I recently read Christopher Clark’s celebrated book on the initiation of the First World War, The Sleepwalkers. There was a lot in it that was new to me. I’ve never seen an account — even a German account — that portrayed Germany as such a passive, almost innocent and peace-seeking, participant in the events of 1914. Although Clark disclaims an attention to fix blame, I felt very clearly that his account put the blame on French and Russian scheming, with Serbians playing a devious supporting role, and the Austro-Hungarians hapless bunglers.
I was struck by his portrayal of the alliance system as reasonably haphazard and fluid, kind of a square dance where nations just stayed with the partners they happened to be with when the music stopped. In particular, the alliance between Russia and the UK seemed to reflect a common pathology in personal relations:
In the light of continuing Russian pressure on Persia and other peripheral imperial territories, there had been talk of abandoning the Anglo-Russian Convention in favour of a more open-ended policy that would not necessarily exclude a rapprochement of some kind with Germany. This never became Foreign Office policy, but the news that Russian mobilization had just triggered German counter-measures at least temporarily foregrounded the Russian aspect of the growing crisis. British policy-makers had no particular interest in or sympathy for Serbia. This was a war from the east, sparked by concerns remote from the official mind of Whitehall.
We’ve all known couples like this. They’ve been together for years, comfortable but never quite committed. Then a crisis comes, and they have to decide: Do we get married or split up. And often they marry, because splitting just seems too frightening. It usually doesn’t end well.