Monday, February 24, 2020

Alexander Watson's "The Fortress"

Alexander Watson is professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, which won the Wolfson History Prize and the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History, and Enduring the Great War, winner of the Fraenkel Prize.

Watson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, and reported the following:
Anybody opening The Fortress at page 99 will find themselves in the midst of battle. It is October 5th, 1914, two months into the First World War, and the powerful imperial Russian army has just launched a furious assault on the Fortress of Przemyśl, the last, and painfully obsolete, defence of the hard-pressed Habsburg Empire. The page opens with a Russian shell slamming into an armoured observation cupola atop one of Przemyśl’s ring of thirty-five forts, spinning it round and round, deafening the poor soldier inside, but failing to penetrate.

The page focuses on the intense psychological strain and distress of the fortress defenders. The commander of one fort suffers a sudden nervous collapse. In the Fortress’s forward defences, frightened middle-aged Polish and Ukrainian troops hurriedly evacuate as soon as the Russians approach. One old artillery officer, whose coat has been eviscerated by shrapnel, describes “with wild eyes … how they had been smothered with pounds of iron fragments, and that hell couldn’t be worse.”

Ford Madox Ford’s “Page 99 Test” works well for The Fortress, because at its heart the book is about the shock and horror of the first great war in the twentieth century to devastate East-Central Europe. The men fighting reluctantly on page 99 were middle-aged reservists, whose military training lay long in the past, who mostly had families and who were deeply invested in the world of peace. None had imagined that their civilisation could so suddenly collapse. The book offers a vivid and intimate account of their extraordinary ordeal, from this first terrifying but successfully withstood Russian assault through the misery and starvation of Przemyśl’s subsequent 181-day siege – the longest of the First World War.

Of course, page 99 cannot alone convey the immensity and importance of the campaign around Przemyśl. Men from nearly every corner of Central Europe served in the 130,000-strong fortress garrison, and there were also 30,000 Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish civilians trapped in the city. Like Stalingrad for the Soviets in the Second World War, Przemyśl became a symbol of resistance for the Habsburg Empire. The bloodshed in both campaigns was comparable too: a staggering 800,000 men were lost in total by the Habsburgs through failed relief offensives over mountains in mid-winter and with the Fortress’s fall in March 1915. Most ominously, The Fortress argues that this vicious siege reveals the beginnings, already in the year 1914, of a catastrophe that paved the way for subsequent decades’ totalitarian genocide and ethnic cleansing. Bitter fighting, strategies of starvation, the aerial bombardment of civilians and mass deportations and killings fuelled by racial prejudice – brutality most usually associated with the Nazi and Soviet regimes in the Second World War – were, as the book reveals, all fundamental to Przemyśl’s ordeal as early as 1914-15.
Learn more about The Fortress at the Basic Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue