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  • Bosnian Daydreamers
  • Dejan Djokić (bio)
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Penguin Books, London, 2013; xxix+ 697 pp.; ISBN 9780141027821 (pbk); £10.99.

How many realized during the centenary commemorations that 28 June 1914 began in festive mood across southeastern and central Europe? ‘For the first time since [the 1389 Battle of] Kosovo, Serbia celebrated St Vitus Day as a day of Resurrection of Serbdom’, Serbia’s then minister in Vienna later recalled, referring to the reclaiming of Kosovo from the Ottoman Empire the previous year. ‘[M]any Serbs and Croats, especially from Dalmatia, went to Kosovo, and across Serbia people swam in patriotic fervour’, he wrote, revealing the presence of Yugoslavist ideals.1 In neighbouring Austria-Hungary, archduke Franz Ferdinand, his wife duchess Sophie and senior establishment figures attended a military parade in Sarajevo – an event unlikely to calm existing regional tensions. Meanwhile, the Viennese went to the nearby Baden spa, to celebrate the Feast of St Peter and St Paul (which fell on 29 June) and enjoy good weather. ‘The day was [End Page 301] mild, there was not a cloud in the sky above the spreading chestnut trees, it was a day to feel happy’, Stefan Zweig remembered.2

What happened around midday in Sarajevo would change the course of history. Following an unsuccessful attempt on the archduke’s life by Nedeljko Čabrinović, a local high-school student, his friend Gavrilo Princip found himself with an unexpected opportunity to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, accidentally also killing Sophie. Security measures were notoriously lax, but both teenagers were immediately arrested and it emerged that up to seven would-be-assassins altogether were waiting that day for an opportunity to murder the heir to the Habsburg throne. All were quickly captured, except Muhamed Mehmedbašić, who fled to Montenegro. A wider revolutionary network, with a central cell in Sarajevo, was discovered. Princip, Čabrinović and another friend had recently visited Serbia, where they decided to assassinate the archduke. Serbian and Montenegrin authorities halted the Kosovo celebrations and sent condolences to Vienna, condemning the murder both publicly and in confidential communication. Montenegro’s official description of the assassination as ‘a mindless terrorist act [carried out] by isolated daydreamers’, seemed to be endorsed by Serbia’s envoy in Vienna, who in a telegram to the Belgrade foreign ministry described it as ‘an isolated act [carried out] by two national fanatics’.3 The popular mood in Serbia and Montenegro was that of joy mixed with anxiety. Zweig recalled that in Baden music stopped and people promenading seemed disturbed as the ‘unexpected news passed from mouth to mouth’, though ‘there was no special shock or dismay to be seen on the faces of the crowd, for the heir to the throne had not by any means been popular’.4 One month later Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, starting a chain of events that would lead to the First World War within days.

Christopher Clark revisits these events, seeking to offer a fresh interpretation of a well-studied subject. He rejects arguments based around Germany’s (and Austro-Hungary’s) guilt, dismissing not only the postwar peacemakers but also the influential German scholarship of Fritz Fischer, Imanuel Geiss and others who have long argued that the war had been premeditated by Germany. Clark’s aim is to move away from blaming any single party. He highlights the polarization of Europe into two opposing blocs and suggests that events in the Balkans, where Russian and French influence grew after 1903, provided more than a mere spark for the conflict, as usually argued. Whilst the Powers ‘sleepwalked’ towards war, at Europe’s southeastern periphery Serbian nationalists were wide awake, plotting the death of the Habsburgs when not killing their own royalty. The book opens with a dramatic description of the murder in Belgrade of Serbia’s King Aleksandar and Queen Draga by a group of army officers in June 1903.

The Sleepwalkers is in many ways a monumental achievement and it is not hard to understand why this well-written and provocatively argued [End Page 302] volume has become a bestseller. The topic is en vogue, thanks to the centenary hype, and the...


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