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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
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 question was raised about who was actually more civilized: Polish nobles, themselves often fluent in French and Latin, could respond to Enlightened critique by pointing out that “there are nations older than Voltaire.” Unable to break the feudal power of Polish aristocrats or pay their own bureaucrats well enough to resist their salons and daughters, the Habsburgs had to compromise with the Polish society they found, even though its members were not especially loyal. Poles who fought against the old empires under Napoleon’s command were generally forgiven after the Congress of Vienna of 1815. The young Polish aristocrat Aleksander Fredro, for example, marched to Moscow with Napoleon, only to return to his Galician estate and write plays. Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver, came to live in Galicia, and ended up composing polonaises.

Habsburg attempts to civilize Galician Jews and Ukrainian-speaking peasants were also confounded. The brilliant Jewish polemicist Yosef Perl was enlisted by the Habsburg administration to lead a regional Jewish Enlightenment. The local Hasidim, the target of his sharp pen, burned his works, and, after he died in 1839, danced on his grave. The Habsburgs reformed the eastern-rite Uniate church and renamed it Greek Catholic, to emphasize its subordination to the Vatican. It then continued under the aegis of Rome and became a platform for a new Ukrainian national identity.2

As Habsburg officials recognized the limits of their knowledge and resources, attempts to educate people on Enlightenment lines devolved into the habit of playing nations (and classes) against one another. The Polish nobility showed the greatest capacity to resist, and to adapt. In 1846 an uprising by Polish nobles in Galicia was thwarted when Polish-speaking peasants massacred their Polish noble landlords in the name of Habsburg loyalism. As Wolff recalls, the Habsburg police chief Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, with long experience in Galicia, claimed ominously that “the peasant stands guard” over Habsburg power.

Two years later, when the revolutions of 1848 spread through Europe, Poles in Galicia pursued their own national liberation from the Habsburgs with rather less fervor than might have been expected. Indeed, some Polish aristocrats were envisioning a Polish civil society under Habsburg rule and the state investments that would be required to create its economic basis. Like other East European modernizers of the mid-nineteenth century, the Polish dramatist and aristocrat Aleksander Fredro lobbied for railways, advocating a rail line from easterly Lemberg, the Galician provincial capital, to westerly Auschwitz, near the border with Prussia.

The Habsburgs were able to quell internal rebellion in 1848, but they faced a more indomitable form of nationalism in the following two decades. In both Italy and Germany, after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, the idea of national dignity was separated from popular sovereignty and wedded to monarchical rule. The Habsburgs were defeated on the battlefield by Italians in 1859 and then by Germans in 1866 during the process of Italian and German unification. The underlying political threat was the idea that each nation should have its own ruler, a principle of legitimacy the multinational Habsburgs could not withstand. Emperor Franz Josef had no choice but to compromise with his subjects. In 1867 he conferred rights to all of his subjects as individuals, and began making deals with traditional ruling classes.

In effect, the Galician strategy was now extended to the monarchy as a whole. In Galicia itself, the Polish nobility gained administrative control. The province remained the site of a civilizing mission, but now one carried out from within, by Poles with respect to others. Attempts to develop the province’s economy were limited. Fredro’s rail line from Lemberg to Auschwitz was indeed built. But elsewhere, a planned railway was diverted around a town so that a less public-minded Polish aristocrat could sleep in peace.

One place where Poles seemed determined to civilize themselves rather than others was fin-de-siècle Cracow. No longer a national or even a provincial capital, Cracow had come to embody, Nathaniel Wood maintains in his fine study, a Polish cosmopolitanism. The fact that both education and administration were carried out after 1867 in the Polish language allowed local people, and not only Poles, to move upward into the state bureaucracy. In Cracow (as in Lemberg) Jews assimilated quickly into Polish society in the late nineteenth century; a deputy mayor of Cracow was Jewish. Local progress was understood in Cracow as the fruit not of inherent Polish national genius but of public debate and sound government. Polish historians in Cracow were developing a conservative school, which blamed fractious institutions such as the Polish parliament for the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a century earlier.

This perspective firmly excluded from political thought the proud poetic tradition of Polish Romanticism, with its summons to national rebellion. The relative prosperity of the present and the sober reconstruction of the past together liberated Cracovians of the 1890s to see history as a source of pride rather than mission. The city fathers built a statue in the central market of the greatest Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who had never in fact set foot in the city. The old royal castle, Wawel, became a subject for artists. The outstanding Polish artist of this neo-Romantic generation, Stanisław Wyspiański, grew up in its shadows, and began his career restoring the stained glass of ancient churches in a terrifyingly beautiful art nouveau. His rendering of God the Father withdrawing fearfully from earth, his right hand stricken and skeletal, is a masterpiece. It was conceived for the Franciscan Church in 1897.

That same year Stanisław Przybyszewski, who would later become the ringleader of Cracow modernism, published, in German, his novella Satans Kinder, about anarchists seeking purity through destruction. Living then in Berlin, Przybyszewski hoped to resolve a certain dilemma: Polish writers were confronted, like other Europeans, with the Nietzschean proposition that we have killed God, but were denied the powerful and widely accepted forms of Hegelian comfort that the state might somehow rescue the world.3 Right-wing Hegelian admiration of German statehood was of no use, since the German state threatened its Catholic Polish minority with Bismarck’s Protestant Kulturkampf. Left-wing Hegelianism—which took the form of Marxism—was also difficult to accept, since it depended on the rise of the common people, an unnerving proposition for Galician Polish nobles after the massacres of 1846. In Satans Kinder, Przybyszewski’s characters reacted to statelessness and Godlessness with anarchist bombing and sexual deflowering, actions hard enough to unify in life, let alone in literature.

Yet despite his own fulsome writing, Przybyszewski demonstrated excellent taste after 1898 as editor of the Cracovian literary journal Życie. He immediately understood, for example, the greatness of Jan Kasprowicz’s poem “On the Hill of Death,” a reconstruction of the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of a lost soul. Przybyszewski visited Kasprowicz’s home in Lemberg, as Wolff records, and made away with Kasprowicz’s wife. This might have been his most diabolical achievement (although there are strong contenders): God recedes from Kasprowicz’s poetry thereafter. From Wolff’s sketches, the impression arises that this sort of thing was a Galician literary convention. By the time the reader reaches the satanic 1890s, he has learned much about Fredro’s comedies, in which the horns belong to cuckolds rather than to Lucifer, and about the Galician origins of the word “masochism” in the writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—the son of the Galician police chief and the author of the famous novella Venus in Furs.

Przybyszewski’s writer friends in Cracow, though, were meanwhile pursuing marriages that truly were unconventional, embracing peasant culture by marrying peasant girls. The Polish neo-Romanticists of the 1890s wished to keep a kind of faith in the common people, even as they lost hope in history. Ethnography was all the rage, since many thought the scientific record of folk culture might demonstrate the continuous existence of a political nation. Bronisław Malinowski dropped the political aspirations of ethnography, and thereby invented modern anthropology. In the late 1890s gifted writers in the environs of Cracow became observer-participants in family dramas involving peasants and nobles that were also encounters of ancient social groups. Inevitably, one of them wrote about it. Stanisław Wyspiański, a guest at one of these weddings, drew away from stained glass in 1900 to write Wesele (The Wedding Party), the most shattering drama of modern Polish culture.

  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. 

  2. 2

    On Galician Jews, see volumes 12 and 23 of the outstanding yearly Polin, published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford and Portland, Oregon. 

  3. 3

    There was a Polish tradition of Hegelianism, which, bound to and largely discredited with Romanticism, presented the defeat of Poland as a sign of a coming triumph. See Andrzej Walicki, Philosophy and Romantic Nationalism: The Case of Poland (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994). 

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