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Donald A. Yerxa
The Eastern Face of World War I
In 1931, the fifth volume of Winston Churchill's literary masterpiece The World Crisis was published. Its focus was the Great War's Eastern Front, and its title was The Unknown War. Not much has changed in the popular understanding of World War I since then. The Eastern Front remains relatively "unknown," and the war is still generally regarded from the perspective of the Western Front. Perhaps with the exception of the German victories at Tannenberg in East Prussia at the outset of the war, there is seemingly little awareness of the nature and scope of the fighting in east-central Europe. Yet Imperial Germany, Habsburg Austria-Hungary, and Tsarist Russia clashed there on a scale that rivaled, and at times exceeded, the offensives on the Western Front. Fortunately, some very good volumes on various aspects of the war in the east have been published in the last few years. In this second installment of essays exploring recent books on the Great War, we give an eastern face to a conflict that was truly global. The recent historical literature is unlikely to alter the overwhelming emphasis on the Western Front, but these books go a long way to address the lamentable neglect of the Eastern theaters of the war. Organizing the discussion of these books presents a bit of a challenge. Consequently, I have opted to look at the Eastern Front primarily, though not exclusively, from the relatively unfamiliar perspective the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Of the books under consideration, Geoffrey Wawro's A Mad Catastroph provides the best discussion of the prewar context in eastern and central Europe and the fateful decisions that led to the war. His Vienna-oriented perspective reveals how weak and utterly unprepared the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire was for war.
The story of Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination on June 28, 1914, is no doubt familiar. Suffice it to say that his appearance in Sarajevo was "spectacularly ill chosen." He had been observing military ...