“Of course there exists a huge literature on the origins of the World War I, and at the heart of the literature has generally been the question ‘Why?’, ‘Why did this war come about?’ But there is a problem with the question ‘Why?’, because the question ‘Why?’ leads in the direction of categorical, abstract explanations: ‘Why did the war happen?’ Well because of imperialism, because of nationalism because of arms races, you name it. And when you start to assemble the causes like that, you pile them on top of each other, you create an optical illusion and that is that the causes are gradually gathering. You put them on a scale; as the scale tilts, the needle moves from a possible war to a probable war to an inevitable war. So these causes finally are so overwhelming that they squash contingency, they squash the agency of individuals out of the field of vision, and in the end the people who bring this war about are simply the executors of impersonal historical forces.
That is not how this war happened. This war happened because of a sequence of decisions, that were made in different places, at different times: in St Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna, Belgrade, Paris and even London; and their cumulative result was the outbreak of this war.
And only when you have done that, in my view, then you should ask, the ‘Why?’ question, which in the end is often the question about ‘Who?’. Who is responsible for bringing this war about? When we say ‘Why?’, we often mean ‘Who?’. And it seems to me that it is perfectly reasonable to ask those questions, but one should let the ‘Why?’ and ‘Who?’ questions arise out of the answers to the ‘How?’ questions rather than doing it the other way around. Rather than deciding it was ‘imperialism’ – so let’s find lots of examples of imperialism – or ‘It was the Germans’, so let’s find lots of examples of the Germans being nasty instead – one should ask where were the decisions that bring this war about [taken] and then say okay, who made these decisions and why?
I chose the title Sleepwalkers not because I regarded the statesmen of 1914 as literal sleepwalkers, because a sleepwalker is not conscious; you can’t hold a sleepwalker to account for what he or she does in his or her sleep. So they weren’t sleepwalkers in that sense. The metaphor was supposed to work in different sense; it was supposed to evoke the idea of people who are capable, as indeed sleepwalkers are, of forming an intention and of carrying out that intention, in an apparently very reasoned way, but [in fact] they have very limited awareness of the broader context of their actions and the more extended consequences of what they are doing. So they may think they are packing bags to go on holiday, whereas in fact they are in the bathroom and it’s a quarter to four in the morning.
They can do something that looks reasonable but the longer term consequences are beyond their awareness, so they have a very limited form of rationality. That’s what I wanted to capture. This idea of men who can reason and act in a purpose-directed way but who have an underdeveloped sense of the ultimate consequences of their actions.”