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Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War Iby Alexander Watson
Synopses & Reviews
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 ignited a Central Europe already deeply divided by political hostility. The Habsburgs felt Serbia threatening at every turn, challenging their power in the Balkans and their status as a great power. After two decades of inept, saber-rattling Weltpolitik, Germany, their closest ally, found itself diplomatically isolated and militarily outgunned on land and sea. War was an opportunity for both nations to turn around their declining fortunes, and reestablish themselves as major power players. The key to this much-needed victory would be popular support—support the Central Powers governments would lie to gain, and struggle unsuccessfully to keep. In Ring of Steel, award-winning historian Alexander Watson explores the experiences of the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples and the ordeals that they faced at home and on the battlefield, showing how wartime suffering undermined their fragile support for the war and eroded their sense of national unity. Facing a populace ultimately deeply distrustful of the state and unwilling to make the sacrifices required for total war, the German and Austro-Hungarian governments collapsed, losing the war, shattering their societies, and pushing Central Europe into a new age of darkness.
Though many civilians felt a deep sense of unease and foreboding at the prospect of war, the Austro-Hungarian and German governments won their consent with a series of invented Russian attacks. Believing that they were not aggressors but defenders, the population rallied. Unfortunately, the early months of the war proved disastrous for the Central Powers, and their defeats ended any hope of a short, decisive war.
Weakened, the lie used to start the war that the two countries were vulnerable to invasion ironically became a reality when the Russian army conquered and occupied East Prussia and Galicia. Losing battles, territory, and hope, the Central Powers dug in for a long and grueling campaign—one that would demand everything from their people.
As the war dragged on and supplies diminished, life on the home front became increasingly grim, and their rulers expansive war aims seemed to unnecessarily prolong civilian suffering. Food shortages and hunger plagued both nations, and the distressed populations increasingly blamed their own governments. National unity began to break down; city dwellers turned on farmers, ethnic tensions were enflamed, and food riots became worryingly frequent. It was only through the pitiless exploitation and plunder of conquered territories that Germany was able to maintain its fight for the last two years. By the second half of 1918, support for the war collapsed completely, both on the home front and in the trenches where soldiers deserted and surrendered en masse. The final curtain of WWI dropped on a very different Germany and Austria-Hungary, now countries marked by a fatal division between people and government, and a poisonous legacy of unredeemed sacrifice, stark ideological division, racial hatred and violence.
Based on extensive research in archives across Central Europe, Watson takes us inside the hearts and minds of the ordinary men and women living in Germany and Austria-Hungary during the Great War. From the home front to the trenches, Ring of Steel examines the slow but pernicious erosion of communal solidarity as the deprivations mounted. Watson offers a groundbreaking account of World War I from the other side of the continent, brilliantly covering the major military events and the day-to-day life which resulted in the destruction of one empire, and the moral collapse of another
For Germany and Austria-Hungary the First World War started with high hopes for a rapid, decisive outcome. Convinced that right was on their side and fearful of the enemies that encircled them, they threw themselves resolutely into battle. Yet, despite the initial halting of a brutal Russian invasion, the Central Powers war plans soon unravelled. Germanys attack on France failed. Austria-Hungarys armies suffered catastrophic losses at Russian and Serbian hands. Hopes of a quick victory lay in ruins.
For the Central Powers the war now became a siege on a monstrous scale. Britains ruthless intervention cut sea routes to central Europe and mobilised the world against them. Germany and Austria-Hungary were to be strangled of war supplies and food, their soldiers overwhelmed by better armed enemies, and their civilians brought to the brink of starvation. Conquest and plunder, land offensives, and submarine warfare all proved powerless to counter or break the blockade. The Central Powers were trapped in the Allies ever-tightening ring of steel.
Alexander Watsons compelling new history retells the war from the perspectives of its instigators and losers, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. This is the story not just of their leaders in Berlin and Vienna, but above all of the people. Only through their unprecedented mobilisation could the conflict last so long and be so bitterly fought, and only with the waning of their commitment did it end. The war shattered their societies, destroyed their states and bequeathed to east-central Europe a poisonous legacy of unredeemed sacrifice, suffering, race hatred and violence. A major re-evaluation of the First World War, Ring of Steel is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the last century of European history.
In Ring of Steel, award-winning historian Alexander Watson draws on extensive archival research to explain the First World War from the perspectives of the nations that started, and lost, the war: Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Convinced by their governments that they were entering a necessary and defensive war, the people of the Central Powers fully committed to the cause. But as the Central Powers expanded their ambitions, military losses mounted, and hunger and hardship beset the homefront, doubts set in. Plunging morale sapped the Central Powers war effort, as political leaders lost the support of the populations they relied on to prosecute and support the protracted conflict. When the war ended, the shattered states that remained were marked by an unbridgeable division between the people and their leaders, a poisonous situation that would eventually lead to another, even more cataclysmic war.
A major re-evaluation of a misunderstood war, Ring of Steel is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the last century of European history.
About the Author
Alexander Watson is a Lecturer of History at Goldsmiths, University of London and the author of Enduring the Great War, which received the Fraenkel Prize from the Institute of Contemporary History. He has held the Marie-Curie Intra-European Fellowship at the Warsaw University in Poland, the British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, and the Stipendiary Research Fellowship at the University of Cambridge. Watson is contributor to the New York Times and the Times Higher Education Supplement.
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