A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

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by Geoffrey Wawro
     
 

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The Austro-Hungarian army that marched eastward in the opening campaign of World War I was as disordered a force as the world had ever seen. Speaking a mystifying array of languages and carrying outdated weapons, the troops were hopelessly unprepared for the mechanized warfare that would soon consume the entire continent.

As prizewinning historian Geoffrey Wawro

Overview

The Austro-Hungarian army that marched eastward in the opening campaign of World War I was as disordered a force as the world had ever seen. Speaking a mystifying array of languages and carrying outdated weapons, the troops were hopelessly unprepared for the mechanized warfare that would soon consume the entire continent.

As prizewinning historian Geoffrey Wawro explains, the disorganization of these doomed conscripts perfectly mirrored Austra-Hungary itself. For years, the Dual Monarchy had been rotting from within, hollowed out by complacency and corruption at the highest levels. Germany goaded Austria into a longed-for fight with Russia and her allies before the monarchy collapsed completely, but the severity of the fighting was too much for the weakened Empire. By the time 1914 ended, the Habsburg army lay in ruins, and the course of the war seemed all but decided.

Reconstructing the climax of the Austrian campaign in gripping detail, Wawro offers a riveting account of how Austria-Hungary plunged the West into a tragic and unnecessary war.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
03/17/2014
Wawro (The Austro-Prussian War) aims to clarify the confusing nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s military collapse early in WWI. Describing the trauma of the Austrian defeat in the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, he claims it eroded “the Austrian idea,” the belief that everyone in the Empire was satisfied and unified under Austrian rule. To stem the tide of protests, the reactionary Franz Josef became both the emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, thereby establishing the joint kingdom of Austria-Hungary. Intended as a solution, his reign only served to complicate the problem and let it sit and simmer ominously until 1914. As Wawro grimly notes, “Hungary... was dragging the Hapsburg Empire over a cliff.” Hungarian attempts to undermine the Austrian monarchy, limit the size of the military, and stymie any major decision-making were largely successful. Other betrayals crippled the state further, including when high-ranking Colonel Alfred Redl was discovered to be selling crucial military secrets to Russia. With the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of WWI, the inexperience of Austro-Hungarian troops and the incompetence of its military leadership were thrown into sharp relief. Wawro’s authoritative account is a damning analysis of an empire and a people unready for war. Maps and illus. (May)
Library Journal
04/15/2014
Wawro (history, director, Military History Ctr., Univ. of North Texas) begins by describing how Austria-Hungary found itself at the mercy of the Germans after defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian war. He then turns his attention to the internal struggles of the empire, especially its strained relations with Hungary. The author argues that the empire's inability either to control or mollify its minority populations led to its disintegration and that at the outbreak of war Austria-Hungary's army was poorly trained and equipped and comparatively small. The empire vacillated on whether to destroy Serbia first or husband its strength against Russia. When Conrad von Hötzendorf, Vienna's generalissimo, did finally act, his campaigns were disastrous and amounted to embarrassing defeats. Austria's role in causing World War I is well documented, but Wawro's contribution lies in his focus on how the overall decline of Austria-Hungary broke relations with the Balkan states and Russia and how its military blundering caused its ultimate destruction. VERDICT A worthwhile read for those who enjoyed Alan Sked's Decline and Fall of the Hapsburg Empire.—Michael Farrell, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL
Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-16
A distinguished historian's takedown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's spectacularly inept leadership, which helped usher in the 20th century's greatest tragedy. One hundred years ago this June, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo. With its saber-rattling ally Germany discouraging any diplomatic solution to the crisis, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering a series of treaty obligations that soon had the world at arms. Wawro (Military History/Univ. of North Texas, Dallas; Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East, 2010, etc.) sets the stage for this rash decision with opening chapters explaining the origins of the dual monarchy and the rot eating away at the empire well before any shot was fired. Under the doddering, now-mythologized Emperor Franz Josef, the empire was plagued by salacious court intrigues, corruption, linguistic controversies, and bureaucratic infighting and paralysis so widespread that in 1913, British newspapers were already predicting dissolution. Nevertheless, seemingly oblivious to its own infirmity, the government threw itself into a war it had no chance of winning. Wawro charts the disastrous 1914-1915 campaigns against Serbia and Russia that fatally exposed the empire's weaknesses, where an army of unwilling soldiers, poorly led, inadequately trained and armed, was slaughtered by the millions. American readers with only a passing familiarity of the battles of World War I likely know it best from the perspective of the Western Front. Wawro offers a crucial insight into the Eastern Front, where the fecklessness of Germany's most important ally drained attention and resources, almost guaranteeing the bloody standoff in the Western trenches and the eventual capitulation of the Kaiser's army. On this centennial of the Great War's beginning, Wawro has composed a thoroughly researched and well-written account, mercilessly debunking any nostalgia for the old monarch and the deeply dysfunctional empire over which he presided.
From the Publisher

Financial Times Best History Books of 2014
“In a year glutted with first world war books, this study stands out for its devastating portrayal of the reckless diplomacy, internal political disarray and incompetent battlefield leadership that dragged Austro-Hungary towards the abyss in 1914. Wawro … offers a remarkably fresh and unsentimental analysis of an empire on its last legs.”

Wall Street Journal
"Exceptionally accessible to the general reader, Wawro offers a picture of an Austro-Hungarian leadership that was reckless in the extreme … with a fatalistic sense of 'now or never.'"

San Francisco Book Review
A Mad Catastrophe finally brings some clarity to how the death of one Archduke, while admittedly tragic, could lead to the deaths of millions.... Wawro’s excellently written book, in chilling detail, explains all the frustrating and infuriating blundering. The war was completely senseless, the insane war-lust of a failing state; this book gives Austria-Hungary its rightful, starring role as cause of the conflict.”

Macleans (CAN)
“Wawro writes about the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s role in the start and unfolding of the Great War with verve, inescapable black humour and a certain note of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God.”

Literary Review, UK
“Wawro is a historian of the US military, but his damning portrait of the neurotic empire…well reflects the surreal fiction of Hasek and Musil.”

BBC History Magazine
A Mad Catastrophe is a welcome contribution to the small but growing number of scholarly studies of the eastern front that have appeared in English over the last few years.”

Providence Journal
“2014 marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, and Geoffrey Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe is a welcome addition to the growing list of books covering the causes and development of the horrific war. Even in a crowded field, however, Wawro’s study will, I think, stand out, thanks to its focus on the much-neglected eastern front…Battle by battle, Wawro catalogs the collapse. Accompanied by detailed maps, his descriptions are blow-by-blow accounts, all written in lively prose. His is a sad story of carnage and destruction that drives home, yet again, the futility and stupidity of this ‘Great War.’”

Army Magazine
“An engaging case study in the disaster that can happen when interests and capabilities get greatly out of kilter…Readable and entertaining.”

Military History
“A riveting account of a neglected face of WWI.”

History of War, UK
A Mad Catastrophe is a highly readable and cogently argued book that, once again, shows the level of sheer idiocy that lay behind this pivotal period of history.”

MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History
“A fascinating addition to the military and diplomatic scholarship surrounding Austria-Hungary’s inept move toward war and its incompetent execution of the conflict.... Wawro’s book is an excellent account of where plunging over a cliff will land you: in pieces.”

Publishers Weekly
“Wawro’s authoritative account is a damning analysis of an empire and a people unready for war.”

Kirkus
“Wawro offers a crucial insight into the Eastern Front.... On this centennial of the Great War’s beginning, Wawro has composed a thoroughly researched and well-written account, mercilessly debunking any nostalgia for the old monarch and the deeply dysfunctional empire over which he presided.”

Library Journal
“Wawro’s contribution lies in his focus on how the overall decline of Austria-Hungary broke relations with the Balkan states and Russia and how its military blundering caused its ultimate destruction. A worthwhile read.”

Brendan Simms, author of Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Present
A Mad Catastrophe is an absorbing and shocking look at a now neglected aspect of the origins of the First World War. The author—a master military historian, whose works are standard accounts of late nineteenth century Austro-Prussian wars—shows just how reckless Viennese policy before and after the outbreak of hostilities was. Wawro’s book should be on every reading list and in the hands of every policymaker.”

Sir Michael Howard
“This is not just a story of the part played by the Hapsburg Empire in precipitating the First World War, and of the truly lamentable performance of its armies once the war began. It is a devastating indictment of a whole regime, whose slovenly incompetence resulted in a military catastrophe of which Geoff Wawro gives a truly horrifying account. Of all the histories of 1914 that are now pouring from the press, this will rank among the very best.”

Sean McMeekin, author of July 1914: Countdown to War
“Considering the central role played by the Dual Monarchy in the outbreak of First World War, it is astonishing that so little is known to this day about the fighting on the Austro-Hungarian fronts. Geoffrey Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe triumphantly fills this gaping hole in our knowledge. The most important study of the Eastern Front in decades, Wawro’s brilliant and thoroughly researched narrative easily replaces existing books on the subject. Eschewing the Radetzky March nostalgia which so often suffuses books on the last years of the Dual Monarchy, Wawro summons forth a searing indictment of the lethal Austro-Hungarian blundering which helped unleash the First World War and brought all the horrors of the modern age to Eastern Europe.”

Brigadier General Peter Zwack, US Army
"A distinctly unique and long overdue contribution to the historiography of early WWI. The aficionados of Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August and Istvan Szabo's film Colonel Redl will find this a marvelous, engrossing and distinctly well written read that gives necessary balance to the already well-covered narrative of WWI's Western Front. Understanding the challenges and ultimate fate of the creaky, polyglot, decrepit yet also curiously progressive Austrian-Hungarian Empire is essential for comprehending the furies that erupted and boiled over the subsequent century within the vast, complicated, multi-ethnic expanse it spanned. Master historian Geoff Wawro does a tour de force job in colorfully bringing this to light."

Dennis Showalter, author of Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the 20th Century
A Mad Catastrophe systematically eviscerates Austria-Hungary’s final, fatal efforts to play the role of a great power. Wawro presents a case study of culpable, comprehensive, synergistic incompetence at every level of policy-making, strategic planning, and operational effectiveness. A decaying empire went to war fecklessly, conducted war haphazardly, and pulled Europe down into its final vortex. Brilliantly acerbic and comprehensively researched, this is a book difficult to put down.”

Norman Stone, author of World War One: A Short History
"Geoffrey Wawro has done a superb job in explaining and describing how the Habsburg Empire, in trying to save itself, provoked a great war and then destroyed its army through a combination of incompetence and pretentiousness.”

Ivo Banac, Bradford Durfee Emeritus Professor of History, Yale University
“Professor Wawro has produced a gripping and highly recommended account of Austria-Hungary’s descent into the carnage of the First World War’s first year. Unprepared but self-confident, divided by nationality, religion, and interest, the Habsburg armies got an unexpected thrashing that anticipated the demise of the rickety monarchy. This is a very instructive primer on imperial overreach, political irresponsibility, and the dreadful cost in human lives that was the epitaph for old Central Europe.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465028351
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
04/29/2014
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
472
Sales rank:
743,744
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

Geoffrey Wawro is Professor of Military History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, Dallas. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

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A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
CENY More than 1 year ago
Excellent summary of Austria-Hungary's disastrous entry into World War I. The book is interesting and easy to read, and it's about a period of history that I know little about, other than from spending a semester in Austria when I was in school. What a disaster; I can see why that empire collapsed now! The author clearly dislikes the Austro-Hungarian government, perhaps due to having family members from the Polish part of the country, and so the bias is the only reason why I'm not giving this 5 stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago