The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson, Basic Books, New York, 2020, $32
Within the context of World War I the Eastern Front is often the “forgotten front.” Much has been written about the horrors of the Western Front, where German, French, British and eventually American infantrymen withstood artillery bombardments, poison gas and charges over the top straight into the mechanized teeth of modern machine guns.
On the Eastern Front the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria) fought a more mobile war against Russia and its smaller allies Serbia, Romania and Greece. Unlike in France, the Central Powers won in the East, forcing the new Bolshevik government to sign the punitive 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk—a pact ultimately undone by the Entente peacemakers. The short-lived victory came at a horrific cost.
British historian Alexander Watson’s The Fortress focuses on one of the Eastern Front’s most brutal showdowns. Between 1914 and 1915 at the Galician city of Przemysl thousands of Austro-Hungarian troops defended a massive fort complex against the Russian juggernaut. At one point Russia’s greatest general of the war, Aleksei Brusilov, tried and failed to take the city. That fact is all the more impressive because the majority of the men who defended the fortress were older reservists drawn from all corners of the multiethnic empire. (The author also notes their Russian foes included Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish troopers in tsarist uniforms.)
While the period Austrian press deemed the defenders of Przemysl heroes, Watson mostly uses the term “hero” sarcastically, pointing out that Austro-Hungarian troops stuck inside the fortress included incompetent officers, brutal Hungarian infantrymen, lecherous blowhards and masses of famished old men. That said, they did manage to pull off Herculean feats of resistance against a larger and better-equipped army. Indeed, the narrative shows that the widely mocked Austro-Hungarian fighting man was as tough as his peers.
The central point of The Fortress is a dark one—the siege displayed the first signs of ethnic-cleansing campaigns to come. Habsburg troops arrested and killed 4,000 Ukrainian citizens because their loyalty was suspect, while the Russians arrested, killed or deported thousands of Galician Jews for the same reason. The siege of Przemysl was the opening act of bloodletting in Eastern Europe’s blood-soaked 20th century.