The Myth of Galicia

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The Myth of Galicia

Galicia was nearly as big as present-day Austria; around 1900 its capital Lviv (Lemberg in German) was the fourth-largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The geographical location of the region is hardly known at all today. But its name still conjures up fantasies: images of a land lost to the world, the very essence of remoteness; a core area of Eastern European Jewry, and the multi-cultural poorhouse of the Habsburg Empire.

The Austrian writer Joseph Roth, himself born in Brody, coined the term “in-between land” for Galicia. The western part of the region belongs to Poland today, the eastern half lies within the Ukrainian border. Politics and war have resulted in renewed discussions about the European identity of the region. Historically, it came into existence as an artificial creation of European power politics: the region began to be called “Galicia” after it had been annexed by Austria as a result of the 1772 partition of Poland – for Emperor Joseph II, it was a territory in need of being “civilised”, and one that supplied mineral resources and soldiers to the Empire. Galicia was a country of linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity: its inhabitants were Roman or Eastern Catholics and Jews speaking Polish, Ukrainian and Yiddish.

Issued in conjunction with a cultural exhibition. This exhibition was the first to focus on the different Polish, Ukrainian, Austrian and Jewish perspectives in light of the historical facts. The myth of poverty and backwardness contrasted with the myth of progress and development. Around 1900, Galicia’s rich oil deposits turned it into “Austria’s Texas”. After partial autonomy was granted to the region in 1867, the myth of the “good Emperor” Franz Joseph was born. Galicia, a multi-ethnic Arcadia? At the same time, social and national tensions mounted. “Galicia in Vienna” is the heading of one section of the exhibition which discusses migration flows from the region to Vienna. From 1880 onwards, Jewish migrants, including artists and intellectuals, flocked to the capital of the Empire. The final section deals with “Galicia after Galicia”: After the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918, Galicia vanished from the maps, but its myth was reborn after 1989. The exhibition, which was designed in cooperation with the International Cultural Centre in Kraków, was on show there from 9 October 2014 to 8 March 2015.

What do we know about Galicia? What is Galicia today? What values do we attach to it – positive or negative? Galicia felix or Galicia miserabilis? The beloved good Emperor or a conservative bureaucrat? Arcadia or periphery and “semi-Asia”? “Galician poverty” or progress against all odds? Country of liberal legislation or the proverbial “Galician elections”? A place of happy coexistence or of national and social conflicts?
The photo book accompanying an exhibition or under the same title attempts to answer the questions asked above. An attempt at looking at a Galicia that is no longer there, and yet, despite both the world wars, and both the totalitarianisms that made their brunt on this part of Europe, it is still present as a mythical place, an imagined space. An endeavour at telling a tale of a shared territory of memory for Poles, Ukrainians, Austrians, Jews nowadays separated by borders.

Despite the existence of the imagined, universal Galicia, its historical area in real life is intersected by the border of Schengen Zone being at the same time the border of the European Union, clearly separating the western Polish Galicia from Eastern Galicia – the Ukrainian Halychyna. Yet “the Galician experience” of Western Ukraine became one of the most important arguments for the “European drive” that came to prominence in Kyiv’s Maidan. Therefore, the phenomenon of Galicia is not only the question of a surviving memory, but primarily a proof of reality-influencing power that a myth can have.

Over 300 works and documents from Polish, Ukrainian, and Austrian collections are reproduced in the book, and the history and myth of Galicia have been investigated by the most eminent experts of Galicia questions from Europe and overseas: Matthias Beitl, Emil Brix, Patrice M. Dabrowski, Katrin Ecker, Jarosław Hrycak, Kerstin S. Jobst, Klemens Kaps, Maria Kłańska, Żanna Komar, Wolfgang Kos, Börries Kuzmany, Waldemar Łazuga, Hans-Christian Maner, Martin Pollack, Jurko Prochaśko, Jacek Purchla, Mykola Riabchuk, Jan Rydel, Monika Rydiger, Werner Michael Schwarz, Joshua Shanes, Telse Hartmann, Alois Woldan, Larry Wolff, Taras Wozniak, and Krzysztof Zamorski.