World War I

Causes, Events, and Legacy

Monday September 15, 2014, 6:00-8:00pm
Lecture and Panel Discussion at the German Embassy
Speakers: Christopher Clark (Cambridge University) and Roger Chickering (Georgetown University)

  • Event Report

    "I shall never be able to understand how it happened," wrote the British journalist Rebecca West of the outbreak of World War I. The problem, she wrote, was not too little information, but too much. The year was 1937. One hundred years after the war began in August 1914, the origins of the "original catastrophe" of the twentieth century remain hotly debated. That this event continues to generate such interest can in part be explained by its complexity, its insolubility as a historical problem.It is likewise a topic for public debates in Europe and America because, rather than receding into the past, this history seems ever more relevant in the present-day world.

    On September 15, nearly 200 guests were treated to an "intellectual fest," in the words of one attendee, as esteemed historians Christopher Clark of Cambridge University and Roger Chickering of Georgetown University debated the ever-fascinating subject, focusing on Clark's best-selling book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

    Ambassador Peter Wittig opened the event in the freshly renovated embassy auditorium, admitting that he himself had "devoured" Sleepwalkers. "In immensely gripping fashion, you have opened up debates - as old as they are modern - on one of the darkest periods in European history and well beyond," he said. The ambassador underscored the importance of studying history, especially for politicians and diplomats. Hartmut Berghoff, Director of the German Historical Institute, highlighted in his opening remarks the significance of the book's conclusions for reshaping German identity and foreign policy, before turning over the podium to Christopher Clark.

    Mirroring the engrossing style of Sleepwalkers, Clark began by zeroing in on the morning of June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, before the infamous assassinations of the Austro-Hungarian archduke and his wife. On that morning, not only was Europe at peace, he said; the general mood was that war had become less likely in light of recent developments. It was not, in Clark's estimation, a powder keg waiting to blow. Therefore, Clark argued, it was indeed appropriate to consider the outbreak of the First World War the disaster from which numerous others sprang, leading to an "unhinging of the global system." The "intrinsic interest" in this event was responsible for the debate about it being older than the war itself, he said. But the 25,000 "must-read" publications on the origins of the original catastrophe did not suffice. The "raw modernity" of the events, as Clark put it - the way in which the multipolar world of today in some ways resembles that of 1914 - demanded a new approach to the problem. Rather than focus on the "why," Clark refreshed the narrative by focusing on the "how." This strategy, while not removing responsibility for the events, permitted a more objective analysis, Clark agued, by allowing the "why" to come out of the "how." Clark further rejuvenated the debate by incorporating trends old and new in the scholarship on the war, making the arguments talk to one another, and capturing recent impulses such as the globalization of the field of vision-taking into account, for example, the role of China in the 1890s. Finally, Clark's approach revealed the "Heisenberg uncertainty principle of the location of power," the battles between the hawks and the doves within the chaotic decision-making structures, as he described them, of the belligerents. Neither a James Bond narrative nor an Agatha Christie murder mystery with a "bloody swordfish," the story of the outbreak of the First World War was a muddled tale that grew out of a common European political culture, Clark concluded.

    Roger Chickering, himself a leading expert on the period before and during the war, "took a deep breath" when he finished reading Sleepwalkers, overwhelmed by its unorthodox approach. The German Empire, typically the central character in the scholarship Chickering had previously encountered, appeared to be a marginal character. Though impressed by Clark's scholarship and approving of his move to "abandon the blame game" at the centenary of the war, Chickering nonetheless offered the critique that Clark had "done less to Europeanize than to de-Germanize the narrative." Chickering ended the discussion on a positive note, however: the book, he said, would likely resound with young readers in Germany who, socialized in the age of responsible German leadership in Europe, would best be able to appreciate its subtle take on an endlessly complex subject.

    Jacob Comenetz

  • Invitation

    One hundred years after the beginning of World War I, we have the distance necessary to analyze the causes of the 20th century's original catastrophe, to discuss the events and their results for the following century, and to learn from the legacy of this failure of political leadership.

    The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Historical Institute are pleased to invite you to a lecture and panel discussion on "World War I: Causes, Events, and Legacy." Prof. Christopher Clark (Cambridge University) and Prof. Roger Chickering (Georgetown University) will share their research and discuss the implications of this history. Christopher Clark's bestselling book The Sleepwalkers sparked an intense debate on the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the lessons those events might hold for policy makers in the present. In his lecture, Clark will revisit the war and its legacy. Roger Chickering, an acclaimed authority on the war and its impact on German society and culture, will comment.

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