Book Review: A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, by Geoffrey Wawro

This book fills a niche that many people, even those who are students of World War I [1], may not even know exists. Although there are many books that have been written about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and a great many about the Western front of the war and Germany’s failure to use tactical brilliance to overcome its limitations in logistics, this book provides a thoughtful political and military history that demonstrates why it was that Austria-Hungary was so pathetic in its performance in World War I. This is a story that has rarely been told, and it is a story that is told very well here by a historian who delves into the processes as well as the personalities involved in the shambolic Austro-Hungarian effort in World War I.

A large part of the introductory sections of the book deal with the reasons for the pathetic military state of Austria-Hungary in 1914. It is a bit mysterious, after all, how a nation that was able to challenge Napoleon and Prussia on equal terms was unable to deal with Serbia and an equally shambolic Russian military in 1914. A great deal of the blame for that falls on the Hungarians, whose hostility to the development and financing of the common army cut off funds for training and technology, and whose efforts at Magyarization in their half of the empire inflamed nationalist passions that ultimately brought down the Dual Monarchy in the disaster of World War I. That said, this book provides many people to blame for the failure of Austrian arms in the conflict, including Franz Josef (who was clearly not sufficiently alert or in command at such a time of crisis), as well as the political and military leadership of the empire (who were largely paper tigers who lived in privilege while their soldiers suffered and died, and whose close order tactics and an addiction to the frontal assault led to murderous losses), as well as to Germany’s leaders who mistakenly thought that a war would help save Austria-Hungary from its its doom.

The vast majority of this book looks at the military campaigns of 1914 and early 1915, with a short and depressing epilogue that looks at the same patterns discussed continuing on in the latter parts of the war. Supply failures as well as a lack of cohesion within armies because of class or ethnic divides appears as a consistent theme. In particular Serbian military leadership is highly praised for its conduct in WWI, even though its military intelligence is condemned for having provoked the war in the first place against the wishes of its political leadership. The author comments that an ignorance of logistical matters appears to have been widespread in the First World War, and that German (and Austro-Hungarian) efforts to use tactical brilliance to overcome their own smaller population and resource base appears to have been a very vain strategy. Austria’s efforts at making a separate peace in 1916 are explored as a lost opportunity of sorts to keep the empire basically intact, and its obstinance at failing to give Italy enough land to keep it neutral is also cited as a major failure, given that the capabilities of the Austro-Hungarian military were wholly unequal to the task of dealing with war against either Russia or Serbia, much less both of them in addition to Italy. Indeed, the book makes a strong case for the weakness of Russia (and Italy) as as well as the infusion of German strength to the detriment of its efforts elsewhere that led to successes in the 4th invasion of Serbia as well as to the eventual victory over an exhausted Russia in the Eastern front, where even massive Russian population numbers could not save an army that could not even give most of its soldiers a rifle to shoot with.

Let us make no mistake, this book is gloomy reading. The suffering of ordinary Austrio-Hungarian, Serbian, and Russian soldiers, as well as the populace of the areas fought over by these armies, is discussed in vivid details. Atrocities are duly mentioned on all sides, and the failure of nations to provide their soldiers with basic equipment like guns and uniforms and shoes, as well as food, is mentioned with a great deal of compassion. The author, whose family background springs in part from the regions of the Dual monarchy, has reasons to be sympathetic. It was only his family’s timely flight to the United States that saved the author’s ancestors from almost certain death in the horrors of such places as Lemberg and other battles with names hard to pronounce in Galicia and Poland. This book, in part, appears to be a debt of honor to those people who were not fortunate enough to escape, and who died by the millions in trenches and assaults and prisoner of war camps.

There is some contemporary relevance to this book, which I ironically and unintentionally read as the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Franz Ferdinand approached, that deserves some mention as well. One of the main insights of this book is that multinational states with weak internal cohesion should not fight massive wars that require the total mobilization of people in industrial and military efforts. However poorly Austria-Hungary fought World War I, however poorly it was led by its politicians and generals and Habsburg dynasts, however poor its mobilization efforts, however weak its infrastructure, its biggest mistake was being involved in the war in the first place, a mistake which it paid for by losing its very existence and being divided among a fractious group of peoples who have never really stopped fighting in the last century. Other contemporary nations that are similarly fragmented, like Libya and Iraq [2], ought to take heed to their own divided houses, lest they share the fate of the late and demented Austro-Hungarian empire.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to Book Review: A Mad Catastrophe

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