A distinguished historian’s takedown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s spectacularly inept leadership, which helped usher in the 20th century’s greatest tragedy.
One hundred years ago this June, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo. With its saber-rattling ally Germany discouraging any diplomatic solution to the crisis, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering a series of treaty obligations that soon had the world at arms. Wawro (Military History/Univ. of North Texas, Dallas; Quicksand: America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East, 2010, etc.) sets the stage for this rash decision with opening chapters explaining the origins of the dual monarchy and the rot eating away at the empire well before any shot was fired. Under the doddering, now-mythologized Emperor Franz Josef, the empire was plagued by salacious court intrigues, corruption, linguistic controversies, and bureaucratic infighting and paralysis so widespread that in 1913, British newspapers were already predicting dissolution. Nevertheless, seemingly oblivious to its own infirmity, the government threw itself into a war it had no chance of winning. Wawro charts the disastrous 1914-1915 campaigns against Serbia and Russia that fatally exposed the empire’s weaknesses, where an army of unwilling soldiers, poorly led, inadequately trained and armed, was slaughtered by the millions. American readers with only a passing familiarity of the battles of World War I likely know it best from the perspective of the Western Front. Wawro offers a crucial insight into the Eastern Front, where the fecklessness of Germany’s most important ally drained attention and resources, almost guaranteeing the bloody standoff in the Western trenches and the eventual capitulation of the Kaiser’s army.
On this centennial of the Great War’s beginning, Wawro has composed a thoroughly researched and well-written account, mercilessly debunking any nostalgia for the old monarch and the deeply dysfunctional empire over which he presided.