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A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire Hardcover – 8 May 2014

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (8 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465028357
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465028351
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 3.6 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 306,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Shortlisted for the Cundill Prize National Post Best Books of 2014 Financial Times Best History Books of 2014 "In a year glutted with first world war books, this study stands out for its devastating portrayal of the reckless diplomacy, internal political disarray and incompetent battlefield leadership that dragged Austra-Hungary towards the abyss in 1914. Wawro...offers a remarkably fresh and unsentimental analysis of an empire on its last legs." Providence Journal Best Books of 2014 "This chilling account of the conflict's background takes us to the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that disintegrating behemoth facing Russia on the east and the Balkans on the south. Clearly written, detailed and engrossing." Wall Street Journal "Exceptionally accessible to the general reader, Wawro offers a picture of an Austro-Hungarian leadership that was reckless in the extreme ... with a fatalistic sense of 'now or never.'" San Francisco Book Review "A Mad Catastrophe finally brings some clarity to how the death of one Archduke, while admittedly tragic, could lead to the deaths of millions... Wawro's excellently written book, in chilling detail, explains all the frustrating and infuriating blundering. The war was completely senseless, the insane war-lust of a failing state; this book gives Austria-Hungary its rightful, starring role as cause of the conflict." Macleans (CAN) "Wawro writes about the Austro-Hungarian Empire's role in the start and unfolding of the Great War with verve, inescapable black humour and a certain note of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God." Literary Review, UK "Wawro is a historian of the US military, but his damning portrait of the neurotic empire...well reflects the surreal fiction of Hasek and Musil." Choice "With exquisite detail of preparation and battle, Wawro shows both scholars and general readers how and why the Austro-Hungarian Empire ended. Highly recommended." BBC History Magazine "A Mad Catastrophe is a welcome contribution to the small but growing number of scholarly studies of the eastern front that have appeared in English over the last few years." Providence Journal "2014 marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, and Geoffrey Wawro's A Mad Catastrophe is a welcome addition to the growing list of books covering the causes and development of the horrific war. Even in a crowded field, however, Wawro's study will, I think, stand out, thanks to its focus on the much-neglected eastern front...Battle by battle, Wawro catalogs the collapse. Accompanied by detailed maps, his descriptions are blow-by-blow accounts, all written in lively prose. His is a sad story of carnage and destruction that drives home, yet again, the futility and stupidity of this 'Great War.'" Army Magazine "An engaging case study in the disaster that can happen when interests and capabilities get greatly out of kilter...Readable and entertaining." Military History "A riveting account of a neglected face of WWI." History of War, UK "A Mad Catastrophe is a highly readable and cogently argued book that, once again, shows the level of sheer idiocy that lay behind this pivotal period of history." MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History "A fascinating addition to the military and diplomatic scholarship surrounding Austria-Hungary's inept move toward war and its incompetent execution of the conflict...Wawro's book is an excellent account of where plunging over a cliff will land you: in pieces." Publishers Weekly "Wawro's authoritative account is a damning analysis of an empire and a people unready for war." Kirkus "Wawro offers a crucial insight into the Eastern Front...On this centennial of the Great War's beginning, Wawro has composed a thoroughly researched and well-written account, mercilessly debunking any nostalgia for the old monarch and the deeply dysfunctional empire over which he presided." Library Journal "Wawro's contribution lies in his focus on how the overall decline of Austria-Hungary broke relations with the Balkan states and Russia and how its military blundering caused its ultimate destruction. A worthwhile read." Brendan Simms, author of Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Present "A Mad Catastrophe is an absorbing and shocking look at a now neglected aspect of the origins of the First World War. The author--a master military historian, whose works are standard accounts of late nineteenth century Austro-Prussian wars--shows just how reckless Viennese policy before and after the outbreak of hostilities was. Wawro's book should be on every reading list and in the hands of every policymaker." Sir Michael Howard "This is not just a story of the part played by the Hapsburg Empire in precipitating the First World War, and of the truly lamentable performance of its armies once the war began. It is a devastating indictment of a whole regime, whose slovenly incompetence resulted in a military catastrophe of which Geoff Wawro gives a truly horrifying account. Of all the histories of 1914 that are now pouring from the press, this will rank among the very best." Sean McMeekin, author of July 1914: Countdown to War "Considering the central role played by the Dual Monarchy in the outbreak of First World War, it is astonishing that so little is known to this day about the fighting on the Austro-Hungarian fronts. Geoffrey Wawro's A Mad Catastrophe triumphantly fills this gaping hole in our knowledge. The most important study of the Eastern Front in decades, Wawro's brilliant and thoroughly researched narrative easily replaces existing books on the subject. Eschewing the Radetzky March nostalgia which so often suffuses books on the last years of the Dual Monarchy, Wawro summons forth a searing indictment of the lethal Austro-Hungarian blundering which helped unleash the First World War and brought all the horrors of the modern age to Eastern Europe." Brigadier General Peter Zwack, US Army "A distinctly unique and long overdue contribution to the historiography of early WWI. The aficionados of Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August and Istvan Szabo's film Colonel Redl will find this a marvelous, engrossing and distinctly well written read that gives necessary balance to the already well-covered narrative of WWI's Western Front. Understanding the challenges and ultimate fate of the creaky, polyglot, decrepit yet also curiously progressive Austrian-Hungarian Empire is essential for comprehending the furies that erupted and boiled over the subsequent century within the vast, complicated, multi-ethnic expanse it spanned. Master historian Geoff Wawro does a tour de force job in colorfully bringing this to light." Dennis Showalter, author of Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the 20th Century "A Mad Catastrophe systematically eviscerates Austria-Hungary's final, fatal efforts to play the role of a great power. Wawro presents a case study of culpable, comprehensive, synergistic incompetence at every level of policy-making, strategic planning, and operational effectiveness. A decaying empire went to war fecklessly, conducted war haphazardly, and pulled Europe down into its final vortex. Brilliantly acerbic and comprehensively researched, this is a book difficult to put down." Norman Stone, author of World War One: A Short History "Geoffrey Wawro has done a superb job in explaining and describing how the Habsburg Empire, in trying to save itself, provoked a great war and then destroyed its army through a combination of incompetence and pretentiousness." Ivo Banac, Bradford Durfee Emeritus Professor of History, Yale University "Professor Wawro has produced a gripping and highly recommended account of Austria-Hungary's descent into the carnage of the First World War's first year. Unprepared but self-confident, divided by nationality, religion, and interest, the Habsburg armies got an unexpected thrashing that anticipated the demise of the rickety monarchy. This is a very instructive primer on imperial overreach, political irresponsibility, and the dreadful cost in human lives that was the epitaph for old Central Europe."

About the Author

Geoffrey Wawro studied at Brown and Yale and is Professor of History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. The author of five books, including Quicksand and The Franco-Prussian War, Wawro lives in Dallas, Texas.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Jay on 23 Jun. 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
the positive

Its very hard to find books on Austo Hungaria so this is to be welcomed especially as it also covers the Serbian front. Unlike many reviews I found the maps helpful especially as the units were clearly indicated - frequently to corps level which made it easier to follow the manoeuvrings and put the formations in relation to each other.

The negative

However if you have read Mr Wawro previous book on the 1866 campaign you know what is coming. An endless stream of criticism of the everyone in Austo Hungaria with the occasional useful insight and thought drowned under relentless negativity. Even worse he is frequently wrong especially when dealing with Germany - he gets the appointment of every army German army commander after Hindenburgs appointment wrong and he says that the German 8th army had been reinforced with corps from France (sic) at Tannenberg- virtually every history of WWI points out they left the west to soon to fight on the Marne and to late to fight at Tannenberg.


If you are looking for a new book on the eastern front 'collision of empires' by prit buttar is a far more balanced book coving all the eastern front (ie a lot is devoted to Germany) over roughly the same period (1st year) but frequently says more about the Habsburg than Wawro. Norman Stones the eastern front is dated but still the best book I have read on the Eastern front. Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War by Samuel Williamson is a brilliant book on how the Empire saw the events leading up to the war and how much responsibility for the War goes to their misjudgements but more importantly why the made these errors
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Richard Carter on 9 Oct. 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Thi is potentially a very interesting book and I was very keen to read it as soon as I saw the subtitle: "The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire." It certainly delivers on the first part, and there's much really good material there, but it's woefully lacking on the second: the treatment of the collapse is confined to a few miserable pages at the end.

But to deal with the positives: it's clearly thoroughly researched by a real historian. and Wawro makes particularly good use of primary sources and includes excellent detail; an example is the telling description (page 230) of the generals' baggage, where each general was allotted two entire personal wagons for their clothing and other effects (including books, crates of wine and canned delicacies) as well as three additional wagons for their divisional or brigade headquarters, whereas the troops had to manage on 45 between them, plus ammunition wagons, etc. In fact the incompetence of the generals was extraordinary, and it was this that essentially led to the Mad Catastrophe of the book's main title.

Wawro takes us through the first year of the war on the Eastern front, and the detail included is excellent; reading it, one simply marvels that the Habsburgs even lasted the year out, so hopeless were their strategy, tactics, generals and (largely raw, untrained) soldiers. I knew, of course, that they had struggled, but had no idea of the uselessness of their armies, and for this alone the book is useful. But, despite its virtues, the book has many faults that seriously reduce its worth (I think two and a half stars would be a fair grading, but Amazon's system doesn't allow that).
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Keen Reader TOP 50 REVIEWER on 26 Jun. 2014
Format: Hardcover
“Taught to lead from the front and keep their heads up to direct and observe fire, officers were easy marks for Serbian sharpshooters (or their own frightened troops).”

“The Russians had a survival instinct lacking in the Austrians. They would lie up against the lip of their trenches pouring fire into the Austrian bayonet charges until the first wild-eyed Austrians arrived at the edge of the trench. At that precise moment, every Russian in the trench would throw his hands in the air and surrender as one.”

In this book, the author takes a long and hard look at an area that is often not considered in depth in books on the outbreak of World War One – the eastern front, and the actions in particular of Austria-Hungary and their armed forces in the leadup to, and in the action of the first year of the War. Beginning with the crushing defeat of Austria in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the author charts the downward path of Austria’s previously proud military history through its people and its politics, including the divisive fragmentation caused in many European nations through the growth of ‘nationalism’ and ‘nation-hood’.

Before the 1914-1918 War, the Hungarian powerbloc vetoed the growth or even maintenance of the Austro-Hungarian army at every opportunity; men, weapons, infrastructure all suffered as a result. But Austrian politicians and military leaders still planned for War, with their thinking still firmly entrenched in nineteenth century tactics and strategies. Germany was determined on war; all they needed was one thing that would tip Austria over the edge into a shared commitment. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 provided just such a trigger.
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