Author John E. Fahey on Examining Civil-Military Relations in WWI

Purdue University Press spoke with author John E. Fahey about his new book, Przemyśl, Poland: A Multiethnic City During and After a Fortress, 1867–1939.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

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 revulsion among socialists who opposed the army’s dominant position in town.  Przemyśl, Poland examines the economic, political, demographic, and cultural ramifications of the massive military presence in the city from the inception of the fortress in the 1870s through four months of siege in World War I to the decades of economic stagnation and social change before World War II.  The city’s physical, economic, 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. 

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

I wanted to understand civil-military relations better. My father was an officer in the U.S. Army, which meant that I grew up on and around military bases. I’ve always been interested in the strange city landscapes around bases. I wanted to see how a military base impacted a local community. This is an important question for any state – military bases are where a country’s strategic apparatus literally meets the road. Przemyśl is particularly useful for understanding the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary is sometimes understood to rely on the army for stability and coherence. I wanted to see if the army really was useful for inspiring loyalty and patriotism. It turns out it is a very mixed bag.

In addition, while I was preparing for my PhD exams, I was called up to deploy to Kandahar, Afghanistan with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. In 2012-2013, while I was there, Kandahar Airfield was one of the largest NATO bases in the world and housed a huge number of soldiers, contractors, and support personnel from dozens of countries. I thought Przemyśl, likewise a fortified military base with a multiethnic population and a multinational military force, may be similar. It turns out, not really, but the idea stuck.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

This is the first time that the relationship between the fortress and the city has been studied over the long term. There has been a great deal written about Przemyśl during World War I, or the forts specifically, but this is the story of how the fortress shaped the city, and visa versa. The fortress defined Przemyśl during the Habsburg era and beyond, changing the demographics, economic, political, and social makeup of the city. I place particular emphasis on the construction process, how materials were allocated and contracted, and the relationship between the garrison and the locals. I also discuss interwar Przemyśl, and how the lingering shadow of Austrian heritage, personnel, and the physical remains of buildings and infrastructure shaped the city in the new Polish Second Republic.

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

Yes. I was surprised by size and strength of Przemyśl’s socialist movement. As an imperial garrison town, I expected the socialists to be kept quiet by the large numbers of soldiers and police. Instead, the Social Democrats built a massive electoral and popular presence. In 1907, they won the first election with universal suffrage in Przemyśl’s history. Even more interestingly, Social Democrats elected Hermann Lieberman, a socialist Jewish lawyer, to represent the city in the Imperial Parliament. Lieberman was a man who had fought against the Imperial garrison for decades in court and in the streets. The night Lieberman was elected, 7000 of his supporters marched downtown, and ended up fighting the police. This was one of the largest socialist demonstrations in the history of the province of Galicia.  

Q: You mention that you initially thought the military base at Przemyśl during WWI was a natural historical analogy to Kandahar in 2012 because both were fortified logistical hubs with diverse populations, but you eventually realized the two sites were not that similar. Can you tell us a little bit about the differences between them?

I think “eventually” is a bit harsh – landing in Kandahar was enough to dissuade me pretty quickly. There are similarities – both were physically fortified, filled with soldiers, and used as bases to project power throughout the surrounding area. There are more differences. Some are obvious – technology, size, layout, physical environment, etc. More fundamentally, Kandahar Airfield was a sealed off fortress, cut off from the local Afghans. KAF certainly mattered to its neighbors, but there were clear boundaries. By way of contrast, the garrison in Przemyśl lived side by side with the local civilians. This means that officers married local girls and rented houses from local landlords. Soldiers interacted and fought with local workers. The officer’s casino is now the Przemyśl public library. KAF just never had that level of integration with Afghan civilians, soldiers, or government officials. KAF was intended to be temporary. It lingered for decades, but it was not supposed to be a permanent home for NATO forces that cycled through. Fortress Przemyśl was supposed to be a permanent base, near the homes of the soldiers that served in its regiments. So yes, the two bases had very different missions.

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