Ancient history

The Russia-Ukraine war:What does it have in common with World War I?

Historian Christopher Clark, author of the book "The Sleepwalkers:How Europe Went to War in 1914", spoke to Deutsche Welle about the commonalities of World War I. with the war in Ukraine. "Your book 'The Sleepwalkers' made people rethink whether Germany started World War I, or whether many European states eventually sleepwalked into a major conflict. What was the final conclusion of your project?


Christopher Clark: I think the conclusion of the book around 1914 was that the causes of the war were complex. There was already a debate going on – which has not been concluded – about what caused the war. This is because that story was so complicated. So I guess the book makes a call to recognize the multi-layered connections. That was my first main argument. The second argument was that we should think not only about how wars are started and who is responsible for it. We also need to think about how they are triggered so that next time it doesn't happen again.

Thinking about the current war in Ukraine for example, if we just decide that Mr. Putin is a very bad man and that he caused a war and that was that, then we will learn nothing from this war. We can learn a lot more if we consider the whole story of how we got here. That would in no way limit his responsibility for what happened, that much is indisputable. But it would at least allow us to learn to manage such situations better in the future.

DW:How could we learn from this? What are the parallels between the road leading to World War I and the current situation?

K.K.: In a way we can learn lessons. It's interesting because when the war [in Ukraine] broke out, or at least just before it broke out, the situation reminded me of the one before 1914, because I thought that Putin's plan is to send 200,000 men to the border and then withdraw them having pressured the West or Ukraine itself to make concessions. Then it turned out that he was planning a war in the first place.

So it's not like 1914, because in 1914 it wasn't just one actor making the decision to invade another territory. Then the war began in an unexpected location, in the Balkans, in Sarajevo, with an assassination. Then came the complex question:how will the Austrians react? How will the Serbs react to the reaction of the Austrians? How will the Germans react to the reaction of the Austrians towards the Serbs? Will the Russians support the Serbs or not, even though the Russians themselves are not being attacked?

It is extremely 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 this decision on his own. It is clear that many of the higher-ups in his system were not aware of this decision until it was made. This is Putin's war. And right now, as we know from intelligence reports, he is personally playing a role in the management of this war by making decisions even at the service level. Therefore the situation is quite different compared to 1914. It is less complex.

DW:Has humanity learned anything from the last 100 years or not?

KK:We've clearly learned to do some things quite a bit better. But whether we have become more intelligent as political beings, as a species of homo politicus, is a different matter. I believe that in this part we learn at a much slower rate and there is always a tendency to revert to old behaviors. I think that the European Union is a kind of historical lesson that we have learned. It is the lesson of two world wars that has been translated into a political order and acquired a kind of permanence that otherwise would not have existed.

But if one thinks about Putin, not only his decision to invade Ukraine but his personality as a leader in general, e.g. the fact that he rides topless and the bully image he projects… all of these are very atavistic. On the other hand, if you consider how many European leaders are women and to what extent the strategies for managing these aggressive actions are developed by women, it shows us that we have changed.

I believe that the West is very different from what it was, and so is Russia. Many Russians do not want any part in this dangerous and adventurous policy of Putin. But unfortunately Putin, for reasons probably rooted in his biography, is someone who exhibits atavistic behavior and self-promotion in a way that shows we haven't learned.

DW:So do you think that in this sense we are on the brink of a Third World War?

K.K.: My first answer is that I hope not, as do you and everyone else. Second, I believe that Putin knows that this would be a kind of self-destruction. He would have to be suicidal to reach such a choice. A lot depends on how irrational he is and whether his system would follow if he made such a decision. There are many indications that the system itself is strong enough to withstand such a risk. So the answer is that of course we don't know.

But if we allow him to do what he wants then we end up endorsing and effectively legalizing his criminal violation of international law. If, on the other hand, we react and overreact, there is a risk of further escalating the problem.

DW: So are you optimistic that the people around Putin will restrain him from pushing the nuke button?

K.K.: There are many signs that Putin is having difficulties with many in the wider circle of his regime's support system. Putin is increasingly isolated.

So I hope that in the event of a major decision to escalate the risk through, for example, the development of tactical nuclear weapons, there will be some who will say 'no, we won't do it'. Something like this has happened in the past. Russia does not speak with one voice. It is a complex nation. It is a highly developed nation. It is part of Europe. A very large number of Russians have left the country and are now elsewhere. These include many members of the intellectuals and the coke media. The game is not over yet and Putin does not speak for all of Russia.