History Thread: Alexander Watson’s Ring of Steel (2014)

For all the recent outpouring of World War I books, it’s doubtful whether most add anything significant to existing scholarship. Some, like Max Hasting’s Catastrophe 1914, are well-written but don’t deviate from the classic Barbara Tuchman narrative. The converse are books that exist to provoke rather than persuade, like Sean McMeekin’s assorted tomes blaming the war on Russian imperial designs or Niall Ferguson lauding Kaiser Wilhelm as a visionary who merely planned to install the European Union a half-century early. The need for new perspectives on well-trod events is understandable, but too often it causes writers to sacrifice discipline for notoriety or book sales.

Fortunately, the fresh round of scholarship did produce its share of worthwhile books. Perhaps the best is Alexander Watson’s Ring of Steel, a formidable work examining the Great War from the perspective of the oft-villainized Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Nuanced, insightful, formidably researched and soundly argued, persuasively offering fresh perspectives and more readable than its massive 900+ page length might imply: in other words, the best kind of history.

By 1914, Austria was a power long in decline, rent by Franz Joseph’s ossified leadership, shrinking borders and insolvable racial tensions. Beyond the immediate provocation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, the country couldn’t overcome the increasing agitation of its assorted ethnic groups: Hungarians, given “dual monarchy” status yet still considered second-class; Ruthenians and Poles, scorned for their supposed Russian sympathies (suspicion inflamed by the scandal of Alfred Redl, a homosexual spy of Ruthenian descent blackmailed by the Russians); Jews, prosperous but perpetually mistrusted; Croats, Czechs and Bosnians (the latter Muslim, adding another level of disconnect), chafing at the Empire’s Germanization. For many Austrian leaders, war with Serbia seemed a way to purge the national poisons against foreign enemies.

The bullets that broke an empire

At first, it worked. All of Austria’s ethnic groups reacted with shock to the Archduke’s murder, framing it in melodramatic rather than national terms. Though willingly enlisting, vowing vengeance against Serbia and its allies, the public’s reaction was mixed. In Vienna and other cities, there were riots against Serbs and other ethnic minorities, immediate cries for war and vengeance. In the countryside and areas where minorities had less connection with the Emperor, discussion was less enthusiastic. A Polish priest commented that “All were seized by a strange fear of the unknown, great and threatening. Enthusiasm…was not and is not present here” (68).

Historians, professional and armchair, continue to debate the appropriateness of Austria’s response to the Archduke’s assassination. Christopher Clark, in his Sleepwalkers, persuasively argues that the assassination was an act of terrorism by Serbia, whose military intelligence was honeycombed by nationalists pushing a war with Austria. There is merit to this argument, which is easy to justify in a limited context; further, there is evidence that the Entente Powers might have allowed a short punitive expedition against Serbia without answer beyond a formal protest. But wars never occur in a vacuum, and the Emperor’s support for destroying the Serbs rather than proportionally punishing them escalated a regional quarrel into a global conflict.

Austrian soldiers receiving decorations

Privately, Austrian leaders recognized their culpability. Baron Leopold von Anrian-Werburg, a high-ranking diplomat, observed that “We began the war, not the Germans and still less the Entente” (7) through issuing Serbia an unanswerable ultimatum; Hungarian minister Alek Hoyos nearly killed himself with guilt at the thought that he was “the real initiator of the war.” Publicly however, Franz Joseph issued florid justifications for Austria’s action. “After long years of peace, the intrigues of hate-filled opponent force me, for the preservation of my Monarchy’s honor, in defense of its reputation and political power, and in order to secure its rights, to grasp for the sword” (69).

This view of a preventive war as national imperative extended to Austria’s ally, Germany, who had less immediate cause for reaction. Kaiser Wilhelm, whose saber-rattling and imperial adventures over the past two decades did much to exacerbate tensions with his European neighbors, framed Germany’s invasion of Belgium and alliance with Austria as defense against foreign encirclement. “We are not incited by lust for conquest,” Wilhelm commented; “We are inspired by the unyielding determination to keep for ourselves and all future generations the place which God has given us” (257).

Germans leaving home

This noble rhetoric sustained Austrian and German leadership as they undertook offensive action. Yet Austria’s ramshackle army blundered immediately into disaster, with Field Marshall Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf botching two invasions of Serbia and allowing Russian troops to plow through Galicia. Germany scored immediate success in Belgium and France, until gradually stiffening Allied resistance there caused an unwinnable stalemate. Meanwhile, Germany’s military scored great successes against Russia at Tannenberg, seeming to justify their strategy. This led Austria to become increasingly dependent on Germany, which in turn considered itself “shackled to a corpse.”

Watson spends much time dissecting the motivations of Austrian and German leadership. From 1916 onward, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Von Ludendorff, the victors of Tannenberg, acted as Germany’s de facto rulers, pushing ever more aggressive strategies with their Kaiser’s assent. Their tactics seemed justified by victories on the Eastern Front against the rickety Russian Army, but resulted in massive casualties on the Western Front. Attempts at achieving a decisive victory at Verdun and elsewhere in the West proved titanic, bloody and indecisive; the Germans were little better than their opponents. Only with belated the development of “storm” tactics (modeled, ironically, on Alexei Brusilov’s Russian Offensive of 1916), did they find ways to overcome the impasse, which were thwarted by the introduction of tanks and millions of fresh American troops.

Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm, Ludendorff

Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 was a calculated gamble; their military resources were stretched to the limit, while civilians were starving under the Allied blockade. Germany launched its campaign fully with the knowledge that it might push America into the war, with German leaders banking on forcing Britain to terms before their intervention can be felt (“They will not even come,” one minister scoffed of the Americans). Instead, the campaign not only invited American intervention but fanned internal discontent with authoritarian rule and an endless conflict.

Meanwhile, Austrian bellicosity waxed and waned in response to its military disasters in Serbia, Russia and later Italy. A poorly led, miserably equipped army struggled mightily against its marginal opponents; Austria’s few victories in the war were vouchsafed by German reinforcements (particularly in Italy, where the signal victory at Caporetto was borne on the back of German soldiers) and, in the Balkans, the small but tough Bulgarian Army. And yet the demands of the war escalated, year by year; Germany’s high-command began to insist that Austria transfer units to the Western Front. Of all the major powers engaged, Austria-Hungary seemed most likely to break first.

Emperor Karl at Cluj in Austrian-occupied Romania

Franz Joseph’s death in 1916 elevated Emperor Karl, a far more moderate leader who pledged to end the conflict, to power. “I want to do everything to banish the horrors and sacrifices of the war as soon as possible,” he pledged (452). Yet the Allies rejected his peace feelers (which, idealistic though they were, were unacceptable to both sides), while flawed efforts to reform the Dual Monarchy through increased representation only alienated his subjects further. Ultimately, in the face of the Russian Revolution and leftist disturbances at home, he reined in his reforms, ensuring Austria’s destruction.

Watson soft-pedals German atrocities in Belgium and France compared to many other historians. Instead, he focuses on the brutal conflict in the East. In both Serbia and Galicia, Austrian troops savagely attacked Slavs, killing tens of thousands of civilians in summary executions. Suspect Ruthenians found themselves targeted as racial enemies and potential spies. Russian troops were no better, looting German villages in East Prussia, instituting anti-Jewish pogroms in Poland and attempting to “Russianize” their conquered territories (a project derailed by their rapidly escalating military defeat). The forerunners of the Final Solution, Watson argues, weren’t in the flames of Louvain but the Galician hinterland.

Austria’s Final Solution: executing Serbs

Yet Ring of Steel really shines when Watson abandons the battlefield for looks at life within the Central Powers. Strangled by Britain’s naval blockade, German civilians suffered from inadequate rations, scraping together makeshift meals from herring and potatoes to more noxious foodstuffs. Sawdust bread, watered-down sausages (“Tubes of slime” in Watson’s appetizing formulation) and inedible gypsum flour were among the delicacies available. Many resorted to theft or “hamstering,” a much-loathed practice where consumers bought directly from farmers. One German woman bemoaned that the food available was “too little to live and too much die” (352).

What sustained German and Austrian civilians, then, through four years of war? The imprecations about encirclement by the devious Entente took hold, stiffening their resolve. Propaganda campaigns stressed the evils of Russia and particularly English perfidy: Gott strafe England became a favored oath. Women were enlisted into a “campaign of love,” putting their all into the war effort. “We girls were so enthusiastic about knitting for the poor soldiers that on school-free days we did without any games,” Austrian Hermine Gerstl reminisced (220). Even children were enlisted into mock cadet corps to encourage martial spirit.

German troops in the trenches

At war’s outset, such patriotism permeated all strata of German society: even the Berliner Tageblatt, a liberal newspaper critical of the Kaiser and his military cohorts, swore that Germany “will not allow the soil of the Fatherland to be overrun and devastated” (160). Yet patriotism faded as war dragged on, with the twin moral lessons of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Lenin’s Communist Revolution eroding faith in nationalism. Emperor Karl complained to the Kaiser that “We are fighting against a new enemy…against the international revolution” (454). Even Russia’s withdrawal from the war and the Central Powers’ victory at Caporetto provided only brief respites.

Indeed, naval mutinies and a socialist revolt brought the Kaiser to heel, as much as Ludendorff’s military failures in the Spring Offensive and American intervention. The Austrians were finally dragged down by defeats in Salonika and Italy, and the increasing assertiveness of her nationalities, which caused the Hapsburg Empire to dissolve even before the war ended. Philipp Scheidemann, declaring the Weimar Republic in November 1918, announced that “The German people has triumphed everywhere. The old rotten regime has collapsed. Militarism is finished!” (555).

November Revolution

Yet in destroying Austrian and German militarism, the peace merely unshackled racial, ethnic and political tensions that, in even more malignant form, reemerged decades later. One resident of Polish Lwow, racked by anti-Semitic violence during after the war, caustically referred to bullet holes within the city as “Wilson’s Points” (547). Weimar Germany cracked down on the Left in a devil’s deal with the far right; Austria became a rump state racked with internal chaos, while Hungary (after a brief flirtation with Communism) became an authoritarian regime under Admiral Horthy. Germans (and at least one Austrian) who sought to find meaning in the slaughter now turned to more extreme ideologies, from Communism to Fascism, laying the seeds for future catastrophe.