Bill Petrocelli

What Was History’s Worst Month?

What was the worst month in history? An American might say December, 1941, with the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. To a Japanese, it could be August, 1945, with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Renaissance writers might have pointed to May, 1453, with the fall of Constantinople, or maybe May, 1527, with the sack of Rome. For sheer barbarity, probably nothing was worse than January 1943, when about 600,000 died at the battle of Stalingrad.

But Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War suggests another criterion. The worst month in history may be the one that sets the stage for the massive destruction to follow. If in one month’s time you manage doom your entire social system to destruction and set the stage for a century of unprecedented violence, you are probably in the middle of the worst 30 days in history. And yet as we approach the centenary of that cursed month, it’s shocking to see how mundane and ordinary everything seemed to the people who strolled their way — sleepwalked, Clark would say — through that period. The actors in that drama seemed to have no real sense of the mounting crisis of July, 1914.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914FC9780061146657

Christopher Clark

Two days before the great dividing line of July, 1914 — on June 28 — the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo. It was a shocking event to be sure, but it was no more shocking than dozens of political murders in the preceding decades (the U.S. had three Presidents murdered), and none of the others had led to war. The immediate reaction to this event was muted. But one month later — on August 1 — the troops were on the march and the slaughter had begun. On one side of that 30-day temporal divide are the old, stable, relatively peaceful monarchies of Europe that were inching their way towards social progress. On the other side lay the destruction of four empires, the unleashing of brutal ethnic violence, the loss of 37 million people in one world war, and the loss of another 60 million people in another world war that became all but inevitable. What could have happened in between those two dates that would account for that catastrophe?


Clark examines the fateful month of July, 1914, like a mongoose circling a cobra, examining why the European leaders did what they did. He delves back three or four decades before 1914, trying to account for the mind-set that the participants brought to the table during that crisis. Maybe the most shocking thing about that month is that no one seemed to know  that they were headed over a cliff. The British public, the press — and even the political leaders — seemed to be more obsessed with the prospect of Home Rule in Ireland than they were with the consequences of an assassination in Sarajevo. The French public was caught up  in a murder trial that July involving the wife of a former prime minister who had shot a newspaper editor in a love-letter scandal. The German Kaiser thought nothing of taking a vacation trip during that month to Sweden. The President of France saw no problem with sailing leisurely through German territorial waters — within hailing distance of the German fleet — on his way to Russia to discuss the joint French-Russian diplomatic response to the situation. There was no public clamor for war. The soon-to-be warring parties still viewed each other with their normal, tolerable prejudices — the demonizing of each other would come later, but only after the bullets had started to fly.  As late as July 29 the two cousins, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas, were exchanging telegrams, expressing their desire for peace and, no doubt, hoping to get their other cousin, King George of England, to join with them. Yet they went to war anyway.

The leaders during that period have all but vanished from public consciousness. Those of us who grew up in the wake of World War II are used to thinking of wartime leaders as either larger than life villains, like Hitler, or conniving tyrants, like Stalin, or defiant bulldogs, like Churchill. But who remembers the names of Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Leopold von Berchtold, Raymond Poincare, Sergei Sazonov, or Edward Grey, let alone what the issues were that divided them in the lead-up to war? It’s tempting to say that these men and their colleagues have been relegated to a well-deserved obscurity, but they probably deserve something far worse than that. Every single leader during this period betrayed a lethal mixture of arrogance, ignorance, and fear — arrogance, in the sense that they thought the others would back down if they acted tough; ignorance, in the sense that they had no real idea of the destruction they were about to unleash; fear, in the sense that they didn’t want to appear weak in dealing with their rivals.

It is this sense of fear among the leaders that Clark conveys so vividly. It wasn’t  a fear of the harm that a war might unleash upon their people — none of them seemed to flinch at the prospect of violence. Rather, it was a fear of what the events might mean to their own  personal careers, fear of how the press and political opposition would react if they vacillated in any way, fear of how they might lose their perceived military edge if they didn’t act according to the timetable of the military leaders. The alliances they had cobbled together to strengthen their position became their undoing in the moment of crisis. Even though they had no real interest in the Balkans, the Germans thought they had to support the Austrians or lose all credibility internationally. The French, who were far removed from the original dispute, thought they had to back up the Russians because someday they might need Russia to protect them. The British worried that if they didn’t stay close to the Russians, then they would one day end up at war with them over the conflicting claims of their world-wide empires. In the end their fear of backing down became greater than their fear of moving forward. That continued right up to the point where they were in the abyss with no chance of turning around.

These events have been covered by many writers, but probably none of them have done so with the thoroughness and objectivity of Christopher Clark. And Clark does one other thing: he advances a theory that few other writers — especially male writers — have ventured into. Was the lead up to World War I, he asks, a crisis of masculinity?

This was a play with only male characters — how important was that? Masculinity is and was a broad category that encompassed many forms of behavior; the manliness of these particular men was inflected by identities of class, ethnicity and profession. Yet it is striking how often the key protagonists appealed to pointedly masculine modes of comportment and how closely these were interwoven with their understanding of policy. ‘I sincerely trust that we shall keep our backs very stiff in this matter,’ Arthur Nicholson wrote to his friend Charles Hardinge, recommending that London reject any appeals for rapprochement from Berlin. … When Bertie spoke of the danger that the Germans would ‘push us into the water and steal our clothes,’ he metamorphized the international system as a rural playground thronging with male adolescents. Sazonov praised the ‘uprightness’ of Poincare’s character and ‘the unshakable firmness of his will;’ Paul Cambon saw in him the ‘stiffness’ of the professional jurist, while the allure of the reserved and self-reliant ‘outdoorsman’ was central of Grey’s identity as a public man. To have shrunk from supporting Austria-Hungary during the crisis of 1914, Bethman commented in his memoirs, would have been an act of ‘self-castration’.

This is the kind of book that reminds us why we read history.

As William Faulkner said, “”The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And it is this type of dangerous, fearful tunnel-vision that may even be in full motion at the present moment. Would we recognize those attitudes, if we were caught in the middle of them?