Book Review: Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I does for the Germany and Austria-Hungary what Niall Ferguson’s The Pity Of War did for the Allies in WWI.  It explains the war through the lens of the people that participated both at home and at the front and explores the ways in which the experience of war shaped the perception of the war and led to the dissolution of both empires.

The book itself is a hefty tome at first glance, it actually looks like it could serve as a doorstop in an emergency.  All told it is 788 pages and a good 2 ½ inches thick.  Much of that thickness comes from the notes and bibliography.  There are 120 pages of notes and the bibliography alone is 68 pages long.  That testifies to the depth of scholarship that went into the book.  Everything is meticulously sourced, often using primary as opposed to secondary sources.  The meat of the book is 567 pages of text consisting of an introduction, 13 chronological chapters, and an epilogue detailing the experience of war on Germany and Austria-Hungary from 1914-1918.

This is a story that to my knowledge has never been told in detail in English outside of academic journals and even there has only been told episodically covering narrow subjects.  This is the first holistic overview of the experience of war in Central Powers in World War I that am aware of, and I have been studying World War I for almost 25 years.  This is a study akin to Ferguson’s The Pity Of War in the quality of it analysis and description of life on the homefront.

One thing that is common to most World War I historiography is that homefront of the Entente powers is discussed in detail, such as things as wartime rationing, women war-workers, propaganda, and public opinion while this has been largely ignored in Germany and Austria-Hungary or at best caricatured.  This work tells that story in one place for the first time and puts a human face on the civilian population of the Central Powers.

One thing that comes out clearly is the huge difference in the ways in which Germany and Austria-Hungary responded to the stresses of war.  Watson makes an excellent point that the greater ethnic homogeneity of Germany was a large factor in German support for the war as well as the more liberal policies of the Reich in controlling information and in trying to implement a fair and equitable ration system for food.  The discussion of how the policies of the Third OHL of Hindenburg and Ludendorff backfired and led to public resentment and eventual loss of support for the war effort is very informative and confirms a suspicion that I have had for long while.  Namely, that the attempt at total coercive mobilization by the third OHL was counter-productive and that Hindenburg and Ludendorff only realized this at the eleventh hour when the only thing they could and did do was advise the Kaiser’s abdication and sue for peace.

The discussion of the myriad and various policies tried in Austria-Hungary to raise support for the war that were flawed in both conception and execution is illuminating.  The surprising thing is not that Austria managed to fight on but that they did not collapse in the first year of the war in the face of both military incompetence at the front and blatantly unfair and discriminatory policies among the multitude of ethnic communities that made up the empire.  The lack of will and basic incompetence of Emperor Franz Joseph is largely responsible for this as he did not have the strength of character to rein in the various power blocs within the empire that eventually tore it apart.  The story of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is both sad and comical at the same time.  Public support was squandered throughout the war and even activity discouraged at times.  It is almost as though Austria-Hungary was just as much at war with itself and its identity from 1914-1918 as it was with any external power and it is his internal conflict that ultimately undermined the empire and the Central Powers by sapping and wasting all the strengths of Austria and preventing the nation from gelling and prosecuting the war with anything but the basest competence and energy.

Another tale that has not been fully told until now is the way in which Germany and Austria-Hungary administered areas they conquered.  It is by turns a tale of brutality and lenience.  The one thing lacking in large part in both countries administration of occupied territory was consistency as the treatment of conquered lands and peoples changed with time and location.  Westerners were generally treated better than those in Eastern Europe but there was violence and compassion all over and much depended on the temperament and inclinations of the military governor as most governors administered their areas as independent fiefdoms to do with as they wished and mostly paid lip service to central authority.

This is an illuminating volume that tells a history that has largely been either ignored or caricatured in English historiography.  It is an outstanding book that has been scrupulously researched.  It is also surprisingly easy to read given the potential dryness of the subject.  The narrative flows and draws the reader along.  I highly recommend this book to students of World War I and indeed anyone who wants to see how the Central Powers dealt with the stresses of war on the homefront.  They will not find a better, fairer history because it has not yet been written.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson”

  1. I enjoyed reading your review, and I look forward to reading the book myself. I do think you overstate the originality of Watson’s book, though, as historians such as Holger Herwig (whose book The First World War: Germany and Austria Hungary, 1914-1918 covers much of the same ground as Watson’s) have written before about the Central Powers’ war effort

    • I have read Herwig’s book. It is pretty good but I have always had the sneaking suspicion that Herwig has an axe to grind, I just can’t figure out what it is.

      One of the things I liked the most about Watson’s book is that he tries very hard, and mostly succeeds, in making value judgements. He describes what happened without trying to lead the reader to see the events as good or bad, he leaves that judgement up to the reader. Writing like that makes for the best history in my opinion. If someone is to decide on the good or bad of historical acts, they need the facts, not opinion and Watson provides that. Of course, no work is truly bias free but I especially appreciate historians who obviously make the effort to avoid letting their personal biases affect the historical narratives they write.

Comments are closed.