Our book today is Alexander Watson’s 2014 masterpiece, Ring of Steel, now out in a brick-sized and brick-red paperback from Basic Books. In these thousand pages, Watson departs from the standard outline of most First World War histories, including most of the glut of them that came out in 2014; instead of presenting readers with a panoramic view of the conflict, he concentrates on the two European powers that started the war, committed the most resources to its prosecution, suffered the most losses in the course of its four years, and ultimately lost it. Germany mobilized nearly 86% of its male population between 1914 and 1918 in some kind of military capacity, 14 million men and boys, and Germany’s partner in aggression, Austria-Hungary, very nearly matched these ghastly numbers. One-third of the war’s total number of casualties were German or Austrian, and the war ended up devouring its two key Central Powers, destroying Austria-Hungary and bankrupting – financially and morally – the formerly bellicose German Reich. Far more so than, for instance, France or Great Britain, the story of these two powers captures the strangeness, the horror, and the maddening futility of the First World War.
Re-reading this nice plump paperback reminded me of all the things I initially loved about Watson’s account, foremost of which is his skill at pulling back from his thorough command of the details in order to present wide-angle summaries that never fail to satisfy:
For Germans, and indeed for most central Europeans, the armistice was not quite the caesura that is remembered further west. There was no return to ‘peace’ as in France or Britain. ‘Normality’ had become a permanent casualty of the war. True, the mass slaughter of the Materialschlacht was over, but misery, deprivation and shortages continued until, and even beyond, the summer of 1919 when the blockade lifted. The violence was also not ended. Although smaller in scale, it had transferred into the homelands that men had fought to protect. The political and ethnic fault lines deepened by war were the new ‘fronts’ of the post-armistice period. Radical leftist revolutions and right-wing putsches would shake the weakened German state in the coming years. In the east, the Polish minority would rise up and fight for cession … The First World War had ended. Its legacy of suffering and violence proved far longer lasting.
Three years ago Ring of Steel stood out among the abundance of big First World War books, and it’s a pleasure to see it brought back before the reading public in its new rust-red paperback design.
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