Sunday Times History Book of the Year 2014
Winner of the 2014 Wolfson History Prize, the 2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History, the Society for Military History's 2015 Distinguished Book Award and the 2015 British Army Military Book of the Year
For the empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary the Great War - which had begun with such high hopes for a fast, dramatic outcome - rapidly degenerated as invasions of both France and Serbia ended in catastrophe. For four years the fighting now turned into a siege on a quite monstrous scale. Europe became the focus of fighting of a kind previously unimagined. Despite local successes - and an apparent triumph in Russia - Germany and Austria-Hungary were never able to break out of the the Allies' ring of steel.
In Alexander Watson's compelling new history of the Great War, all the major events of the war are seen from the perspective of Berlin and Vienna. It is fundamentally a history of ordinary people. In 1914 both empires were flooded by genuine mass enthusiasm and their troubled elites were at one with most of the population. But the course of the war put this under impossible strain, with a fatal rupture between an ever more extreme and unrealistic leadership and an exhausted and embittered people. In the end they failed and were overwhelmed by defeat and revolution.
University of London historian Watson (Enduring the Great War) makes a major contribution to the ever-growing historiography of WWI with this comprehensive analysis of the war efforts of the primary Central Powers: Germany and Austria-Hungary. Watson makes a strong case that "fear, not aggression or unrestrained militarism" impelled them to war in 1914. Fear fueled the unexpected popular consent that sustained both Hohenzollern and Habsburg empires in a "war of illusions" that devolved into a "war of defense" and finally into a war for survival. From the beginning, the Central Powers were overmatched and overextended. They answered the resulting "desperation and alienation" with failed policies of "compulsion and control," a series of disastrously bad policy decisions such as the U-boat war, and a doubling-down on autocracy and repression at the expense of peace and reform. In 1917, both empires suffered from a deep "crisis of legitimacy": only the possibility of "quick and total victory" sustained the foundering alliance. A series of desperate offensives produced military, political, and above all social collapse. Watson concludes that the "suffering, and the jealousies, prejudices, and violence that spawned or exacerbated" in Central Europe laid the foundations of WWII far more than anything decided at Versailles.