Very Short Reviews: Geoffrey Wawro’s _A Mad Catastrophe_

Wawro a mad catastrophe

Geoffrey Wawro, A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

  1. In this very opinionated and highly convincing book, Wawro argues that in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a failing state, unwilling to surrender its status as a great European power and incapable of doing what was necessary to maintain that status, but recklessly determined to go to war in a futile bid to solve its domestic and foreign problems; in Wawro’s view, World War I did not destroy the empire, rather, the conflict exposed the state’s fundamental rottenness.
  2. Wawro refers to a number of the empire’s difficulties, but the most important one, he argues, was the nationalities problem, particularly the relationship between Austria and Hungary that resulted from the Ausgleich (which made for unwieldy government and allowed the Hungarians to stall any of Austria’s reforming initiatives).
  3. Domestic conflict undermined Austria-Hungary’s military preparations, leaving the empire’s diplomats with a very weak hand to play in European and particularly Balkan affairs; for example, in 1912, when Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro annexed Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire after the First Balkan War (territory that Austria-Hungary had been eyeing for years), Vienna found there was nothing it could do and wisely refrained from getting involved in the conflict—something it should have considered in 1914.
  4. The imperial leadership compounded its difficulties with very bad decisions (Wawro has harsh words for Emperor Franz Joseph and Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of the General Staff): it did not fully think through its war plans (with their relatively small army, they thought they could invade both Serbia and Russia); it never seriously figured out how it would cooperate with Germany in a coming war (attacking the Serbs and holding the Russians at bay would be impossible without German help, but the Germans were committed to throwing all of their forces westward against France); it showed much dilatoriness in reacting to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, and in waiting a month before delivering an ultimatum to Serbia, it forfeited most international sympathy; and Conrad tried to change the disposition of his forces in the middle of mobilization which caused untold confusion and ensured that Austro-Hungarian forces would be insufficient to fight in both Serbia and Russia.
  5. In the opening battles of the conflict, against ill-supplied but better-led enemies, the Austro-Hungarian army showed itself deficient at every level of war: strategically, it betrayed no ability to match means with ends, never realizing that the Russian threat warranted many more troops than the invasion of Serbia or that Austria-Hungary’s course of action depended completely on German decisions; operationally, it proved totally inconsistent, pointlessly shuttling forces hither and thither (exhausting its soldiers in the process) while in ignorance of the enemy’s location and numbers; and tactically, it launched frontal assaults in dense formations badly supported by obsolete artillery.
  6. In addition, the rank and file of the army did not fight well, Wawro argues, because many soldiers had little sympathy for the government under which they fought or interest in the cause they defended while mismanagement only led to more profound alienation.
  7. Austria-Hungary’s performance in the initial clashes of the war was appallingly bad—after some initial but bloody successes against the Russians in Galicia, the army suffered 444,000 casualties before being pushed back against the Carpathian mountains, while along the Drina River, Austro-Hungarian forces lost 80,000 men after making almost no headway against the Serbs.
  8. The army was hollowed out by these defeats which were the prelude for further disasters: two more invasions of Serbia in 1914 led to utter failure and a total of 300,000 casualties on that front (for reasons of prestige, the Austro-Hungarian army could not let the Serbs have the final word); in October, while covering the right wing of a German drive against Warsaw, the Austro-Hungarian army suffered a thrashing at the hands of the Russians; in November, a series of battles along the San River led to another 40,000 casualties to no effect; in December, during another German-led drive against Lodz, Austro-Hungarian forces were defeated near Cracow; and during the same month, a Russian attack on Austro-Hungarian positions in the Carpathians led the loss of 800,000 soldiers (three-quarters of them from illness) and the surrender of the Przemsyl fortress complex along with its garrison of 150,000 men.
  9. Many historians point to Austria-Hungary’s survival up until 1918 as proof of the regime’s essential toughness, but Wawro argues that this just wasn’t the case; by the end of 1914, after having suffered almost a million battle casualties, Austria-Hungary had become a “vassal” of Germany’s (something that was highlighted by the Sixtus Affair in 1917), and all subsequent military successes on the Eastern Front, in the Balkans, or in Italy were due to German power.
  10. Count Ottokar Czernin, the empire’s last foreign minister, observed “we were bound to die; we were at liberty to choose the manner of our death and we chose the most terrible”—had he seen into the future, he could have understood that this choice would also have significant and horrible implications for the 20th-century Balkans.

Stunning Fact: By 1917, the Austro-Hungarian army had suffered 3,500,000 casualties; a full half of these were POWs in Russia, something that seems to indicate a serious lack of will.

Hugh Dubrulle

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