There is a spectral presence in today’s Europe and it comes from the world of this book. When the Soviet Union broke up, its western regions saw the revival of states first brought into being by Germany almost a hundred years ago. On 3 March 1918, the Central Powers forced the Russians to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and recognise the German satellite states established on the richest quarter of European Russia. From Finland, helped into independence by General von der Goltz, to Georgia, where Graf von der Schulenburg established a nationalist army, a new German empire was developing. The essential part was Ukraine, forty-million strong and rich in minerals.
The treaty was not a success. The Germans are not very good at taking over other people’s countries. Nonetheless, there was a coherent programme in eastern Europe. In 1915 Friedrich Naumann, a well-known, honest and well-intentioned liberal, wrote a book entitled Mitteleuropa, which became a wartime bestseller. It set out the programme: a sort of Germanic commonwealth, with free trade between Berlin and points east, as far as Baghdad. German industry would slip in alongside Austrian banks and everyone else’s agriculture. In May 1918 in Budapest there was a gathering of the Mitteleuropa clans to set this commonwealth up (it nearly came to grief even then over agricultural detail). All of this has a ghostly resemblance to present-day central Europe, though today’s Germans, bar a tactless ambassador or two, do not behave like their great-grandfathers. It is almost true to say that Germany has now won the First World War, even if she is still scrapping with Russia over Ukraine – with the Poles contributing a shrill note or two, as in 1918.
The world of Brest-Litovsk collapsed in eight months. In March, German troops were garrisoned all the way from Ostend to Rostov-on-Don and in the same month the Austrians opened up the first civilian air service, carrying mail from Vienna to Kiev. This accompanied the last, spectacular German effort to win the war in the west before the Americans could arrive. Its failure, by mid-July, demoralised the soldiers; the British army, now at the top of its learning curve, did the rest. One powerful fortification after another fell in northern France and revolutions finally overthrew the rulers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. A condition of the armistice that followed was that German troops would evacuate the conquered lands of the east. Brest-Litovsk went back into its box for two generations.
The bid of the Central Powers for mastery in Europe – and thus, at the time, the world – makes for a grand and exciting story. Alexander Watson did not live through the disaster and so cannot compete in dramatic terms with two old classics, K F Nowak’s Der Sturz der Mittelmächte (‘The Fall of the Central Powers’) and Edmund Glaise-Horstenau’s The Collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but he makes up for that with an enormous wealth of up-to-date information.
He starts at the beginning, in 1914, and takes the view that Germany somehow just got caught up in war, as distinct from meaning it to happen. This is not the place to reheat those old arguments, but some of us might prefer Max Hastings’s recent account, which catalogues the proofs on the other side (given that many papers were destroyed after things went badly wrong, these proofs are important). Military history appears only patchily here, principally where it bears on political or social events. The most successful year for the Central Powers, 1915, is somewhat skimped on, while the Brusilov Offensive of 1916 is thoroughly dealt with (using Austrian archives), as is the Battle of the Somme. The next year, 1917, is well handled, the backdrop being the German submarine campaign and its failure. Otherwise there is a great deal about wartime privation. The Germans suffered abominably in the winter of 1916–17, when all they had to eat was turnips. They blamed the British for stopping food imports and so does Watson. But given that the German landowners’ league had made a great pest of itself before the war by demanding tariffs, wrecking the Prussian liberal state in the process, the British blockade surely just granted its wish. And in any case, the Prussian government’s blundering efforts at price controls made it uneconomical for farmers at one moment to keep animals and at the next to sow grain. Hitler, in the Second World War, solved such problems. Even in April 1945 the people of Vienna were getting adequate rations: one reason was that Hitler had sensible pricing policies; another was that he put recalcitrants into camps. There is a multi-volume history of the Bavarian resistance that devotes attention to illegal pig-slaughtering. The discontent of 1916–17 affected German politics, which Watson covers decently (the strain on the Socialist Party eventually broke it). By October 1918 this discontent had bubbled over into mutiny. The effects on multinational Austria were worse, leading the different nationalities to declare independence in October 1918.
The book ends with a small telephone directory of references, showing that Watson has read a gigantic amount in German and even Polish. So far as I can tell, his account is accurate, though I have reservations about his description of the British blockade and his discussion of the Armenian Genocide. A protest also needs to be made about the book’s length – almost 800 pages. We now have spell-checks on computers which flash up ‘Do you mean “bathroom”?’ if you type in ‘Erzurum’. Maybe some genius would come up with a device saying ‘Do you need this?’ in certain circumstances. Nowak and Glaise-Horstenau got through the same story at much less length. Alexander Watson has done well enough, and his book has some devastating pictures, but it is best approached by reading selectively rather than cover to cover.