On the 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I: Historian Christopher Clark, guest of the Sparkassenstiftungen Leipzig, names insights from the emergence of World War I for Europe's present day
Extensive media package available on the Medienstiftung website
Leipzig, 7 November 2018. The Australian historian Professor Sir Christopher Clark sees numerous similarities between the situation before the outbreak of the First World War and the present state of the Western world. This is the result of his keynote speech "Sleepwalking into Downfall", which he delivered at the end of October at the symposium "Schicksalsgemeinschaft - Europas Zukunft 100 Jahre nach dem ersten Weltkriegsende" ("Community of destiny - Europe's future 100 years after the end of World War I") of the Sparkassenstiftungen Leipzig. At the same time, he warned against a direct analogy between the past and the present: "Politicians love to find one-to-one equations: Saddam Hussein resembles Adolf Hitler, the Ukrainian crisis is like Munich in 1938 or even Europe in the summer of 1914," said Clark, adding that these were "usually only wanton updates": "They have a moralizing and propagandistic effect, but they do not bring any real gain in knowledge. History, according to Clark in Leipzig, was not a teacher, but an oracle.
From his preoccupation with the emergence of the World War I, he had gained a number of insights for the present. "If we look at history without first knowing what we want to learn from it, it can broaden our field of vision, deepen our reflections, make us wiser than we would be without it. Whoever does this will perhaps anticipate or even escape the most dangerous situations of coercion. At least that is my hope", Clark said at the symposium "Community of destiny".
In addition to Sir Christopher Clark, the German historian Professor Sönke Neitzel, the political scientist Professor Herfried Münkler, the contemporary witness Walburga Countess Douglas and the politician and lawyer Konrad Adenauer also took part in the historical symposium of the Sparkassenstiftungen Leipzig, that asked which insights Europe could draw from its past. 200 guests from politics, society, business and the media took part.
Clark named four insights for the present time in his keynote:
First, "The fact that one crisis ebbs away without coming to war is no reason in sight to believe that the next will be just as safe."
Before the First World War, there had been a long series of crises, but there had also always been phases of détente - polarisation and détente simply alternated.
This had caused a dulling of the contemporaries: "The statesmen felt secure and underestimated the risks associated with their actions". The historian also recognizes a similar phase today: since 1990, numerous crises have "shaken Europe and the world".
Second, "The relationships within alliances are at least as important as the relationships between them."
In the pre-war period there had been a constant distrust between the Entente's partners from France, the United Kingdom and Russia as well as in the Triple Alliance from Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy about the reliability and intentions of the allies: "In view of this inner weakness of the alliances, many decision-makers felt that time was running out. They acted under time pressure and that put them all under pressure to act," Clark said. Here, too, he recognizes parallels with current developments: "The current leadership of the White House has managed to alienate many of its traditional partners. US President Trump regarded the EU as an enemy and shows doubt about the US commitment to NATO: "A collapse of confidence within NATO would by no means diminish the danger of war, on the contrary: it would substantially increase the lack of transparency and unpredictability of the system," Clark said.
Third, "There are no peripheries."
Using the example of the Italian attack of 1911 on the Ottoman province in present-day Libya, Clark illustrated how an apparently peripheral battlefield led to numerous geopolitical shifts in power. Regional conflicts could not be contained. "Exactly one hundred years after this conflict, bombs fell on Libyan cities again. NATO intervened with air raids in the Libyan conflict, the then Russian Prime Minister and current President Vladimir Putin described NATO's intervention as a "crusade". Clark: "In both cases Libya was seen as a place on the periphery where people thought they could act without having to think long and hard about the consequences. Both in 1911 and in 2011, the events there directly impacted on the relationship between the great powers."
Fourth, "Unclear signals and indecision are as much a threat to peace as excessive aggression."
In the period before 1914, "opaque and often chaotic processes of decision-making in all European executive branches" were conspicuous: "At that time there was uncertainty (and among historians there still are) as to who within the various government authorities had exactly the power to determine the political course. Instead of a unified foreign policy line, there would have been a chorus of contradictory voices: "Is it so very different today?" asks Clark, referring to the way Western governments dealt with Ukraine: "The result was a double-edged and insubstantial policy, which on the one hand provoked Russia, but on the other hand never created the basis for a clear and consensual course for the Western states individually or as a collectivity."