The Eastern Front, 1914-1917
The publication of Norman Stone’s history of the eastern front in the First World War reveals why it has had so few predecessors (virtually none in English). It covers a field of immense complexity, imperfectly recorded. Though the war started on an Eastern pretext, the killing of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist, it immediately turned into a gigantic struggle between the Western powers.
It is not merely the subjectivity of Western observers and historians that supports the view that the eastern front was a subsidiary theater of operations, and that it cannot be satisfactorily studied except in relation to the simultaneous state of play in the West. Above all, the war in the East produced no military decision. The armies, one after the other, just stopped fighting. The Germans alone held together long enough with a skeleton force to register the Pyrrhic victory of the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Soviet Russia in 1918—only to succumb themselves a few months later to the Western powers. In the East everyone was defeated: not only Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, but the Russians, Serbs, and Montenegrins who opposed them. It is difficult to write a coherent history of military campaigns which in the end yielded no fruits to anyone.
Stone has formidable energy and capacities, including linguistic capacities, as a research worker. He has quarried far and wide, and presents to the reader large chunks of unknown or unworked material. In this aspect he is outstanding. The trouble comes with the design and purpose of the book. Stone has been trapped in a task whose magnitude he certainly did not suspect when he embarked on it. If he had wished to write a synoptic one-volume account of the eastern campaigns of 1914-1917, he would have needed both to acquire a broader understanding of the whole period and to renounce the minutiae of research on incidental topics. If he had wished—as he undoubtedly intended at the outset—to write a scholarly piece of research based on an exhaustive study of original sources, he needed to narrow his subject to manageable dimensions, which would have enabled him to make an authoritative contribution to a limited theme.
Having failed to choose, the writer has not done justice to his abilities. The result is a muddle. An overweight of factual and statistical information, often on minor topics, alternates with slapdash impressionism on major issues; and there is little in between. All this makes the narrative heavy going. The appearance here and there in the text of overcrowded and undecipherable sketch-maps of the principal battles does not really help. Nor does an addiction to epigrams that do not quite come off: “Sukhomlinov’s administration fell victim to development-economics rather than to corruption or mismanagement”; or “the war economy illustrated the force of the maxim, ‘il faut souffrir pour être belle.’ ”
The reader who is willing to persevere can, nevertheless, learn a lot. By far the best sections are those dealing with Austria-Hungary. Stone seems to have been the first scholar to comb the Kriegsarchiv in Vienna for First World War material. Had he been content, on the strength of this material, and on such further information as could be gleaned from Czech and other Slav sources, to give us a picture of the slow disintegration of the Hapsburg army and empire under the impact of war, he could have written a comprehensive and coherent work, and added to our knowledge. The Austrian command suffered from a chronic indecision: “Men felt—characteristically—that something must be done, but they did not perceive quite what might be done.” It was impossible even to decide at the outset whether to wage all-out war against Serbia or to reserve the main effort for the expected Russian offensive.
It is admitted, even by Austrian official sources, that the fighting quality of the troops was low. The disloyalty, actual or potential, of the Slavs under Austro-Hungarian command was a main factor. “Slav troops,” reports Stone, “ran through their commanders’ hands.” The phrase lacks precision, and perhaps the archives were not always very explicit. But they provide some light relief. In Bohemia in August 1914, “patriotic feeling was everywhere in evidence, and at the larger stations the troops were given bread, tea, cigarettes, etc. by women of all classes.” A year later, however, “Czech washerwomen were imprisoned because they threw notes over the barbed wire for Russian prisoner-of-war camps, for the purpose of initiating a carnal relationship”—not perhaps very convincing evidence of Slav solidarity.
Stone seems to suspect that the extent of Czech disloyalty was exaggerated by Czech propaganda. Of one incident he remarks that “a combination of Austrian sloppiness and Hungarian arrogance had as much to do with this regiment’s well-documented disaffection as Czech disloyalty.” But the distinction is unreal. Mutinies, like revolutions, are often sparked off by minor incidents, even though they have their origin in deep-seated tensions. The fact that the officer corps was predominantly German-Austrian and Hungarian was not an incidental grievance. It was an essential part of the fabric of the Hapsburg empire against which the Slavs revolted.
The other Slavs, whose defections were less well organized than those of the Czechs, got less attention. We are told that “Czechs, Germans, Slovenes, Croats were alike enthusiastic to fight Italian pretensions,” and that “among Slav peoples such as the Slovenes” the war against Italy evoked popular enthusiasm. The Slovenes had some reason to detest the Italians, but did this feeling extend to Czechs, Slovaks, or Ruthenes? It may have been that Austrian troops preferred the war against Italy to the much tougher job of countering the Russian hordes. But the picture of the peoples of the Hapsburg empire united in a popular campaign against “Italian pretensions” does not carry conviction. National tensions in the Austrian army are a topic that has still been far from fully explored.
The treatment of Germany does not go deep. Stone notes that the “dominant” present view of the outbreak of war is Fischer’s Griff nach Weltnacht, but does not engage in the controversy over Fischer’s thesis that the German government was responsible. The main novelty in his account is a surely exaggerated insistence on German fear of Russian military power. All general staffs anxiously watch the military preparations of potential enemies, and express apprehension about them. But can one really say that the Russian military program so alarmed the Germans as to “deprive them of their senses,” or that “panic and desperation…prompted the German generals’ behaviour in July ”?
On the contrary, the Germans, far from taking panic decisions, executed the preconceived plan of invasion of France through Belgium, and took the calculated risk that the Russians would make a lumbering advance into East Prussia, confident that they would be able to deal with this emergency when it arose. It seems difficult to deny that the initial German strategy, far from being mad, was a brilliant military success—even if the invasion of France fell short, by a fairly narrow margin, of the knockout blow that was intended.
The chapters on Russia, based not on archives but on a large variety of sources, Soviet and émigré, are also marked by whimsical judgments. Stone has some acid comments on Bernard Pares, “whose accounts of Russia in the last days of Tsarism…, espoused Russian liberalism and its legends.” But his own account of the recovery of Russia after the disasters of 1905-1906 reads like a locus classicus of these legends:
An effort was made to enlist middle-class Russia for the régime: the old system of autocracy was modified, with the creation of a parliament, the Duma, and a form of cabinet government, with a functioning Prime Minister and a Council of Ministers less dependent than before on the whims of the Tsar and his wife. Certain liberties were guaranteed, though grudgingly: freedom of speech and assembly made their first appearance in Russia, and so did trade unions. Restrictions that tied the peasant to the land were lifted; and there was even a gesture towards emancipation of the Jews.
It is a strange picture, indicative of some unfamiliarity with the period. The constitutional liberties and institutions proved a sham (Scheinkonstitutionalismus was Max Weber’s word for the regime), and were soon whittled away. Witte, the chief architect of industrialization and a supporter of constitutionalism, was finally dismissed. Trade unions were set up under police patronage, but even these were not tolerated for long. Pogroms of Jews were worse after 1906 than before. Stone mercifully spares us the usual stories of scandals, corruption, and intrigue at court. But enough detail can be found even in his pages to throw doubt on his initial thesis that Russia before 1914, after the shock of revolution and defeat, was busily reforming herself on liberal lines.
All this might seem to tie up with the currently fashionable view that the Russian economy on the eve of 1914 was in a state of rapid advance and, but for the intrusion of war and revolution, would have quickly fallen into a Western pattern of modernization. Oddly enough, Stone does not embrace this hypothesis, which he greets with a cautious “maybe.” But he insists, with a puzzling degree of emphasis and repetitiveness, that the Russian defeat was not due to “economic backwardness.” After enlarging on the dependence of Russia’s major war industries on “the plant and skills that arrived from the west,” he goes on:
This was not a token of Russia’s economic backwardness…. It was the economy’s capacity to adapt to imports, and not the imports themselves, that revealed whether it was still “backward” or not; and the story of Russia’s development of her own resources shows that the country had—despite much legendry to the contrary—become capable of sustaining modern war, at least in very narrowly economic terms.
It is difficult to find any terms, however narrow, in which this passage and others like it make sense. Peasants living at a fairly primitive level of subsistence formed more than 80 percent of the population of the Russia which entered the war in 1914. The degree of illiteracy in Russia would have been unthinkable in any moderately advanced industrial country. The number of skilled industrial workers, or of efficient technicians, was minute: Stone remarks that the war ministry depended on “a handful of factories, mainly in the Petrograd region,” and notes the low efficiency of the Russian railway worker. That Russia’s economic backwardness all along the line made her no match for the advanced industrial nations in the First World War is a cliché. But some clichés are true. The efforts of sixty years since then have not yet eliminated the legacy of economic backwardness.
The book, says Stone in his preface, “proved difficult to conclude.” He could not deal with the Russian revolution, yet he could not ignore the event to which everything had been building up. It was a real problem; and he made it insoluble by posing the question of “why the country, the war-economy of which was successful as never before, should have gone through vast social change.” With so paradoxical a premise, no sensible conclusion could be reached. A final touch of whimsy is reserved for the very end. Russian soldiers were “overwhelmingly patriotic”; and it is a “complete fabrication” that the army dissolved in 1917 of its own accord:
Officers said that the army had dissolved: but mainly because the men had repudiated the more extreme forms of their authority. They mistook questioning for disobedience, committees of soldiers for mutiny, whereas “tout au plus, les soldats exigeaient la mort d’une certaine conception de la discipline.”
In fact, Stone argues, “the officers first invented ‘the disintegration of the Russian army,’ and then, by their behaviour, provoked it.”
It would be unfair to end on a purely critical note. The book contains a great deal of detailed information, much of it compiled with immense labor and devotion from recondite sources, which will be valuable to the historian. It should be read and studied for that, not for its judgments and conclusions. The last chapter can be skipped. This is very much a curate’s egg of a book.