Ring of Steel

Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I


By Alexander Watson

Formats and Prices





  1. Trade Paperback $34.99
  2. ebook $16.99

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 28, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A prize-winning, magisterial history of World War I from the perspective of the defeated Central Powers

For the Central Powers, the First World War started with high hopes for an easy victory. But those hopes soon deteriorated as Germany's attack on France failed, Austria-Hungary's armies suffered catastrophic losses, and Britain's ruthless blockade brought both nations to the brink of starvation. The Central powers were trapped in the Allies' ever-tightening Ring of Steel.

In this compelling history, Alexander Watson retells the war from the perspective of its losers: not just the leaders in Berlin and Vienna, but the people of Central Europe. The war shattered their societies, destroyed their states, and imparted a poisonous legacy of bitterness and violence. A major reevaluation of the First World War, Ring of Steel is essential for anyone seeking to understand the last century of European history.



             The World War of 1914–18 was utterly unlike most former wars . . . it was a war for existence, a war of the people in the fullest sense.

Erich Ludendorff1

The First World War has long been recognized as the twentieth century’s ‘great seminal catastrophe’.2 Seventy million men were mobilized to fight over the four years and four months that it raged. Nearly ten million people were killed. Communities were destroyed, populations displaced. Hatred, bitterness and grief consumed the belligerents. East-central Europe was the epicentre of this disaster. Germany and Austria-Hungary, the two states spread across the region, were the conflict’s instigators and its losers. Together, they suffered one-third of all the war’s dead.3 No other societies sacrificed more or lost so much. If the 1914–18 conflict was indeed the cause of the evils that would later beset Europe, totalitarian dictatorship, another world war and genocide, this was first of all because it so profoundly changed the societies of central Europe. The key to the tragic course of the continent’s modern history lies in this region, and in the extraordinary exertion, unredeemed sacrifices and physical and moral displacement undergone by its peoples in 1914–18.

This book is the first modern history to narrate the Great War from the perspectives of the two major Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. It seeks to understand the conflict through their statesmen’s eyes. Above all, however, it is the story of their peoples. Whether civilians standing in the food queues of Vienna and Berlin, soldiers embroiled in the bloody fighting on the Somme or at the Brusilov offensive, or sailors engaged in tense underwater warfare, their fears, desires and ordeals lie at the heart of this account. The peoples were central to this conflict. The First World War’s dynamism and transformative potential derived in large part from its nature as a Volkskrieg – a ‘People’s War’. For conservative statesmen like the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, perturbed by the demise of the old cabinet wars with limited goals and casualties, what defined this new and frightening struggle, its ‘most miraculous feature’, was ‘the immense power of the people’.4 Popular commitment fuelled the war’s violence and determined its duration. The Central Powers mobilized their populations on a scale unrivalled in Europe. In Germany, 13,387,000 men, an astonishing 86 per cent of the country’s entire male population between eighteen and fifty years old, passed through the armed forces between 1914 and 1918. Austria-Hungary stood only a little behind with eight million soldiers, around 78 per cent of its military-aged manpower.5

The war experience of the Central Powers was determined by their strategic situation. Germany and Austria-Hungary, together with their allies, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, were trapped during hostilities within a ring of steel. Encircling them was a vastly superior enemy coalition. To the east lay Russia. In the north, west and south were Britain, France, Italy, later the United States, and a host of smaller nations. By war’s end, these enemies controlled 61 per cent of the globe’s territory, 64 per cent of its pre-war gross domestic product, and comprised 70 per cent of its population.6 The Central Powers were isolated from neutral trade. A British naval blockade, tightened ever more ruthlessly as the war continued, closed the ring. Central Europeans imagined themselves as barricaded and besieged within a great fortress. The millions of men called up were needed to keep out the enemy. Yet this siege warfare on a massive scale drew in entire societies. Total mobilization and blockade blurred the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. Not only the young, fit and single, but husbands, fathers, the middle-aged and frequently even the infirm fought this war. At home, women took over their conscripted men’s jobs or migrated into the booming armaments factories. Children were mobilized to help with the harvest and collect valuables for the war effort. These civilians, far from being mere auxiliaries, became targets, and were ravaged by deprivation, malnutrition, sickness and exhaustion. Not just soldiers fighting on the battlefields but also their families struggling to survive at home found that war soon permeated every aspect of their daily lives. To contemporaries, whether in Europe’s major metropolises or its under-modernized rural backwaters, the conflagration appeared terrifyingly all-encompassing, unceasing, expansive. Eight months into hostilities, a Pole living on the Austrian side of the Eastern Front succinctly captured the ubiquity of the horror that had spread across the continent: ‘war on land, in the ground, on water, under water and in the air; war encompassing ever greater circles of Humanity.’7

Why did the peoples of Austria-Hungary and Germany hold out for so long in the face of terrible hardship and against dreadful odds? Their determination is all the more baffling as few historians today doubt the great culpability borne by their leaders in starting the conflagration or in pursuing aggressive war aims. In part, the peoples had no choice. At the outbreak of war armies in central Europe were granted extraordinary powers over domestic society. States and militaries had effective tools of repression with which they imposed censorship, restrictions on public gatherings and in some places martial law to enforce compliance.8 Yet as an explanation for the long duration of peoples’ readiness to fight, endure and sacrifice, coercion is far from satisfactory. Both Austria-Hungary and Germany were Rechtsstaaten, ‘states of law’, which during the half century before the First World War had guaranteed their subjects’ basic freedoms and fostered educated civil societies.9 While rights were suspended at the outset of hostilities, civil society’s mentalities and institutions persisted, and proved indispensable in underpinning a successful mobilization. In Germany, it was recognized early that a European conflict involving mass conscript armies and requiring the near-total mobilization of industry and agriculture could not be conducted against the will of the people. Austrian leaders who at first attempted to suppress public opinion had found to their cost by the end of 1916 that authoritarianism merely increased resentment and resistance. Both of the major Central Powers granted more, not less, space for public expression in the last two years of hostilities, even as discontent mounted. Persuasion was at a premium, and propaganda, the dark art of guiding opinion, became ever more important. Ideas able to inspire the masses were turned into powerful weapons of war.10

This book’s central argument is that popular consent was indispensable in fighting the twentieth century’s first ‘total war’. It recounts how the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples supported, tolerated or submitted to the conflict, and how participation changed them and their societies. Three themes run through the pages of this book. First, it explores how consent for war was won and maintained in Austria-Hungary and Germany. It shows that mobilization was never simply an order from state to subject. Rather, the institutions of civil society, local officials, political activists, the Church, trade unions and charities mediated and managed an astounding self-mobilization, taking their communities to war in 1914–15. The account explores how, when popular commitment to victory sagged in 1916–18, increasingly sophisticated propaganda was used to underpin resilience by shaping soldiers’ and civilians’ understandings of the war. It also scrutinizes for the first time the fears, ambitions, prejudices and grievances of Germans and Austro-Hungarians, and seeks to explain what they saw to be at stake in the conflict. The book demonstrates that the war’s hardships and horrors not only undermined but could also strengthen resolve to fight on and endure. Fear and anger, both justified and exaggerated, towards enemy belligerents proved to be powerful mobilizing emotions, lasting up to and well beyond 1918.

Second, the book explains how extreme and escalating violence during 1914–18 radicalized German and Austro-Hungarian war aims and actions, and it explores the consequences of this radicalization for those societies and their war efforts. At the outbreak of hostilities, both the populations and – notwithstanding their aggressive actions – governments were united in a defensive consensus. However, initial expectations that the conflict would be brief and purely military in nature were thwarted by the failure of any belligerent to win a decisive victory in the opening campaigns. The onset of a British naval blockade of doubtful legality under international law, which defined food as ‘contraband’, threatened the civilian populations of the Central Powers with starvation and exposed their extreme vulnerability to economic attack. The book shows how, a quarter of a century before Hitler’s slave empire, Germany and Austria-Hungary responded with a ruthless exploitation of the food and human labour in the territories they had occupied in the east and west. The new economic warfare encouraged German and Austro-Hungarian governing elites, parts of which had already harboured imperialist aspirations, to see their states’ future security and stability as dependent on maintaining permanent control of these foreign resources. Official war aims expanded greatly, as German military and business elites in particular developed ambitions to build an empire in the east. These aspirations clashed with the wider population’s commitment to defend only pre-war borders and its hopes for a quick peace that would end the hardship. A crisis of state legitimacy resulted, and ultimately the people withdrew their consent, precipitating political collapse and the war’s end.

The book’s third theme is the tragic societal fragmentation caused by the First World War, a break-up which not only preceded and precipitated political collapse, but persisted even after state order had been resurrected in central Europe. This fragmentation took different forms in Germany and Austria-Hungary, for whereas the former was a nation state, the latter was a multinational empire. In Austria-Hungary, policymakers had commenced hostilities in 1914 in part as a desperate remedy for endemic peacetime nationality disputes which they feared might tear the Empire apart. Initially, their gamble appeared effective, as the peoples rallied to the flag. However, already at its opening the conflict exacerbated national feelings and enmities, which were further inflamed by the military persecution of ‘suspicious’ ethnic groups, floods of unwelcome refugees from the eastern and southern borderlands, food shortages, and nationalist propaganda by exiles allied to the enemy powers. As the Habsburg state increasingly lost its legitimacy and wartime hardship worsened, people retreated into their national communities. Even before the state was formally dissolved, its multi-ethnic societies had already collapsed into violence, with Jews becoming a particular target. In Germany too, wartime shortages exacerbated anti-Semitism and in the ethnically mixed eastern borderlands, racial conflict. However, as a largely homogeneous nation state, its society fragmented principally along lines of class. These class tensions were supercharged from 1917 by growing calls for annexation from the right and, on the left, the ideology of the two Russian revolutions. The divisions widened further after defeat, spawning civil war and new parties of the far left and radical right.

General Erich Ludendorff, the man who managed Germany’s war effort in 1916–18, was right to characterize the struggle as ‘a war of the people in the fullest sense’. The great emotional and material investment of the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples not only made possible the sustained struggle of the Central Powers, but also ensured that defeat, when it came, would have a catastrophic impact on their societies. The internal divisions that had developed during the war shaped the chaos at its end: in Germany, left-wing revolution brought down the government. In Austria-Hungary, defeat was accompanied by ethnic violence and fragmentation into new, national states. Peace brought only a fragile respite. Across the region, war had impoverished the people, torn apart multi-ethnic communities and destroyed faith in state structures. Bitterness at unredeemed sacrifice, stark ideological divisions, racial hatreds and a new readiness to exert violence remained. A dark future awaited central Europe.


Decisions for War


‘We began the war, not the Germans and still less the Entente – that I know.’ With this admission, Baron Leopold von Andrian-Werburg, a member of the tight-knit group of young diplomats influential in shaping Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy in the last years of peace, began his memoir of July 1914. Andrian, at the time the Habsburg Consul-General in Warsaw, had been on leave in Vienna during the tense weeks after the assassination on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo of Austria-Hungary’s heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, by Bosnian Serb terrorists. He was called into the Habsburg Foreign Ministry on 9 July to advise on Russia’s probable reaction to aggressive action against Serbia, the country that government circles believed was behind the crime. Looking back four years later, a chastened but unrepentant man, Andrian described the strange, conspiratorial euphoria he encountered at the Ministry. Count Alek Hoyos, the thirty-six-year-old chef de cabinet at the centre of the group, who was later driven almost to suicide by the thought that he was, as he told a confidante guiltily in 1916, ‘the real initiator of the war’, had greeted him jovially.1 ‘We must let Andrian in on the secret,’ he had exclaimed. ‘A totally new epoch’ was being prepared. Serbia was ‘to eat humble pie’. After years of isolation, provocation and humiliation, the venerable Habsburg Empire would no longer stand by passively as predators encircled it. All the young diplomats agreed, and their political masters also believed, that the threat was mortal and time was short. Fear and desperation paved the way for a reckless elation as Habsburg leaders resolved finally to lash out decisively and violently by initiating war in the Balkans.2

The First World War was begun by small ruling elites. Their peoples were not consulted. Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all, fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. Yet Austria-Hungary’s leaders were exceptional, for they alone actively planned from early July 1914 to take their country to war. The conflict that they wanted in the aftermath of the Sarajevo assassinations was a Balkan rather than a world war, and they went about provoking it with startlingly single-minded determination. The Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, a sensitive man whose true passions were for art and horses rather than politics and who had not previously been known for forcefulness, was the prime mover in these machinations. The aggressive young diplomats under him and the Habsburg military urged him on. On the afternoon of 30 June, two days after the murders, he visited Emperor Franz Joseph. The eighty-three-year-old monarch had not been close to his murdered nephew, but Berchtold found him shocked and grieving. Together, they agreed that the time for a ‘policy of patience’ was past. A tougher approach towards Serbia was now needed.3

The network of alliances and balance of power in Europe in 1914 made any Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia, diplomatic or military, fraught with peril. Habsburg relations with Serbia had in fact been hostile since a nationalist military coup had placed the Karadjordjević dynasty on its throne in 1903. The new government and its officials had not only shaken the country free of its status as a Habsburg satellite but had gone on to support, sometimes covertly and at other times more overtly, Greater Serbia agitation intended to tear from the multi-ethnic Empire its South Slav provinces. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, the powerful head of military intelligence and founder of the secret revolutionary society Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (Union or Death!), sponsored terrorism in Habsburg Bosnia and Croatia, and although Austro-Hungarian investigators did not know it, he was the organizer of the plot to murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.4 However, the small kingdom of Serbia was backed by the might of Russia, the Habsburg Empire’s main competitor in the Balkans. Russia was tightly tied by alliance to France and, since 1907, more loosely to Great Britain in a ‘Triple Entente’. Any dispute between the Empire and Serbia would quickly draw in these great powers. Berchtold knew that to have a free hand against the country he believed – firm proof was still lacking – had plotted the Austrian heir’s death, he needed to bring in the Germans, the Habsburg Empire’s sole reliable ally and Europe’s premier military power, as co-conspirators. Alek Hoyos was sent to Berlin on 5 July to seek their support, carrying two documents. The first was a letter from Franz Joseph addressed to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Composed in the Habsburg Foreign Office, it warned that Serbia’s ‘criminal agitation’ must not go ‘unpunished’. The second was a memorandum offering a gloomy assessment of the Central Powers’ strategic situation. Written by a senior Foreign Office section chief, Baron Franz Matscheko, at Berchtold’s order just before the Sarajevo assassinations, it had been hurriedly redrafted in their aftermath with a more belligerent tone and reframed to appeal to German anxieties. The slipping Habsburg influence in the Balkans and the need to align more closely with Bulgaria instead of the Central Powers’ secret and unreliable ally, Romania, were stressed. So too was the Franco-Russian alliance’s growing assertiveness; a cause of acute worry to Berlin. A postscript warned of the intense danger of a ‘greater Serbian agitation that will stop short of nothing’ and, hinting at violence, advocated strong action. Neither document mentioned war overtly, because although Berchtold was determined, the Emperor was not yet irrevocably fixed on this course and Count Tisza, the powerful Minister President of Hungary, whose views could not be ignored, was opposed. The choice of Hoyos, an outspoken advocate of war with excellent connections in Berlin, was Berchtold’s means of circumventing their doubts. The hawkish chef de cabinet would ensure the Germans understood that the Habsburg administration was set on war.5

The Germans received Hoyos’s message positively. Kaiser Wilhelm had been a close friend of Franz Ferdinand and was outraged by his death. The Kaiser’s view, scribbled furiously on a report filed by his ambassador in Vienna two days after the murders, was that ‘the Serbs must be disposed of, and that right soon!’6 On 5 July he lunched with the Habsburg ambassador, Count Szögyényi, who had been briefed by Hoyos, and was given the letter and memorandum. After reading the documents, the Kaiser offered his ‘full support’, although with the reservation that he must also talk to his Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.7 The next day, Szögyényi and Hoyos met Bethmann and were told, as the diplomats reported to Vienna, ‘whatever way we decide, we may always be certain that we will find Germany at our side’.8 With this infamous ‘blank cheque’, Germany’s leaders had offered the diplomatic support essential to permit a Habsburg attack on Serbia, and opened the way for the international crisis at the end of the month. Crucially, they did so in the full knowledge that it could provoke, as Wilhelm II remarked after reading Franz Joseph’s letter, ‘a serious European complication’. The German Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Arthur Zimmermann, with whom Hoyos had lunched on 5 July, even estimated the risk at ‘90 per cent for a European war, if you undertake something against Serbia’.9 However, once Wilhelm met with the Chancellor, Zimmermann and his military advisers later that afternoon, these concerns faded. Both the Chancellor and the War Minister, Erich von Falkenhayn, doubted that the Austro-Hungarians were in reality serious and the leaders agreed that even if their ally did act decisively, Russia would not intervene.10 The Germans now simply handed all initiative to Vienna. The Chancellor emphasized in his meeting with Hoyos and Szögyényi on 6 July that the decision on how to proceed lay entirely with Austria-Hungary. The only preference he expressed was that if military action were considered necessary, it should be initiated sooner rather than later.11

The Germans’ response strengthened Berchtold’s hand when the Common Ministerial Council, the closest thing Austria-Hungary had to a cabinet, met on 7 July. Berchtold, who chaired the session, pushed from the beginning for ‘a show of force [that] might put an end to Serbia’s intrigues once and for all’. The Austrian Minister President Count Stürgkh and the Empire’s finance and war ministers, Leon Biliński and Alexander von Krobatin, all favoured war with Serbia. The sole dissenter remained the Hungarian Minister President. While Tisza was able to veto an immediate strike on Serbia, this was a hollow victory, for the Habsburg army had granted so many soldiers harvest leave that summer that such an attack was anyway an impossibility. He suggested an ultimatum be sent instead, and conceded that the demands ‘should be hard’. Berchtold, however, in summing up the meeting, put his own belligerent spin on what had been agreed. While acknowledging ‘the differences of opinion’, he insisted that ‘still an agreement had been arrived at, since the propositions of the Hungarian Premier would in all probability lead to a war with Serbia, the necessity of which he and all the other members of the Council had understood and admitted’.12 The Habsburg Foreign Minister could be certain that war would result, for the task of drawing up the ultimatum lay with his ministry, even if the Council would afterwards check it. Berchtold was quite open about his intention to phrase the ultimatum so as to incite a war: he told the German ambassador frankly on 10 July that he was ‘considering what demands could be put that would be wholly impossible for the Serbs to accept’. His instructions to the Empire’s ambassador to Serbia, Baron von Giesl, who was in Vienna on the day of the Council and came to him after it ended, had been even blunter: ‘however the Serbs react – you must break off relations and leave. It must come to war.’13

The most disconcerting characteristic of Habsburg leaders’ decision-making process is the ease with which they contemplated war. Just a week and a half after Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, the military and all the civilian ministers except Tisza were advocating the invasion of Serbia; indeed, most had already decided in favour of it on hearing of the murders.14 Disregard the fact that not until 13 July, six days after the key Common Ministerial Council meeting, did the investigator tasked with establishing Belgrade’s involvement in the plot report, and that he could show at most a vague ‘moral culpability’, not complicity or responsibility on the part of the Serbian government.15 Put aside too the doubtful ethics of launching a war, even a short one, with all its attendant suffering and loss of innocent lives in response to the murder of one royal couple. Purely in terms of power politics, an invasion of Serbia was an extraordinarily dangerous decision because it risked provoking Russia, whose standing army was three times the size of that maintained by Austria-Hungary.16 Berchtold knew that Serbia’s humiliation would matter deeply to the eastern colossus, for he told Franz Joseph gleefully on 14 July that it would strike ‘a blow to Russian prestige in the Balkans’.17 The ministers too were aware of the risks, for they had invited Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Chief of the General Staff, to discuss his war plans at their meeting a week earlier. Conrad had told them that if Russia intervened after war with Serbia had begun, he could switch the Habsburg army’s deployment to counter it providing that he knew no later than the fifth day of mobilization. He was confident, although it is unclear whether he stated this explicitly at the meeting, that with Germany’s help he could beat Serbia and Russia. Yet much of what he did say should have concerned the ministers. He dispelled the delusion that the Habsburg Empire’s north-eastern frontier could be protected by Germany alone, while its own army fought the Serbs in the south. He warned that parts of the Empire’s border province of Galicia might be invaded in the initial stages of the campaign. In the worst, although fortunately unlikely, scenario that the Empire had to face Romania and Montenegro, as well as Serbia and Russia, the chance of victory was, the Chief of the General Staff judged, ‘not favourable’.18

Disregarding the great risk, Habsburg leaders now advanced their preparations for war in great secrecy. They were driven by a fearful urgency; as Berchtold told his colleagues on 7 July, the Empire had ‘no time’. Inaction, not armed conflict, appeared to pose the greatest existential threat. Even Tisza, who came round to advocating war on 14 July, admitted that ‘the noose has already been placed around our neck and if we do not cut it away now, it would have strangled us at a more appropriate time’.19 Yet although Austria-Hungary’s ministers, soldiers and Emperor had reached consensus, they could not confront Serbia immediately. Two issues forced a delay. First, the army was not ready. This was ironic, for Conrad had long been the most belligerent of Habsburg leaders. Since becoming Chief of Staff in 1906, he had called repeatedly for preventative war against Serbia, Montenegro, Russia and even Romania and Italy, which were allies of the Empire. Berchtold wryly paraphrased his advice after the Sarajevo murders as ‘War! War! War!’20


  • Winner of the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History

Winner of the Wolfson History Prize

The Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award Recipient

British Army Military Book of the Year
  • "In a year crowded with histories of World War I, Alexander Watson's Ring of Steel makes a truly indispensable contribution in allowing us to see from the inside out this disastrous alliance between Austria and imperial Germany.... It is a mark of talent in a historian to take familiar narratives and open them to new interpretation. Mr. Watson's book is a brilliant demonstration of this skill."—Wall Street Journal
  • Ring of Steel is perhaps the most important of the current crop of [WWI] books -- and certainly one of the best."—Guardian (UK)
  • "This book, at times gripping, at other times poignant, and always revealing, marks a valuable contribution to [the] debate on the war's place in twentieth-century history."—Financial Times
  • "Remarkable...the first comprehensive history of the war written from the perspective of the Central Powers."—Los Angeles Review of Books
  • "A fresh approach in analyzing the conflict.... Watson's main concern here is to try and figure out why the loss of the war for the central powers created the unstable states that emerged in the aftermath of the conflict. He finishes off the task he has set himself here with considerable precision and skill."—Daily Beast
  • "British historians have tended to view the Great War predominantly from the side of the Allies. Watson has done our understanding an inestimable service by examining these familiar events from the perspective of the Central Powers."—Telegraph (UK)
  • "In a year dominated by memories of the First World War, this supremely accomplished book stands out. Not only does it look at the conflict from the perspective of the losing Central Powers, imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary, but it brings together political, military, economic and cultural history in an enormously impressive narrative."—Sunday Times (UK) History Book of the Year
  • "Watson has contributed a definitive resource to the literature on the strategic enigma being debated during the centennial of WW I."—Choice
  • "Illuminating...an outstanding book that has been scrupulously researched. I highly recommend this book to students of World War I and indeed anyone who wants to see how the Central Powers dealt with the stresses of war on the homefront. They will not find a better, fairer history because it has not yet been written."—Battles and Book Reviews
  • On Sale
    Mar 28, 2017
    Page Count
    832 pages
    Basic Books

    Alexander Watson

    About the Author

    Alexander Watson is professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, which won the Wolfson History Prize and the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History, and Enduring the Great War, winner of the Fraenkel Prize.

    Learn more about this author