A Core of European Tragedy, Diversity, Fantasy

Prorok u svoïi vitchyzni: Franko ta ioho spilnota [A Prophet in His Own Country: Franko and his Community]

by Iaroslav Hrytsak
Kiev: Krytyka, 631 pp., $55.00

Kaiser von Amerika: Die große Flucht aus Galizien [Emperor of America: The Great Flight From Galicia]

by Martin Pollack
Vienna: Paul Zsolnay, 284 pp., E19.90
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De Agostini/Getty Images
The Main Market Square in Cracow, with the statue of Adam Mickiewicz in front of the Cloth Hall, 2004

In modern times, the Habsburg crownland of Galicia became one of the most mythicized and tragic parts of Europe. But for Empress Maria Theresia von Habsburg-Lothringen it was an accidental acquisition. In 1772, when she seized most of the territories she would name “Galicia” from the waning Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, her main concern was the rising power of neighboring Prussia. Thirty years earlier, Prussia had contested Maria Theresia’s right to inherit the Habsburg crowns, and had taken from her the wealthy province of Silesia. In 1772 her realm was extended as a result of another burst of Prussian aggression. Prussia and the Russian Empire took the lead in arranging the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with Maria Theresia joining reluctantly in the plunder.

Her new, formerly Polish territory, christened Galicia, ran from Oświęcim (which she called Auschwitz) in the west to Lwów (which she called Lemberg) and its Carpathian hinterlands in the east. It was roughly divided by the San River into a western, primarily Polish half and an eastern, Ukrainian half. Her successors extended Galicia to the north, incorporating the ancient Polish capital Cracow in 1846. Like Auschwitz, Cracow became the namesake of an Austrian duchy, but both in fact lay within Galicia.

As Larry Wolff shows in his masterful intellectual history of the province, Habsburg bureaucrats and writers at first imagined Galicia to be a “Garden of Eden” or a “tabula rasa.” Emperor Joseph II, Maria Theresia’s son, wished in the 1780s to reform the monarchy as a whole on Enlightenment principles, and saw newly acquired Galicia as a good place for a trial run. Since little was known about Galicia in Vienna, it seemed like a natural laboratory, in which he could, among much else, abolish serfdom, instruct peasants in farming, end famine, and create new schools. Current Enlightenment notions of the perfectibility of man could be tested by a corps of German-speaking bureaucrats.

But as Joseph soon came to realize, Galicia was no blank slate. Galicians had experienced centuries of the decentralized Polish legal and political system, in which large numbers of nobles, usually identifying themselves as Poles, were accustomed to enjoying extensive rights, including that of exploiting the Polish- and Ukrainian-speaking peasantry. The line between Eastern and Western Christianity ran through Galicia, and indeed through many Galician families; most speakers of Polish were Roman Catholic, but most speakers of Ukrainian were Uniates, eastern rite worshipers whose church was subordinate to the Vatican. Perhaps most alarming of all to the Habsburgs, Galicia was home to more Jews than the rest of the monarchy combined, almost all of them traditionally religious—Galicia was a center of Hasidism—and accustomed to local autonomy.1

The Habsburg return to Eden quickly became a civilizing mission, which (as Wolff argues) is a quite significant change of concepts. Once the issue became improvement rather than creation, the …

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  1. 1

    On these subjects both Wolff and I have learned from Iryna Vushko, “Enlightened Absolutism, Imperial Bureaucracy and Provincial Society: The Austrian Project to Transform Galicia, 1772–1815,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, Yale University, 2008.