The Fortress

The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands


By Alexander Watson

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A prizewinning historian tells the dramatic story of the siege that changed the course of the First World War

In September 1914, just a month into World War I, the Russian army laid siege to the fortress city of Przemysl, the Hapsburg Empire’s most important bulwark against invasion. For six months, against storm and starvation, the ragtag garrison bitterly resisted, denying the Russians a quick victory. Only in March 1915 did the city fall, bringing occupation, persecution, and brutal ethnic cleansing.

In The Fortress, historian Alexander Watson tells the story of the battle for Przemysl, showing how it marked the dawn of total war in Europe and how it laid the roots of the bloody century that followed. Vividly told, with close attention to the unfolding of combat in the forts and trenches and to the experiences of civilians trapped in the city, The Fortress offers an unprecedentedly intimate perspective on the eastern front’s horror and human tragedy.


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1.   General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of the Habsburg General Staff.

2.   General Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten, commander of the Fortress of Przemyśl.

3.   The eighteenth-century clock tower of Przemyśl, with “Plac na Bramie” (Place of the City Gate) below it.

4.   The Old Synagogue in Przemyśl’s Jewish Quarter.

5.   View over Przemyśl looking northeast onto the railway bridge and up the San River.

6.   The main marketplace of Przemyśl.

7.   “Russophiles” under arrest in Przemyśl.

8.   The village of Żurawica, lying 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) north of Przemyśl, on fire.

9.   A Ruthenian Greek Catholic pastor hanged by Habsburg soldiers.

10.   The Habsburg Army retreats through Przemyśl in mid-September 1914.

11.   Destitute villagers in the rural district of Przemyśl.

12.   The “heroes” of Przemyśl defending the Fortress.

13.   The interval lines closing the gaps between the forts.

14.   Russian attackers storm the Fortress of Przemyśl, October 5–8, 1914.

15.   The ghastly ditch in front of Fort I/1 early on the morning of October 7, 1914.

16.   Heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Karl, tours Przemyśl’s fortifications with Kusmanek on November 1, 1914.

17.   A “flyer postcard” flown out of the besieged Fortress.

18.   Bomb damage inflicted on a Przemyśl house by Russian aircraft, 1914/1915.

19.   Fortress observation balloon.

20.   Fortress airman.

21.   Military concert during the second siege of Przemyśl.

22.   Newspaper boys and girls during the second siege of Przemyśl.

23.   Soup kitchen for civilians during the second siege of Przemyśl.

24.   Slaughterhouse full of horse carcasses.

25.   The destruction of the forts in the early hours of March 22, 1915.

26.   The 3rd May Road Bridge, with one end lying in the River San after being mined on March 22, 1915.

27.   A Cossack riding up Przemyśl’s Mickiewicz Street on March 23, 1915.

28.   The expulsion of Przemyśl’s Jews at the end of April or early May 1915.

29.   The Tsar and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich visit Fort I/1 on April 24, 1915.

30.   Victorious German troops parade through Przemyśl, June 6, 1915.


Here Fort I, “Salis-Soglio”: reconstruction of the fort as it would have appeared in 1914.

Here Fort I, “Salis-Soglio”: ground plan.

Here Cartoon of Austrian Landsturm troops panicking in a communications dugout, from “A Saga of Heroes” (Eine Helden Sage: Przemysl, 1915), 8a.

Here Fort IV, “Optyń”: reconstruction of the fort as it would have appeared in 1914.

Here Fort I/1, “Łysiczka”: reconstruction and cross-section of the fort as it would have appeared in 1914.

Here Joke concert program for “Csûtak’s Grand Variety Show,” from an unofficial fortress trench newspaper, circa end of 1914 or early 1915, p. 24.

Here Mock classified advertisements from an unofficial fortress trench newspaper, circa end of 1914 or early 1915, p. 4.

Here Russian army poster expelling all Jews from the city and district of Przemyśl at the end of April 1915.


1. Eastern Front, August 1914.

2. The home bases of Fortress Przemyśl’s garrison throughout Austria-Hungary.

3. The Galician Bloodlands.

4. The Fortress of Przemyśl, 1914.

Map 1. Eastern Front, August 1914.

Map 2. The home bases of Fortress Przemyśl’s garrison throughout Austria-Hungary.

Map 3. The Galician Bloodlands.

Map 4. The Fortress of Przemyśl, 1914.


Sometimes, things we assume to be certain, that we take as solid, stable, and lasting, can collapse with shocking suddenness. In the summer of 1914, war broke out all over Europe. Everybody had seen the storm clouds gather. Barely anyone, however, had truly believed that the cataclysm of Great Power conflict could happen. “Progress” was the buzzword of the age. The last truly great war was a hundred years past. Though armies prepared assiduously, some experts declared that in the present age—richer, freer, better educated and more technologically advanced than ever before—war was impossible. Europe’s states had become too interdependent, and modern weaponry too destructive. Any conflict, the experts warned, would be “ruinous for conqueror and for conquered” alike, and would end “in general anarchy, or reduce the people to the most lamentable condition.” In the continent’s towns and villages, people lived as if Armageddon would never come. They worked, built careers and businesses, fell in love, raised children. Yet in 1914, all would be swept up in the maelstrom. The old civilization would be ripped apart, dreams destroyed and lives cut short.1

This book tells the story of one fortress-city that was pitched into the calamity and on which, for a few months early in the First World War, the fate of all Eastern and Central Europe rested. The city was called Przemyśl. Today, it lies in Poland’s sleepy southeastern corner on the modern border with Ukraine. At the start of the twentieth century, however, it belonged to the Habsburg Empire, a sprawling dynastic state which for centuries had ruled over an amazingly diverse and colorful population in the center of Europe. Fortified, multiethnic Przemyśl, home to 46,000 Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish citizens and a large garrison, was the empire’s most important defensive bulwark in the east.2

In September 1914, suddenly Przemyśl stood at the flashpoint of a military disaster. Though war had raged barely a month, already a huge Russian force had invaded the Habsburg Empire and routed its army. Broken troops, defeated, diseased, and out of control, flooded through the city. The Russians followed close behind, determined to seal their victory. The Tsar wished to impose his rule on the surrounding region and subjugate a Slavic population whom he regarded as “little Russians.” Only the Fortress of Przemyśl barred his force’s way. Its ragtag garrison was composed of middle-aged reservists from every corner of Central Europe—Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Czechs, Italians, Poles, and Ukrainians. In the service of a military famous for incompetence, armed with obsolete weaponry and scarcely able to communicate among themselves, these vintage soldiers entered a desperate struggle to halt the world’s most powerful army.

The siege of Przemyśl in 1914–1915 changed the entire course of the First World War. In the autumn of 1914, when in east and west the alliance of Austria-Hungary and Germany suffered severe defeats, the fortress-city and its 130,000-strong garrison played a crucial role in preventing a Russian invasion of Central Europe. During the pivotal months of September and October, the Fortress blocked the Russians’ path, denying them use of the main rail and road connections into the heart of the Habsburg Empire. The steadfast defense saved the empire and its army by decisively slowing the enemy advance. The time won by the Fortress was critical in permitting the broken Habsburg army to regenerate and return to the battle. Though the Russians would renew the siege in November, they had lost their best chance of an early victory.

Przemyśl’s subsequent bitter resistance through the winter of 1914–1915—its siege was the longest of the First World War—although ending in defeat, was no less momentous. As the Hungarian war correspondent Ferenc Molnár observed acutely, “Przemyśl was a symbolic point for the monarchy. Nearly all the nationalities of Austria and Hungary defended it.” The eventual capitulation of the Fortress in March 1915 inflicted a hammer blow to the prestige of the Habsburg Empire, damaging it in the eyes of its peoples and emboldening neutral powers to join its enemies. Vain and bloody offensives to relieve the fortress-city had hollowed out the Habsburg army. Some 800,000 soldiers were lost. In the aftermath of Przemyśl’s fall, the monarchy’s German ally concluded that both its army and state were thoroughly “rotten and decayed.” “This land,” warned the German army’s plenipotentiary at Habsburg military headquarters, “can no longer be helped.”3

Przemyśl’s story also has a wider significance, stretching beyond the First World War. The city was a weathervane for the harsh winds of the twentieth century. The lands to which it belonged—the province of Galicia and, more broadly, East-Central Europe—were always a crossroad of cultures. In the modern era, they also became a place of conflict: the point at which rival nationalist and imperial projects collided. Habsburgs and Romanovs, Poles, Ukrainians, and Russian nationalists all laid claim to the land. After 1918, these territories—“shatterzones,” as some historians have called them—would be wracked first by vicious local ethnic violence and then by the murderous actions of totalitarian states. Two decades after the First World War, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (two entities completely unimaginable in 1914) would together transform the region into an immense battlefield, a site of ethnic cleansing and a center of genocide.4

To some historians, the barbarity that changed the face of East-Central Europe, that annihilated its Jews and prised apart Poles, Ukrainians, and other peoples with horrifying bloodshed, is a tale of evil and interlocked totalitarian projects that started with Stalin and Hitler. Others have cast back further, to 1917–1923 and the revolutionary struggles in collapsing empires. Przemyśl points to earlier roots, however. There and all around, the outbreak of the First World War unleashed radical violence with stunning immediacy. Brutal combat, lethal epidemics, aerial bombing, strategies of starvation, and vicious persecutions motivated by racial prejudice were all integral to the fortress-city’s early war experience. Most ominously, around and later in the city, the Russian army perpetrated the first ambitious program of ethnic cleansing to befall East-Central Europe. Przemyśl is important because it reveals in microcosm a forgotten prehistory to the later, better-remembered totalitarian horrors. To understand what went wrong in the twentieth century’s most ravaged region, it is not enough to start in 1928 or 1933, with the rise of the dictators, or even with the First World War’s revolutionary aftermath. As Przemyśl’s ordeal disturbingly shows, the story of East-Central Europe’s “Bloodlands” rightly begins in 1914.5

PRZEMYŚL HAD ALWAYS been a fortress. The very first reference to the town, by the chronicler-monk Nestor (1050–1116), are words of war: “In the year 981 AD Vladimir [of Kiev] marched against the Lyakhs and took their strongholds Peremÿshl, Cherven and others.” The following turbulent centuries saw an assortment of exotic rulers lord over the town. For more than 300 years until 1340, Przemyśl lay under Kievan Rus’ and its successor Ruthenian principalities. It passed briefly to King Lajos of Hungary and Poland, and subsequently, in 1387, was firmly taken into the Polish Kingdom. Even after this date, violence was never far off. From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, terrifying enemies arrived with frightening regularity from all points of the compass. Tartars, Transylvanians, Vlachs, Hungarians, Cossacks, and Swedes all laid siege and at times ravaged Przemyśl.6

The town was a place where east met west. An important Christian center, it was the seat of two bishoprics. The Eastern Church, which looked to Constantinople for leadership, established its bishop first, in 1218. A Roman Catholic bishop was nominated in 1340. A new wave of religious building was sponsored by the seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation, and by the end of the century Przemyśl’s skyline was dominated by seventeen Roman and Greek Catholic churches and no fewer than ten monasteries, as well as strong city walls, a Renaissance town hall, and, on a hill above, a castle. Polish- and Ukrainian-speakers and German artisans all mixed in the medieval town. So, too, from the second half of the fourteenth century, did Jews. Attracted by booming trade, a consequence of the town’s position as an intersection linking Hungary and the Baltic with the main commercial route between the Black Sea and Western Europe, a Jewish community grew up in the northeast of the old city. By 1600, Jews made up one-twelfth of Przemyśl’s citizens. A stone synagogue signified that they were there to stay.7

Przemyśl’s modern history, and the tale of how it became the Fortress—the Habsburg Empire’s bulwark in the east—begins in 1772. In that year, during the First Partition of Poland, the Habsburgs annexed Galicia, and with it the city. The new province was enormous, covering 68,000 square kilometers (26,000 square miles), and extremely difficult to defend. Its long frontier with Russia lacked natural obstacles. Exacerbating the challenge, the only route suitable for military use from the Austrian interior into Galicia at this time ran from west to east. The Carpathian Mountains blocked the way north from the Habsburgs’ Hungarian territories. Tasked with finding a solution, shortly after 1800 the empire’s top soldiers began to consider Przemyśl as a promising site for fortification. The city was defensible, situated as it was in the foothills of the Carpathians, and it was a key crossing point over the broad San River. Its position right at the center of the province was also seen as an advantage. The soldiers agreed that Galicia could never be defended at its borders. The only viable strategy, were the province threatened, was to concentrate troops at a safe, fortified base and then launch an offensive.8

For decades nothing was done. Przemyśl was not the only site under consideration by the army. Defensive schemes involving other towns, namely Jasło, Stryj, Lwów, and, later, Jarosław—the San River crossing north of Przemyśl—were all put forward. The state’s coffers were empty. Furthermore, big expensive fortifications in the middle of Galicia made little sense without control of Cracow. This Free City, 206 kilometers (128 miles) to Przemyśl’s west, was a main crossing over the Vistula River. Until it was annexed by the Habsburg Empire in 1846, an invader could attack here and instantly cut the main supply route into Galicia. Thus, only in midcentury was work on the Fortress briefly begun. The immediate impulse was the Crimean War. The Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph, supported, with rather more than benevolent neutrality, the Anglo-French-Ottoman coalition arrayed against Russia. The Habsburg army was sent to the Galician frontier to pin Tsarist troops there and stop them from being transferred to Crimea. Though fortified Cracow was at this time regarded as the mainstay of Galicia’s defense, in 1854–1855, barracks and fortifications, the latter mostly of earth and only half completed, were hastily built in and around Przemyśl.

Only in 1871 was the final decision reached to turn Przemyśl into a first-rate fortress. Relations with Russia had warmed after the Crimean War, making Galician defense less urgent, and conflicts at the end of the 1850s in Italy, and in the mid-1860s with Denmark and Prussia, distracted attention away. However, in 1868, an Imperial Fortification Commission looked again at Galicia. Most of its members favored fortifying Przemyśl, though some preferred Jarosław as a cheaper but less defensible alternative. The Emperor himself adjudicated, ruling on Przemyśl as the priority. The city was selected because of its strategic position. First, it stood on the last high ground before the border with Russia, 70 kilometers (around 45 miles) to the north. Second, it blocked the approaches over the Carpathian Mountains to Habsburg Hungary, the Łupków and Dukla Passes. Both had been developed by this point so as to be suitable for military traffic. Lastly, and crucially, Przemyśl had become a major rail hub. The main line from Vienna reached Przemyśl in 1859, and two years later the line ran through it all the way to the provincial capital of Lwów, 90 kilometers (56 miles) farther east. Another railway running over the Łupków Pass from Hungary was completed in 1872, ending at Przemyśl. The city thus controlled both Galicia’s rail link to the south and its main east-west transportation route.9

The fortification work began intensively in 1878. The main factor influencing progress was, as earlier, the relationship with Russia. This was still cordial in the early 1870s; indeed, an alliance between the Habsburgs, Germany, and Russia, known as the Three Emperors’ League, was signed in 1873. Przemyśl’s fortification was therefore still not seen as pressing. Hungarian politicians’ objections to the high costs impeded the works. There were also manifold technical challenges—most oddly, the introduction into the empire in 1872 of the metric system, which necessitated the redrafting of all existing plans. Nevertheless, relations with the great eastern neighbor soon soured, the result of a foreboding imperial competition in the Balkans. First Russia’s successful war with the Ottoman Empire in 1877–1878, and then the Habsburg occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878, raised tensions. The Habsburgs drew closer to Germany, sealing a defensive alliance against Russia in 1879 that was still in force in 1914. The military works around Przemyśl were also taken up again, ending a three-year hiatus. This time, there would be no hesitation. Through the 1880s and 1890s, Przemyśl was transformed into a modern fortress.10

The Fortress of Przemyśl was an immense, complex military organism. The strong outer perimeter of permanent forts was its most visually impressive element. In 1914, after three decades of building and many revisions to the original plans, the Fortress comprised a chain of seventeen main and eighteen subsidiary forts arranged in a rough ellipse 48 kilometers (30 miles) in circumference around the city. Behind the fortified perimeter, along with a much weaker inner defensive line, was an equally intricate and important network of support services and logistical and communications links all essential for sustaining the forts. Roads were laid and telephone lines installed. The city itself became a military base. By 1910, in and around it were seven barracks, a military railyard, warehouses, artillery parks, munitions and food magazines, and a garrison hospital. This infrastructure was intended not only to serve the defensive garrison, whose wartime strength was set at 85,000 soldiers and 3,700 horses. Przemyśl always had an offensive mission. From the very beginning, the Fortress was designed to support the Habsburg field army, providing it with a secure storage area and a safe concentration zone from which it could launch operations against Russia.11

Great thought, careful planning, and much imagination were all invested into the Fortress. A huge quantity of money was invested as well: by 1914, the Habsburg state had spent a grand total of 32 million crowns (208 million US dollars in today’s money) on Przemyśl’s forts and barracks. Despite all this, the Fortress’s designers were unlucky. The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in artillery technology. From the end of the 1880s, the introduction of smokeless propellants, steel shells, and high-explosive bursting charges made artillery projectiles swifter, heavier, and effective at longer ranges. From around 1900, the universal adoption of recoilless artillery—guns that did not have to be repositioned and aimed after each shot—increased rates of fire to hitherto unimaginable levels. These innovations quickly rendered all existing fortifications obsolete. A simulated attack conducted at Przemyśl in 1896 against one of the forts built a decade earlier alarmingly exposed the problem. When the fort was placed under live fire during the exercise, parts of it threatened to collapse. Adjudicators agreed that had any gun crews been in the fort’s open rooftop emplacements they would have been wiped out to a man.12

The Fortress’s architects and engineers tried to keep pace. The forts of the 1890s featured new designs with more stone and concrete. Revolving armored gun cupolas were mounted. Some older forts were upgraded. Yet the technology moved so fast it was impossible to keep up. The defensive concepts on which the Fortress had been laid out were already outmoded by the turn of the century. The obsolescence was exacerbated by neglect in the last decade before the First World War. Unlike his long-serving predecessor, Friedrich Count Beck-Rzikowsky, who had held the powerful position for a quarter of a century, the chief of the Habsburg general staff appointed in 1906, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, saw little use for the two Galician fortresses, Cracow and Przemyśl. The funds he requested for fortification from the cash-strapped Habsburg state went to defenses on the mountainous border with Italy. Conrad’s strategy for the defense of the empire’s flatter northeastern frontier rested on maneuver. In his view, Przemyśl was an enormous concrete white elephant, useful only as a glorified warehouse for the field army. Modernization works were halted. When the First World War broke out in 1914, it found the Fortress unprepared and antiquated.13

THE HABSBURG MILITARY’S decision to construct the Fortress transformed the city of Przemyśl. In 1870, it had been a fairly small provincial town of 15,185 people. Over the following decades, as workers and tradesmen poured in to meet military demand for labor—and also because the city became the permanent base of the Habsburg army’s X Corps in 1889—Przemyśl’s population exploded. By 1890, it already numbered 35,209. On the eve of the First World War, more than 54,000 people lived in Przemyśl, including a peacetime garrison of some 8,500 soldiers. The city was extremely ethnically diverse. At that time, Poles formed no absolute majority. According to the 1910 census, Roman Catholics, the majority of whom would have been Polish-speakers, totaled 25,306, forming 46.8 percent of the city’s population. There were 12,018 Greek Catholics (22.2 percent of the populace), the faith associated most strongly with the city’s Ukrainian-speakers. Jews numbered 16,062, making up 29.7 percent of Przemyśl’s citizens.14

To wander through Przemyśl on the eve of the cataclysm was to find a place transitioning rapidly into the modern world. Of course, the medieval past was still prominent. At the top of the hill to the southwest, the castle built by the Polish king Kazimierz the Great loomed over the old city. Below it, but still on high ground, towered the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic cathedral and, only a little to the east, the seventeenth-century domed Greek cathedral. Churches, monasteries, and seminaries of both faiths dotted Przemyśl. As two centuries earlier, spires and domes, and behind them hills, dominated the city skyline.

If one walked down from the Roman Catholic cathedral and through the marketplace, with its rather nondescript contemporary town hall, between the market and the broad River San one quickly came to Przemyśl’s old Jewish quarter. Here, it could feel as if one actually had stepped back into the Middle Ages. Ilka Künigl-Ehrenburg, an inquisitive Styrian countess who served through the siege of 1914–1915 as an auxiliary nurse, was fascinated by this poorest part of the town, with its gloomy narrow alleys and old, high wooden houses. From out of the shops in their vaulted basements, she observed, “pale Jewish faces shine otherworldly.” Usually, a courtyard lay behind, with an open staircase giving access to the upper floors. From the balconies here, the residents threw down their slop and waste. This was a place one smelled and heard before one saw. In the day, a ceaseless, lively, noisy trade roared. Christian peasant women scrutinized the wares for sale, criticized and bargained, “and the Jew,” wrote the countess excitedly, “praises his goods, quibbles and haggles with all the tenacity and virtuosity of which only a Jew is capable.”15


  • "The Fortress takes us into the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the front-line in a crucial few months of the war...Watson's book is an impressive telling of a story almost entirely unknown, and it makes clear how much we have yet to learn about the first world war away from the western front."—Mark Mazower, Financial Times
  • "Watson's splendid book combines great evocative power (and flashes of sharp humour) with the ethical authority of the best history writing. The story it tells is unsettling, because it resists any attempt to encompass the death and violence of war within a narrative of redemption. It recalls instead a war that never really ended, but rather spilled out into cascades of further violence whose toxic effects are still with us today."—Guardian (UK)
  • "Watson's account of these men's experience of battle is a brilliant distillation of their letters, diaries and memories. The voices of the siege convey its horror and the terror of men who had to endure it and suppress their fear of death... The vividly written and well-researched The Fortress is a masterpiece. It deserves to become a classic of military history."—The Times (UK)
  • "[The Fortress] is excellent history, a marvelously readable, though tragic, story of its time and of how the clock can be made to turn backwards under siege conditions; and in its account of the Habsburg commanders' unshakable vanity, philandering and cockiness it has plenty of modern resonances as a parable of arrogant exceptionalism, imperial conceit and perilous isolationism."—The Daily Telegraph (UK)
  • "The Fortress is based on extraordinarily impressive research, yet is also vivid, imaginative, and humane. It recaptures one of the most terrible episodes in a terrible war, which -- as Watson rightly argues -- presaged even greater horrors to come."—David Stevenson, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • "Przemysl, Habsburg Austria's easternmost fortress, lay in Galicia, a flat borderland between the turbulent German, Austrian, and Russian empires. Watson reconstructs the Russian siege in engrossing detail, and also proves that the eastern 'bloodlands' later ravaged by the Nazis and Soviets had already been desolated once before -- during World War I and its chaotic aftermath, when the Russians and Austro-Hungarians, desperate to hold Galicia, taught Hitler and Stalin how to weaken and destroy unwanted peoples like the Jews or Ukrainians."—Geoffrey Wawro, author of A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire
  • "Przemysl is best known for its challenges to orthography and pronunciation. But Watson contextualizes the history of this remote Habsburg fortress-city from its beginnings as a strategic pivot to its development as a focal point for overlapping imperial and nationalist aspirations. The defining event was the great siege of 1914, whose everyday routines and long term consequences Watson presents with a verve and clarity making this a must read for students of the Great War in the east."—Dennis Showalter, professor emeritus, Colorado College
  • "There is a great deal more to this book than an account of the longest siege of the Great War, one that stalled the Russian advance and saved the Central Powers from defeat in 1914. It reveals, in microcosm, everything that was mad, bad and dangerous about the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its final stages... This is a hugely enjoyable book that anyone seeking to make sense of the dark side of 20th century Europe would do well to read."—Adam Zamoyski, Literary Review

On Sale
Feb 25, 2020
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Alexander Watson

About the Author

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.

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