Reasoning in Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers
Finally, let us see, what we can learn of reasoning and the argumentative structure from a close reading of Clark's book. One could say that the rationale for writing The Sleepwalkers is to persuade its readers of the thesis that the main players in the development leading to the Great War did not understand the consequences of their acts or that singular acts formed a chain of ultimately unintended consequences. This chain was not, say, a result of conscious policy decisions by one or another of the great powers in the war. The question is, how does Clark attempt to persuade his readers of the appeal of this thesis?
On the most general level, it can be said that the entire book constitutes evidence and grounds for believing the thesis. But it would be erroneous to claim that his book is essentially a narrative, if by 'narrative' we mean a presentation of events in a temporal succession (with or without causal links between them). This is easily seen by studying the structure of the book, which reveals that the book contains many non-narrative parts. This is most evident, for example, in the way that Chapter 3, 'The Polarization of Europe, 1887-1907', is organized. The central claim in the chapter is that the polarization of Europe's geopolitical system was a precondition for the Great War, but that the bifurcation into two alliances did not itself cause the war. On the contrary, Clark claims that polarization into two blocs both muted and escalated the conflict. The chapter is designed to explicate how the polarization came about and this explication is realized by answering four interlinked questions: 'Why did Russia and France form an alliance against Germany in the 1890s? Why did Britain opt to throw its lot in with that alliance? What role did Germany play in bringing about its own encirclement by a hostile coalition? And to what extent can the structural transformation of the alliance system account for the events that brought war to Europe and the world in 1914?' (Clark 2012, 123). The chapter is thus systematically organized and the subchapters answer these questions collectively. There is no narrative structure here, if that means describing events in terms of what happened before and after. The subchapters go back and forth in time in their treatment of different questions and countries. And the past itself does not automatically raise these questions either.
I will mention another example. Chapter 4, 'The Many Voices of European Foreign Policy' investigates where the real decision power lay in pre-war Europe by studying each main world power in turn. Clark investigates whether power was in the hands of monarchs, ministers, the military or the press and public opinion. And this builds on some earlier suggestions in the book and other literature that there were some fateful decisions or other underlying factors involved, such as Germany's decision to build a navy or general anti-German feeling, which channeled Europe to the path to a global war. The fact that Clark deals with these kinds of questions, thus anticipating criticism, reveals patterns of reasoning in his book.
All in all, these examples show how a book contains non-narrative parts. It would be possible to bring forward various others. For example, there is no 'narrative' or other necessity to deal with questions about the nature of Europe's geopolitical system or power structures and bases. These are not descriptively forced by the temporal order of events, and further, the exact set of power factors is not determined by anything independent of the historian. Clark's set of choices does not contain, for example, an 'economic sub-structure', something that a Marxist would certainly add to the list of potential factors. In brief, they are argumentative choices made by the author.
This is not to say that the book would not contain descriptive, or narrative, parts too. It clearly does and some are fairly long descriptions of a certain sequence of events. Yet the crucial question is, what is the governing function of the book? Is it just a report on a certain sequence of events in the realist mode or is it designed to 'make the case' for a particular thesis? Since the thesis that Europe's main players were
'sleepwalkers' is not written in the historical sources and even less in the events themselves in any direct, unmediated and evident manner, it cannot be just a matter of reporting what 'there is'. More importantly, when one analyses the various components, one realizes that the narrative parts are there, because they play some kind of evidential role as evidence to believe the main thesis. The narrative-descriptive parts are in this sense subservient to the central thesis.
Although narrative and argument have been often seen as incompatible (see Chapter 2), some others have suggested that 'narrative form itself is a highly persuasive mode of argumentation', implying that there are other 'modes of argumentation' available (Partner 2013, 503). My proposal is to view narrative(s) as an explanatory part in the main argument. Why, for example, does the book contain the 'narrative' and factual description of the meeting between Serbian Prime Minister Pasic and the Austrian Foreign Minister Berchtold mentioned above? It is not simply to report 'how things happened' or to 'tell a story'. The purpose is to illuminate both the personalities and the precarious nature of international relations and decision-making, especially Austria's, in pre-war Europe. And these characters exemplify the state of affairs of 'sleepwalking' uncharacteristically well. One of the points in Clark's book, which may separate it from its various predecessors, is its assumption that individual agency and personality played a crucial role in the developments that resulted in the First World War. He writes that 'this book ... is ... saturated with agency ... the outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of decisions made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgements they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand' (Clark 2013, xxvii). Provided this is so, it makes sense to describe some personalities and their lives at length, as with Nikola Pasic (16-19), or to narratively depict the key events of some negotiations in detail, such as the meeting between the President of France Raymond Poincare and the Czar Nikolai II (e.g. 438-451). In other words, the description of these incidents adds to the persuasive force of the sleepwalking thesis.