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A Mad Catastrophe

23 Jan 2015

Mad Catastrophe
A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Geoffrey Wawro (2014)
In the last year we have passed many one-century milestones marking the beginning of World War I, known then as The Great War. That decade was a remarkable time, resulting in the fall or reconfiguration of many dynasties and empires - the fall of the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, the Russian tsars, the Manchurian rulers of China, and the first German reich; the decline of British influence; and the rise of America as a world power. The Italians and Ethiopians were affected as well, but to a lesser extent. The realignments that followed, including continued Chinese weakness during its brief flirtation with democracy, led to the rise of the Japanese empire as well.

To all but the most dedicated history buff, not to mention quite a few historians, the Eastern origins of World War I have long remained a mystery, even though it famously began with the assassination of the Habsburg crown prince by a Serbian terrorist. As author Wawro points out, the vast bulk of the scholarship has focused on the Western conflict involving Britain, France, Germany and later the United States. Some have gone as far east as the Middle East, where Western fighting centered around control of the oil fields, but little history of the readable variety is available to satisfy the many compelling questions about the fall of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Mad Catastrophe succeeds in its goal of handling the latter.

Wawro lays the blame for the Habsburg fall squarely on the shoulders of Emperor Franz Joseph, whose decisions from the mid-nineteenth century fostered the decline of the military and the Dual Monarchy schism that destroyed governance. His age of 84 at the time of the crown prince's assassination in 1914 goes a long way toward explaining the catastrophe caused by Archduke Franz Ferdinand's death. However, Wawro makes a strong case that by that time the empire's fate was sealed regardless of Franz Ferdinand's premature departure.

The internal decay of the Habsburg influence was marked by several events not given enough attention at the time they occurred, in which an inevitable Austrian victory was incorrectly assumed. For some reason military observers of the time failed to notice how poorly equipped were the Austrians and Hungarians, and how poorly generaled.

Adding to the problem was Hungary's desire to be independent of Austrian rule.

After years of political and military pressure tactics Franz Joseph agreed to a "Dual Monarchy" in which Hungary would have its own kingdom but would continue to bow to the rule of the Habsburg emperor. They would jointly contribute to the military. Franz Joseph was completely fooled: the dual monarchy was part of a long-term Hungarian plan to split away. The Hungarian rulers created their own bureaucracies. What military they built stayed home, not in Austria.

In public school and college history classes what remains unexplained was why the assassination of an obscure Austrian archduke by an even more obscure Serbian anarchist. Again, Mad Catastrophe serves well.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was nephew and heir to Emperor Franz Joseph, who was born in 1830. By 1914 even Ferdinand was in his fifties. With Franz Joseph in his dotage, Franz Ferdinand was chief operating officer for the empire. Later after his death a secret sanctuary of the archduke was found to contain maps and papers detailing his plans to break up the empire and remake Europe after he took power, but it was not to be.

That Franz Ferdinand's assassination by a minor Serbian terrorist like Gavrilo Princip was even possible should have signaled the Habsburgs' military weakness. The killing took place only after a series of attempts and mishaps throughout a day of festivities; any intelligence operation worthy of the name should have picked up on the pattern and spirited the archduke away from the scene. Instead Franz Ferdinand died, and the emperor, now left without an heir apparent, had no choice but to attack Serbia. It was to be a quick, easy war of a Goliath against a David with no slingshot. Instead, Austria was soundly defeated. The destruction of its entire military establishment had begun. Franz Joseph dithered between fighting Russia, even then a gargantuan against which it he had no real chance, and Serbia, the brat he could not break.

The demise of Austria-Hungary was important on the Western front because Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany was depending on the Habsburgs to keep at bay the troops of Russian Tsar Nicholas Romanov, his first cousin through Queen Victoria. Without Franz Joseph's assistance Germany's attention was split, and its plans to make a quick finish of France were thus spoiled, allowing America to enter the fray.

The complete moral dissolution of the empire, as Mad Catastrophe lays it out, becomes obvious. What can you say about a war that starts with the entire general staff taking five-week personal vacations? A Mad Catastrophe has a lot to say about it. This book is a great read for any twentieth century history buff, and a must for any collection. Five stars.


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