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Response to Review of Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918

I am extremely grateful to Dr. Kwan for a review which was very interesting, thought-provoking and which outlines some of the key issues with which historians of the late Habsburg Empire are currently grappling. I thank him for highlighting the contribution that my book, Ring of Steel, seeks to make to these debates.

The purpose of this response is simply to clarify a few points raised in the review, and to engage further with the questions asked at its end about the causes of the Habsburg collapse in 1918. However, I would like to begin by suggesting that Dr. Kwan’s description of Ring of Steel as a ‘synthesis’ may be somewhat misleading. For sure, the book takes a broad view of Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s war and in doing so owes a great debt to the vast historiography of the last 60 years, including recent innovative literature re-evaluating the peacetime Habsburg Empire, to which Dr. Kwan himself has made valuable contribution. However, at its core, the book is an investigation of the devastating and radicalising impact of ‘total war’ in East-Central Europe based on over a decade of work in 20 archives in five countries, including neglected but well-organised and exciting repositories in Poland. Thanks to this extensive new research Ring of Steel addresses issues which other works have ignored, but yet are essential for understanding the Central Powers’ war experiences and their disastrous aftermath.

Two subjects given space in the review offer convenient illustration of this point. Ring of Steel provides the very first account of popular mobilisation across Austria-Hungary in the summer of 1914. It shows for the first time the initially high level of popular cooperation and consent. The new Habsburg historiography has argued convincingly that at the municipal and regional level the Empire was generally effective at negotiating with nationalist and other aspirations – and my study pays close attention to how important local opinion-formers (many of whom were nationalist politicians and clergy) played a key role in promoting the Habsburg cause and ensuring popular compliance.  National identity and nationalist ideology – usually characterised in the literature as purely destructive ‘centrifugal’ forces – joined with other nationally indifferent and imperial loyalties to ensure that in this first, critical period, society mobilised for war extremely successfully all across the Habsburg Empire.

Ring of Steel’s account of the Russian invasion of East Prussia – another subject given space in the review – is similarly groundbreaking. While the German army’s violence against civilians in Belgium and France in 1914 is well-researched, almost nothing was known of Russian depredations in the Reich’s most north-easterly province between August 1914 and March 1915. My research in archives in Berlin and Olsztyn (Poland) confirmed that the Tsar’s military killed around 1,500 German civilians and deported another 13,000 under lethal conditions. It also uncovered a mass of first-hand testimonies of suffering by victims and witnesses, some of which are reproduced in the book. As Dr. Kwan writes in his review, I argue that this trauma at the conflict’s outset, which was transmitted by various channels throughout the country, was formative in shaping ordinary Germans’ predominantly defensive understanding of why the war was being fought and what was at stake.

The archival research on which Ring of Steel is based is not the only reason for the book’s originality. The account is written specifically from the perspectives of Austria-Hungary and Germany, and this allows for new interpretations of some well-known events, which I hope will provoke discussion among historians. A good example is the book’s re-examination of Germany’s war aims in the east; a topic of enormous importance. 50 years ago, Fritz Fischer famously, but not wholly convincingly, attempted to trace these back to the pre-First World War imperial German Reich. By contrast, Ring of Steel argues that the First World War was decisive in turning German leaders’ gaze eastwards, and it pays unprecedentedly close attention to how war events shaped and radicalised their ambitions. The book argues that two actions by Germany’s enemies were especially important. First, Russian attacks on East Prussia in 1914 prompted the first plans within German official circles for annexation in the east (of a border strip) and, ominously, population exchange. Second, the Entente encirclement and illegal British naval blockade of the Central Powers – the ‘ring of steel’ in the title of my book – was central to prompting a change in German official and military understandings of security. Defensible borders and economic advantage ceased to be sufficient; concerns about food security became paramount and expansion eastwards for blockade-proof agricultural land became a priority. Notably for Ludendorff, concern about the Reich’s food supply caused a shift to an increasingly extreme annexationist stance as early as 1915. His rise, along with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, to command the German war effort in the second half of 1916 would cement the country on an expansionary drive which would in limited but significant ways look forward to Nazi plans for eastern Lebensraum.

I am very grateful to Dr. Kwan for emphasising the diverse topics explored by Ring of Steel. The book is wide-ranging because the core theme holding together the narrative – the devastating and radicalising impact of ‘total war’ in East-Central Europe – embraces all aspects of that region’s politics and society. As Dr. Kwan observes, I regard widespread popular consent, sacrifice and suffering to be a central part of the story, and much of the book is devoted to explaining these phenomena. He is absolutely right to stress the problems and pitfalls of writing on the collective psychology of peoples over more than four years of all-encompassing conflict and to want more detail on methodology. Ring of Steel was written for a general, as well as an academic audience, so lengthy methodological discussion would have been out of place. However, readers of this review who are interested in my approach to studying issues of mass psychology should consult my earlier monograph, Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918.(1a) Here, I can only stress that Ring of Steel’s conclusions are based on the critical evaluation and comparison of interesting, very diverse but compatible sources. Letter censorship summaries, police reports, statistical material and manifestations of popular wartime culture from rumours to soldiers’ songs and nursery rhymes offer breadth, while letters and diaries provide depth to the book’s discussion of societal and military morale and the personal experience of ‘total war’.

Dr. Kwan ends his review by asking two fascinating and complex questions: (1) What conjunction of circumstances led to the Habsburg Empire’s collapse? and (2) What blame can be attributed to the army? The answers in Ring of Steel are, I suspect, rather different from the conclusions which he and some other Habsburg specialists might favour – and, I hope, will foster fruitful debate. In my interpretation, 1914, not 1917 has to stand as the critical year. Alone among Europe’s governments, the Habsburg Empire’s leaders planned a war in the summer of 1914. They saw conflict – albeit a limited attack on Serbia, not the European cataclysm which they knew could result from their actions – as their only means to eliminate existential threats from predatory neighbours and internal dissolution. The awful irony is that these elites, in seeking through reckless military adventure to save their Empire, set it on the road to destruction. Not only did they vastly overestimate the external danger but, as recent historiography has emphasised and as the success of popular mobilisation in the summer of 1914 surely proves, they tragically underestimated their own peoples’ loyalty.

The Emperor and his civilian ministers, above all the Foreign Minister and his advisors – not the military – made the fateful decision to take the Habsburg Empire to war. The army’s incompetence, brutality and distrust of Slavic minorities certainly contributed to the subsequent disaster and delegitimisation of the state, but civilian authorities were guilty of similar failings. Austria’s government distrusted its peoples too much to recall their elected representatives to the state’s parliament, and in consequence failed to cement the solidarity of the summer of 1914 and made it easy – as defeat loomed – for the peoples to reject the war as an irresponsible imperial adventure launched without their consent. During hostilities, nothing did more than incompetent food management to turn subjects against their imperial rulers, and here again civilian authorities bore a heavy burden of blame: Hungarian Minister Presidents selfishly limited food exports to malnourished Austria, and Austria’s government was lackadaisical, trailing behind the Germans in implementing food-saving measures and a workable ration system. Incompetent foreign policy too helped bring down the Habsburgs. Rash decisions in 1918 at Brest-Litovsk and Spa irretrievably alienated first the Empire’s Poles and then its other Slavs, and – with the encouragement of exiles and the Empire’s enemies – prompted more and more of its subjects to seek salvation from misery, hunger and bloodshed in a deeply flawed nation-state ideal.

The rash Habsburg decision to prepare a war in 1914 led directly to disaster. Already by mid-1915, the Empire was doomed to emerge greatly changed for the worse: Entente victory would then probably have meant Russian annexation of its north-easterly territories – with grave consequences for internal stability – while German leaders were plotting to strengthen its Austrian German element internally and, after they won the war, reduce it to a satellite state. That same decision also exposed the militarily ill-prepared Empire to invasion, mass death and extraordinary deprivation, which by 1917 had delegitimised it in the eyes of many of its subjects. If this interpretation is correct, to understand the Empire’s demise we need more research not only on the Empire’s peoples, especially its Slavic peripheries and Hungary, but also on its rulers: why were they so fearful in 1914? How could they have so disastrously underestimated the internal resilience of their Empire? And why did they prove so exceptionally incompetent in managing a ‘total’ war effort? Ring of Steel provides some answers. I share Dr. Kwan’s hope that by 2018 new research will provide further insights into the Habsburg Empire’s collapse.


  1. Alexander Watson, Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914–1918 (Cambridge, 2008).Back to (1a)