Professor's Bookshelf

Ring of Steel book cover

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I –– the People’s War by Alexander Watson

Alexander Watson’s offers readers a useful and well-crafted narrative of Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War One. It is the most recent history of the Central Powers in World War One since Holger Herwig’s book The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918, was published in 1997 (London: Arnold). There has been a lot of new scholarship that has fleshed out our understanding of the war, especially in terms of popular support, public mobilization, and the home front in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Watson’s synthesis of this recent literature is the one reason this book is important.

Watson’s basic argument is that Germany and Austria-Hungary started the war with different levels of preparation. The two state’s approaches to mobilizing their armies and civilian populations had consequences for not only their conduct of the war, but also the outcome of the revolutions that followed from their defeat. The German government relied on popular enthusiasm as symbolized by the Burgfrieden, a political compromise between all the political parties in Parliament including the Social Democrats. The leaders of the Dual Monarchy were suspicious of popular mobilization. Their prewar mobilization plans eschewed civilian participation in favor of military control. The Habsburgs did eventually embrace a civilian mobilization along national and ethnic lines. This came back to haunt them in the last years of the war. By 1917, the nationalities support for the dynasty had flagged because of chronic food shortages and the political stalemate over constitutional reforms in both halves of the Dual Monarchy.

Another great contribution is Watson’s discussion of German atrocities against civilians in Belgium and Austro-Hungarian war crimes in Serbia in the first months of the war. Watson argues this violence against civilians was caused by failures in military leadership as well as exaggerated fears of guerilla insurgencies by francs tireurs on the Western Front and komitadjis in Serbia and the Balkans. In both cases the Central Powers inflicted inexcusable suffering on civilian populations that they were legally obligated to protect under the Hague Conventions. Both Germany and Austria-Hungary’s international prestige declined permanently as a result.

Watson also analyzes Ober-Ost, the German military government of occupied Russia. Unlike at home in Germany, the government relied on coercion and a strict military government to extract food and other resources from the occupied territories. This despite the German General Staff’s ultimate goal of winning the population over and annexing the territory as a strategic glacis after the war. Watson draws some interesting parallels with Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands (Basic Books: 2010), but makes it clear that the German Army’s occupation of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine was repressive but came nowhere near to constituting a genocide.

If the book has one flaw, it is that the focus really rests on Imperial Germany and its campaigns on the Western and Eastern Fronts. There is only a limited discussion of the Balkan, Italian, and Romanian fronts. While Watson does a good job of drawing some careful comparisons between Germany and Austria Hungary, it is clear from his archival sources that the focus of the book is on Germany in France, Poland and Russia. Certainly by 1916, Austria-Hungary was the junior partner in the alliance, and in an inferior bargaining position with both its ally and opponents. Overall, the book is well written and solidly argued. Watson does a nice job of balancing between military campaigns, diplomacy, popular mobilization, and the civilian experiences of total war. A worthwhile read in light of the World War One centenary.

Review by Matthew Lungerhausen, Spring 2016


Book cover of Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark

With the approach of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, it is not surprising that a number of new books are appearing, adding to the 25,000 books and articles already written on the subject, the vast majority of them seeking the ever elusive truth of culpability. Cambridge historian Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, uniformly lauded by critics for its meticulous research and elegant prose, eschews providing a verdict, preferring not to answer why, but explain how. He argues that the origins of World War I “is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather there is one in the heads of every major character.” The war, Clark concludes, “was a tragedy, not a crime,” and therefore should be treated as such. He argues, “The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

Clark focuses on the breakdown of the diplomatic system that Bismarck deftly presided over at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. By the summer of 1914, the checks and balances system that kept Europe in a “long peace” since the Napoleonic Wars, was broken, with most of the parties choosing to escalate conflict rather than subdue it. Pushing events was the Eastern Question—the drawn out decline of the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire and their inability to keep a lid on the simmering pot of the Balkans. Instead of starting with the spark of Sarajevo, Clark focuses on another assassination—the brutal double-murder of Serbian King Alexander and his consort Queen Draga, an act that brought an end to the pro-Austrian Obrenovic dynasty and changed the balance of power in the Balkans as the new King Petar, secret societies, the army, militias, and political leaders vied for power, while none could check emerging pro-Serbian nationalist aims that would gain ground only at the expense of Austria-Hungary.

If any country moved to the front of the pack in Clark’s attempt not to assign blame, it was tiny Serbia. Interestingly, Clark has been asked about the impact of the present upon his work in an NPR interview. His book, long in gestation, was crafted as the demonization of Serbia was in the immediate rearview mirror due to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. In similar vein, Clark covers Italy’s 1911 assault on Libya, realizing he was describing the events exactly one hundred years after the 2011 airstrikes on Libya. Yet another present theme that found parallels in the run up to 1914 was the Euro crisis, which was raging as Clark put finishing touches on the book. “You look at the Euro crisis,” Clark argues, “and you see that all the leaders had one fear in common: they all faced a meltdown of the currency. But that fear that they had of a catastrophic outcome was not in itself enough to bring them into sort of a consensual position, to force them into collaborating with each other and finding common solutions (NPR interview, 4/13, 2013). Sleepwalking in the present thus found parallels to sleepwalking in the past as Clark is reminded of the behavior of the statesmen of 1914, men he argued did not really want war, yet selected escalation over tough diplomacy.

book cover of 1913 by Charles Emmerson

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

While Clark goes out of his way to avoid assigning blame to the origins of the war, Charles Emmerson’s 1913 attempts to ignore the start of the war altogether. Omniscience is cast aside as Emmerson hopes to avoid the world of 1913 “becoming viewed as nothing more than an antechamber” to World War I. In the process, Emmerson, a fellow at Chantham House, a prestigious London think-tank, takes the reader on a world tour (he refers to it as a “circumnavigation”) covering twenty-two cities on six continents. His is a social and pop cultural history more than an academic history, and perhaps for this reason makes for compelling reading.

Emmerson’s tour begins and ends in London, before moving to traditional European capitals of Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and Rome. Each of the stops on the European section serve as an overview to the major issues confronting each country as they moved forward into the new millennium. Along the way, the reader finds a description of King George V and his cousin Tsar Nicholas attending the wedding of Kaiser Wilhelm’s daughter in Berlin, or the stories of Winston Churchill attending an Anglo-German naval show hosted in Germany as war was declared, while Russian general Aleksei Brusilov was vacationing in Germany. At one point in 1913, Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, and Adolph Hitler all lived in Vienna, just kilometers away from Franz Ferdinand. Such vignettes are a reminder of the cosmopolitan nature of European cities in 1913, yet Emmerson goes one step further, linking Europe to the world.

In 1913, Emmerson consciously emulates the narrative style and global reach of the late Eric Hobsbawm, the creativity of Simon Schama, and the verve and global connections found in the scholarship of Niall Ferguson, lofty models indeed. Building on such scholarship, 1913 reminds the reader that the emerging trend of globalism, including the movement of goods, people, and ideas, was curtailed with the advent of World War I, only picking up the momentum it had gained by 1913 with the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. Like Clark, Emmerson uses this as a bridge to the present, forwarding the provocative idea that 2013 resembles 1913. Exchange the United States for Great Britain and China for Germany, throw in an ever-connected world economy, and a simmering Middle East and the parallels drawn out by Emerson are clear. In an interesting twist, Emmerson employs the newest technologies of social media, especially twitter, to support his book and regularly makes ongoing commentaries linking current events to events and personalities of 1913.  In one such gem, he noted a lock of Franz Joseph’s hair recently sold at a Vienna auction house for $7,000, only half the price of Justin Beiber’s locks sold at a similar auction. “Says something about society,” Emmerson tweeted, “Not sure what.”

book cover of To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild

Unlike Clark and Emmerson, Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, published in 2011, takes the reader into the heart of the war, marshaling plenty of evidence describing the suffering inflicted by an on the various nations involved. For example, Hochshild, best known for his books on human rights and the global slave trade, points out, “If the British dead alone were to rise up and march 24 hours a day past a given spot, four abreast, it would take them more than two and a half days” to complete the task. A description of such misery is compelling, even taking center stage and crowding out the author’s goal of covering the history of dissent, pacifist movements, conscientious objectors, and deserters from England. He introduces the readers to the views and activities of Bertrand Russell, Emily Hobhouse, Charlotte Despard, Sylvia Pankhurst, and other lesser known figures who took a stand against the war. Of particular interest to Hochschild are divided families, for example, John French, a hero of the Boer War and first commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Forces during the war was the brother to Charlotte Despard, militant suffragist, Labour Party firebrand, and intense critic of the war-they kept a close relationship throughout the war despite their differences. Likewise, the politically active and leaders in the militant pre-war Suffragette movement Pankhursts, were a family divided, including daughters Christabel (pro-war) and Sylvia (anti-war).


Hochschild’s book on dissent shows an often overlooked element of the war, though not necessarily representative of popular opinion. While learning about war critics, the reader is given a sound overview of the major events of the war, from battles on the western front to the Russian Revolution. Like Clark and Emmerson, Hochschild’s, the prose is quite good and serves as a great entry point to the war.  All three are bound to stand the test of time as popular and readable narratives. The fact that they are amongst the first in what will surely prove to be a number of new books on “the war to end all wars” is a good sign the war will continue to generate both scholarly and popular interest as we approach the centenary.

Reviews by Dr. Matthew Lindaman, Spring 2013