In This Review

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I
Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I
By Alexander Watson
Basic Books, 2014, 832 pp

The centennial of World War I has renewed public interest in the conflict’s legacy. Most of the attention has been focused on its causes and on participants’ memories of life in the trenches. Yet that kind of remembrance overlooks the question that is perhaps most puzzling to contemporary sensibilities: If, as most analysts believe, this horrific war was unintended, then why did it last so long? What explains the four years of remarkably persistent commitment to the war effort by all parties -- but particularly by Germany, which was surrounded by enemies and where between 80 and 90 percent of adult males under 50 served in the military? Watson’s original and often riveting book traces the subtle interplay of propaganda, hardship, and martial enthusiasm that strengthened the resolve of publics in Central Europe. It goes on to trace the ruthless economic exploitation of eastern Europe by Austria and Germany and the suffering caused by the equally brutal economic blockade imposed by the war’s eventual winners on its eventual losers, both of which help explain why public support for the war waned. Yet the destructive legacy of this experience also illuminates the socially, politically, and economically polarized politics of the interwar period, which led to the rise of extremism and the outbreak of World War II.