Ring of Steel, Germany and Austria-Hungry 1914-1918 by Alexander Watson


A giant of a book, hugely well researched and hugely entertaining:


Notes below:


This book’s central argument is that popular consent was indispensable in fighting the twentieth century’s first ‘total war’. It recounts how the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples supported, tolerated or submitted to the conflict, and how participation changed them and their societies. Three themes run through the pages of this book. First, it explores how consent for war was won and maintained in Austria-Hungary and Germany. It shows that mobilization was never simply an order from state to subject. Rather, the institutions of civil society, local officials,political activists, the Church, trade unions and charities mediated and managed an astounding self-mobilization, taking their communities to war in 1914–15. The account explores how, when popular commitment to victory sagged in 1916–18, increasingly sophisticated propaganda was used to underpin resilience by shaping soldiers’and civilians’understandings of the war. It also scrutinizes for the first time the fears, ambitions, prejudices and grievances of Germans and Austro-Hungarians, and seeks to explain what they saw to be at stake in the conflict. The book demonstrates that the war’s hardships and horrors not only undermined but could also strengthen resolve to fight on and endure. Fear and anger, both justified and exaggerated, towards enemy belligerents proved to be powerful mobilizing emotions, lasting up to and well beyond 1918.


Second, the book explains how extreme and escalating violence during 1914–18 radicalized German and Austro-Hungarian war aims and actions, and it explores the consequences of this radicalization for those societies and their war efforts. At the outbreak of hostilities, both the populations and –notwithstanding their aggressive actions –governments were united in a defensive consensus. However, initial expectations that the conflict would be brief and purely military in nature were thwarted by the failure of any belligerent to win a decisive victory in the opening campaigns. The onset of a British naval blockade of doubtful legality under international law, which defined food as ‘contraband’, threatened the civilian populations of the Central Powers with starvation and exposed their extreme vulnerability to economic attack. The book shows how, a quarter of a century before Hitler’s slave empire, Germany and Austria-Hungary responded with a ruthless exploitation of the food and human labour in the territories they had occupied in the east and west. The new economic warfare encouraged German and Austro-Hungarian governing elites, parts of which had already harboured imperialist aspirations, to see their states’future security and stability as dependent on maintaining permanent control of these foreign resources. Official war aims expanded greatly, as German military and business elites in particular developed ambitions to build an empire in the east. These aspirations clashed with the wider population’s commitment to defend only pre-war borders and its hopes for a quick peace that would end the hardship. A crisis of state legitimacy resulted, and ultimately the people withdrew their consent, precipitating political collapse and the war’s end.


The book’s third theme is the tragic societal fragmentation caused by the First World War, a break-up which not only preceded and precipitated political collapse, but persisted even after state order had been resurrected in central Europe.


The great emotional and material investment of the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples not only made possible the sustained struggle of the Central Powers, but also ensured that defeat, when it came, would have a catastrophic impact on their societies. The internal divisions that had developed during the war shaped the chaos at its end:


The ultimatum demanded that the Serb government should publish in the official press verbatim a humiliating repudiation of all strivings aimed at the separation of territory from Austria-Hungary, and a warning that officials and others who persisted with this policy would be punished with ‘great severity.’ It then elaborated ten further points on which action was required.


Point 6, which had been added specifically to make the memorandum unacceptable, insisted that Austrian officials would take part in a judicial inquiry on Serbian territory against all the co-conspirators of the assassins. The Serbs were permitted just forty-eight hours to respond, and Ambassador Giesl was instructed verbally to demand unconditional acceptance, with the threat that any other answer would lead to an immediate break in relations. 23


Austria Hungary was itself highly unstable, a patchwork or nationalities that were increasingly suspicious of each other. Efforts to create compromises seemed to only enrage more people and chaos seemed to reign from about 1860 onwards. A "dualist" system with two parliaments for Austria and Hungary was in place but there dozens of lesser parliaments and self governing regions. Trying to unite this in a unified system proved impossible and caused resentments.


The chaos in and closure of parliaments, the street fighting between neighbours of different ethnicities, and the attempted or successful assassinations of the Emperor’s ministers and officials all suggested a state in crisis and fuelled talk of disintegration. This greatly concerned the diplomats and soldiers who pushed hardest for war.


So AH had captured Bos ja in 1878 but had been limited to 30 years occupied by a treaty. However, on its expiry the AHs stayed.


The year 1908 brought a major international crisis. Austria-Hungary’s occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina had been limited by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin to thirty years, and so a declaration of formal annexation, long foreseen, was necessary if the provinces were to remain under its control. The Young Turk revolution in the summer of 1908 gave the measure even greater urgency, as rumours circulated that the new Ottoman rulers were planning elections throughout the Empire, including in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which could be used to bring the territories back under their control.


Russia became involved and struck a deal with AH. They would support its claim over BH in exchange for their support over access access the Med. When this was not forthcoming they backed Serbia over BH but were forced to back down by a German threat that they would use force to support AH's claim. Russia had to back down publicly. A blow that still stung in 1914...


Meanwhile AH was worried. The newly resurgent Balklans League (Serbia and BH) were growing in strength and Russia was undergoing military modernisation due for completion in 1916. If there was to be a war, and it felt like one was coming, it needed to be fought sooner rather than after.


Russia than played a role. It only had one mobilisation plan and that involved bringing forces to bare(?) on Germany. Their railway network, sheer size and military districts made a mobilisation against just AH impractical. Therefore, despite Germany as usually being seen as the aggressor their initial military mobilisation was to counter the massing of Russian troops on their borders.


Fear, not aggression or unrestrained militarism, propelled the Central Powers to war in the summer of 1914. Rulers in both countries believed that they faced an imminent existential threat.


Despite the guilt clause in the TofV the Germans really felt they were fighting a war of self defence. AH had been victimised by Serbia and was taking actions to protect itself. Germany, and indeed Britain, were trying to keep the war localised but Russia mobilised its army, and has been seen, those mobilisation orders were designed to mobilise simultaneously against AH and Germany. Germany was praying to avoid war but Russia was preparing for an invasion of Germany. They had little choice! (Is their narrative).



"efforts. The German people entered the First World War remarkably united. Differences of class and confession, region and race, seemed to many who lived through these times suddenly to melt away in the national emergency. The Russian general mobilization decisively shifted popular opinion, turning war from an unthinkable horror into a defensive necessity".


Rumours spread at the onset of war that the French had placed gold reserves inside Taxis that were making their way through Germsjt destined for the Tsar. Patriotic bands of militia sprang up across the country making road blocks and searching traffic. Pretty funny.


The A-H Jewish community is an interesting case study:


"The Empire’s more than two million Jews stand out as a special case, for they were mobilized on the basis of three identities. They were among the most loyal of Habsburg subjects. Many revered Froyim Yossel, as Yiddish speakers’communities affectionately called Franz Joseph, as the ruler who had granted them emancipation. Feelings of civic pride in Austria too were well developed among both more traditional shtetl communities and the modernizing Jews in major cities. A second identity that propelled Jews to war was consciousness of their membership as a religious group and people. The fight against Tsarist Russia, which cruelly suppressed its Jews, was understood as a war of liberation, even a ‘holy war’. 165 Finally, modernizing Jews, due to their identification with one or other of the Monarchy’s peoples –most frequently German, but also sometimes Hungarian, Czech or Polish –often underwent a triple mobilization. In the days following the outbreak of war, for example, a placard was posted on the streets of Cracow addressed to the town’s Jewish population. Characterizing the war as a ‘blood feud between civilization and barbarism,".


Just like Nelson:

"The German military’s infamous and highly effective Auftragstaktik, or ‘mission tactics’, was built upon this system: senior commanders, confident that their officers would behave similarly in any given tactical situations, could simply set operational goals. Their subordinates, better placed to judge conditions on the ground, would through their shared training naturally coordinate in choosing the tactics to fulfil their missions."


Second, the Habsburg army proved exceptionally murderous in both campaigns [against the Russians and the Serbs] The history of east-central Europe and the Balkans as the continent’s ‘bloodlands’did not begin with Fascist and Communist regimes later in the twentieth century. Already in 1914, decades before the advent of genocidal totalitarian states, military action, racial ideology and ethnic conflict turned them into killing grounds, broke taboos and sowed the seeds of later exterminatory warfare.


Massacres, raping and looting appear to have happened frequently across the Eastern sections. Fuelled by stories of guerilla warfare from the locals. The early shifting borders also forced many to take what they wanted when they arrived.


Especially devastating were the areas initially seized by the Russians from the Habsburgs. They were the richest areas of A-H and the Russians wasted little time in reorganising them for their own needs. When the A-H's counter attacked the Russians were ruthless in turning it into scorched earth. The Eastern part of the A-H Empire would suffer extreme shortages for the rest of the war, compounded obviously by the British blockade of their German allies. Additionally, one million refugees were created, sending mostly Poles, and a lot of Jews among them, into areas of A-H where they overloaded local facilities and faced severe discrimination and hatred. Further undermining the economic and fighting spirit of the A-Hs.


Popular home front efforts across the Central Powers took place. Women made millions of items of clothing, war bonds were raised (with special use made of pester power to get kids to pressure their parents to pay) and "nail figures" were used, with locals paying money to the war and in turn able to hammer in a nail into a wooden statue in their local area. It was a way of showing communal solidarity and they became very popular - see image).



The Royal Navy blockade did more than any other action to radicalize the conflict. While the act of restricting access to the entire North Sea, and therefore to both enemy and neutral ports across northern Europe, was drastic, most damaging was the blockade’s erosion of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.


The enemy’s intention, readers were told, was to ‘seal [the Reich] hermetically from the rest of the world and …vanquish our people through hunger’. The eminent professor did not mince his words: ‘The concentration camps of the Boer War were final evidence that the English gentleman does not disdain a fight against women and children. Now he wants to use the tested means of fighting in the absolute greatest measure and ideally make of all Germany a single concentration camp.’87


The Somme...


Haig ignored his second in command Sir Henry Rawlinson who suggested a limited "bite and hold" offensive to use a huge artillery barrage to seize the German front line and then to hold it against a counter attack (learning from the successful approach of the Germans in Feb of that year against the French at Verdun). Hand didn't want that. Haig wanted a breakthrough into open country beyond. So the plan was redrawn to spread the British artillery fire further into German territory - but at the cost of its concentration.


The Somme was an obvious place of attack and the Germans had built deep, 12 metre, shelters, connected by underground tunnels and many had railings attached to the stairs so machine guns could be quickly ran up them to take up firing positions once the attack had began.


The Entente greatly outnumbered the Germans in the region 19 Divisions (and 10 more in reserve) versus the German 19 divisions.


The British army was inexperienced and this was their first real large scale battle.


Men did not walk slowly into machine gun fire. 53 out of 80 had already crept into no man's land to reduce the sprint to the German lines. 12 other divions did move slowly but that's because they were following a creeping barrage (and they had a lot of initial success with it).


3/5s of British medium shells did not explode in the muddy lands of the Somme.


A large mine denotation was unable to be used effectively as the German reserves arrived at the scene before the British could seize it.


It ended really as a material victory for the Germans, who killed more Brits than they lose in exchange, but potentially a psychological defeat for the German Army was shocked by the weight of British firepower and manpower. They had come very close to losing and from then on the idea that they could lose the war began to grow. Desertion, suicide and "fragging" off officers began to increase. Attendance at church ceremonies plummeted as men began to lose faith.



The subsequent British failure to concentrate force and, with only a few exceptions, plan large, systematic assaults, wasted an unprecedented material superiority and permitted the Germans to transfer strength elsewhere.


By 1916, the Italian offensive, the Burislov offensive, Verdun and the Somme had shaken the Central Powers and caused mass casualties. Their lines had mostly held with the AHs losing some key indsutrial areas but on the whole the map had not changed. However, the assault had shocked the Central Powers and it was uncertain they could hold out for another year of fighting in such a manner.


The Central Powers looked to consolidate, putting both armies under Central control of Hindenburg. A huge loss of prestige to the AHs but their material reliance on Germany was so great they had little option.


I March 1917 the Germans withdrew from the Somme to the newly constructed Siegfried Line. It made the German front 10km shorter and allowed for greater defence in depth. They learned lessons from the Russia retreat earlier in the war and scorched all the lands they relinquished.


The German Army reorganised based on lessons learned. Smaller units. Greater authority to junior officers. Abandoning the "No retreat" philosophy.


The Somme had made the Germans better soldiers.



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The Home Front


"Hamerstering" became a thing, with civilians banned from visiting the countryside with bags becasue they were visiting farms and buying direct from the farmers to avoid the shortages in the cities. Police had to search people getting on trains. Women sowed vegetables into their skirts and others pretended to be pregnant to smuggle wheels of cheese back to their homes.


The Turnip Winter of 16-17 was the turning point. From then on protests became common, the unity that had held for so long began to fragment.


Anti-Semitism began to rise. Lots of AH and German Jews had lived in the areas that Russia had invaded, they had therefore become refugees to the cities. The low state aid given to refugees was not enough to support them, and they were usually refused working cards because local authorities did not want them to settle. Therefore they became forced to earn a livlihood on the black market. A stereotype of a work-shy, war profiteer undermining the national effort quickly set in, especially in Austria, and places like Vienna, where most had settled.


By the winter of 1916–17, popular blame for the shortages had shifted decisively from the British blockade towards the Central Powers’own governments. Their inability to organize sensible, adequate and fair food distribution was vociferously criticized. Their peoples were frustrated by queuing and the impossible maze of regulations, and infuriated by rumours of official waste, incompetence and corruption.


The CPs began using prisoner labour in the farms to boost productivity. The French then tried to recruit some of these as saboteurs and wild conspiracy stories spread across Germany.


In the Eastern areas forced labour camps were created.


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The most stupid decision of the war. Just as the Russians were knocked out the Germans switched to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and the USA, as they promised they would in such circumstances, joined the war.


The British were months away from going broke and the French army on the verge of mutiny. Early 1917 offered a unique chance to the Germans. And they through it away.


The author believes this was the single most important factor in Germany losing the war.


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1917 saw the Germans and AH assaulted on an ideological basis just as its people were beginning to turn on their rulers. The Soviet uprising proved to their proletariat that change through force was possible while Wilson's talk of self determination was the perfectly pitched to dissolve the flue holding together the AH empire.


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The (German) force’s demise in 1918 is best understood as the product of a psychological collapse, which started with the rank and file but rapidly spread to junior officers and ultimately to the OHL itself.



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Conclusion--> exceptional point:


In the post-war settlement’s favour, it has been pointed out that Europe’s political reorganization halved its minorities, from 60 million to 30 million. Treaties imposed on the new states were supposed to guarantee minority rights. 13 Yet this misses the crucial point that both Wilsonian propaganda’s espousal of the ‘self-determination of peoples’and the war itself had raised national aspirations to fever pitch. Minority status in a continent constructed upon the basis of nation states was far less attractive or acceptable than under the old empires. By one reckoning, even though minority numbers had declined, ethnic conflicts in the territory of what had been Austria-Hungary nearly doubled after 1918, from nine to at least seventeen.