More than 500 people gathered in the SBE Lecture Hall on 12 Novermber for this year’s Tans Lecture. Studium Generale invited Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge University, to Maastricht to present a lecture based on his bestselling book about the prelude and the outbreak of the First World War, Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914.
Unhinging the global system
Following an introduction by Prof. Dr. Luc Soete, Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University, Prof. Clark started his lecture with a recapitulation of the events that led to the murder of Franz Ferdinand—the Austria-Hungarian heir to the throne—and his wife by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo in late June 1914.
Being a gifted storyteller with a great sense of humour, Prof. Clark immediately caught the attention of his audience by describing in considerable detail the circumstances surrounding the murders.
He evaluated the war that broke out 37 days later as having been the primary catastrophe that caused all other catastrophes of the twentieth century; it “unhinged” the global system, according to Clark. The War gave rise to fascism in Italy and to the Nazi movement in Germany, and it caused two revolutions and the establishment of a one-party state in Russia. It poisoned the twentieth century.
Prof. Clark then turned to the causes of the war. He elaborated on his approach to this difficult issue by explaining that a significant amount of literature exists on the topic, but said that most authors have been concerned with asking why the war broke out.
The question that occupied this author, however, was how the war broke out, as indicated by the subtitle of his book. As Clark explained, asking how instead of why takes away the guilt question and clears the way for a broader view on a chaotic period in international relations. In that sense, he distanced himself from the tendency in literature to put the blame for the war solely on Germany or on Russia or France.
His analysis of the years before the war points to a shared responsibility of a manifold of actors. Prof. Clark supported his point of view by describing the quagmire of pre-war Europe as a situation of multipolarity in which four empires—Russia, Britain, Germany and Austria-Hungary—tried to adapt to rapidly changing power relations following the decline of the Ottoman empire.
It was a time of outright imperialist behaviour of several actors, and the rise of nationalism in the Balkans. Several smaller conflicts had increased the tensions in Europe in the years before the war. Provocative behaviour and a chaotic level of decision-making in the empires did the rest. In such an enivronment, events could become more important than structures.
Prof. Clark concluded by pointing out that the period before the war resembles the world we live in today. The decline of empire and the rise of multipolarity and nationalism, several smaller and bigger crises, and the often chaotic level of decision-making all seem to be ingredients of our world of 2014.
In that sense, the history of the First World War represents a paradox: the more it distances itself in time, the more it seems to become a reference point in understanding our contemporary world. This might also be one of the reasons for the popularity of the topic and of his book, apart from the heightened interest because of the centenary of the war.
This year’s Tans Lecture was an overwhelming success, owing to an excellent choice of speaker who presented a popular topic in a very informative and often amusing way, while at the same time giving a broader perpective on the prelude of the war.
The Tans Lecture is organized every year to honor dr. J. Tans (1912-1993), the founding father of Maastricht University.