the discipline those kinds of history writing that strive to speak to and engage the reading public without compromising academic and intellectual standards – standards that are personified in each year’s Cundill Jury. The international scope of the prize – both as regards the authors and their subject matter – is an important and unusual feature of the Cundill. And of course the lustre of the prize is heightened by the outstanding quality of the previous Cundill laureates and runners-up.