A British historian examines the desperate ethnic divisions roiling the Austro-Hungarian Empire that both propelled it to war in 1914 and undermined its success.
From the first decision to go to war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the peace signed in Versailles in June 1919, Watson (History/Univ. of London; Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918, 2008) sifts carefully through the thinking and actions of the main Central Powers, the Habsburgs and the Germans, in provoking a European conflagration against enemies of superior numbers and military might (the Russians, British and French). Punishing Serbia for the assassinations meant bringing in its powerful ally Russia, but Watson argues that the sprawling multiethnic Austria-Hungary had largely lost control of its nationalist pockets and feared a “domino effect” if this insurgency was not violently crushed. Indeed, the empire’s dangerously paranoid statesmen promoted war out of “a profound sense of weakness, fear and even despair.” Germany was also operating from a place of deep insecurity regarding France, Russia and Britain, and Watson shows how Chief of the German General Staff Helmuth von Moltke was rather more “defensive and reactive” than saber-rattling. Thus the Central Powers were able to sell the war to the people as a defensive action, surrounded as they were by hostile enemies—“a ring of steel.” The “pervasive sense of threat” to the community translated initially into a patriotic spur to mobilization, but it morphed into suspicion and vigilantism as refugees from the eastern war zones of Galicia flooded into the interior and provoked ethnic hostilities and anti-Semitism. The German atrocities in Belgium and Russians’ in Galicia, the Ottomans’ treatment of the Armenians and the ultimate claim that “security” was the German Reich’s ultimate goal—all of this paved the way for Nazi genocide.
For World War I and modern European history enthusiasts, this is a comprehensive work that ably conveys the disintegration of empire.