The Idea of Galicia

Larry Wolff, The Idea of Galicia. History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture. Stanford California Press, 2010

Habsburg Galicia is a tangible example of the fact that “history matters”—in this case it is the history of the long 19th century (1772– 1914). The endurance of this land is all the more admirable that after the break-up of the Austrian- Hungarian Empire, in the short 20th century (1914–1989/91) new regimes did all they could to liquidate the main hallmarks of Galicia—not only its autonomous status but also the name itself. The German occupation was the only exception, as it deliberately used the Galician symbolic system (for example Waffen SS “Galizien”) to avoid any mention of the Slav roots (Polish or Ukrainian) of this land: in 15–20 years, according to Hitler’s plans, Galicia was to become a “purely German territory.” Luckily the German regime survived only a few years here—five (1939–1944) in the western part and three (1941–1944) in the eastern part. And although the consequences of this regime were tragic for the inhabitants of Galicia—above all for Galician Jews and Polish intelligentsia—its impact was much shorter than that of the interwar Poland (1919–1939) or of the communist Poland (1944–1989/1991). So it is doubtful if the Nazi rule can be responsible for the vitality of Galicia.

In fact, historical Galicia is remindful of the apocryphal Galician old lady from the well-known anecdote, who promised her non-Galician interlocutor: “I survived Franz Joseph, Józef Piłsudski and Josif Stalin—so I will survive your good self too, my dear!”

So far, no one has managed to solve the puzzle of Galicia’s endurance. Besides the political reasons (“no Galicia—no object of study”), another obstacle was the nationalist paradigm, which stipulated that areas of study should coincide with national borders. Hence Ukrainian historians were preoccupied with Ukrainian (eastern) Galicia and Polish ones with Polish (western) Galicia but no one studied Austrian Galicia as a whole. In his book The Idea of Galicia, Larry Wolff goes beyond national borders, which results in the most convincing solution to the Galician riddle.

Wolff’s arguments are best understood when we set them against his other book, Inventing Eastern Europe (1994), already a classic of contemporary historiography. Wolff claims that Eastern Europe was invented by the ideologues of the Enlightenment. They reformulated the former categorization of civilizations, that is the “cultured South”/“barbarian North” division, into the one we know today—“developed West” and “backward East.” On this new map of civilizations, they marked out a new space, which was neither quite the “West” nor quite the “East”, such an “almost- Europe” or “half-Asia”—and called it Eastern Europe. In line with the Orientalist discourse this retarded Europe needed to be civilized by Western politicians and intellectuals but at the same time, according to the rules of the same discourse, could never become genuine Europe. Therefore it merited at best a patronizing irony and preferably a conquest and subjugation in the name of the same civilization and discipline.

Larry Wolff’s new book is a kind of illustration of this argument on the example of one specific territory—that of Habsburg Galicia. The choice of Galicia for this purpose seems very natural. It was here, after the Partitions of Poland (1772– 1795), that the ideology of the Enlightenment personified by its imperial advocates, that is Maria Theresa (1740–1780) and her son Joseph II (1780–1790), was confronted with the reality of Eastern Europe for the first time. What is more, the very term “Galicia” was a product of this confrontation. It was invented to legitimize the historical claims of Vienna to the newly annexed territories. The Habsburgs possessed the Hungarian crown of St. Steven and the dynastic affiliations of the Medieval princes of Halych and Ruthenia with Hungarian kings were older than analogous colligations with Polish kings, so invoking the Halych- Volhynia Principality was an excellent justification for taking over the former Ruthenian province of the Commonwealth of Poland for the Habsburg Monarchy.

Larry Wolff traces the evolution of this concept from its inception to the moment it became “hard” reality. He notes that its inventors were fully aware of its artificiality. Sometimes their tongue stuck in their mouth or their pen mutinied when it had to write the word “Galicia”: in 1773 Joseph II called the new land “altri gai” (“further trouble”) while his mother Maria Theresa wrote about “Karpathisches Gebirge” (Carpathian Mountains). But gradually, slowly, under the impact of the discussion on what the new country really is and what should be done with it, the concept started to gather strength and become flesh—to the extent that in 1809 a botanic atlas of Galicia was published in Vienna. As if this country invented by the Habsburgs was a natural geographic region!

Only one (the first) of the ten chapters of The Idea of Galicia concerns the story of the emergence and consolidation of this term. Conclusions formulated at the end of this chapter may serve as conclusions to the entire book. In particular, they suggest a key to understanding the endurance of Galicia. Larry Wolff emphasizes that the land invented by the Habsburgs in 1772 “was not only a political entity but also an ideological construct.” And it was owing to this ideological nature that it could survive when the political construct of the “Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria” ceased to exist. A significant element of its vitality was the fact that also the inhabitants of this land adopted this Orientalist discourse, initially targeted against them, and redirected it against everything further east, beyond the Austrian-Russian border. If for Joseph II or Metternich the inhabitants of Galicia were typical “Sarmatians,” in the consciousness of the inhabitants themselves to be from Galicia meant to be a European. And being a European meant a duty to engage in the common European fight against the threats coming from the East— be it the Russian threat common for the Poles and the Ukrainians, the threat from Ukrainian nationalism for the Poles or the threat from the “savage Cossacks” and pogroms for the Jews.

The idea of Galicia became a synonym of the civilizing mission of Western Europe towards Eastern Europe. Showing the adoption of the Eastern European discourse by local inhabitants is another step forward taken by Larry Wolff in relation to his previous book. In the first book he showed mostly how the image of Eastern Europe was constructed above all from the outside— in this sense Inventing Eastern Europe was a book not so much about Eastern Europe but about Western Europe, while in The Idea of Galicia the author presents the adoption (internalization) of the Western discourse by local politicians and intellectuals. This process can be very tentatively divided into two periods: before and after the Galician autonomy awarded in 1866. In the first period the Orientalist discourse was manifested mostly in the opposition between Habsburg officials and local Polish nobility. The Habsburgs charged the latter with responsibility for the sorry state of the newly annexed country—especially the disastrous situation of peasants from Ruthenia and Galician Jews. Habsburg officials sincerely believed that without their civilizing mission Galicia would turn into a Tatarstan or at best into an Ottoman Moldova or Walachia. The situation changed radically in 1866, when the Polish elite succeeded in turning the Galician autonomy into a Polish autonomy of Galicia. Larry Wolff shows that a necessary condition of this transformation was the loyalty of the Polish elite towards the Habsburgs but also its assurances that it would be capable of taking the civilizing mission to other “half-Asians”—Galician Ruthenians (Ukrainians) and Jews. In their turn the Galician Ruthenians, to legitimize their claim to Galicia, had to do the same as the Polish nobility had done a few dozen years earlier—that is to prove their belonging to the European civilization. As the Lviv Zoria wrote in 1887: “Galician Ruthenia always (emphasis added—J. H.) has been the border between Western Europe and the East.”

These conclusions help us to understand, in particular, the Galician Ruthenians (Ukrainians), when in the last thirty years of the 19th century their movement went from a pro-Russian orientation to a Ukrainian and at the same time anti-Russian one. Of course, the Ukrainian movement was growing also in the Russian Empire despite government prohibition but unlike the Ukrainian movement in Galicia it never acquired a distinctly anti-Russian character. The often anti-Russian orientation of the Ukrainian movement is usually dated to later periods—the 1930s, when the Stalinist repressions and Great Famine cured the “Soviet-loving” elite from the illusion that the Soviet Ukraine was a Ukrainian state, or to the years 1939–1941, when the former inhabitants of Galicia had an opportunity to meet “Russia” face to face (in the memories of inhabitants of Galicia from this period distinctly Orientalist motifs are to be observed, for example in the stories about mongoloid faces of Soviet soldiers and officers). But in fact this transformation reaches back to Austrian times. One proof of that is the often quoted memoirs of the Ukrainian Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi (1919), who spoke with regret about fundamental differences between the culture of the Ukrainians from Galicia and from the Dnieper region and for him this difference was evidenced above all by the “idea of hatred for Russia.”

I do not have so much material on Galician Poles but in the context of Galician Ukrainians I can say with confidence: their non-Russian or anti-Russian attitude is as endurable as the idea of Galicia itself. This fact finds reflection both in the declarations of Galician inhabitants and sociological research on the one hand and in the anti-Russian pronouncements of the advocate of the Euro-Asian idea Aleksandr Dugin or the current pro-Russian minister of education Dmytro Tabachnyk or numerous Russian-speaking bloggers on the other. One really new development in the Galician idea, which gathered momentum after the downfall of communism, was the transfer of the idea of the “East” from Russia to these Ukrainian lands where Russian speakers dominate. Looking from this new perspective, part of the Ukrainian-speaking Galician elite would like to cut themselves off from these lands as much as possible. Discussions on autonomy are inseparable from the general situation in the Ukraine: The more hope Kyiv offers for European integration, the quieter is the voice of Galician autonomists and vice versa—they speak louder when representatives of the“East” come to power—such as Kuchma or Yanukovych—and try to “Russify” the Ukraine, if not in language terms than politically.

Such short-term changes of mood do not allow us to notice a longer perspective, convincingly shown by Larry Wolff: the fact that discussions on autonomy are inextricably linked to the overall situation is clearly of Habsburg making. But contrary to what the Russian nationalists write and say, Galicia is not a purely Austrian invention.

Its ideological origins go back to the Enlightenment era. An anonymous Polish patriot, hiding behind a telling penname “Galician”, complained in 1792 that both the creation of Galicia and Partitions of Poland were “consequences of Voltaire’s works!”

Summarizing Larry Wolff’s book is almost like whistling a symphony of Beethoven. Especially that the way of presenting the material and fluency of the narrative are distinctly literary. One can only say with some regret that the book is written, so to speak, in various tonalities and tempos: from the prolonged largo in the first chapters through a slowly crescendoing allegro in the middle to the final staccato. While in the first part of the book almost entire chapters are devoted to the protag- onists—Mozart the Younger (also known as the Lviv Mozart—Polish translator’s note), who spent almost 20 years in Galicia, Metternich, Aleksander Fredro and Leopold Sacher-Masoch—next generations of Galicians—Andrei Sheptytsky, Ivan Franko, Michał Bobrzyński, Stanisław Szczepanowski, Stanisław Przybyszewski, Martin Buber, Stanisław Wyspiański, Miroslav Sichynsky and others—only make ephemeral appearances, flicker like dancers during a ball and this flickering may irritate the reader. But regardless of the tonality and tempo used by Larry Wolff to describe the protagonists of his book, in every single case he succeeds in showing that their identity in some way appealed to the Orientalist discourse of Galicia and about Galicia.

The only point where I would perhaps not so much as disagree but propose something else would be the following: Studying Galician discourses is a necessary but not sufficient condition of understanding the phenomenon of Galicia: To understand it fully you have to take into account a wider historical context. When the remaining parts of the former Commonwealth of Poland (today’s central and eastern Ukraine) belonged to the Russian Empire, it was governed by Catherine II, also an Enlightenment figure. Like Maria Theresa and Joseph II, she applied the Orientalist discourse to the newly annexed territories. But none of these lands became a Russian counterpart to the Austrian Galicia—that is a land with such a clear regional identity. We may assume that one of the reasons for that was the specific nature of the relations between the center and the peripheries: Russia was a huge but backward empire, its western peripheries were much more developed than the imperial core. And therefore the main flow of educated elites was not directed from the center to the peripheries, as in the case of the Habsburg Monarchy, but the other way round—from the peripheries to the center. This being so, St. Petersburg could not afford the luxury of treating local elites as savage “Sarmatians” and keep them away, even temporarily, from governing the country.

But even such an explanation does not seem exhaustive. If we compare discourse to radio waves, we can say that the Austrian Empire had a much more powerful transmitter than the Russian Empire. Such a transmitter was the well-developed public space, with its cafes, newspapers, magazines, associations, etc. As the Polish historian and urban planner Krzysztof Pawłowski assesses, Lviv, the capital of autonomous Galicia, had the best-developed urban infrastructure per capita of all cities of the former Commonwealth. There are no available data to make comparisons with other cities east of the 1772 borders. I will just quote an example from my biography of Ivan Franko “A prophet in his own country”: In the 1880s Lviv had more newspapers and magazines per capita than Moscow or Kyiv. The Habsburg Monarchy did not leave on its peripheries such industrial centers as Donbas or Łódź in the Russian Empire but it modernized its province politically rather than economically, through liberal reforms and expanding the network of social organizations. Thanks to such a transmitter, news from the center stood more chance of reaching the peripheries and their echo still reverberates in the ears of Galician inhabitants long after the transmitter was turned off.

It would be interesting to compare political preferences of Polish and Ukrainian inhabitants of Galicia—how permanent and similar to each other they are—not ten but twenty years after the downfall of communism—and to find out if in Central and Eastern Europe there are other regions where long-gone history is still as important as in Galicia. But that is a matter for new research. Here and now we can only thank Larry Wolff for a wonderful book and express hope that it will be translated.

Jaroslav Hrytsak

Ukrainian historian, director of the Institute of Scientific Research at the Lviv University, professor of the Central European University in Budapest, head of the Department of Ukrainian History at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

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