The Best History Book You’ll Read Next Year

Bags of “sacred soil” from World War I cemetaries

Photo by Dan Dennison/Getty Images

If you are like most people, you didn’t read Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 and of course it’s far too late in 2013 for you to finish it now in time to have read one of 2013’s finest nonfiction books. The good news for you is that 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914, so the entire media will be wall-to-wall dominated with anniversary hype (a guy can dream, can’t he) and so you might get interested in the subject.

If so, I strongly recommend that you read Clark’s book which offers more up-to-date scholarship than you’ll find in a classic like Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. For our purposes, Clark also offers what I think is the first really up-to-date interpretation of the broader political context of 1914.

In particular, from a Cold War viewpoint it seemed natural and inevitable to view Serbian nationalists as on “the right side of history” and the rulers of the multinational Habsburg Empire as on “the wrong side of history.” One might thus view the war that created Yugoslavia and ended Austria-Hungary as tragic, but the tragedy consists primarily of the ways in which the deep structure of European alliance politics caused the inevitable working out of Central European national projects to be processed in the form of a major war. But looking back at 1914 from the vantage point of 2014 rather than 1964 gives us a rather different perspective on this. For all its very serious flaws, the European Union shows that liberal multinationalism isn’t impossible and raises the prospect that the Habsburg reform project wasn’t doomed. And after the collapse of Yugoslavia into a genocidal civil war, it’s very difficult to regard the Serbian nationalist project as some kind of obviously correct undertaking. Last but by no means least, 9/11 and the subsequent (and still ongoing!) war in Afghanistan are potent reminders that a terrorist attack really can be the cause of a geopolitical upheaval.

At any rate, I’ll rationalize this as Moneybox content by saying that I do think our understanding of World War I continues to be relevant to today’s European politics and to our understanding of the eurozone. The shadow of Hitler and Nazism still hangs over all German efforts to throw its weight around politically, but in a lot of ways it’s the First World War that makes that shadow seem so dark. The idea that Germany bears the guilt for not one but two episodes of massive violence in which it tried to take over the continent makes for a pattern, a pattern that new political initiatives can be processed as part of. If you look at the Great War differently, as something primarily about Russo-Serbian desire to destroy Austria and France’s desire to reclaim Alsace and Lorraine, then I think it gets easier to normalize Germany’s role in the world, which would be a very good thing for the future of Europe and the world economy.