Bulwark of Empire: Imperial and Local Government in Przemyśl, Galicia (1867-1939)

John E Fahey, Purdue University


The small town of Przemyśl now lies a few miles west of the Polish-Ukrainian border. In the decades before World War I, the Austro-Hungarian military poured money, troops, and material into this multiethnic city and transformed it into the Empire’s largest fortress complex. Though intended to protect the border with Russia and inspire political loyalty, the garrison instead prompted a strong reaction by socialists who opposed the army’s dominant position in town. Despite the garrison’s best efforts, in 1907, Przemyśl elected an avowedly anti-militarist Social Democratic Jew to represent Fortress Przemyśl in the Imperial Parliament in Vienna. “Bulwark of Empire” examines the economic, political, demographic, and cultural ramifications of the massive military presence in Przemyśl from the inception of the fortress in the 1870s through four months of siege in World War I to the decades of economic and social stagnation before World War II. The city’s urban and demographic growth was irreversibly tied to the army, and yet much of the population rejected the garrison, fought with its soldiers, and ultimately rejoiced when it left. This multifaceted relationship between soldiers and civilians in urban environments is at the heart of my research. The case of Przemyśl addresses the nature of the late Habsburg state, usually understood to rest on the pillar of the army, which in turn inspired loyalty to the dynasty. It also introduces an important component to the rich and complex world of Austrian Galicia, bringing imperial power projection into this land of multi-ethnic cities, frontiers, fantasy, and nationalist ambitions. “Bulwark of Empire” is organized mostly chronologically, looking at how the city changed as a result of Austrian strategic decisions. Chapter 1 is a literature and historiography review. Chapter 2, looks at Przemyśl from the point of view of Vienna, examining why the Austro-Hungarian Army decided to construct a fortress in Przemyśl. This was not an obvious choice, and several alternatives were proposed at the time. Chapter 2 also includes an overview of Przemyśl city history and demographics before the fortress. This chapter contextualizes Habsburg grand strategy and how it relates to the province of Galicia. Chapter 3 looks at Przemyśl from the point of view of the officers and soldiers sent there from the 1870s on. It focuses on garrison life, fortress construction, and the soldier’s opinions of the city and province. Chapter 4 looks at the Przemyśl garrison from the perspective of the local civilians and focuses on the economic, social, and political ramifications of having around nine thousand Austro-Hungarian soldiers in a town of fifty thousand. These range from military influence over local government, to support of musical and other cultural organizations, to the expansion of the economy, to prompting socialist backlash against the garrison. Chapter 5 (1914-1918) discusses the city during World War I and focuses on how local civilians were affected by the months long siege, Russian occupation, and fall of the Habsburg Monarchy. It also includes the civil war between Poles and Ukrainians for control of the city in October/November 1918, which is emblematic of the cultural and political strife across Eastern Europe at the end of the War. Chapter 6 (1919-1939) looks at Przemyśl as a newly independent Polish city with a Polish army garrison (rather than an imperial garrison). It also examines how the loss of Austro-Hungarian defensive spending and attention gutted the regional economy. Chapter 7 briefly looks at Przemyśl’s experience in World War II and the postwar era, before examining commemoration and memory of the Habsburg past in the city.




Ingrao, Purdue University.

Subject Area

European history|East European Studies|Military history

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