Bath Literature Festival: Getting a grip on the Great war


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The Independent Culture

In academic circles now, said Cambridge History professor  Christopher Clark, it’s calculated that you need to have read 25,000 books and articles to really get to grips with the reasons for the first world war.

Alternately, you could just come to the Independent Bath Literature Festival, listen for an hour of exemplary clarity, and buy the book.

Clark explained that, although we know a great deal about 1914 through academic research, recent historical events have made us more familiar with the tensions of the period than we were in the 1970s.

The seven terrorists who plotted to kill the Archduke in Sarajevo were what we now call suicide bombers, with cyanide wraps in their pockets. The idea that they worked for a shadowy underground terrorist network with links across territorial borders (the Black Hand) seems more familiar now we know about Al-Qa’ida. After the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, we became less likely to underestimate the urgency of Balkan politics.  And we can see a prototypical 9/11 in the events of 28/6/1914 – the power of a single, symbolically charged terrorist event “to change the chemistry of politics for ever.”

Clark’s talk was engaging on many levels, from his knockabout evocation of the assassination (the Archduke was a classically grumpy old man, a Serbian Victor Meldrew) to his splendid rhetorical flourishes (“This was the original disaster from which all other disasters of the 20th century sprang.”) He announced that his plan was to “refresh the narrative” of the Causes of War by seeing it in a global, not just a narrowly European, context – and to stop looking for somebody to blame. 

“The story of how war came to Europe is emphatically not a James Bond story with a cat-stroking villain, nor an Agatha Christie puzzle,” he concluded. “It wasn’t a plan, a conspiracy or the product of The System. It was the consequence of decisions taken by a gallery of actors who shared a fundamentally similar European character.” So there.