Alexander Watson’s 2014 tome massively documents the rope’s tightening around the neck of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empires during the 1914-1918 war. It makes the abstraction we call ‘encirclement’ personal, horribly so for the peoples dragged into a conflicted they alternately longed for and loathed.
Watson is explicit about his purpose:
This book’s central argument is that popular consent was indispensable in fighting the twentieth century’s first ‘total war’. It recounts how the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples supported, tolerated, or submitted to the conflict, and how participation changed them and their societies. Three themes run through the pages of this book. First, it explores how consent for war was won and maintained in Austria-Hungary and Germany … Second, the book explains how extreme and escalating violence during 1914-18 radicalized German and Austro-Hungarian war aims and actions, and it explores the consequences of this radicalization for those societies and their war efforts … The book’s third theme is the tragic societal fragmentation caused by the first World War, a break-up with not only preceded and precipitated political collapse, but persisted even after state order had been resurrected in central Europe … A dark future awaited central Europe.
If these words suggest a dispassionate analysis, the word ‘collapse’ give the lie to such an impression. In fact, Watson’s narrative is relentlessly tragic (another word that occurs above), pressing home the heart-rending personal cost of the war and its pursuit past the point when the Central Powers had any home of salvaging a face-saving peace.
The second subtitle of Watson’s book (The People’s War) pointed to what it would become, not how it began. The Great War’s genesis took place in a tightly held euphoria among small ruling elites. The interlocking alliances that held Europe together assured that if Austria-Hungary lurched into war, driven by ‘weakness, fear, and even despair’ rather than naked aggression, the rest of Europe was bound to be dragged along. It was of course the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a Serbian nationalist that touched off this bonfire waiting to happen.
A strength of Watson’s narrative lies in his tenacious attention to the complex situation of the Empire’s ethnic groups. They were loyal to Empire and Emperor to a point. But the war’s depravations and duration were to stretch those affinities to the breaking point and well beyond. Encirclement was the outcome to be avoided from the start. The sudden retaliation of the Hapsburg Empire and their ‘good ally’ the Germans against the Serbs just as the Triple Entente (the understanding that linked the fates of Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) was hardening provoked the calamity with which none of the parties could have reckoned.
Ring of Steel narrates the horror of the ensuing years as it was experienced by Germany and Austria-Hungary inside the eventually narrowing ring. The war of the elites became the people’s war until those people could bear no more and either abdicated the burden that was pressed upon them by their rulers, collapsed under its weight, or were enslaved by the eventual manacles of Versailles. The entire political landscape of central Europe would be altered in revolutionary degrees.
This reviewer—manifestly not a professional historian—found Watson particularly helpful in his description of:
- The Russian Revolution’s impact on the peoples of the Central Powers, not only by removing Russia from the battlefield but also by way of the receptive ears that Bolshevik ideas found among the war-weary peoples of two dying empires.
- The inability of the leaders Hapsburg and German leadership to face the impending reality of defeat and take the appropriate measures.
- The degree to which the political elites of the Central Powers dragged their people into an existential, ‘people’s war, and the astonishing persistence of ‘the people’ in supporting the war until their will was turned by the profound suffering it brought them.
A case could be made that this book is best approached via one of the more conventional treatments of The Great War. But, by all means, make that approach if it matters how ‘war is hell’ pertains also to one’s vanquished enemy.