Agency: Thoughts from Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers”

This summer I have been working my way through Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. Professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge, Clark engages readers on the events leading to World War I. He skillfully approaches this complex period of time in a pseudo-geographical pattern, bouncing from ethnic group to ethnic group, relying on a cacophony of imperial politicking to chart his course. I do not intend to review Professor Clark’s book, but rather use his thesis to grapple with the nuances of historical agency and their implications for historical actors, and by extension, current historians.

If you take Clark’s title literally you might be misled. Sleepwalkers skews one’s thinking to accept WWI as a consequence of mindless, calculated wandering and, perhaps, the inability of key figures to make decisions. That inability to make decisions, of course, raises the question of agency. Entertaining the thought that the principal decision makers at the onset of the war just happened upon it is playing with fire, not to mention bad history. Taking that stance is, in a sense, eliminating the agency of those decision makers. One does not simply stumble into the greatest crisis of the twentieth century by chance. Indeed, even if one determines that the key figures’ inability or refusal to act led to war, one still concedes that those figures acted. Choosing to do “nothing” requires just as much agency as choosing to do “something.” Agency is not dependent on a specific action, but rather the ability to choose a course of action. “[Asking ‘why’] brings a certain analytical clarity,” writes Clark, “but it also has a distorting effect, because it creates the illusion of a steadily building causal pressure; the factors pile up on top of each other pushing down on the events… political actors become mere executors of forces long established and beyond their control,” (Clark 2104, xxvii).

That is the most popular “cause” of World War I in a nutshell – that myriad outside factors grew to a fever pitch, giving European leaders no choice but to go to war. Paired with the overstated importance of the murders of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, the cause of WWI becomes a deer-in-the-headlights affair. Certain parties are withheld the ability act, freezing them in time as events unfold around them. Others, conversely, are given too much responsibility, thrown head-first into the fray, barely able to tread water. When all is said and done, you are left with a shaky understanding of a great event that lacks any real substance.

The difficulty is walking the fine line between a historical figure’s actual agency and the agency historians choose to apply. Of course historians can never know the actual amount of agency a historical figure had. On the other hand, historians can control the amount of agency they choose to give. The hard part is figuring out what the proper amount is. Too much or too little agency leaves you with a situation like that discussed in Clark’s book.

Consider the role of Gavrilo Princip and the infamous Black Hand in the murders of the Archduke and Archduchess. The common narrative features a brash, almost gallant Princip complete a harrowing assassination on the orders of the mysterious Black Hand. Nothing more than a rag-tag group of regicides and naive college students, the Black Hand fails to live up to the romantic role it is given. Granted, the Black Hand did have a hand (ha!) in orchestrating the assassination in Sarajevo, but it was hardly an overpowering anarchist group. In other words, the Black Hand has been given a great deal more agency than necessary. Gavrilo Princip is cast from the same mold. One must realize that Princip was actually fifth in a line of assassins tasked with murdering the Archduke. That fact alone depletes some of Princip’s status, not to mention the fact that while he did ultimately achieve his goal, Princip botched the job. He was supposed to throw a bomb at the Archduke’s car, then swallow cyanide powder to remove himself form the equation entirely. Princip did kill the Archduke, but he was ultimately captured. I do not want to take Princip’s agency away completely because he did have the wherewithal to complete the job. However, Princip is not the polarizing figure common knowledge makes him out to be. He most certainly possesses agency and exercised it greatly, but it has been misplaced.

When all is said and done, I do not know if there is an answer to the agency question. Every historical actor most certainly possesses a great deal of agency that must be recognized by historians. Where and how that agency is placed, however, is up for debate. Giving too much agency is dangerous, but so is giving too little. That leaves a gaping void in the historical conversation, that there may not be a concrete answer for, but one that must be wrestled with all the same.

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwlkers: How Europe Went to War in 14. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.



Twitter Handle: @buddy_hocutt Buddy graduated from Messiah College in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in history and peace and conflict studies. Currently, he works as a content writer for Clark Associates in Lancaster, PA Buddy has a wide range of historical interests, but 20th century Europe, especially the former Soviet Union, holds a special place in his heart. He has spent significant time traveling through Northern Europe and has experienced some of that history for himself during visits to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Baltic states. Buddy also loves intellectual history, a passion he was turned on to during his senior history seminar. Buddy hopes to emphasize the unique role history plays in every facet of life. He loves to explore different ideas, particularly ideas counter to the status quo, the roles those ideas played in the past, and the effect of those ideas on the present. Buddy eventually plans to further his education in graduate school.

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