Prof Alexander Watson

Alexander’s current research looks at conflict and identity in East-Central Europe and the concept of total war.

Staff details

Prof Alexander Watson

Position

Professor of History

Department

History

Email

a.watson (@gold.ac.uk)

Professor Alexander Watson’s research focuses on the global conflicts of the early twentieth century, and especially on their epicentre, East-Central Europe.  He works on all social, cultural and military aspects of ‘total war’, and on the rise of national consciousness, minority integration and pre-Holocaust plans of ethnic cleansing.  He is also interested in the history of violence.  He has written extensively on these topics, concentrating particularly on the era of the First World War.

Alex’s latest book is The Fortress.  The Great Siege of Przemysl (London: Allen Lane, 2019). This is the story of the First World War’s longest siege, and of the opening of the brutal tragedy which befell East-Central Europe during the twentieth century. It follows a ragtag Habsburg garrison of old soldiers as they desperately defend Central Europe from Russian invasion, and recounts the vicious fighting, starvation and anti-Semitic ethnic cleansing which began in the region already in 1914. The book won a Society for Military History 2021 Distinguished Book Award and was a BBC History Magazine and Financial Times ‘Book of the Year’. The Times newspaper praised it as ‘a masterpiece’. ‘Vividly written and well researched …it deserves to become a classic of military history.’ 

Alex is also author of the widely acclaimed Ring of Steel.  Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918 (London and New York: Allen Lane and Basic Books, 2014). This book re-tells the First World War from its instigators’ and losers’ perspectives, and explains how this ‘total war’ bequeathed a fateful legacy of impoverishment, political extremism and racial hatred to East-Central Europe. The book won the 2014 Wolfson History Prize, the 2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History, the Society for Military History’s 2015 Distinguished Book Award and the 2015 British Army Military Book of the Year. The Sunday Times named it ‘The History Book of the Year’ for 2014.

Alex’s first monograph, Enduring the Great War.  Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) is a comparative and interdisciplinary investigation of German and British military resilience on the Western Front. It examines how soldiers coped psychologically and how military institutions functioned to support and coerce them, and it provides a new explanation for why the German army ultimately broke down in 1918. The book was awarded the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library’s Fraenkel Prize.

The next book on which Alex is now working will be a political and sensory history of the July 1932 election in Weimar Germany. This was a crucial campaign: the moment at which over half of the electorate chose radical, anti-system parties of the far left and far right, effectively voting Germany’s first, fragile democracy out of existence. The book will explore the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch in this critical election campaign in order better to understand the popular reception of party propaganda and the impact on voters of this tense, technologically innovative, violent and emotional time. Through this exciting methodology, the book will illuminate how the Nazis became Germany’s largest political movement and took a decisive step on the road to establishing the Third Reich.

Academic Qualifications and Fellowships

  • BA(Hons) in Modern History University of Oxford 2000
  • DPhil in History University of Oxford 2005

Alex has won several prestigious research fellowships to advance his work on East-Central Europe.  In 2005-8, he was a Research Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University.  He was awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship which he held from 2008-11, also at Cambridge University.  In 2011-13, he held a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship at Warsaw University, Poland.

During the academic year 2022-23, Alex is away on a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship.

Teaching

BA Second and Third Year Modules

  • ‘Minorities in East-Central Europe: Coexistence, Integration and Annihilation, c.1870-1950’
  • ‘The Central Powers in the First World War’

BA First Year Modules

  • ‘Germany’s African Road to the Holocaust’ – lecture block on ‘Global Connections’ (core module)
  • ‘The Greatest Whodunnit in History: Who Caused the First World War?’ – lecture block on ‘Historical Controversies’ (core module)
  • ‘Anti-Semitism: an East-Central European History, 1879-1939’ (optional module)

MA Modules

  • A History of Violence

Areas of Supervision

Alex welcomes research proposals on any aspect of nineteenth and twentieth-century East-Central European history or on the history of modern war.  He is very happy to supervise single country and local topics, but also encourages prospective students to consider taking on comparative, transnational and interdisciplinary studies.  He is open to proposals for joint supervision with colleagues at Goldsmiths or at other University of London colleges. 

Public Engagement

Alex undertakes a variety of activities alongside his research and teaching.  Public engagement is a core role, and he has widely and influentially disseminated his work on the First World War.  For example, Alex made a significant contribution to the design of the government’s flagship First World War educational initiative of the 2014-18 centenary, ‘The Great War Debate’.  He also advised the BBC on its historical coverage of the conflict.  He has collaborated with a diverse range of stakeholders, including, for example, the U.S. National World War II Museum and the computer games developer, Blackmill Games, to raise knowledge of the First World War.  For further details, see his REF 2021 History Impact Case Study.

Alex has written and reviewed for The New York Times, Times Higher EducationLiterary ReviewHistory Today and BBC History Magazine.  In the past, he has been invited to choose the best military history books of the year for BBC History Magazine.

Alex has also collaborated with and been interviewed on international television and radio.  On radio, he has spoken on the BBC World Service’s ‘World War One.  The Documentary’ and the BBC’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’.  He was interviewed on 103.2 Dublin City FM’s ‘Bookbound’ programme, on Newstalk 106-108’s ‘Talking History with Patrick Geoghegan’ and on New York’s WNYC ‘The Leonard Lopate Show’.

On television, the BBC News Channel has interviewed Alex about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.  France 24 interviewed him about the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and Brexit.  Alex appeared in the German Channel ZDF’s documentary ‘Die Suche nach den verlorenen Söhnen.  100 Jahre Erster Weltkrieg’ (‘The Search for the Lost Sons.  One Hundred Years of the First World War’).  Alex has also been interviewed by the German production company Florianfilm for an ARTE / ZDF documentary on the military occupation state Ober Ost in 1915-18. 

Alex has had many public speaking invitations.  Recent highlights have included the Chalke Valley History Festival, the York Festival of Ideas, the Wells Festival of Ideas, the Penguin Lecture in Bristol and the Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Socialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr in Potsdam, Germany.  He has also been a speaker at Western Front Association and BBC History Magazine ‘History Weekend’ events.

Featured Publications

The Fortress.  The Great Siege of Przemysl (London: Allen Lane, 2019).  Published in the U.S. by Basic Books, New York.  Translated into Hungarian and Italian, with Chinese and Polish translations underway.

Ring of Steel.  Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918 (London: Allen Lane, 2014).  Published in the U.S. by Basic Books, New York.  Translated into Chinese and Hungarian, with Spanish translation underway.

Enduring the Great War.  Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Publications and research outputs

Book

Watson, Alexander. 2023. La fortaleza: Przemyśl, la ciudad que desafió a Rusia en la Primera Guerra Mundial [The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl - Spanish edition]. Madrid: Desperta Ferro Ediciones. ISBN 9788412496468

Watson, Alexander. 2022. Twierdza. Oblężenie Przemyśla i korzenie skrwawionych ziem Europy [The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl - Polish-language edition]. Poznań: Rebis. ISBN 9788381884242

Watson, Alexander. 2022. 血色要塞# 普热梅希尔之围与欧洲浩劫的降临%!英" 亚历山大 著% 范儒天译&& 广州# 广东人民出版社 [The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl - Chinese (Mandarin) Edition]. Guangzhou: Guandong People's Publishing House. ISBN 9787218157658

Book Section

Watson, Alexander. 2024. Tactical Learning and Innovation in the Habsburg Army, 1914-1918. In: Michael P.M. Finch; Aimée Fox and David G. Morgan-Owen, eds. Framing the First World War: Knowledge, Learning, and Military Thought. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Watson, Alexander. 2018. Ego-Documents from the Invasion of East Prussia, 1914-15. In: Richard Bessel and Dorothee Wierling, eds. Inside World War One? Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198820598

Watson, Alexander. 2018. Kształtowanie się narodu, upadek społeczności lokalnej: Kraków w czasie wojny, 1914-1918’ [‘Building a Nation, Breaking a Community: Cracow at War, 1914-18’]. In: Katarzyna Sierakowska, ed. Pierwsza wojna światowa na ziemiach polskich. Oczekiwania-doświadczenia-konsekwencje [‘The First World War on Polish Territory. Expectations – Experiences – Consequences’]. Warsaw: Instytut Historii PAN. ISBN 9788365880291

Article

Watson, Alexander. 2018. The Greek Catholic Church and the Problem of Ruthenian Desertion in Przemyśl, January 1915: Documents from the Kriegsarchiv, Vienna. Rocznik Przemyski, 54, pp. 287-301. ISSN 2449-7347

Watson, Alexander. 2016. Managing an 'Army of Peoples': Identity, Command and Performance in the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1914-1918. Contemporary European History, 25(2), pp. 233-251. ISSN 0960-7773

Watson, Alexander. 2014. "Unheard-of Brutality": Russian Atrocities against Civilians in East Prussia, 1914-1915. The Journal of Modern History, 86(4), pp. 780-825. ISSN 0022-2801