The Austro-Hungarian army that marched east and south to
confront the Russians and Serbs in the opening campaigns of World
War I had a glorious past but a pitiful present. Speaking a
mystifying array of languages and lugging outdated weapons, the
Austrian troops were hopelessly unprepared for the industrialized
warfare that would shortly consume Europe.
As prizewinning historian Geoffrey Wawro explains in A Mad
Catastrophe, the doomed Austrian conscripts were an
unfortunate microcosm of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itselfboth
equally ripe for destruction. After the assassination of the
Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, Germany goaded the
Empire into a war with Russia and Serbia. With the Germans massing
their forces in the west to engage the French and the British,
everythingthe course of the war and the fate of empires and
alliances from Constantinople to Londonhinged on the Habsburgs'
ability to crush Serbia and keep the Russians at bay. However,
Austria-Hungary had been rotting from within for years, hollowed
out by repression, cynicism, and corruption at the highest levels.
Commanded by a dying emperor, Franz Joseph I, and a querulous
celebrity general, Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austro-Hungarians
managed to bungle everything: their ultimatum to the Serbs, their
declarations of war, their mobilization, and the pivotal battles in
Galicia and Serbia. By the end of 1914, the Habsburg army lay in
ruins and the outcome of the war seemed all but decided.
Drawing on deep archival research, Wawro charts the decline of the
Empire before the war and reconstructs the great battles in the
east and the Balkans in thrilling and tragic detail. A Mad
Catastrophe is a riveting account of a neglected face of World
War I, revealing how a once-mighty empire collapsed in the trenches
of Serbia and the Eastern Front, changing the course of European