• A Mad Catastrophe

  • The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire
  • By: Geoffrey Wawro
  • Narrated by: Geoffrey Wawro
  • Length: 13 hrs and 54 mins
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (146 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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 Speaking a mystifying array of languages and lugging outdated weapons, the Austrian troops were hopelessly unprepared for the industrialized warfare that would shortly consume Europe.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 itself - both 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, everything - the course of the war and the fate of empires and alliances from Constantinople to London - hinged 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 history.

©2014 Geoffrey Wawro (P)2014 Audible Inc.
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

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Good read

Geoffrey Wawro describes the death of the second sick man of Europe, Austria-Hungary. Beset by internal divisions amongst its many ethnic groups, especially between German Austria and Magyar Hungary, It's a miracle Austria-Hungary survived until 1918; it definitely wouldn't have done so without German support. A bonus star for being a WWI book 1) in English and 2) On a generally obscure subject area.

6 people found this helpful

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Wawro's Diatribe Against A-H Military Leadership

What made the experience of listening to A Mad Catastrophe the most enjoyable?

As I had previously purchased the book, I was re-familiarized with the depth of Wawro's disregard for anything and everything even remotely related to the Austro - Hungarian army's leadership before and during the First World War. After reading / listening to this litany of indictments I came away with the same persistent question, "Why would Wawro, after putting in prodigious research and formulating a central thesis for the book, really want to write it?"

Now, before hackles get raised and your eyeballs begin their arching movements in their sockets, I am very much aware that there is no written or unwritten rule that the author has to be sympathetic to his or her subject matter in order to write his or her book.

I guess the old saying "Let dead dogs decompose" or something to that effect... may be what I am weakly trying to convey. Maybe I am trying to say that Wawro's book could have expounded more on the plight of the Austro - Hungarian soldier facing the "Russian Steamroller" on the Galician front who found himself consistently outnumbered, outmaneuvered, lacking effective artillery support, exhausted after needlessly marching scores of miles from his detraining location too far in the rear and lacking adequate resupply of pretty much everything needed to sustain him in combat (food, ammunition, medical supplies, fodder for the horses, etc.).

Instead Wawro appeared to be constantly "re-amazed" that Austro-Hungarian generals, Conrad von Hotzendorf, the KUK Chief of Staff, in particular, could repeatedly conjure up unrealistic plans of maneuver against the Russians. After the eighth paragraph length version of "How could von Hotzendorf be so blind, callous and strategically naïve", I kind of said to myself, "alright, I get it, move on." Wawro did not move on in many cases.

What did you like best about this story?

Listening to Wawro completely rip apart any scrap of legitimacy Hungary thought it had regarding its role as ally and partner to Austria before and during the war. Wawro throws out fact after damning fact of Hungarian pre war obstructionism, dishonesty, petty paranoia about perceived yet nonexistent threats to its status as co-partner in the Empire. It made me sick all over listening to Wawro drone on about how much of a backstabbing ass Hungary turned out to be in the years leading up to the war.

For example, take this gem - Yeah, Hungary, those big bad Romanian and Croat "separatists" over there are really going to revolt against you and massacre Magyars wholesale if you allow 10% of the eligible voting population right to vote (down from 80% when Austria held the decision switch before 1870). Am I getting this straight? And you are going to withhold 70% of the already allocated military budget for all A-H armed forces not stationed in Hungary AGAIN this fiscal year if those two ethnic groups are allowed to have their 10%? What a punk move by representatives of a people who, in my humble opinion, should have been sent to bed with their goulash and barred from public office (the reps. in Budapest that is, not the group of people they represented).

The above typed scenario actually happened. Look it up if you question my veracity. Hungary was a worse enemy than Russia when it came military preparedness and armaments development, and by 1910 Austria was so sick of the crap Budapest was pulling that Operation U was on its way to becoming reality until Emperor Franz Josef ratted the plan out to a couple Budapest newspapers in a backstabbingly weak and as unpatriotic as humanly possible move designed to discredit his nephew and heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand, for fuck's sake! Dear reader, this stuff is so amazing and true, that I couldn't make this up in my most creative moments. How did this ramshackle, self destructive empire last so long? Yet again, Austria - Hungary willingly seemed to want to self immolate itself with no apparent reason other than that fact that it could do so. Amazing!

Just by typing this review I seem to have caught the Wawro virus and feel the need to throw an overhead brass knuckled haymaker directly in the center of the face of the perpetrators of Austria-Hungary's defeat and downfall. I could type and type about how much Hungary was to blame for the defeats of 1914, but I fear I will lose my laser beam focus I have meticulously adhered to so far in this review.

What does Geoffrey Wawro bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

His voice. When I read the book I used my "internal voice". So, now I get to hear his.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I began to have rather strong feelings of sympathy for that unknown Austrian Landser squatting in some shallow trench somewhere west of Lemberg in early September 1914 with two clips of rifle ammo left, a few crumbs of stale bread in one of his pockets who just saw his sergeant bleed out because the medic was 2 kilometers to the rear. To his front he can just see the next wave of Russian soldiers advancing out of the distant tree line. Where are his battalion's machine guns? Where is the supporting artillery batteries? What the fuck is he to do with what he has at hand? There are no divisional reinforcements - they are still entrained coming up from their fiasco in Serbia. There are no battalion reserves, everyone who can hold a rifle is spread out to the left and right of him and probably wondering similar thoughts. All he can do is hold out for as long as possible and pray that the commanders, whoever they are, wherever they are will decide that his situation is untenable and order a pull back 5, 10, 20 kilometers to the west, hopefully behind that river he crossed a few days earlier. It looked defendable.

The sad fact is that he has zero control over his situation and that fact saps most of this will to combat. So he looks to the east, checks to make sure his remaining clip is where it should be and then sights his rifle on one of those thousands of Russian infantry across the dusty field that looks like he might be an officer, maybe a lieutenant leading his platoon. Amid the chatter of and dust kicked up around him from the section of Russian machine guns covering the advance from their reverse slope positions to the left the Landser fires his Mannlicher and sees his target crumple face first into the Galician soil. As he clears the spent casing and slides the bolt back he temporarily forgets his own tragic situation and lets his training take hold. Just sight in, pip up the sight for range, then squeeze and eject. Just like at the firing range in Klagenfurt. Nothing else matters now.

He is a Kaisertrau soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Army fighting for his beloved Austria, his Emperor Franz Josef and, most importantly, his comrades on the firing line around him.

This is the kind of emotional response I felt when listening to Wawro's accounts of the battles around Lemberg in Eastern Galicia in September, 1914. Issues like grand strategy or the absurd decision to detrain Austrian army units at the northern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains instead of 50 - 100 miles closer to the Galician border where the actual fighting would take place somewhat faded into the background to be replaced with a sympathy for the common soldier and his daily struggle to stay alive in a truly horrible situation.

I must say a word about the Austro - Hungarian army detraining fiasco. To unload those hundreds of thousands of soldiers each weighed down with 50-60 pounds of equipment was one of the first of many truly monumental errors made by Austrian leaders when you consider it is late August, with day time temps. in the high 80's, the "roads" are nothing more than wide dirt paths that churn up choking dust that clings to the sweat soaked soldiers in the marching column, stinging eyes and swelling already parched throats shut). By the time the Austro - Hungarian armies first encountered Russian armies moving west and southwest around SE Poland and NE Galicia, they were utterly exhausted after the ridiculously long approach marches they were compelled to undertake by von Hotzendorf.

Wawro did point out that Austrian generals such as Auffenberg and Dankl made strenuous arguments to von Hotzendorf to keep the trains moving closer to the initial starting line for their planned offensives so as to not exhaust their units before combat was to begin. No dice! For reasons only von Hotzendorf felt justified, their protests came to naught and the soldiers detrained in some cases 5-6 full day's marching distance (at 15 - 20 miles marching distance daily) from where they were to BEGIN their operations. 100 miles in full packs in the Summer over sandy roads with little hope of a hot meal at the end of the day's march? And then the real action begins? Nonsense! Utter Nonsense!

That is why my heart went out to that unknown Landser stuck in his shallow scrape. His army high command had little if any real idea of the nature of the combat he was engaged in, and did not exercise an iota interest in finding out whether their pre-war presumptions about the ability of units to advance in a modern battlefield swept by modern weapons (machine guns, bolt action rifles with smokeless powder and effective ranges out to 1200 meters, high trajectory howitzer fire from up to 8-10 kilometers in the enemy's rear that can arc over defensive works and deliver high explosives or shrapnel accurately) could survive in sufficient numbers to take and hold enemy positions. There were many more just as important issues they ignored. The lack of leadership shown by the Austro - Hungarian general staff cost their army an estimated 375,000 casualties (with an estimated 250,000 Killed and wounded and 125,000 taken prisoner) BY THE MIDDLE OF SEPTEMBER 1914 - LESS THAN ONE MONTH INTO WW1!

Max Hoffman hit the bull's eye when he described what it was like to be at war with Austria-Hungary as an ally, "It is like dancing with a corpse." Enough said.

Any additional comments?

No, I think I have bled enough in the above typed screed. Buy the audiobook. You too can experience how much, or should I say how little Mr. Wawro thinks of the Austro-Hungarian war machine.

It must be mentioned for the record that A-H was fact on the winning side against Tsarist Russia in 1917. They might have metaphorically had to be wheeled in on a medical gurney with all types of life support tubes keeping its wheezing, emaciated and otherwise chronically chronic bag of bones alive to the End of the War in the East Barbecue and Beer Fest that Germany held at Hindenburg's pad, but show they did and even brought 3 kegs!

In the interests of full disclosure, it was revealed that only one keg actually held beer and the other two empties were brought along with the hope that Germany would be able to toss the kegs in the back of its pickup and blow over to the liquor store, fork out some extra dough and fill them with at least Budweiser, and not that crappy, flat Shaeffer beer in the keg the Austrians brought. Like always, Germany manned up and came through strong. 2 kegs of pure drinking delight - Budweiser in a fat tub of ice! Nice! Ludendorff even manned the tap for the first hour until he passed out! I'll show you the pics after I get them back from Walgreens tomorrow. Lates.

21 people found this helpful

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Austrian Madness revealed

It is indeed fascinating to read/listen to the Austrian Empires madness in even thinking of war,when they were so unprepared.Vanity of vanities,vanity of vanities personified.If you are a history buff,listen to this.

3 people found this helpful

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Entertaining look at the Second Sick Man

Despite the fact that they more or less got the ball rolling on the Great War, Austria-Hungary often gets lost in generalized histories because of the horrors of the Western Front. After 1915, Austria-Hungary tends to vanish in most narratives, only to be mentioned as a postscript -- "Oh, by the way, the Austria-Hungarian Empire was no more." Given that the Habsburgs once ruled most of Europe for centuries, one can't help but wonder how it wound up ending so pathetically. Why did they take so long to respond to the assassination of their archduke and why did they insist on pushing for a war? Why did their army get trounced by the smaller Serbian army?

Wawro attempts to answer these questions and reveals a short history of bad decisions compounding other bad decisions, weakened by incompetent leadership and threatened by ethnic nationalism. I'm glad I chose to listen to the audiobook of this. I enjoyed hearing Wawro's incredulity at the many ways in which the Habsburgs dug their own grave, not just in his words but in his voice -- it's as if he's going to stop reading and ask you, "Seriously, how stupid was that?" Needless to say, it made learning more about the self-destruction of a once-respected empire while doing housework more entertaining.

Not recommended if you're a proud ancestor of Conrad von Hotzendorf. He doesn't come off well in this book.

2 people found this helpful

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JUST OK......

If you like war history - and I do - this overall story could have been very interesting. However, much of it is repetitive and narrator is not suited to this kind of book. It's about the Habsburg Empire so why use an American with a non-regional accent? Let me answer that for you......HE WROTE THE BOOK!!! I didn't notice that when I purchased this title or I would have passed on it because I have yet to listen to an audiobook that works when the author reads his own book. There were points where Wawro's tone was too cavałier for the subject matter. Often he stumbles over words and even sounds bored in places. This book should have been narrated by a British, German or Austrian person, of either sex. I don't but an Serbian using the term "Guys"! Someone like Simon Vanve, John Lee, Wanda McCaddon, Simon Prebble, or Nadia May could have delivered a more impactful performance.

12 people found this helpful

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A masterful look at the origins of World War I

An excellent analysis of the origins of World War I and Austria's shockingly incompetent conduct of the war in the early years. Two minus stars for the author's reading of his own work, he has passion but lacks the polish of a professional narrator.

1 person found this helpful

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A tale of folly that carries its self to the end.

Where does A Mad Catastrophe rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This work goes right along side some of Barbra Tuchman's works. It maintains a good focus on its subject and cites sources throughout, nothing better than a bit of the Polybian ethic in a history.I rank it among the better histories and I am glad to have stumbled upon this detailed work.

What other book might you compare A Mad Catastrophe to and why?

The March of Folly by Barbra W. Tuchman, but with a less scattered gaze.

What about Geoffrey Wawro’s performance did you like?

He is obviously passionate about his work and is given to incline and decline his tone for emphasis at the points which he sees as critical to the narrative. As the author he has good insight into when this should be done. It is like and extended book TV reading. I'm all for authors reading their own work, Ray Bradbury did it with Fahrenheit 451 if you'd like more this ilk.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

The Slavs struggle for independence.

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Great content, mediocre speaker.

Still worth your time if you wish to learn more about the Austrian fronts of the Great War. Damn Hungary

2 people found this helpful

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Detailed, Emphatic, Redundant

In A Mad Catastrophe the author offers episodes and examples of Imperial-sized ineptitude. The message crystalizes early on, the indictment of Austria/Hungary's rot and hubris evident. The narrative of blame does not reach the heart, however, and as read by the author, serves merely to boggle the mind. With this approach, the one-pointed message about high-level stupidity in a splintering, decaying empire pounded out over and over, the effect is somewhat boring and numbing.

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well written, poorly read

I almost never write reviews. This audio book moved me to take the extra effort to do so. I hope Mr. Wawro reads this and takes heart. And I hope AudioBook does also. This is a wonderful book, though a little strident at times. It covers a topic of great interest and the insights are excellent. I really enjoyed the subject matter; I will probably read it again. I listened intently to the audiobook and I have to say that a professional reader would have done MUCH BETTER. Mr. Wawro, reading his own book, just did not do it justice. He went way too fast, reading at breakneck speed. He sighed too much. His reading was "sing songy" if that makes sense. He would rise in inflection like yelling and then drop off to where I could hardly hear him. Then when I was trying to figure out what he had said, he was ripping on to the next paragraph, pausing only to take a breath. I got the sense he was in a tremendous hurry to finish. It just was poorly read and almost amateurish in performance. It's sad and I hate to say all this. It is a book I really got interested in and wanted to hear every word but I just couldn't keep up. I will listen again and try to get more out of it. I wish they had used a better trained reader.

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  • Anonimo Nonlodico
  • 03-22-16

Disappointing

Very unbalanced, clearly biased and partisan. No attempt at objectivity really. Somewhat shallow too, often lacking in wider historical context. Finally, terrible pronounciation of Central European names by an American. I couldn't force myself to finish this audiobook, which happens rarely.

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  • A. J. Taylor
  • 07-28-22

Looking to the East.


A Mad Catastrophe by Geoffrey Wawro is a revisit to the role of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the causes and then fighting during the First World War. Most histories in the West tend to focus on the Western Front and there is a distinct lack of material which shows the ‘other side’. Thankfully this is changing, with this book and the excellent Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson.

The crux of Wawro’s argument is that the Habsburg Monarchy had no right to go to war in 1914, is hugely to blame for the conflict and the millions of deaths it caused and that it performed incredibly poorly throughout. I agree with this argument in some ways, but in others it is ridiculous.

It is widely accepted (see Ring of Steel or Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers as two examples) that there would have been widespread support if the Austrians had invaded Serbia immediately following the Sarajevo assassination. Sympathy was with Emperor Franz Joseph and against the regicidal and unstable Balkan state. The problem was that they waited (due to men being away at harvest amongst other issues) which lost the momentum in their cause. The ultimatum which followed was to coax the Serbians to reject (they accepted all but two points) and therefore invade anyway. The Austrians in the world at the time did have a right, how was executed was the problem. To Austria had no right provides an equal argument for the Entente powers Wawro loves, France, Russia and the United Kingdom. Austro-Hungry had a right to do something about the murders and other states at the time and in the present would have also had this right in the circumstances.

However, for me the argument that the Austrians performed extremely poorly during the war is strong. They were woeful boarding on the farcical. How and why Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf was chief of staff is beyond me. This emotionally complex and neurotic man, who believed he must gain success in order to impress his married lover or else she would leave; made decisions based on impulse. He believed the sheer will of fighting spirit would over come machine gun fire. With the use of cavalry and no support from artillery the result was a bloodbath. This was especially true in the early engagements in Galicia. Not only did the Austrians get annihilated unexpectedly by Serbian forces, they also performed badly against the Russians. The Russian army was going through reform at the time and so was badly managed and equipped, putting it on an equally incompetent footing as the Austrians. It truly amazes me the German Empire gave up their economy, unity and political stability for this weak and fractured state.

There is no doubt that the Habsburg Monarchy was central to the causes of the Great War, but they along with everyone else, did not envisage the disaster that followed. When war was declared most bureaucrats and politicians entered a solemn state, deflated but also relived the stress of the July Crisis was behind them. Wawro clearly detests the empire and the Habsburg’s themselves. Some of this for me was unnecessary and desperate.

The book overall was a good listen, I like to understand other points of views and arguments as only then does one get the full picture of the events described. Wawro doesn’t get bogged down in the intricate details of the causes of the war and focuses on solely the Austro-Hungarian’s involvement within it which I thought was good. He describes battles and military manoeuvres which takes me a long time to understand and luckily the maps provided are helpful. I will need to read sections again to gain a satisfactory understanding of the Eastern Front, so will leave this one in my collection for a revisit.

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  • Jan
  • 03-10-15

Sad story

A depressing but honest account of the austrian march of folly into an through the initial convulsions of world war one

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  • Mat P
  • 07-31-22

Don't bother. There is nothing new here.

I would recommend Alexander Watson's 'The Fortress' or Pieter Judson's 'The Habsburg Empire: A New History' for those interested in the Habsburg perspective on WWI, which actually produces a new narrative on Austria-Hungary in the war and shows fresh and comprehensive research - instead of reading this book, which just regurgitates the same narrative historians have churned out for a century now and adds nothing knew. As someone who has conducted research into similar topics as this book covers I have a number of issues with some statements and arguments made.

Austria-Hungary had an inept military and General Staff which was unprepared for the War. That is a well known fact. this book achieves nothing more than just restating that fact, which would be a fact known to anyone who has even had a minor interest in the history.

Oh and the Narration is just terrible. Monotonous and uninspiring and it gets boring very quickly. Save your money and your time just read the Wikipedia page on The Eastern Front, it because this abook is a waste of time.