Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I — The People's War
Reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War 1 —
The People's War
By Alexander Watson
Published by Basic Books, 2014

Perhaps the greatest mistake any reader of Great War literature can do is pass up this book. The title can bring to mind another dull overview of the war and its nearly three inch thickness can put off many an aficionado. However, the title and the thickness hide the real purpose of this book. The words 'The People's War' should have had top billing.

Alexander Watson, a lecturer in History at Goldsmiths, University of London, has brought about something that many of us look for in a history work about the war but can never find: what made a people continue supporting the war even when casualties reached astronomical proportions? The author effectively delves into the very psyche of the Central Powers' citizens to explain their motivation. Yet he draws other aspects into it also, such as why, considering how many obstacles the ruling governments put into place which thoroughly alienated its subjects, did the people continue to support the war effort? Added to these explanations, just for good measure, is a very detailed description of the people's experience, such as atrocities, dislocation, and genocide, during brief or extensive periods of occupation by a conqueror (not necessarily by the Central Powers).

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The first chapter of the book is the obligatory depiction of who actually started the war that we have run across so many times. Watson lays out the usual political intrigues and I expected the usual outcome: the Central Powers started it. I was pleasantly surprised to find his assessment somewhat more challenging to follow and more reflective in nature. Rather than blame the start on any one person or government, the author brings the reader to believe that war would have been avoidable if only the very people who should have prevented it, the political statesmen, were not so intent on bringing the July crisis to such a fever pitch that it was irretrievable from going to war. They had fully expected to preclude war through their negotiating abilities, which turned out to be woefully lacking and prone to outside influences. They were not the Bismarcks or Aerhenthals that they had aspired to be. Once war was declared and began mutating from a local conflict to the threshold of a global conflict, those statesmen could no longer contain the military and the nationalistic, conservative temperaments of those who followed and took control.

Chapter two, once again, begins blandly by explaining the many prewar plans that the Army General Staffs of Germany and Austria-Hungary had for dealing with Serbian and Russian threats to their lands. And, once again, Watson throws in a new aspect. How did the people see their part in the mobilization? Many authors over the years have gleefully pointed to the diversity in ethnic make-up of the Central Powers as the key to their overall failure in the conflict and that such ethnic conflicts surfaced early. The author's research paints an entirely different picture. There was an enthusiasm toward war across all nationalities in both empires, Watson argues, based on the primal instinct of cultural survival. In Germany, the invasion of East Prussia and the ensuing treatment, mass executions and deportations, of native populations awoke a feeling that the war was being fought for survival. Austro-Hungarian peoples also saw their support of the war motivated by the actions of the Russians as they drove into the eastern provinces. It is singularly important that the governments did not channel this enthusiasm. Instead, they held all non-Germanic populations as suspect to aiding the enemy. Suspected threats, including parliamentary representatives and spiritual leaders, were rounded up and jailed. Community leaders were displaced leaving the greater population adrift in a sea of uncertainty as occupiers looted, pillaged and murdered their way across newly acquired territory.

Budapest When War Was Declared, 1914

And so the book continues. Each chapter has a similar beginning, a paradigm of the Great War that we are used to seeing. The author follows this not by disproving it, but rather explaining how the people saw the governments' actions as the best possible solution, and following with what the decision ultimately meant for the people who were fighting the war. Many of the government policies that surfaced during the war regarding conquered Eastern European areas would resurface in World War II. Lithuanians, Poles, Jews, and Russians were to be deported and replaced by Ukrainian Germans. In Galicia and Poland the Russians sent 3.3 million inhabitants to wander in the Russian interior where refugee facilities were not available. Farther east, the Ottoman Empire attempted to annihilate the Armenian population to secure its borders

Budapest World War I Memorial

This work is enthralling. As I started each chapter I was initially put off by being fed some commonly noted facts, but my attention was instantly brought back as the author introduced firsthand accounts of what a particular government policy meant to the people. This work takes more of a social history view than the usual diplomatic and military perspectives that we are used to when reading about the Great War. We cannot deny that it does not take heroism to order people into fighting the war, but it does take heroism to carry out the orders.

Michael Kihntopf
Photos: Tony Langley and Steve Miller


  1. Mike, very good review. I'm not sure I'll tackle this book, but you sure have tempted me...

  2. I have not yet seen this book, but no reading list looking at these aspects is complete withour Fritz Fischer's "Germany's Aims in the First World War ( 1961 Droste Verlag und Druckerai, Dusseldorf. In English 1967 Chatto & Windus, London). It is clear that Germany's industrialists and Bankers were in favour of war and, when in August 1914, the chance of a quick or total victory eluded the German Army, demanded the wars continuation for commercial reasons.