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Donald A. Yerxa

The Eastern Face of World War I

Filling in a neglected part of the story.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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 exercises designed to intimidate the Serbs in recently annexed Bosnia. His visit to Sarajevo was scheduled on the day of Serbia's national holiday to commemorate the Ottoman Turks' 14th-century victory and subjugation of the Serbs. Wawro maintains that the archduke "could not have chosen a more provocative display of his contempt for Serbia." After the assassination there was an immediate outcry against Serbia. The Germans encouraged the Austrians to use the assassination as an opportunity to punish the Serbs. But the Hungarians, fearing Russian intervention, vetoed any immediate aggressive Habsburg response. The complexity of the Dual Monarchy's federal system was not the only factor in Vienna's sluggish decision-making. Much of the Habsburg army was on furlough to bring in the summer harvest. Vienna did signal to Berlin that it wanted to eliminate Serbia as a significant player in the Balkans, which elicited Kaiser Wilhelm's notorious blank check that Germany would support Austria-Hungary if Russia intervened. The Kaiser assumed that Austria-Hungary would move fast and forcefully against Serbia, crossing the Danube and seizing the Serbian capital of Belgrade. But that did not happen. Wawro rightly maintains that a localized dispute mushroomed into world war in large part because of "the sluggish decision making of the Austro-Hungarian government and the torpid deployment of the Habsburg army."

Before the war, Wawro emphasizes, the German and Austro-Hungarian high commands never shared detailed operational plans with each other. They merely sketched their strategic aims without agreeing on how specifically they would be achieved. In 1909, the Austrian and German general staff chiefs, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf and Helmuth von Moltke respectively, did loosely agree that in the event of a major war Germany would implement the latest version of the Schlieffen Plan designed to knock out France while Austria would blunt any early Russian offensives in the east. Once France fell, Germany would then take advantage of its interior lines of communication and deploy troops from the west to rescue Austria from the expected Russian advance.

There was, however, a "veil of obfuscation" surrounding these staff talks. Germany assumed that Austria would defend its southern borders with Serbia with minimal numbers of troops and move almost all of its military force (nearly forty divisions) to confront the Russians in Galicia, the Habsburg name for the borderlands of southern Poland and the western Ukraine. But Conrad had other designs. He only committed 27 divisions (Echelon A) to confront the Russians. He split the remaining 21 divisions into a nine-division Balkan army group (Balkan Minimal Group) to fight the Serbs and a 12-division floating reserve (Echelon B). This deployment sacrificed speed in favor of flexibility. And as it turned out, both the Serbian and Russian militaries were far more formidable than Conrad had anticipated. Moreover, he had grossly underestimated the impact of modern firepower on the battlefield.

We need to appreciate that on the eve of the war both Austria-Hungary and Germany felt that whatever military advantage they might have over the Russians would evaporate in the next two or three years when Russia's "Great Program" of rearmament was completed. As one historian put it, both Conrad and Moltke believed that "1914 was their last chance." For his part, the Kaiser considered that war with Russia, which he cast as a grand struggle between "the Slavs and the Teutons," was at some point inevitable. Alexander Watson, in Ring of Steel, his sprawling account of the Central Powers during World War I, goes so far as to argue that the actions of the Austro-Hungarian and German leaders during the summer of 1914 were primarily motivated by a "profound sense of weakness, fear and even despair." According to Watson, "[f]ear, not aggression or unrestrained militarism, propelled the Central Powers to war in the summer of 1914. Rulers in both countries believed they faced an imminent existential threat." But this may be a false dichotomy; aggression, after all—whether at the personal or the international level—is routinely justified by a perceived sense of "threat."

The Hungarians approved aggressive action in mid-July, and by the time Austria finally issued its ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, not quite a month after the assassination, the mobilized Serbian military boasted three field armies totaling 400,000 troops. Watson argues that the ultimatum was crafted to provoke war with Serbia. Even though there were signs that Russia was also beginning to mobilize, it was assumed that Habsburg forces would defeat Serbia quickly in a localized war. They were wrong. Russia, urged on by France, mobilized much quicker than either Berlin or Vienna anticipated. And Serbia was a far tougher opponent than they counted on. Nevertheless, on July 28 Conrad ordered Echelon B to the Serbian border on the assumption that Russia was bluffing. He was in effect setting up the Habsburg forces for defeat against both the Serbs and the Russians.

In addition to the disastrous Habsburg attempts to punish Serbia, there were two major offensive campaigns on the Eastern Front in 1914. The largest was in the southern theater, where three Austro-Hungarian armies clashed with four Russian armies in Galicia. In the northern theater, two Russian armies invaded East Prussia, which was defended by the German Eighth Army commanded by Paul von Hindenburg, recently returned to active service from retirement, and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff. The Germans were able to take advantage of the region's lakes and marshes to maneuver against and defeat the two separated Russian forces at the battles of Tannenberg (August 26-30) and the Masurian Lakes (September 8-11). Perhaps more important than these crushing victories was the fact that Moltke, fearing the impact of a successful Russian invasion of the German homeland, redeployed two army corps from the Western Front to the east in late August, thereby weakening the German offensive in France.

Even though historians have repeatedly dissected the dramatic German victories in East Prussia, Watson contends that they have paid insufficient attention to other developments on the Eastern Front in 1914. For example, historians have tended to discount the existential threat the Russians posed to the Central Powers at the outset of the war. The Russian assault on East Prussia overran two-thirds of the province before it was soundly defeated in the Tannenberg campaign. During its brief occupation of East Prussia, Russian troops committed acts of violence against civilians, fearing—as did the Germans in Belgium—that civilians were engaging in guerrilla-like activity. It was a brutal occupation that, given the relatively sparse population of East Prussia, was, Watson maintains, proportionally no different from the more infamous atrocities Germany committed in Belgium. As was the case in Belgium, this civilian "resistance" was almost wholly a fantasy of scared troops venting their fear and rage on non-combatants. For the rest of the war, Russian atrocities became a powerful warning to the German people about the consequences of allowing enemy troops onto German soil.

Watson is particularly helpful on the consequences of the Galician campaign. He stresses that Russia had ambitions to remake portions of Galicia into Russian land, politically and ethnically, by means of cultural assimilation and mass deportation. In fact, Galicia's annexation was one of Russia's primary war aims. The Russian occupation of Galicia was especially brutal for the large Jewish population, which was singled out for pogroms of rape and robbery. Jewish property was confiscated, and approximately 100,000 Galician civilians, half of them Jews, were deported to Russia. Watson makes the point that the ordeal of the "Bloodlands," so graphically detailed in Timothy Snyder's important book by the same name published in 2010, was already being anticipated on the Eastern Front during World War I, though by no means on such a horrific scale as would occur in a few decades.

The invasions of 1914, Watson observes, had "inverse outcomes" for Austria-Hungary and Germany. The Galician campaign was devastating for Austria-Hungary. The Russian invasion disrupted its agriculture and jeopardized its food supply. It also cut into the Central Powers' main source of petroleum. The Russians destroyed two-thirds of Galicia's oil derricks and set some wells on fire. But when the Tsarist army retreated in 1915, it missed a potentially decisive opportunity to systematically sabotage these strategic oilfields. Galicia went on to supply three-fifths of the Central Powers' wartime petrol and diesel. Watson maintains that Germany's U-boat campaigns, for example, would not have been possible without it.

Then there were over a million refugees from Galicia who migrated into the Austrian heartland—desperate Poles, Ukrainians, and especially Jews. The refugees imposed a huge financial burden on the Habsburg state, and their presence exacerbated existing racial tensions. Sadly, anti-Semitism was as virulent in the Dual Monarchy as it was in Russia. At best these refugees were viewed as an "unpatriotic nuisance," obstructing roads needed for military transport, but at worst they might be spies.

By contrast, the Russian invasion of East Prussia actually enhanced Germany's ability to wage war. Outrage at the violation of German territory and the reports of atrocities "cemented conviction in the righteousness of the national cause, and acted as a terrible and lasting warning of the penalties of defeat." It should also be noted that the early victories over the Russians created new national heroes in Hindenburg and Ludendorff, though this would prove to be a questionable legacy.

Fearing that Germany's Austrian ally might collapse, General Erich von Falkenhayn, Moltke's replacement, formed a new army to assist Habsburg forces in resisting the Russians and keep Austria-Hungary in the war. The fall and winter months of 1914-15 witnessed a series of indecisive attacks and counterattacks in Russian Poland and Galicia. The winter campaign was marked by horrible weather and illness. The Austrians lost a staggering 800,000 men, three-fourths of them to illness; losses from freezing outnumbered battlefield casualties. Up to this point, the Habsburg monarchy had lost close to two million men in Serbia and Galicia with nothing to show for it. True, Russia had lost 1.9 million, but it had vast manpower reserves. And now Italy with an army of 1.3 million soldiers was threatening along the mountainous Austrian-Italian border. Though it considered pulling out of the war, Austria-Hungary remained a belligerent but only by essentially subordinating its war effort to Germany's.

Stalemate in the west convinced Falkenhayn that the Eastern Front might hold more promise for decisive military action. His deployment of additional German divisions to the east paid dividends later in 1915. Galicia and Russian Poland fell to German and Habsburg forces; the Germans conquered much of the western Latvia coast (Courland) and Lithuania; a combined Austro-German invasion, augmented by units from Bulgaria which joined the Central Powers in September, overran Serbia; and the Ottoman Turks successfully blunted a terribly botched Allied campaign in the Dardanelles. The Central Powers seemed to have turned the tide on the Eastern Front. But as historian William Philpott has noted, these victories by the Central Powers in 1915 "did not redress the wider strategic stalemate" of the war. Translating operational success to strategic victory would not be easy.

By this point in the conflict, it was obvious that the war on the Eastern Front differed in fundamental ways from the static trench warfare of the Western Front. Compared to the west, where so many troops were assigned to a relatively compact battle space, there was much more room for maneuver in the east, resulting as we have seen in a much more mobile kind of war. Moreover, as Norman Stone noted in his landmark 1975 study of the Eastern Front, communications were more primitive in the east, and generals could not readily rush reserve forces to the gaps.

Falkenhayn concluded that Germany did not possess the resources to defeat the Russians outright, so in 1916 he refocused Germany's military efforts against the French on the Western Front. He withdrew most of the German army's support of the Austrian position in Galicia. In February 1916, the Germans opened a brutal six-month campaign of attrition directed at the French fortress complexes in and around Verdun. Falkenhayn wanted to so bloody the French that they would be forced to sue for peace. Like everything else attempted on the Western Front, the Verdun campaign ended in a stalemate. But it did offer the Russians an opportunity to regain the momentum on the Eastern Front.

Despite the series of defeats it suffered in 1915, Russia's military power actually improved in 1916. In his scholarly treatment of the Russian army on the Eastern Front, military historian David R. Stone chronicles the steady improvements in Russian industry, conscription, and military training that enabled the Russian army in mid-1916 to launch a devastating counter-offensive in the present-day Ukraine. In the opening five weeks of the Russian offensive, General Aleksei Brusilov orchestrated a stunning series of fast-moving, dispersed attacks that totally surprised the Habsburg forces, which fell back in disarray. Austrian and German troops rushed in from other fronts to prevent a total collapse and eventually stabilized the situation.

The Brusilov offensive—the significance of which has often been underestimated by historians in the West— clearly demonstrated that Russia was far from spent as a military power. The campaign succeeded in relieving the pressure Germans were placing on the French and English on the Western Front. A total of thirty Austrian and German divisions were diverted to Galicia to stem the Russian tide—divisions that were needed at Verdun and at Trentino in the Austrian-Italian theater. And Brusilov inflicted a crippling blow against the demoralized Austro-Hungarian military. The price for Germany's bailout was unified command of the war in the east under Hindenburg and Ludendorff. But the Russians also suffered enormous casualties—as many as 1.5 million men. And as was the case with Germany in 1915, Brusilov had difficulty fitting his costly tactical successes into a coherent strategic plan.

The failure of the Verdun campaign to bring about a decisive German victory cost Falkenhayn his position as chief of the German general staff. In late August 1916, knowing he had lost favor with the Kaiser, Falkenhayn resigned. Hindenburg, along with Ludendorff as the army's quartermaster general, took over command of the German army. By this time Hindenburg was a heroic figure in Germany; indeed, he and Ludendorff had eclipsed the Kaiser as symbols of the entire German war effort. Watson describes Hindenburg as a charming, highly political general, content to leave details to subordinates; Ludendorff was the master of detail and a humorless workaholic. What Wawro notes about Germany's performance overall is especially applicable for the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team: "Superb at tactics, the Germans were appalling at strategy."

The initial success of the Brusilov offensive convinced Romania that the Central Powers would be defeated. As a result, Romania joined the Entente in late August 1916, hoping to acquire Transylvania from Austria-Hungary. Romania promptly invaded Transylvania, leaving a smaller force behind to defend its border with Bulgaria. Initially the Romanians faired very well against the weak defending reservist and militia units. But the Central Powers responded swiftly and effectively in a two-pronged counterattack. Falkenhayn was given command of an Austro-German force that attacked the Romanians in Transylvania, while a polyglot army of Germans, Bulgarians, and Turks under German command attacked Romania from Bulgaria. Romanian units retreated and were only saved from total defeat by the intervention of substantial Russian forces. By early January 1917, the lines were stabilized, but not until the Central Powers had occupied two-thirds of Romania. Stone argues that Romanian entry into the war was disastrous for Russia and the Entente: the Russians diverted three dozen infantry divisions along with another dozen cavalry divisions to the new Romanian front, extending Russian lines by hundreds of miles. This stretching of manpower made it virtually impossible for the Russians to concentrate sufficient forces along its long borders with the Central Powers for any viable offensive campaign.

The rise of the Hindenburg-Ludendorff duo to command the German military, Watson concludes, opened a new phase of the Central Powers' war. To further their program of "victory no matter what the cost," they expanded the number of élite storm trooper battalions and adopted the storm troopers' dispersed small-group fighting techniques as German army tactical doctrine. They called for extensive rearmament with substantial increases in artillery, machine gun, and mortar production. They established a Supreme War Office (Kriegsamt) to organize the economic remobilization and allocate manpower and materiel to the army and industry. Watson contends, however, that the Hindenburg- Ludendorff team's attempts to impose centralization and control were not all that successful. Their rearmament plan did not adequately account for the realities of the German economy. The attempt to replace consent with compulsion brought them almost no increase in weapons production.

In the face of domestic resistance to some of their efforts at compulsory civilian mobilization, the Hindenburg-Ludendorff regime resorted to forced foreign labor, most infamously workers brought in from occupied Belgium. But this was not especially productive: the more violent the compulsion, Watson asserts, the more recalcitrant and unproductive the forced laborers became. Such heavy-handed, exploitative treatment of occupied territories was most evident in the German-occupied Baltic district known as Ober Ost. Here the Germans resorted to forced labor battalions and plundered the land of its wealth to support the German military machine. Watson considers the Ober Ost occupation to be the "clearest antecedent for Nazi methods of domination in eastern Europe."

Thus far we have focused primarily on the war in the east from a military perspective. One of the strengths of Watson's narrative, however, is his emphasis on civilian life. He devotes considerable attention to how grim 1916 was for civilians in both Germany and Austria-Hungary. It was a year defined by food shortages that culminated in the "turnip winter" of 1916-17. The search for scarce essentials (soap, fuel, clothing, and above all food) increasingly dominated civilians' lives. City people "danced the Polonaise," the wartime slang for queuing and shivering in long lines. City folk often went "hamstering" on Sundays—heading out to the countryside to circumvent the official supply system to buy food directly from the farmers. It was banned, but the "hamsters" were adept at working around the obstacles (e.g., security personnel posted at train stations and bans on carrying rucksacks into the countryside). Black market activity blossomed. Watson notes that in Germany, starvation was not really an issue, but there was serious malnutrition, along with a rise in the number of cases of diseases associated with malnutrition. The weakened physical state of so many German people may have added to the loss of life when the devastating influenza pandemic hit in 1918. In parts of Austria, however, there were cases of starvation.

It is important to keep in mind that Germany was never agriculturally self-sufficient. According to Watson, a quarter of its grain and two-fifths of the fats consumed by people and animals had been imported before 1914. It is understandable, then, that the Central Powers blamed the British blockade for their domestic suffering. But he suggests that the British blockade by itself does not account for the situation; other factors contributed heavily to the shortages. Food production plummeted by 35 percent in 1916 and 40 percent by 1918. There are several reasons offered for this decline. Over one-third of farm horses had been requisitioned for the war effort, thus hindering sowing and harvesting. There was also a major fertilizer shortage in part due to the blockade of imported nitrates, but also because animal dung decreased by 50 percent due to the decline in livestock numbers and weight. These factors were the same for Austria, but the added disruption of its Galician breadbasket created intense suffering.

It could be argued that 1917 was the most pivotal year for the war and for the Eastern Front in particular. Two events of enormous significance dwarf all else. Germany's adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February provoked the United States to enter the war in April. And by year's end, revolution forced Russia out of the war. Germany was finally freed from the burden of a two-front war. Hindenburg and Ludendorff maintained that without a large standing army, it would take many months, if not years, for the United States to decisively affect the land war. They convinced themselves they had a window of opportunity to win total victory.

The unrestricted U-boat campaign, in Watson's view, was "the worst decision of the war." It was "a desperate and determined attempt to break Britain and win the war, since there was no prospect for relief of the stalemate through a victory on land." German leaders were swayed by a detailed, statistically-rich memorandum prepared by Chief of the Admiralty Staff, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff. It concluded that unrestricted submarine warfare would force Britain, which was dependent on overseas imports to feed its population and on its overseas trade to maintain its economy, to drop out of the war. As it turned out, the U-boats inflicted tremendous damage to Allied shipping in the spring and summer of 1917, and briefly posed a mortal threat to Britain. But ultimately the gamble was a bad one. The Royal Navy adopted convoys escorted by British and American warships. Britain stayed in the war, and the United States added enormous strength to the Allied coalition, though its military muscle would not be felt until the summer and fall of 1918.

The Romanov dynasty fell in March 1917. In July, Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government tried unsuccessfully to mount an offensive against the Central Powers in Galicia and Bukovina. But it failed as revolutionary sentiment spread throughout the Russian army. In September, the Germans defeated Russian forces in Riga, and by November the Provisional Government fell to the Bolsheviks.

The Russian Revolution frightened the Central Powers. It demonstrated that popular regime change was possible. Emperor Franz Joseph died in November 1916, and his successor, the 29-year old Emperor Karl, recognized the need for internal reform. But there was little he could do to restore waning Habsburg legitimacy. Emperor Karl considered the possibility of a separate peace, but the Entente had no real interest in a negotiated peace. After such horrific bloodshed, no power could justify unfavorable peace terms.

In the summer of 1917, the outcome of the war was far from settled. Indeed, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war at the end of the year, it appeared that the Hindenburg-Ludendorff high-risk strategy might just succeed. The duo—by that point the de facto rulers of Germany—were emboldened to embrace aggressive war aims and a conception of peace based on "extensive conquest." This entailed such objectives as absorbing the French mining region of Longwy-Briey; making Belgium into a satellite state (with Liège and the Flemish coast to be occupied or leased for 99 years); incorporating Luxembourg as a German federal state in compensation for a portion of Belgium or a small strip of German Alsace; taking over much of the Baltic states with buffer zones carved out of new states like Poland; securing German oil interest in Romania; and giving Austria-Hungary parts of Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania as well as some Romanian territory.

Armistice on the Eastern Front took effect on December 15, 1917, and one week later representatives of the Central Powers met with a Bolshevik delegation led by Leon Trotsky in the Belarusian town of Brest-Litovsk. They demanded that Russia give up Finland, Estonia, Livonia, Bessarabia, Armenia, and the eastern tip of Galicia. Hoping that revolution might break out soon in the Reich, Trotsky declared "no war, no peace" and stormed out of the conference. This played into Ludendorff's and Hindenburg's hands. German forces began rolling eastward on February 18, covering nearly 150 miles in five days. On March 3, Lenin capitulated and signed an even harsher treaty than the one Trotsky had rejected. The Russian Empire lost nearly one million square miles of territory with a population of fifty million people, 90 percent of its coal mines, 54 percent of its industry, and a third of its agriculture and railways.

The Habsburg Empire, Watson asserts, should have stood triumphant in the early summer of 1918. It had outlasted the Tsar and the Romanov dynasty. Serbia and the south of Poland were occupied. A favorable treaty had been signed with Romania. And Habsburg forces had inflicted very heavy losses on the Italians at Caporetto. But by sticking with their German ally, Habsburg leaders had guaranteed that in victory their empire would be a virtual German satellite. So the war continued for Austria-Hungary against the interests of the empire and the will of most of its people. The multi-ethnic Habsburg society had fragmented; racial animosity divided its peoples; and its army was crumbling.

At the beginning of 1918, Germany still hoped to win the war. Convinced that success depended on defeating Britain, Ludendorff was fixated on achieving a breakthrough in the British army's lines on the Western Front. This would restore movement to the battlefield and create a crisis of morale for the British. Germany's Operation Michael and related campaigns in the spring of 1918 were initially successful in overrunning some 1,200 square miles. But the cost for Germany was very high: some 240,000 dead, wounded, or missing. Moreover, the territory wrenched from the British was a virtual wasteland, the occupation of which left the Germans overextended. Watson concludes that Germany's last offensive was a "demonstration of both German tactical virtuosity and strategic bankruptcy"—a claim we have seen Wawro make already; indeed, one often made about the German military in both world wars. By mid-July the Allies launched a counter-offensive that in the next few months nearly pushed the Germans back to their prewar borders.

Parenthetically, we should note that David Stone makes an interesting point about the failed German offensive of 1918. Had Russia exited the war in March 1917 when the Romanov dynasty collapsed, instead of late 1917 when the Bolsheviks took over, "the final German offensive in the west would have been far more powerful." Kerensky's decision to keep Russia in the war was probably fatal for his Provisional Government, but it may have averted a German breakthrough on the Western Front in 1918. Such are the contingencies of history. Other historians will surely disagree with me, but in my view it is not inappropriate to engage in measured counterfactual thinking like this when it comes to World War I.

We know all too well the repercussions of the Russian Revolution and Germany's defeat in World War I, but Ring of Steel and Mad Catastrophe are especially instructive regarding the fate of Austria-Hungary. Both books support Wawro's claim that World War I was a "bloody, reckless disaster from beginning to end." For Austria the war was "built on the reckless gamble that the monarchy's internal problems could be fixed by war. They couldn't." Wawro persuasively argues that "[t]he Habsburgs had no business going to war in 1914, yet they did, killing off their own people in poorly prepared offensives before settling into a war of attrition that ensured the already weak monarchy's collapse." He concludes: "The Great War has justly earned a dark place on our historical map, and Vienna, no less than Berlin, was the heart of darkness."

The legacy of suffering and violence in Habsburg lands endured long after the war ended. The postwar order, Watson reminds us, pleased no one in east-central Europe. Self-determination of peoples was central to Woodrow Wilson's postwar vision. But the region was "simply too ethnically mixed" to permit strong nation states. Watson reaches the inescapable conclusion that World War I was nothing short of catastrophic for central and eastern Europe. Not only did it bring incalculable suffering and sacrifice, but also the new republics that emerged out of the old, discredited Habsburg and Russian empires "were themselves undermined by the war's bitter legacy. Impoverished, insecure and frequently with large, resentful minorities, most proved unstable." In the aftermath of the war, the national unity of 1914 "collapsed into acrimony, and the divisions between the left and an anti-Semitic right widened and became more vicious."

Watson ends his magisterial narrative with a sobering line: "Those who survived the ordeal were left with the question of what it had all been for." I would never trivialize the magnitude of the suffering generated by the war in the east. But I find myself wondering how often in the last half-century we have asked the same question.

Donald A. Yerxa is professor of history emeritus at Eastern Nazarene College and editor of Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History.


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

Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I (Basic Books, 2014).

David R. Stone, The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2015).

1. I borrow the phrase "eastern face" from Geoffrey Wawro's A Mad Catastrophe, p. xxiv

2. In addition to the books considered in this essay, readers should be aware of a multi-volume study of the Eastern Front by English military writer Prit Buttar. To date Osprey Publishing has issued three volumes in the series.

3. The rolling centennial of World War I has seen an outpouring of books on the coming of the war. Among the best, though from very different perspectives, are Max Hastings' Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Knopf, 2013) and Sean McMeekin's July 1914: Countdown to War (Basic Books, 2013).

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