Galicia's Borderland Consciousness

As Norman Davies noted in his Vanished Kingdoms (2011), the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria was created in 1773 from the Austrian Empire’s acquisitions as a result of the First Partition of Poland, and was liquidated at the close of the First World War in October 1918. Larry Wolff’s The Idea of Galicia (2010) gives 1772 instead as the creation date, and underlines that the Habsburg monarchy then ‘conceived of Galicia as a new Habsburg province’. The former province’s territory is now split between contemporary (Southern) Poland and (Western) Ukraine.[i]

Both Davies’s and Wolff’s works of historical recovery stress the crosscultural and multinational quality of former Galician life. Wolff at one stage labels Galicia ‘the provincial fiefdom of an antiquated dynasty ruling over motley populations’. Here there were Poles, Ruthenians (Ukrainians), Germans, Austrians and Jews. Wolff can even write of ‘the non-national nature of Galician provincial life’ in the 1830s, ‘muting nationality in the political conditions of Metternichian absolutism, transcending nationality in the cultural spirit of Habsburg heterogeneity’.[ii] Competing nationalisms would certainly become an issue later in the nineteenth century: the Ruthenian writer Ivan Franko held the view that the advent of Galician autonomy from 1867 ‘contributed greatly’, as Wolff noted, ‘to the aggravation of national tensions in the province as a consequence of Polish predominance’. But Wolff emphasizes that Galicia ‘constituted neither a national community nor the basis for any sort of aspiring political state’. Indeed, even as internal Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish national movements developed in the province as the nineteenth century progressed, Wolff maintains, ‘the idea of Galicia transcended nationality in the spirit of inclusive provincial integrity’. Before autonomy, ‘the very essence of Galicia, its subjection to Habsburg rule, made the Galicians into non-national aliens in their own country’. Qua ‘non-national subjects’ the Jews were therefore ‘quintessential Galicians’, Wolff suggests.[iii]

The characteristic Galician transcendence of nationality contributes to the sense that as a country Galicia was – in a way – intrinsically a fiction. Wolff points out that the name ‘Galicia’ was originally available to the Habsburgs ‘as the Latin form of the medieval Rus principality of Halych’. But he also observes that, being ‘a figment of the Habsburg imperial imagination, Galicia was simply invented as a name in order to vindicate and designate the newly acquired province’. After its twentieth century demise, Galicia’s status passed from the quasi-fictional to that of a toxic spectre, the Ukrainian Bureau in London publishing a booklet addressing Eastern Galicia as The Danger Spot of Europe (1932[?]). Wolff sees that the spot was ‘dangerous precisely because of its nonexistence, because of its liquidation in 1918 and the still contested post-Habsburg succession’.[iv] As inhabitants of what was a mere Habsburg invention, which would become an unresolved vanished kingdom, Galicia’s citizens understandably lacked very much of a sense of agency. Davies sees the Galicians ‘never in full control of their destiny, developing a strong sense of fatalism combined with a famous brand of humour’.[v]

In his ‘Introduction’ to Vanished Kingdoms, Davies noted how the removal of Christianity and the ancient classics from modern education has helped distance students from ‘the idea of mortality’, and contributed to today’s materialism and ‘false optimism’.[vi] I want to suggest that the historical study of peoples lacking in agency, who also experienced the pitilessness of history, can help buck this contemporary soulless trend. It is worth looking closely at how the victimhood of victims of history has been represented. Aspects of victimhood – such as fatalism or passivity – could then even be reclaimed. Some remarks of Isaac Babel’s in 1920 thus strike me as useful to structure my enquiry here: ‘What is special about Galician towns? The mixture of the dirty ponderous East (Byzantium and the Jews) with the beer-drinking German West.’[vii] In this diary entry Babel coupled a stress on a Western, more worldly sociability with an attention to the citizens’ Eastern inwardness and introspection; in the remainder of this piece, I will examine in more detail qualities and implications of Galicia’s all too easily reviled ponderousness which went hand-in-hand with the province’s multinational, borderland character.

The seclusion structuring inwardness itself has socio-political determinants. Davies noted ‘the kingdom’s conservative ethos’, and Wolff underlines the conservatism of post-Napoleonic Galicia (from 1815 to 1835) especially, when, although ‘political conservatism only barely contained the province’s contradictory and combustible cultural elements’, Galicia was ‘deeply imbued with the conservatism of the Metternich era’.[viii] In this period Polish Galicians in particular had become deeply disillusioned, seeing little hope for pursuing their own national cause now that the power of their French allies had declined. The tendency was just to stay at home, the dramatist Aleksander Fredro observing that ‘the domestic happiness of the Pole is at present a flowering oasis in the Sahara desert’, whilst Józef Reitzenheim wrote of those who retreated, in their post-Napoleonic disappointment, to ‘country life and private life’.[ix] These secluded nobles are emblematic of Galicia, and not just in its most reactionary times. Franz Xaver Mozart (the famous composer’s son) complained of ‘loneliness [Einsamkeit]’ whilst in Galicia, and bemoaned to a correspondent in 1810 how life in the backwoods constricted his own musical life. Elvira, the heroine of Fredro’s 1821 play Husband and Wife, emphasizes her loneliness too – this time deploying the Polish word (samotność). Reporting on Galicia for the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1924, Joseph Roth offered the definitive definition of his native province – some years after its erasure – as what Wolff calls ‘Europe after all, but somehow estranged from Europe’. Roth aligned the borderland condition of the entire country with its constitutive Einsamkeit. ‘Galicia lies in loneliness lost to the world, and yet is not isolated; it is exiled [verbannt] but not cut off.’[x]

Galicians, of course, were estranged not just from (Western) Europe but from a sense of a distinct nationality of their own, and verbannt not only from the (Western) ‘world’ but from the very idea of a homeland. Wolff, again, saw how ‘the very essence of Galicia, its subjection to Habsburg rule, made the Galicians into non-national aliens in their own country’. When he cites Fredro’s remark that ‘one may be born in a province and still be completely a foreigner there’, Wolff points to the example of ‘[Habsburg] bureaucratic families like the Sacher-Masoch family, which had been present in the province dating back to the eighteenth century’. To be imported (like the bureaucratic class) or simply subjected (like other classes) by the Habsburg monarchy was to be rendered passive in a profound way, and you could conjecture that this very sensation of fatedness was translated to the erotic sphere in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs (1870). ‘“Oh, what voluptuousness to feel dependent entirely on your arbitrariness, your mood, a wave of your finger!”’, Severin tells Wanda in that founding text of modern masochism.[xi] Wolff notes that for those figures, Galicia was ‘unquestionably the formative environment that shaped their individual psyches and nourished their perverse romance’, in that their creator’s masochism was ‘related to a specifically Galician sense of bondage’. Indeed during Sacher-Masoch’s formative years in the 1840s, the country’s conditions of serfdom were under consideration in the Galician Sejm (estates general) and within the Austrian administration, focussing especially on ‘the contractual obligations to perform forced labour [robot]’. If ‘the life of the Galicians went quietly, longingly’, as Reitzenheim wrote of Metternich’s Galicia, it also went abusively.[xii]

Roth memorably found Galicia to possess ‘the sad splendour of the reviled’.[xiii] Franko’s 1905 verse epic in Ukrainian, Moses, had already articulated the mentality of the reviled – ponderous, melancholic and downtrodden. As Wolff explains, Franko’s Moses could be taken to be ‘the prophet of the Ruthenians’, his problems being ‘those of Galicia at the beginning of the twentieth century’. Wolff quotes these lines from the poem’s opening dedication:

            Oh, no! You are not doomed just to dejection

            And tears! I still believe in will, its power,

            In your uprising day and resurrection!

            If one could but create a moment’s fraction,

And then a word which would in such a moment

Inflame the people into life and action!

Or just a song with fire and living passion

Which would grip millions and lend them wings

For action leading them to self-expression!

Yes, if! But we on whom all worries settle,

And torn apart with doubt, with shame inflicted.

We are not fit to lead you into battle![xiv]

Franko imagines that the anxious Ruthenians’ potentiality can be disinhibited, their embryonic agency released, through the creation of visionary language – ‘a word which would in such a moment/ Inflame the people into life and action’. But articulacy is itself an issue for a vulnerable Galician community, just as it was for the stammerer Moses. Only the ‘action’ set into flight by the people’s poet’s imagined song can enable Ruthenian ‘self-expression’.

Three years later, writing in his The Legend of the Baal-Shem, Martin Buber located another species of Galician stammer, the one characterizing what Wolff terms the ‘great mystical phenomenon’ of Hasidic Judaism.

‘The Hasidic legend does not possess the austere power of the Buddha legend nor the intimacy of the Franciscan. It did not grow in the shadow of ancient groves nor on slopes of silver-green olive-trees. It came to life in narrow streets and small, musty rooms, passing from awkward lips to the ears of anxious listeners. A stammer gave birth to it and a stammer bore it onward – from generation to generation. I have received it from folk-books, from note-books and pamphlets, at times also from a living mouth, from the mouths of people still living who even in their lifetime heard this stammer.’

Dysfluency is here the mark of the heretical, anti-establishment character of Hasidic spirituality, the shtetl stutter having spawned a ‘legend’ – a body of myth – that is scruffy, democratic and urban. Buber’s insight into how Hasidic lore has been stammered onward through time, as the province of the ‘awkward’ and the ‘anxious’, the ponderous and the reviled, also draws attention to the physicality of dissident religious communication. Forced out from a ‘living mouth’, this mysticism became a genetic inheritance. When Wolff suggests that the religious mythology of Galician Jews offered to Buber (‘the Viennese Jew with family from Lviv’), ‘a very particular philosophical perspective, carried in his own blood and spirit, for confronting modernity and the twentieth century’, he posits heretical spirituality as a bodily form of folk-knowledge which would resist the dehumanized impersonality of Western European life.[xv]  

Wolff notes that Galicia seemed ‘an ancestral homeland of mystical roots for the modern Jews of turn-of-the-century Vienna’. Hasidism existed in Russian Poland too, but it would become viewed as one of the ‘characteristic markers’ of the Galician Jew. For example, Sacher-Masoch, who was a keen observer of Jewish culture and wrote his own Jewish tales, had the ‘conviction’, Wolff writes, ‘that Hasidism, with its fantastic and fanatic elements of mysticism, was characteristically Galician’. Sacher-Masoch was interested in how the Galician environment shaped its inhabitants’ withdrawal and inwardness: their ponderousness. Exiled to a ‘wasteland’ under wide skies, Sacher-Masoch’s Hasids – just like Buber’s – are simultaneously physically confined, in a very urban ‘sunless shed’. In the small borderland town the Hasid’s intellect was contained and his emotional life shrivelled. Yet within this scenario of restriction, his spiritual exploration continued within his texts. Sacher-Masoch saw how within a masochistic landscape of sensory deprivation, spiritual cognition became visionary – passionate, physical, if even hallucinatory – experience.

‘In order to understand the Hasidic sect, one has to understand the land where they live. […] You know that the sailor who spends his life in the middle of a watery desert becomes taciturn, serious, melancholy; the Galician flatlands produce the same effect. Here people have a feeling of infinity that they cannot grasp, and they withdraw into themselves. […] And now imagine, in a dull, sunless shed, in this wasteland, far from the world, far from civilization […] a man who has a great mind, who has the need to investigate and discover the world, to penetrate its secrets to the depths, who has a burning imagination and a warm heart, and who is shut up within his four walls like a prisoner, like a dried flower in a herbarium, who has no well of knowledge to draw from other than his Talmud and his Kabbalah. You will understand that this man, constantly searching and brooding, will become a dreamer and a fanatic, will believe he hears the voice of God, and will be convinced that he converses with angels and demons.’[xvi]


[i] Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (London: Penguin Books, 2012; first publ.[London(?)]: Allen Lane, 2011), p. 449; The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 1.

[ii] Wolff, pp. 373, 1, 109.

[iii] Wolff, pp. 250, 5, 135 (and 353).

[iv] Wolff, pp. 1, 60, 391, 395.

[v] Davies, p. 451.

[vi] Davies, pp. 7, 8.

[vii] Babel quoted from Wolff, p. 382.

[viii] Davies, p. 464; Wolff, pp. 65, 64.

[ix] Wolff, p. 77 (quoting Fredro); Reitzenheim quoted from p. 103.

[x] Wolff, pp. 74 (quoting Mozart), 94 (quoting Fredro), 389 (quoting Roth).

[xi] Wolff, pp. 135, 140 (quoting Fredro); Sacher-Masoch quoted from p. 137.

[xii] Wolff, pp. 112, 8, 112; Reitzenheim quoted from p. 103.

[xiii] Roth quoted from Wolff, p. 389.

[xiv] Wolff, p. 328 (quoting Franko).

[xv] Wolff, p. 346 (quoting Buber).

[xvi] Wolff, pp. 346, 210, 209 (quoting Sacher-Masoch).


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