Alexander Watson, the author of a prizewinning study of the British and German armies during the first world war, makes a substantial contribution to this growing body of literature in Ring of Steel. In his analysis, it was the mobilization and radicalization of Germany and Austria-Hungary between 1914 and 1918 that created the context for Europe’s descent into the “bloodlands” of the 1930s and 1940s. “The great material and emotional investment” of the Central Powers, he contends, “ensured that defeat, when it came, would have a catastrophic impact on their societies.”
These experiences resulted from disastrous political decisions made by elites in Berlin and Vienna. Watson shows how poorly the civilian and military leaders of the Central Powers understood their societies, epitomized in the fears of Habsburg ministers and generals that their multi-ethnic empire was on the verge of disintegration in 1914. In reality, Austria-Hungary was more robust than its leaders appreciated: national minorities wanted more autonomy, not independence, and knew how to make compromises.
Groundless assumptions also impaired decision-making in Berlin. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 was the “most disastrous decision of the war”, according to Watson. By bringing the US into the conflict just as Russia was at the point of revolution, the French army about to mutiny and Britain on the edge of bankruptcy, German leaders missed an opportunity to win. Similarly, the 1916 Hindenburg plan, designed to increase armaments production, instead fueled inflation and created chaos.
In the Habsburg empire, mobilization took place within individual national communities, each of which understood the war in different ways. This became a problem as the war dragged on and the claims of different national groups clashed. In Germany, the government successfully presented the war as defensive and, therefore, legitimate. Socialists as well as nationalists could rally to the defense of the Fatherland. Yet even the rallying point of opposition to Tsarist despotism and rapacious British and French commercialism began to dissolve in bitter disputes within Germany about war aims from 1915. A defensive war covered myriad ambitions, including extravagant territorial demands. Food shortages undermined social solidarity in both states, particularly from 1916.
German and Habsburg elites sought to preserve social cohesion through propaganda and repression. Austria-Hungary was considerably more repressive, reflecting its elite’s distrust of its own people. In neither state did governments introduce meaningful political reform. Instead, they offered the prospect of “holding out” and “total victory”. Even the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which constituted an apparent “total victory” against Russia, undermined the Habsburg regime as previously loyal Poles railed against the terms.
The failure of Germany’s spring offensives in 1918 was followed by a rapid disintegration of army morale, which drifted back to the German home front as the war ended in ceasefire and revolution in November 1918. The peoples of the Central Powers were left without a sense of the purpose of the war, and without respite from insecurity and hunger. Watson concludes that the search for meaning in all of this led to an intensification of ethnic violence, culminating in the Holocaust.