What World War I has in common with Putin's war of aggression

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“The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to the First World War” is the title of Christopher Clark's book. The historian spoke to DW about what made the war in Ukraine different from the war back then.

The First World War developed into a conflagration that involved more and more countries

The Australian historian Christopher Clark is considered one of the most important chroniclers of European history. He was recently awarded the Charlemagne Medal for his commitment to a united Europe and transatlantic relations. DW spoke to him about the First World War and today's war in Ukraine.

DW: Christopher Clark, your book “The Sleepwalkers” made people rethink the First World War. They raise the question of whether only Germany started the war or whether it was rather many European nations that were somnambulated into a massive battle. What conclusion did you come to?

Christopher Clark: Well, I think the conclusion of my book about the fateful year 1914 was that the causes of this war were complex. The debate about this is still not over. The book is therefore a plea for recognizing the complex connections. That was my first approach. 

And the second was that we don't just have to think about who is to blame for starting a war. We also need to think about how wars arise so we can do better next time.

For example, if we think about the current war in Ukraine and just decide that Putin is a very bad person who caused a war and that's it, we will not learn from this war.

Christopher Clark deals intensively with European history

But we can learn something if we think about how this situation came about. That would in no way lessen his responsibility for what happened, which I think is undeniable. But it would at least allow us to deal with such situations better in the future.

What can we learn from this? What parallels are there between the period before the First World War and the current situation?

In a way, there is a lesson to be learned from this. When the [Russian-Ukrainian] conflict started, at least before the actual war broke out, I was reminded of the pre-1914 situation. I imagined that it could be Putin's plan to send 200,000 men to the border with Ukraine and then withdraw them after pressuring the West or Ukraine itself to make concessions. 

On February 24, 2022, the Russians invaded Ukraine

And then it turns out he was planning a war all along. So this isn't like 1914, because in 1914 there isn't a single actor who just decided to invade another country. Back then it started in a place that nobody expected: with an assassination in Sarajevo in the Balkans. [At that time Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie were murdered by a member of the Serbian nationalist movement “Young Bosnia”, annotation. d. Editorial] Then there was the far-reaching question: How will the Austrians react? How will the Serbs react to the Austrian reaction? How will the Germans react to the Austrians' reaction to the Serbs? And will the Russians support Serbia or not – even if the Russians themselves are not attacked?

On the visit Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo: the start of the First World War

The whole thing was immensely complex, and each power involved in this war operates on a different logic. But now we have a much simpler situation. Russia is quite isolated, and Putin made that choice himself. It's clear that a lot of high-level people in his system didn't know about it. It's clearly Putin's war. And as far as we know from intelligence reports, he's even playing a personal role in waging this war right now. He makes decisions even at the operational level. So it really is a very different picture from 1914. 

You have described the First World War as a “modern event”. What did you mean by that?

When I found out about it at school, it felt like an event from a bygone world – with all those gaudy Habsburg uniforms and complicated court rituals. But then, as I started writing this book, I realized it started with a motorcade driving through a city. It was about suicide bombers –  so in a lot of ways that was something we know from the modern world. 

Clark's book was released in 2013

And I got the impression that the arguments that were used to get involved in that war can still be heard today. For example, this tendency to play the victim, to see the other side's provocations, but to be completely blind to the contribution that one has made to a crisis. Or to regard one's own measures as defensive and the measures of the opponent as offensive. Apparently this kind of reasoning hasn't died out yet.

Have people learned anything in the last 100 years or not?

Certain things we definitely do better. But whether we as a political species, as a kind of 'homo politicus', have become more intelligent is another matter. There is a tendency to keep falling back into old behavior patterns. I believe that the creation of the EU is a kind of lesson from history –  the lesson of the two world wars that has been translated into a political order and has acquired a kind of permanence that they might otherwise not have.

However, when one thinks of Putin – not just his decision, to invade Ukraine, but also to his whole macho attitudes as a leader who rides around bare-chested – that seems pretty atavistic to me.

Putin's self-promotion is out of date for Clark

But on the other hand, if you look at how many European countries are now led by women and how many strategies for coping with anger are developed by women: then it shows that we have changed.

I think the West has changed a lot, and so has Russia. There are many Russians who want nothing to do with this terribly risky policy and Putin's bravado. But unfortunately, Putin is someone who, for reasons that are probably rooted in his biography, cultivates atavistic patterns and a self-portrayal that suggests we haven't learned anything after all.

I agree with you on the brink of a third world war?

Well, of course I hope – just like you and everyone else – that this is not the case. Also, I think Putin is perfectly clear that this would be a form of self-annihilation. He would have to be suicidal to make that choice.

Much depends on whether he is that irrational and whether those around him would go along with him if he made such a decision. There are many indications that the system would be robust enough not to expose itself to such a risk. But we don't know.

Are the Russians united behind Putin? Christopher Clark is skeptical

But if we just let him do it, then we are legitimizing his criminal violation of international law. And on the other hand, if we overreact, we risk exacerbating the problem further. But we didn't cause this crisis. The West must therefore carefully dose its reactions. And I think by and large he does. 

So you seem confident that those around Putin can stop him from pushing the nuclear button?

Well, I think there are a lot of signs that Putin is facing resistance from those around him . Putin has isolated himself more and more. So I hope that in the event of a further escalation in which he orders the use of tactical nuclear weapons, there will be people who will say: No, we will not do that. This has happened in the past.

Russia does not speak with one voice. Russia is a complex country. It's a highly developed country. It's part of Europe. A large number of Russians have left the country and are now living in other places. Among them are many members of the intelligentsia, the media and so on. The game isn't over yet.                        

The interview was conducted by Louisa Schaefer. Adaptation from English: Sabine Oelze.