Alexander Watson. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 832 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-01872-7.
Reviewed by Matthew Lungerhausen (Winona State University)
Published on H-War (June, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Alexander Watson offers readers a useful and well-crafted narrative of Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I. Ring of Steel is one of many recent histories of the war, including the revised edition of Holger Herwig’s book The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (second edition published in 2014, first edition in 1997). Like Herwig, Watson provides a clear, thoughtful narrative of the war’s causes as well as its major campaigns and turning points. The book’s many strengths include a well-considered balance between campaign history and the social history of the war. Watson also makes a notable contribution by comparing the German and Austro-Hungarian approaches to mobilizing public support for the war.
Watson argues that the governments of Germany and Austria-Hungary started the war with different levels of preparedness and approaches to public support for the war. The two states’ techniques for mobilizing their armies and civilian populations in 1914 had consequences for not only their conduct of the war but also the outcome of the revolutions that followed from their defeat in 1918. The German government relied on popular enthusiasm as symbolized by the Burgfrieden, a political compromise between all the political parties in the Reichstag, including the Social Democrats. The leaders of the Dual Monarchy, in contrast, were suspicious of popular mobilization. Their prewar plans eschewed civilian participation in favor of military control. Franz Joseph refused to recall the Austrian Reichsrat to cast a vote in support of the war. Instead the Austrian Parliament building was turned into a military hospital. The Habsburg leaders came to embrace civilian mobilization along national and ethnic lines. This decision haunted them in the last years of the war. By 1918, the nationalities support for the dynasty had flagged because of chronic food shortages and the political stalemate over constitutional reforms in both halves of the Dual Monarchy.
Another worthwhile contribution is Watson’s discussion of German atrocities against civilians in Belgium and Austro-Hungarian war crimes in Serbia in the first months of the war. Watson argues that this violence against civilians was caused by failures in military leadership as well as exaggerated fears of guerilla insurgencies by francs tireurs (“free shooters,” or irregular troops) on the western front and komitadjis (in Turkish, “secret society members,” or members of a rebel band) in Serbia and the Balkans. In both cases the Central powers inflicted inexcusable suffering on civilian populations that they were legally obligated to protect under the Hague Conventions. Both Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s international prestige declined permanently as a result.
Moreover, Watson places his analysis of these atrocities in the context of his discussions of mobilization and nationalism, especially in Austria-Hungary. Watson is familiar with the recent narrative and social histories of the Habsburg monarchy that have emerged since the 1990s. This historical research has developed a more nuanced and complete view of nationalism and its role in the last decades of Austria-Hungary. While nationalism and ethnic identities certainly played a role in politics and daily life, Austria-Hungary in August 1914 was not a prison house of nations on the verge of ethnic civil war. Watson discusses this cogently throughout the book. He handles nationalism in subtle ways and does not see the monarchy’s collapse in 1918 as foreordained or monocausal.
Watson also analyzes Ober-Ost, the German military government of occupied Russia. Unlike at home in Germany, the government relied on coercion and a strict military government to extract food and other resources from the occupied territories, despite the German General Staff’s ultimate goal of winning the population over and annexing the territory as a strategic glacis after the war. Watson draws some interesting parallels with Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2012). He makes it clear that the German army’s occupation of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine was repressive but came nowhere near to constituting a genocide.
The narrative center of gravity for the Ring of Steel is imperial Germany. Watson does a good job of drawing careful comparisons between imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary, but it is clear from his archival and secondary sources that the focus of the book is on the former. This is a completely reasonable choice. By 1916, Austria-Hungary was certainly the junior partner in the alliance, and in an inferior bargaining position with both its ally and opponents. Watson addresses the Austro-Hungarian army’s contributions to the Balkan, Italian, and Romanian fronts, but they are side shows compared to the western and eastern fronts.
That said, historians of Central and Eastern Europe should read this book carefully. Watson makes a vital contribution by explaining the mobilization of the Habsburg Dual Monarchy once war had been declared. This constitutes the most original part of the book in terms of research and argument. The dynasty, military, and political elites of the monarchy were deeply suspicious of their own population but also discovered very quickly that they could not fight the war without the people’s active participation. The result was a half-planned mobilization that increasingly relied on ethnic communities within the monarchy to raise funds, mobilize civilian labor, scrounge for food, produce war materials, and foster a sense of communal solidarity to supplement the dynastic patriotism that kept the war effort going despite immense hardship. By 1918 these parallel national mobilizations turned into national revolutions that would sunder the monarchy as well as set the stage for the ethnic conflicts and rising anti-Semitism that characterized the interwar decades.
Overall, Ring of Steel is well written and solidly argued. Watson does a nice job of balancing military campaigns, diplomacy, popular mobilization, and the civilian experiences of total war in imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. Undergraduates and specialists alike will find it a worthwhile and informative read in light of the World War I centenary.
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Matthew Lungerhausen. Review of Watson, Alexander, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I.
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