Biskupska on Watson, 'The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl'

Alexander Watson
Jadwiga Biskupska

Alexander Watson. The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl. London: Allen Lane, 2019. Illustrations. xxii + 346 pp. $26.79 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-241-30906-3

Reviewed by Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-Poland (May, 2022) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

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In March 2022, Westerners gawked at video news footage of a startling sight: frightened women and children, unarmed people disembarking at a train station, fleeing a Russian army and its artillery. The train station was Przemyśl. In 2022, these people were Ukrainians, escaping across the Polish-Ukrainian border, crossing between two sovereign eastern European states into safety. Those state borders and the national projects represented by them have changed a great deal over the past century, but this is not the first time Przemyśl’s train station has filled with refugees fleeing a Russian army, and not the first time they thought they would be defended in the city.

In the opening year of World War I, this place was the site of a terrible siege, its fortress complex defended by the Austrian-Hungarian Habsburg armies against Russian imperial forces. Eventually, the defenders lost, the fortress was destroyed, and the Russians occupied it. The little-known contest and unpronounceable town are the subject of Alexander Watson’s magnificent The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl. Watson’s history tells the story of the contestation of Przemyśl between two great European armies before the multinational empires they defended collapsed into the dustbin of history. The subject is dual but elegantly intertwined: how siege warfare (even at the time thought obsolete because of growing artillery capacity) unfolded between armies of the early twentieth century and how the complex ethnic mix of civilians and soldiers inside and around Przemyśl (especially local Slavs and Jews) experienced these horrors. The siege thus becomes an opportunity to discuss combat on World War I’s eastern front and the nature of the societies—and hence the armies—that fought.

Because the ethno-national composition of World War I’s empires is such a complex subject, life “on the ground” in eastern Europe during World War I is often told as its own story, focusing on national independence projects in Poland, Ukraine, or the Czech lands. Likewise, the large-scale battles of the eastern front—Tannenberg comes immediately to mind—were not simple affairs. The result is that, on the eastern front of World War I, military history and national history often diverge. In Watson’s Fortress they come together, because what happened to Przemyśl is a product of the men required to defend it and their relationships to “their” empires.

What was the military significance of Przemyśl? West of L’viv (then Lemberg), inside the frontier of Austrian-Hungarian imperial territory, it blocked the path of a Russian invasion of central Europe and had to be held to prevent Austrian-Hungarian defeat on the eastern front. (Austria-Hungary’s German allies fared much better against Russia in 1914-15 and play only a marginal role here.) Had Austria-Hungary under Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf ever turned to the offensive, the fortress would have supplied the army as it advanced eastward. The fortress complex, however, was out of date and the Austrian-Hungarian armies badly commanded. Przemyśl was encircled by the Russian army in September 1914 but relieved by an Austrian-Hungarian offensive: a first and precious victory. However, in November, the Russians encircled the city again, and it remained besieged until its final surrender in March 1915, after months of horrible suffering. The second defense of Przemyśl was a stupid decision, Conrad’s stupid decision. (His emperor, Franz Josef, is only a fleeting character in the book.) In Watson’s estimation, Conrad was not merely wrong in attempting to defend Przemyśl against the Russians, but his incompetence bordered on the grotesque. His subordinate, the commander of the fortress, Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten, is portrayed as unimaginative, selfish, and cowardly. Przemyśl’s doomed defenders suffered and starved for no good end inside an empire in which men like Conrad and Kusmanek could squander the lives of thousands without comeuppance: Watson makes it clear that this was not an empire to be mourned, least of all for non-Germans within it.

Without foundering in military jargon, the author introduces the reader to defensive strategy, siege warfare, command personalities, the difficulties of communication (the incidents with the garrison radio providing absurd comic relief), the provisioning of troops, and town-garrison relations with their glaring gender imbalance. The complexity of the fight, however, is illustrated from the perspective of the men of the Landsturm regiments and the unhappy townspeople. An example of their interaction is the rise of prostitution. The elite of a vast number of women selling sex for food or money were two striking Poles, Ella Zielińska and Helena Dąbrowska, the “flyer princesses” (p. 145). These two manipulated civil-military relations and gender and class hierarchies in the besieged city, consorting with some of the fortresses’ most decorated officers, and escaped alive. Rumors about their escapades, their virtue, and their political loyalties abounded. Watson uses them—and the legends surrounding them—to demonstrate the scope of civilian agency and the complex national-class order of encircled and besieged Habsburg society. He likewise makes use of a wide variety of contemporary diaries, reminiscences, letters, and newspapers to humanize the siege experience. Besides the ego documents (including Conrad’s memoirs), the book is based on military and national history in English, German, and Polish, with multiple Hungarian and Ukrainian sources for good measure. The author mined archives across Europe, especially in Austria and Poland, to fill in details and avoid caricature of any of the presented ethnic groups, or even the Russian army.

These ethnic and national groups and the ways they used and abused one another inside imperial structures are the heart of the book. Though vast armies moved around the fortress and defended its garrison, Przemyśl and its environs were distinctly Slavic and Jewish, peopled by Poles, Jews, and Ruthenes—Ukrainians—ruled by German-speaking Habsburg bureaucrats and, locally, by conservative Polish elites. The cream of the defense was the Hungarian Honvéd troops, who generally fought well but treated their comrades badly. Most of the soldiers were Landsturm reservists, “well-past-their-prime fatties,” “an ethnographer’s dream” of older men from Galicia and Hungary (p. 48). They spoke every language of the empire and lived in another world socially, linguistically, and politically from their commanders, who looked down on them. Inside the city, the population was largely Polish and Jewish, and in the surrounding villages, Ruthenian and Jewish. The “Ruthenian question” looms large: though commanders suspected the loyalties of all Slavs (perhaps not Czechs), they thought local Ruthenians would sell out to and spy for the Russians. The result was a vicious Austrian-Hungarian mistreatment of Ruthenian peasants, their religious faith, and their property—and of Ruthenian soldiers in uniform. This treatment was so brutal it did occasionally force Ruthenians into the arms of the Russians, though the Russians also mistreated local peasantry. Watson notes that both armies were brutal: the Russians also exploited ethnic tensions and were especially vicious in their treatment of Jews. Antisemitism was rampant; massacres and atrocities occurred on both sides of the line, and in Przemyśl itself.

That this siege and this city are often forgotten is not accidental: much more bloodshed would overwhelm the area during World War II. But this forgetting is, in Watson’s view, telling: the eclipse of World War I’s horrors in this region by World War II’s encourages us to misunderstand the timeline of state exploitation and ethnic violence in this region. Watson argues that if we can properly understand the World War I siege and what it did to the Slavic and Jewish peoples of the Habsburg-Russian frontier, we can appreciate why genocidal ethnic violence a generation later in the new states that replaced the old empires was so comprehensive. Preceding Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918–1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust (2021) and following Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010) but engaging with the same themes, Watson demonstrates that the origins of interethnic violence around Przemyśl, the agency of local people, the sharpening of antisemitism, and the role of attacking and retreating armies compounded occupation and an ongoing “hot” war in escalating killing. Watson’s Fortress is beautifully written and convincingly argued. It has already received significant attention from military historians but deserves equivalent accolades from those devoted to nationalism in eastern Europe and thorny questions of Polish-Ukrainian history.

Citation: Jadwiga Biskupska. Review of Watson, Alexander, The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL:

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