Book Review: Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I

“We began the war, not the Germans and still less the Entente — I know that.”
~ Baron Leopold von Andrian- Westberg.

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I by Alexander Watson is the history of World War I from a German and Austrian setting. Watson holds a PhD from Oxford University. He lectures on the social, economic, military and political history of the First World War, the Second World War, and the Habsburg Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He currently teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. Watson has published and has done extensive research on the history of World War I.

Ring of Steel holds the claim to be the first modern history of the war told from the Axis perspective. The Axis powers mobilized on an unprecedented scale. Germany mobilized almost 13.5 million men, 86% of the male population between the age of 18 and 50 passed through the armed forces between 1914-1918. Austria-Hungary mobilized 78% of its military aged men during the years of the conflict. Watson makes three main points with this work. First the call to war was not just a state command in Germany; support ran throughout the country and at all levels. Secondly, he attempts to explain the growing and escalating violence of a war that was thought to be defensive by all sides. The alliances put both sides on the defensive until the outbreak. The third theme concerns the break up of societies by the war.

Germany and Austria-Hungary were very different countries. Germany became a state in 1871 and accepted a national identity rather smoothly. Austria-Hungary was a dual monarchy with two separate parliaments and a centralized foreign policy, military, and finance under the Habsburg leadership. Austria Hungary was a collection of separate nationalities and eleven spoken languages. Although under a collective empire, there was no ethnic, language, or national unity as in Germany. A modern observer looking in at Austria-Hungary would be curious as to how it held together.

Watson brings a few new thoughts to light in his book. One event took me by surprise. Unrestricted submarine warfare has been debated and is usually regarded as ineffective in the long run. Despite the massive amounts of sunk cargo, it did not help Germany in the end. Watson makes another point, this is the first time I have heard it, that unrestricted submarine warfare was responsible for Germany’s defeat. His argument is that England was going broke. The war was costing England 2 million pounds a day,and England would be bankrupt by March 1917 and out of the war. The United States was at odds with England over its strict contraband definitions and not respecting the rights of neutrals. England effectively prevented trade with Germany. Unrestricted submarine warfare changed the US position and doomed Germany.

Watson also concentrates on the social and economic effects of the war in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Jobs and food became scarce. People began their own gardens and even pets changed. Dogs and cats were replaced with edible pets: rabbits, ducks, and goats. Racial issues played a role in the war too. The Russians began persecution of Jews in conquered lands. The Entente propaganda created German atrocities that did not exist, and Russia’s army actively prosecuted soldiers who raped women in occupied territory. The Austrian public attacked their Croat soldiers for wearing Croat colors on their uniforms — nationalism was an attack on the empire. Inside Austria-Hungary extreme enforcement of sedition laws were well publicized.

Ring of Steel gives a detailed look inside both Germany and Austria during WWI. Military as well as civilian issues are covered in great detail. Watson goes through great lengths to document all his writing. Nearly one quarter of the book is bibliography and citations. Ring of Steel is more than a war history. It is a social history that not only describes the war, but the war’s effect on the people.

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