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For all the horrors of the western front, we recognise now that the first world war had its most dramatic impacts in central and eastern Europe and the Middle East. There, empires collapsed and nation-states emerged, social bonds dissolved and were forged anew, and whole populations became the objects of political fantasies and nightmares, subjected to mass deportations and genocide.

Viewing eastern Europe as the crucible of the continent’s history in the 20th century is increasingly evident in recent historical writing, notably in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (2010), about the societies caught between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Christopher Clark and Sean McMeekin have located the origins of the first world war in southeastern Europe and the Ottoman empire. Older narratives of Anglo-German antagonism and Franco-German hereditary enmity have been rounded out by a fuller appreciation of the dynamics of European history, reflecting the end of the cold war and the expansion of the European Union.

Alexander Watson, a historian based at Goldsmith’s in London and the author of a prizewinning study of the British and German armies during the first world war, makes a substantial contribution to this growing body of literature in Ring of Steel. In his analysis, it was the mobilisation and radicalisation of Germany and Austria-Hungary between 1914 and 1918 that created the context for Europe’s descent into the “bloodlands” of the 1930s and 1940s. “The great material and emotional investment” of the Central Powers, he contends, “ensured that defeat, when it came, would have a catastrophic impact on their societies.”

These experiences resulted from disastrous political decisions made by elites in Berlin and Vienna. Watson shows how poorly the civilian and military leaders of the Central Powers understood their societies, epitomised in the fears of Habsburg ministers and generals that their multi-ethnic empire was on the verge of disintegration in 1914. In reality, Austria-Hungary was more robust than its leaders appreciated: national minorities wanted more autonomy, not independence, and knew how to make compromises.

Groundless assumptions also impaired decision-making in Berlin. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 was the “most disastrous decision of the war”, according to Watson. By bringing the US into the conflict just as Russia was at the point of revolution, the French army about to mutiny and Britain on the edge of bankruptcy, German leaders missed an opportunity to win. Similarly, the 1916 Hindenburg plan, designed to increase armaments production, instead fuelled inflation and created chaos

In the Habsburg empire, mobilisation took place within individual national communities, each of which understood the war in different ways. This became a problem as the war dragged on and the claims of different national groups clashed. In Germany, the government successfully presented the war as defensive and, therefore, legitimate. Socialists as well as nationalists could rally to the defence of the Fatherland. Yet even the rallying point of opposition to Tsarist despotism and rapacious British and French commercialism began to dissolve in bitter disputes within Germany about war aims from 1915. A defensive war covered myriad ambitions, including extravagant territorial demands. Food shortages undermined social solidarity in both states, particularly from 1916.

German and Habsburg elites sought to preserve social cohesion through propaganda and repression. Austria-Hungary was considerably more repressive, reflecting its elite’s distrust of its own people. In neither state did governments introduce meaningful political reform. Instead, they offered the prospect of “holding out” and “total victory”. Even the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which constituted an apparent “total victory” against Russia, undermined the Habsburg regime as previously loyal Poles railed against the terms.

The failure of Germany’s spring offensives in 1918 was followed by a rapid disintegration of army morale, which drifted back to the German home front as the war ended in ceasefire and revolution in November 1918. The peoples of the Central Powers were left without a sense of the purpose of the war, and without respite from insecurity and hunger. Watson concludes that the search for meaning in all of this led to an intensification of ethnic violence, culminating in the Holocaust.

Watson’s most controversial arguments focus on the radicalisation of warfare – the systematic use of violence against civilians, which, in part, resulted from the mobilisation of civilians in the war economy. Historians have long identified the German military as occupying a central role in this story. The casuistry of “military necessity”, the atrocities against civilians in Belgium and northern France, and the severe occupation regimes feature prominently in this book, as in other accounts. But Watson adds important twists, viewing German conduct and aims as no more radical than those of its ally or enemies.

Indeed, he claims that the Allied side was primarily responsible for radicalising the war. Britain plays a central role in his argument, as its entry transformed the conflict into an attritional one between economies and societies. Britain’s blockade, the epitome of economic warfare and at the very least dubious under international law, entailed the targeting of civilians and provoked German unrestricted submarine warfare.

The most profound radicalisations took place in eastern Europe, in the lands fought over by German, Habsburg and Russian forces. This is seen most clearly in Habsburg Galicia, a region populated mainly by Poles and Ruthenes (Ukrainians), with German and Jewish minorities. After occupying Galicia, Russian commanders began to remake the ethnic composition of the province, deporting Germans and Jews and repressing Ukrainian nationality.

Watson’s claim that this anticipated the Generalplan Ost of the Nazi regime is controversial but under-developed. Certainly, the Nazis and the military administrations in eastern Europe during the first world war shared a desire to transform the demographic balance of whole regions. Yet Nazi aims were far more radical, including plans to starve, murder and deport tens of millions and to enslave further millions. The influence of Russian policies during the first world war on Nazi planning in the early 1940s is not clear; indeed, the orthodox interpretation shows the continuities between Imperial German and Habsburg occupation regimes and those of the Third Reich.

That said, this book, at times gripping, at other times poignant, and always revealing, marks a valuable contribution to debate on the war’s place in 20th century history.

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria Hungary at War, 1914-1918, by Alexander Watson, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 816 pages

William Mulligan is a lecturer at University College Dublin and author of ‘The Great War for Peace’ (Yale)

Photograph: Getty

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