When it comes to anniversaries, the publishing industry usually resembles distant relatives, readiest with gifts that are redundant or farcical. Look no further than 2013’s bandolier of useless insights into the Kennedy assassination. The recent centenary of another assassination, at Sarajevo, while serving up plenty of similar dross, has happily filled some very welcome gaps in English-language scholarship on that conflict, especially memorably in the form of this volume, relating the ill-told tale of the most consequential Central Powers.
There is no lack of monographs on the Third Reich in World War II; similar scholarship on the Central Powers in the Great War is preciously rare. The introduction of Ring of Steel states that it is the “first modern history to narrate the Great War from the perspectives of the two major Central Powers”—which isn’t exactly true, but there’s only a single predecessor with any claim to the title: Holger Herwig’s The First World War: Germany and Austria Hungary 1914-1918 (1997). Herwig’s excellent work takes a more military focus; Watson’s aim is a broader overview of the engagement of German and Austrian societies with the war, a look at the means by which internal political, material, and emotional support were mustered for the conflict.
The diplomatic prelude to World War I is possibly the only aspect of the war in which the Central Powers have been adequately represented previously; subsequent histories tend to mire in Western trenches and the rarely ventured East. If the simple conjoined account of Austrian hauteur and Prussian militarism faded long ago as the motivational account of our Great War foes, there’s not a tremendous amount that’s replaced it. Watson’s study fills this void.
Germany was no belligerent monoculture. The largest association in Germany, excepting a veterans’ organization, was the moderately pacifistic Social Democratic party, which mustered a respectable bloc of the Reichstag. Their skepticism of war was only overcome as foes, particularly the Russians, mobilized; and they were encouraged by state nods to their sensibilities, with an amnesty for political crimes announced on the eve of the vote for war credits. (There were some abstentions but no votes against.) Disengaging from international trade had real effects on internal harmony: Nearly six million Siemens light bulb orders were lost; urban unemployment skyrocketed.
Austria-Hungary was a different story. This multiethnic patchwork was an implausible mosaic in an age of increasingly rigid ethnic geometry. Practical efforts to resolve ethnic conflict had led to the dual monarchy, which mainly institutionalized Hungarian ethnocracy in its portion of the empire and empowered the Hungarians to starve the whole of suitable war preparations. The empire had nonetheless made liberal efforts, mainly in its Austrian portion, to manage its varied population. The Austrian Army, for one, boasted 142 monolingual regiments, 162 bilingual regiments, 24 trilingual regiments, and several with four official languages! Jews constituted about 5 percent of the populace but 17 percent of the officer corps. The marvel isn’t that mobilization came off well, but that it was accomplished at all. Absentee rates from conscription varied radically by region: few in Austria, somewhat more among the Czechs, more than 25 percent in Galicia and the South Slavic regions. Loyalty to the Habsburg monarchy remained intact. Roman Catholicism, the faith of the majority of the empire’s subjects, proved a strong bond.
First there was the official patriotic mobilization, comprising the call up of the army and the appeal to the population as loyal imperial subjects. In tandem, however, there was a semi-official national mobilization, varying in strength in different regions, and which at this stage supported the state’s own efforts.
These measures proved an especially potent incentive to mobilization in those border regions that faced some immediate existential threat. Populations along the Russian frontier had reason to fear conquest; Slovenians and Croats rallied easily against the Serbs. Groups that had no such fears, such as the Czechs, or ethnic sympathies that rested elsewhere, such as Romanians in Hungary, were a different story. And yet, amidst this stew, dissent, whether imagined or real, was typically crushed.