The centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 is naturally bringing out a lot of commemorative publications of varying kinds, as well as all the events and documentaries, etc., and Alexander Watson’s Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War 1, is one of the more interesting and revisionist, and the most challenging to preconceptions and received wisdom among English-speaking readers. It dives deep into German and Austria-Hungarian social history in the war years, using a vast amount of documentary evidence from war leaders to teenage girls, delivering a whole herd of sacred cows to the block.
Prussian militarism is one of the first. Although some in the German high command fitted the template to a millimetre, Watson shows World War 1 as at first entirely a people’s war for the Germans, launched ostensibly in self-defense against an encircling, predatory Entente, and supported by every sector of society from left to right. German Social Democrats had no problem viewing hostilities as a struggle against Tsarist autocracy – immediately confirmed by Romanov-inspired pogroms and a ferocious program of Russification in Galicia whose echoes rumble in Ukraine to this day. Cracks in the facade of unity only began to appear later under the strains of total war and the British food blockades, which targeted civilians in direct contravention of contemporary rules of war. The worst excesses of the likes of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, in Watson’s view, were thanks to generals setting their own increasingly grandiose agenda with growing disregard for both civilian oversight and their own sovereign.
As something of a fan of Austria-Hungary, meanwhile, it’s sadly salutary for me to admit that, whatever the strength and surprising loyalty of its richly diverse peoples, the Habsburg monarchy’s governing apparatus lived up (or down) to the most damning perceptions of decadence and folly. Obsessed by largely phantom threats of subversion and schism, its soldiers and officials stumbled eyes wide shut into a war against Serbia, which predictably snowballed far beyond their calculations. Its officer class proved far more effective at hounding its ethnic minorities into active dissent than in actually defeating opponents in the field, and its Hungarian oligarchs in the east were brutally selfish and suicidally myopic in their narrow focus on ethnic hegemony. Rather than a people’s war, Austria-Hungary’s ruling elite were engaged too often in a war against their own people, and ended hostilities by bringing about exactly the result they had launched it to prevent, apparently making every extra necessary step along the way to ensure that would happen.
Ring of Steel is not a book without flaws. Sometimes the absence of military detail or analysis of developments in the opposing camp leaves events a little confusing: For instance, you could be left wondering why the Russian menace that made such wounding inroads into the territory of the Central Powers and crushed Austria-Hungary’s armies suddenly collapsed early in 1917. And the concluding wrap-ups of each chapter occasionally feel a bit perfunctory, as does the final epilog. That said, they do bookend a vast amount of detail in a very long work.
Above all, Ring of Steel is a book that looks for the seeds of the Holocaust and the other blood-lettings of the 20th century in World War 1, and has no trouble finding them. Western obsessions with the Somme and trench warfare miss the fact that whole societies were in the firing line further east. The trauma of total war in the often underdeveloped hinterlands of Central and especially Eastern Europe, Watson contends, turned their territories into the “bloodlands” of subsequent decades, as radicalized and embittered ethnic groups turned on each other. And Tsarist Russia, he adds, was already rivaling later Stalinist atrocities in deportations of slave laborers and ethnic cleansing of subject communities, little of which was reported in the allied presses of France and Britain. When Hitler came on the scene, he was building on ground already richly prepared by others.