For God and Kaiser
Yale University Press 625pp £25
The Wars Before the Great War: Conflict and International Politics before the Outbreak of the First World War
Edited by Dominik Geppert, William Mulligan and Andreas Rose
Cambridge University Press 390pp £64.99
All too much of the recent literature on the background to the Great War has focused on the diplomacy and has seriously underplayed the roles of military decision-makers, plans and exigencies. This has led to an underrating of the nature and character of Austrian and German bellicosity. It is instructive, therefore, to consider works looking at the military dimensions of this period. The two books under review, each valuable, offer very different approaches. Richard Bassett, a former journalist for The Times and biographer of Admiral Canaris, provides an accessible account of the development of the Imperial Austrian army, one that is alive to the nuances of Austrian society. His book cracks along with some marvellous quotations, including Franz Joseph in 1906 dismissing a prototype of an armoured car: ‘Such a thing would never be of any military value.’ While emphasising that the army entered the Great War unprepared for a major conflict, Bassett also stresses the extent to which the history of the army was far from uniformly disastrous. Indeed, there were repeated successes, going back throughout the period of the book. Thus, alongside failures at the hands of opponents during the Thirty Years War or the 18th-century conflicts with France and Prussia, there were, as Bassett demonstrates, military highs: 1866 brought defeat at the hands of Prussia, but victories at Custozza and Lissa, over the Italians. Far from there being any immutable path to failure, the role of particular conjunctures emerges repeatedly.
Bassett is devastating about Conrad and the army leadership in 1914, notably about the drive for war and its strategic and operational mismanagement. Conrad is also criticised for failing to inform his ministerial colleagues about the reality of the military situation. Moreover, Bassett argues that, even if the Vienna statesmen had accepted Grey’s ‘Halt in Belgrade’ proposal, Conrad’s military plans would have prevented its execution. This was planning for war, not sleepwalking into it. The subsequent coverage of the war is effective, not least the successful use of gas in the Caporetto offensive. The Emperor Charles is treated favourably.
The Wars Before the Great War considers the conflicts of 1911-14 involving Italy, the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan powers. The collection focuses on the diplomatic dimension but includes a valuable assessment of perceptions in the ‘European public sphere’, notably among British and German newspapers, while also looking at civil-military relations. For example, as a consequence of massacres and expulsion in the Balkans, the relationship between Muslims and Christians was strained at all levels. From the political élites to the ordinary people, polarisation sharpened. Bruce Menning considers the consequences of threat assessments for Russian policy. He notes that these assessments ranged from pessimism to a degree of optimism. Adrian Wettstein underlines the degree to which the French army generally ignored experiences that did not conform to its thinking. Thus, the Balkan Wars were deployed to support France’s offensive doctrine. In the few areas where open discussion did exist in France, both sides could rely on on-site observers, leading to opposing interpretations. Günther Kronenbitter emphasises the belief of the Austrian military leadership that war would be rejuvenating. Markus Pöhlmann notes the difficulties the Germans encountered in gaining first-hand experience of the wars at the same time that the Balkan Wars confirmed the insight gained in the Russo-Japanese War that combined arms combat was crucial, notably open-order infantry advances after adequate artillery preparations. There was an appreciation by German observers of the ruthless mobilisation of the armed forces and society as a whole, especially in Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro. In a valuable introduction, the editors argue that the Balkan Wars anticipated the ethnic conflicts and violence that occurred periodically throughout the 20th century, in part because making nations out of a multinational space was a brutal process. They point out that the opportunities the Balkan states seized to assert their national claims transformed the international situation and thus accentuated the complexities of threat assessments and the linked encouragement to military action. A useful volume.
Jeremy Black is author of The Great War and the Making of the Modern World (Continuum, 2011).