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.