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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.

Mike King

In the first act of Wesele, Wyspiański faithfully reproduces one such mixed gathering. In the second act, late at night, historical visions appear to the guests, as when a knight encounters a poet. Yet the effect of the specters is disconcerting, as each dreamer finds himself ill at ease with his ancient companion. The final vision summons both nobles and peasants to unified action to liberate the nation from foreign rule, leaving a golden horn to symbolize their alliance. It gets lost.

The next morning, in act three, peasants mill about with scythes awaiting leadership that does not come, and the threat of a slaughter of nobles, as in 1846, hangs in the air. History is not an ally of progress, says Wyspiański along with his fellow Cracovians and neo-Romantics; but neither can literature—here falls the blow—overcome class divides simply by being “modern.” Life might be a work of art, and art might involve folk themes, and an artful life might even be possible for some people. But from the rich jumble of symbols no idea emerges about how Galicia or Poland might be remade.4

Wyspiański’s drama premiered in Cracow on the same day in 1901 that the city’s trams started to run. A journalist wrote that the trams seemed to onlookers to race along with breakneck speed, while from within they hardly seemed to move at all. The same can be said of Galician urban life: it kept pace with European capitals, but the misery of the hinterland was proverbial. In the half-century before the staging of Wesele the population of the province grew from about 4.5 million to about 7.3 million, relatively few of whom could be absorbed by Cracow. In 1900, nearly half of Cracow’s population had been born in Galicia but not in the city, whose population was only about 100,000. Every day hundreds of peasant girls waited for work under the Mickiewicz statue, far more than could possibly be married by Mickiewicz’s neo-Romantic epigones. In any imaginable future, unified Poland, if it were to be coherent, would have to include all of society. But social reform depends upon state power, and the state was weak and its local authority in the hands of Poles interested in preserving the existing agrarian order.

In eastern Galicia, where the peasant population spoke Ukrainian rather than Polish, a similar gesture toward cultural unification seemed to bring more hopeful results. National and class positions in eastern Galicia overlapped, as Ukrainian peasants were beholden to Polish landlords. The extension of suffrage in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in the Habsburg monarchy made Ukrainian voters of Ukrainian speakers. Local writers and bureaucrats, educated in the spirit of Habsburg Enlightenment and fluent in German and Polish, chose to write in Ukrainian and present themselves as the leaders of a new Ukrainian nation.

The most significant of these was Ivan Franko, the subject of an excellent biography by Iaroslav Hrytsak. Franko was first a scholar writing in German, then a social democrat agitating in Polish, then finally a Ukrainian patriot and modernist poet. Though their own ethnicity was often no simple matter, Franko and other such Ukrainians saw in ethnography the scientific evidence for a bright political future. The Russian imperial census of 1897 registered tens of millions of Ukrainian speakers just north and east of Galicia, on the Russian side of the border. Thus it was possible for Ukrainian activists in Galicia to imagine a vast Ukrainian nation, defined ethnically, awaiting its moment of liberation,5 whether from Russia or the Habsburgs or the Polish nobility.

Many Galicians, Polish, Ukrainian, or Jewish, were seeking a more immediate sort of liberation in the 1890s than art, politics, or ethnography might provide. Galician misery was a reality confirmed by statistical surveys. Outbreaks of cholera were frequent and feared. Women whose children fell ill licked their eyelids, like mother cats with kittens, trying to prevent blindness. Population growth continued despite the widespread use of “angelmakers,” women who would take in unwanted infants and kill them by hunger or cold. As Martin Pollack shows in his artful study of Galician emigration to the New World in the 1890s, newspapers reported almost every day on the discovery of the corpse of an infant. Population growth among Jews was even faster than among others, even though tens of thousands of Jewish girls were exported during that decade by traffickers to India, the Ottoman Empire, Brazil, and Argentina.

But the main outflow was of men of working age, between twenty and forty. A horrible drought in the summer of 1889 forced Galician peasants, unable to feed their horses, to slaughter them. This made the next harvest all but impossible. Pogroms of Jews followed. The flood of migration that began in 1890 included all groups, but Jews were more than twice as likely as Christians to leave Galicia—and far less likely to return.

Pollack’s objective, in a collection of essays about particular men and women who left Galicia in the 1890s, is to portray the rough encounter between a backward province and a globalizing world. In his gentle way he is merciless with two classic sites of nostalgia, the Galician shtetl and the American land of opportunity. Traditional Jewish life endured in Galicia because the state was unable to remake it; but the economies of the shtetls collapsed in times of poverty brought by crop failures in the country and mass production in the city. Christians and Jews were drawn from their shrinking plots or failing trades by the demand for labor in the New World, particularly in the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Baltic shipping companies based in Hamburg and Bremen sought to lure Galicians to their vessels. To this end, they employed agents who scattered throughout the province, using means fair or foul to attract immigrants to one company or another.

Galicians wishing to emigrate passed through Auschwitz. As Fredro had wished half a century before, Auschwitz was the train station that permitted Galicians to travel the province from east to west, to Germany—and so to the Baltic Sea, and the wider world. The main shipping companies had offices in Auschwitz; the Hamburg line, Hapag, used a hotel across the street from the Auschwitz train station, located in a neighboring settlement called Birkenau. Those who passed through the town found it hard to leave Auschwitz without booking passage to the New World. People who looked like peasants were arrested by the bribed police, taken to the Hapag offices for a mock interrogation, strip-searched, deprived of whatever money was found on their persons, and given a ticket that they usually could not even read.

Here in the last years of the Habsburg monarchy we see not a strong state mastering its own people, but rather a weak state overwhelmed by international labor markets. Pollack’s book, like the others, ends with World War I, when the Habsburg monarchy was defeated and then partitioned in its turn. Galicia as a political entity ceased to exist, and all of its lands were granted to the newly independent Poland, restored to statehood after more than a century. This proved to be a temporary arrangement.

After the Germans destroyed interwar Poland in September 1939, they extended Silesia (which Prussia had gained from the Habsburgs two centuries earlier) to the west, so that Oświęcim (which they called Auschwitz) fell within the Third Reich. Heinrich Himmler liked Auschwitz for some of the same reasons that Aleksander Fredro had a century before—it was located near abundant water and linked to important population centers. He ordered the construction of a concentration camp there in 1940.

World War II began with both German and Soviet soldiers entering Galicia, and both Nazi and Stalinist leaders determined to destroy its civilization. The urban centers of the old province, Lemberg (which fell to the Soviets) and Cracow (which fell to the Germans), were subject to particular cruelty. One of the first German actions was to send practically all the professors of the university at Cracow—older than any German university—to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. From Cracow the Germans in the spring of 1940 led educated Poles to a nearby forest and had them dig their own graves, then late that year began to send them to Auschwitz. In Lemberg, the Soviets gathered Polish officers who would later be murdered at Katyn, then deported their families to Kazakhstan.

In 1941, after betraying Stalin and ordering the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler revived the term “Galicia.” He added a district of this name to the larger German colony known as the General Government. In Galicia both of the major techniques of the Holocaust, shooting and gassing, were used on a vast scale. Galician Jews were shot in 1941 over pits, then in 1942 deported to Bełzec and asphyxiated. A death facility was added to the camp at Auschwitz, where a million European Jews were gassed in 1943 and 1944. In those years, as German power waned and the Red Army returned, Ukrainian nationalist partisans cleared the region of Poles, who responded with cruelties of their own. At war’s end, the Ukrainian nationalists were defeated by the Soviets, who killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and deported hundreds of thousands more to concentration camps. Stalin divided the region in two, with the eastern half assigned to Soviet Ukraine and the western half to Communist Poland.6

In Wesele, a young Jewish woman, Rachel, reveals a mature understanding of nostalgia in her flirtation with a Polish poet: “I’m going to imagine you from far away, and when I fall in love, I’ll send you a letter and a key.” From the other end of the twentieth century she was answered by another Galician Rachel, the Yiddish poet Rokhl Korn, with a more somber but no less tender definition: “Through the greyness of our day the clouds leave/The feverish yearning of a wounded hour/On the windowpane.”

Because Galicia was put to an end twice, as a political entity by World War I and as a society by World War II, it is subject today to a kind of double nostalgia. After 1918, Joseph Roth did for Galicia in his Radetzky March what Stefan Zweig did for the Habsburg monarchy as a whole in The World of Yesterday, recalling a harmonious order brought to an end by war. Today we are, so to speak, nostalgic for that nostalgia, for the very possibility of seeing in Habsburg or Galician culture a script for toleration rather than the dramaturgy of destruction.

Any history of Galicia must cut through those clouds of mist, as these books do in exemplary fashion. Any history of Galicia must also work against the facile modern view that there is a straight path from the Duchy of Auschwitz to the death facility at Auschwitz. Wood and Hrytsak present the Habsburg experience as a nationalization of Enlightenment, Pollack as a failure of Enlightenment, and Wolff as the backdrop for the revelation of the Enlightenment’s contradictions. All of them are right. But why does this idea of the tensions within Enlightenment, of discontent as civilization, seem so familiar, and so plausible? The answer to this question perhaps also leads back to Galicia, if by an unfamiliar path.

Thanks to these books we see connections between the Galician society of the eighteenth century and the Polish, Ukrainian, Israeli, American, and Canadian nations of today. Yet the significance of the creation of Galicia resides not only in the political escape to nationalism, or the literary escape into nostalgia, but also in the liberating escape to Vienna by Galician Jews. The seemingly unassimilable Galician Jews of the late eighteenth century were the grandparents of the cultivated Viennese writers and scientists who dominated European modernism a century later. Freud, who argued that original sin is inherited from a dead God, was two generations away from Galicia. We forget the distant Galician origins of the idea that civilization contains its own critique.