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Inaugural Lecture : Professor Alexander Watson

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Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre

London

SE14 6AD

United Kingdom

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THE FORTRESS

THE DAWN OF TOTAL WAR IN EAST-CENTRAL EUROPE, 1914-15

For a few critical months early in the First World War, the fate of Eastern and Central Europe rested on one fortress-town. The city of Przemyśl, encircled by a ring of forts and home to 45,000 Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, blocked the path westwards of Europe’s largest military force: the mighty Russian Army. The six-month struggle to break the Fortress would forge a new form of ‘total war’, characterised by ethnic conflict, brutality and radical ideology, which would shape the twentieth century.

This talk takes listeners on a tour through a city under siege from mid-September 1914 until 22 March 1915, when food ran out and the Habsburg garrison capitulated. It has two core themes. First, the research offers an intimate study of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian army. Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians and even some Serbs and Italians defended the Fortress. Through their military orders, diaries and jokes this study explores their cooperation, suffering and endurance. Second, the talk examines the dynamics of ‘total war’ on the Eastern Front. It argues that here traditional siege warfare melded with new nationalising ideologies to produce radical violence remarkably early. Ethnic cleansing, civilian participation in hostilities and the use of food as a weapon – all phenomena which would eviscerate the region in subsequent decades – emerged already in 1914. At a time when East-Central Europe’s centrality to the continent’s history is being recognised and Vladimir Putin is resurrecting century-old imperial Russian ambitions in Ukraine, the story of how Europe and Russia clashed at Przemyśl has an unsettling relevance.

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The lecture will be followed by a drinks reception

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Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre

London

SE14 6AD

United Kingdom

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