Book Review: ‘A Mad Catastrophe’

Over a decade ago I read Geoffrey Wawro’s books on the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War nearly back to back. I was struck by his detailed research, ability to find interesting quotes from multiple people of all ranks and nationalities that were relevant to his topic, and general ability to sum up military operations from as much of a political and logistical sense as well as one based on what happened on the battlefield. Now that I have gotten to his First World War book, ‘A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire,’ I can say that this is probably his best book overall.

Wawro, like the best historians, has a great ability to neither pretend he is entirely dispassionate nor advocate for blatant partisanship. In ‘Catastrophe’, however, he comes the closest he ever has to taking a firm stand. But it is less one based around being for or against this country or that, but rather his scorn for institutional inertia and incompetence. Something that plagued all the major powers of World War I, especially in 1914, but seemed to plague Austria-Hungary more than any other.

Yes, even more than Italy. Italy at least had the forethought to play wait-and-see when the war broke out, and defected from the Central Powers for the Entente once it could. Their miserable military showing against Austria-Hungary (the only front Vienna would pull any impactful victories from on its own) did not undo that this diplomatic calculation was more on point than Austria’s mad attempt to re-start its great power game by trying to be the deciding power of the post-Balkan War world emerging after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire’s European possessions.

Wawro sketches out in broad terms the extreme decay affecting the Hapsburg Empire from its defeat by Prussia in 1866 until the outbreak of the First World War. The failure to militarily innovate is shown side-by-side with the increasing belligerency from an out of touch ruling class and military officer corps who knew their glory days were gone yet still stuck to a great last roll of the dice to pull them out of inertia. In all of this, of course, lay a thoroughly neglected industrial and logistical center. And the glue supposedly holding the rotting state together was a military so riddled with mutually unintelligible languages and ethnic groups that it could only be trained in the simplest of ways (mass for attack, run at them with the bayonet, use these three stock phrases you know in your troops’ languages to tell them how to request artillery support, etc). But this is just elaborately setting the stage as a prelude to the disaster. Like slow burn tragic movie that builds up an immense story line constructively so that you can really appreciate just the utter disaster when the story enters its third act, we see Austria-Hungary recover from a series of disasters only to lay the seeds of its long term decline. The royal family, the intelligence services, internal politics. All were rocked by unsustainable signs of decline and the necessity of major structural changes at home.

And when the car crash comes with the outbreak of war, it is impossible to look away. Sure, one of the defining features of 1914 was how everyone’s grand plans went so spectacularly wrong. No one thought the Russians could mobilize quickly. The Germans thought France would cave rapidly and Russia would be the real long term fight (funny how they operated on the opposite assumption in the 1940s based off of being wrong about this in 1914, with even more calamitous results for themselves), the Austrians thought they would steamroll Serbia, the French thought a commitment to the tactical offensive would carry the day. And everyone thought the Ottomans would be the weakest link in the Central Powers if and when they came into the fray.

It turned out France would stand strong, Russia would blunder against Germany (but not the Ottomans or Austrians), the Ottomans would over-perform against the British, and the Austrians would perform so badly that they failed three times in a row to take out vastly inferior Serbia, with whom they had mobilized to punish in the first place. This was compacted by Russia’s speedy mobilization and decisive crushing of Austrian offensives in Poland. The opening moves of WWI often are described as a big unexpected Entente win at the Marne and a big unexpected German win at Tannenberg removing any hope for either alliance network to get a quick victory over the other, but it was actually a 2-1 spread in favor of team Entente when one factors in the enormous and calamitous (for Vienna) campaign in Galicia which was only exacerbated by their simultaneous failures in Serbia. Soon, Berlin’s junior partner would become its vassal outright as it requested German officers, training, supplies, and reinforcements to merely keep itself going…something to tax and already beleaguered Germany who faced the allies with major overall demerits in comparative manpower and industrial output. Russia’s logistically unprepared army, shorter in rifles and basic supplies than even the Austrians were, still consistently cleaned Austria-Hungary’s clock on the battlefield, inflicting disproportionate losses on them and driving them back in utter chaos.

It is here where some of the criticism of this book I have seen can be engaged with, for, having read Wawro’s other books, I know he is not castigating poor strategic planning in Vienna and Berlin *because* they come from those locations, but merely because they were strategically inept. Anyone who has read his Franco-Prussian War book would know he had the same acerbic criticism for the French leadership in that war that he now heaps primarily on Austria-Hungary. Where I do have some criticisms of his work is how he criticizes the Hungarian portion of the empire for withholding funds for pre-war military modernization from the overall state. While he is absolutely correct that this played a role in the Hapsburg forces starting the war even more comically out of step with the times than France was (Russians and Serbs often just gunned down entire units of theirs in minutes given all they could often do was banzai-charge in dense Napoleonic style columns with minimal support as the Austrian artillery never had the ability to hold its own like that of France), his own accounting of the dismal state of affairs between Budapest and Vienna clearly show it would have unwise for the Hungarians to ever give too much to their co-partners in the empire. Since Wawro is so good at showing all the reasons Hapsburg troops had low morale, it stands to show that would apply even to the co-governing ethnic group as much as to the Croats and Poles. It was Budapest, after all, that wanted to take a far more cautious and diplomatic route with Serbia and Russia. Maybe they should have made their weight felt in the diplomatic field as well as the budgeting one.

And while we watch in both horror and enticed thrill at this ‘Mad Catastrophe’ unfolding on the page, safely relegated to people who have all long since died, is it not so hard to see these events happening again in a new era where people are once again uncertain about how technological changes could upend expectations of how war would work in practice?

No figure came up more in the narrative of this tragicomedy than Conrad von Hotzendorf, Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian army. While the empire’s failures were no doubt a collaborative effort, Conrad most perfectly encapsulates everything happening in Vienna in the form of one man. A military theorist by trade who rose through the ranks in peacetime, Conrad constantly advocated military action against any and all Balkan countries it was viable to attack. He did this while being in charge of a military he knew was logistically weak and poorly motivated. His solution was to always advocate for war, and then, when war happened, he encouraged mindless frontal offensives that would have made even Joffre blush. Then, when these failed, he retreated to his far away headquarters where he would often sit and sulk for hours, writing novella-length letters to his mistress and bemoaning his critics. Always happy to shift blame for his problems onto subordinates, he was somehow able to resurrect his career multiple teams even after everything he ever touched turned to shit. In the Cold War, the Austrian military would try to rehabilitate his reputation and even name streets and buildings after him. A colossal failure with an undeserved reputation who constantly advocated war and refused to take responsibility for the results of such actions? Where have I heard that before? Conrad von Hotzendorf was Hillary Clinton before there was a Hillary Clinton.

I’m JUST CHILLIN in Vienna! Why don’t you POKEMON GO…to Przemysl.’

Much in the same way that I have used certain totemic neoliberal bipartisan consensus political figures as symbols to show the decline and fall my own birth nation and many of its allies, its easy to see why Wawro is so fascinated by Conrad and his increasingly erratic actions in 1914. A man who is a state in microcosm is not something to be overlooked when breaking down the beginning of the end of a declining country in crisis. Alexander is famous for destroying one empire…Hell, Conrad destroyed four!

Overall, ‘Mad Catastrophe’ is a a book I would recommend to people into military history and political history alike. But I would especially recommend it to people interested in the history of terminal decline, state entropy, and times when people march at full speed to a heavily foreshadowed disaster.

Ibn Khaldun vs Washington DC

 

ibn khaldun

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a historian and social science theorist from Tunis most famous for writing the Muqaddimah, a work of historical theory which sought to explain the cyclic nature of politics, its benefits and drawbacks, and how best to ride these changes for certain fields like medicine and scientific exploration to keep growing even while the regimes they required to support themselves kept inevitably declining and/or collapsing. He traveled widely, found employment in many places, and even directly discussed Emir Timur’s role in history with Timur himself during the siege of Damascus. There are few examples of primary source research so direct and enviable as that.

He was a bit of Gray and a bit of Marx and a bit of Smith and a bit of Diamond and even a bit of the contemporary IR theories of both neoclassical realism and world systems theory long before any of those things existed. He pioneered materialism in historical research and advocated political policies ahead of their time for his context. His work is widely available and translated in many languages so I need not go over it in detail. It merely needs to be stated that he is probably the single most important social theorist in my life. No one individual has ever, to me, made more sense of history and politics on the macro scale. I read and cited him extensively while I was working on my doctoral thesis.

For the sake of this post we need now only deal with one of his thesis, perhaps his most famous. That all regimes and governments become corrupted with incompetence, nepotism, and laziness with time. The longer they are around, the worse it becomes. They lose all their ‘asibyyah’ (group-feeling) while forces opposed to them will unite and therefore gain asibiyyah. In Khaldun’s world these were nomadic and tribal people, be it Bedouin, Turks, or Mongols. They had the practical skills and solidarity enough to eventually capitalize on the rotten empires, come in, and take over. For a few generations the new ruling class would re-invigorate society combining the best of the outsider’s abilities with the resources and learning of the establishment. Then, they too would begin to be subsumed into the conventions, rote thinking, and petty factionalism of the society to which they had integrated into to rule. Then the cycle would begin again.

Demographic changes over centuries ending in the industrial revolution abolished the power of nomadic societies but kept the privateering naval oriented ones going strong in this way, though states that survived industrialization became too strong to fall to outsiders so easily unless said outsiders were more powerful established states themselves or were internal mass revolutions. This in no way invalidates Khaldun’s thesis to be a relic of the medieval past, however. I would argue it merely shifted who the outsiders were. One could bring in Marx here and say it was the working classes who could play this role now. Mao would say it was the rural peasants. Marxism, however, at its core remains an often Hegelian and almost always eurocentric philosophy (particularly when discussing history-just look at the farce of Hobsbawm being taken as a great insightful thinker for a more modern example) in both theory and historical assumption. Perhaps Marx’s theories would have been better off at the bat had he been able to  engage with figures like Khaldun. As it is, the promise in Marxist theory has yet to be fully realized and work there still has to be done by those so inclined. Still, the fact remains that the ‘lower orders’ of society might very well be the invigorating invaders we need to topple the status quo.

Or just as easily, perhaps not. Perhaps the people who have the luxury to not have direct regional attachments will be such a force, or perhaps disaffected and disillusioned former establishment operators will be it. Or an alliance of some or all of the above. Perhaps an anti-populist reaction against purist movements will one day grow and demand to seize the power from the complacent classes which in America have certainly built around them webs of true believers and ideologues capable of nothing but posturing their supposed purity in front on each other like Calvinists and Wahhabis at a theological convention.

Edward Gibbon once theorized that Christianity itself was the root cause of the decline of Rome (at least in the west). While I am far too much a materialist to agree entirely, I would say a values system that prioritizes feelings over action and moral posturing over civic duty is surely no positive introduction to society. We have seen waves of this moral absolutism and internal purge-culture throughout societies since that time, and now in the form of faith based economic models and appeals to identity politics of all stripes it still rides a high horse through the land, motivating politicians obsessed with election cycles to harness this ignorant mass in order to ensure little gets done while their positions (and book deals) are secure. It is a government by the elect, for the true believers. Thus, it is really no government at all.

One of the many disturbing things I have learned since I moved to DC is that the more insider to DC culture one is and the more educated they are, the more likely they are to adopt rote thinking on major issues since they have lost the ability to see any issue as anything but a well-oiled cog in the machine which is exposed to a very small array of mandatory socially acceptable opinions. Most of these people are liberals and centrists and feel that merely by being more intelligent or well read than a Trump supporter or a Tea Party fanatic means they are in fact extremely enlightened and virtuous guardians of rationality. It would be much the same as an uncoordinatated dweebus such as myself who has no aptitude for sports claiming to be a better basketball player than Stephen Hawking. I mean, yes, it is technically true, but it effectively says nothing of substance or offers an interesting comparison.
 
It must be apparent to an outsider that this limited multiple choice test of right-on opinions as the baseline of public discussion is increasingly the problem rather than the solution, the defensive entrenched class circles the wagons even further. They admonish us to be ‘centrist’, ‘sensible’ and ‘not to rock the boat.’ Of course, they never say that to the far right, useful idiots and all, but now they have let the asp into the bed and cannot control it. But we should still trust them to be ‘sensible’ anyway.
 
Leaving aside for now the quite obvious counter-point of pointing out what a thin substance-free gruel ‘centrism’ and ‘sensibility’really is by merely asking them questions like ‘what is a sensible centrist in Saudi Arabia?’ ‘What is a sensible centrist in Iran?’ ‘What is a sensible centrist in North Korea?’ And ‘What was a sensible centrist in the Axis Powers of World War II or during the times of the Inquisition?’ ‘What was a sensible centrist in the vote to invade Iraq?’ We should move on to another point-why are you all so short cited? The obvious answer is addiction to fashion and the need to posture rather than to act. Needless to say, these are all symptoms of a regime in decline which-technology adjusted-Ibn Khaldun would have recognized in a heartbeat.

It is the shame of the legislative branch of the United States that so many people can be part of such a powerful institution with access to so many resources-including intellectual ones, I became an official card carrying ‘Reader’ at the Library of Congress just last week-is so short term and factionally driven. Much like the nonprofit sector which grows around the establishment and feeds off of its divisions, petty media-driven battles are considered good politics in America rather than the act of actual governing or planning beyond an electoral cycle. Otherwise thoughtful people tow the line on ideological package deals when cherry picking would be more admirable and honest of a course to take.

Just take one sad, sorry, drawn out example is that of the US response to the Syrian Civil War, to look at how much nonsense such a dysfunctional regime can produce. In a zealous quest to overthrow a government of the country where Khaldun once met Timur the establishment found itself arming effectively Al Qaeda affiliated rebel groups and even ‘moderate’ rebels who have no room for sectarian and ethnic minorities in their new order. This toxic combination helped lead to the rise of Daesh, which now is every (sane) person’s enemy. And yet, an accommodation with the (relatively secular and multicultural) regime is still avoided because the Washington Consensus from congress to its mindless town criers and prophets by the names of Dowd, Friedman, Kristol, and Will somehow believes the fundamental values of not rocking the boat of the establishment is worth upholding. Indeed, even extolling in moral terms.

To say that the building forces of accumulated history which may as well be the ghost of Ibn Khladun himself will one day lay down the vengeance on this order is to be as polite as humanely possible. And not just the United States. I feel like we are living in a collection of powerful societies unwittingly and even proudly reenacting the death throws of Late Imperial Russia.

But even within this sad state of affairs, one heroic figure has emerged from the most unlikely place-inside of congress. Outside of shunted aside realist academic thinkers and a kooky quixotic Rand Paul presidential campaign, no one has come from the inside to really challenge the ossified orthodoxy on foreign policy-until Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard that is.

From challenging the internal incompetence of the Democratic Party (currently seeming to be throwing away all its collective advantages and surrendering all power locally simply to hold on to the presidency-a bad long term strategy if ever there was one) to the inability of people to state that radical Islam itself is a problem, to the neocon establishment that lurks in both parties, she takes them all on. Here is someone who made it to the inside but retained the more sober and less fashion-prone perspective of the outsider. If Americans do not make a concerted effort to support people like her in government they may as well give up on retaining opinions or participation with the government as it is in any shape or form. People like her are our last best hope in the system as it presently is.

The question is, where do we find our own new outsider-based regime? This is ‘The outsiders guide to geopolitics’ as a blog after all, but I am still trying to figure this out. We need more tricksters. We need an Age of Tricksters. And not just hovering outside poking fun-though that is always necessary-but inside. We have to figure out how to remake governments with those immune to its faddish complacent tendencies directly in power. Inevitably, over time, they will integrate and the process will has to be repeated of course, just as Khaldun said. But only fools think history progresses along a linear path to a predetermined end point after all.
That is the challenge to ponder for the future.