Welcome to Café Habsburg!

For a dissolved country, it is doing quite well. It is supported by the myth of the Habsburg multinational empire and its multinational state, the 19th century version of the European Union. In a way, it has retained its political identity: in its western (Polish) and eastern (Ukrainian) parts, right-wing parties are still the most popular. Emperor Franz Joseph I likes it

When the Austrian army entered Małopolska [Lesser Poland] and Red Ruthenia in 1772, it encountered no resistance. For the locals, it was a swap of one occupation for another. It was hoped that the new masters would prove more humane than the Russians chasing the confederates. However, no one could have expected that Galicia, with all the characteristics of a political ephemera, would last as long as 146 years. Leaving behind a legend that will still be alive and vibrant in the 21st century.

Neither the Grand Duchy of Posen nor the puppet Kingdom of Poland, a whim of Tsar Alexander I, evoke such warm feelings. Polish historical policy, which for a century and a half has invoked insurrectionary traditions, has failed on this front. Also Ukrainians and Jews nostalgically look back to the Imperial-Royal monarchy. This phenomenon has been analysed by many, so far the last word belongs to Larry Wolff, author of the book The Idea of Galicia.

The Holy Emperor and the European

The American historian argues that Galicia could have been resurrected just two years after its funeral ordered by the Polish Liquidation Committee. In 1920, Vladimir Lenin established a “socialist Galician Soviet republic” with a temporary capital in Ternopil (Lviv remained in Polish hands). If the Bolsheviks had been victorious and Nikita Khrushchev had not come to power, Galicia would have had a chance to live to see the break-up of the USSR and thus – sovereignty. Together with Bukovina and Moldova, it would have knocked on the gates of the European Union.
Larry Wolff, The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture, Stanford University Press, 1st edition (April 6, 2010)
But let us come back down to earth. The facts are that Galicia last appeared on maps in the summer of 1941. Having defeated the Red Army, the Germans then created an administrative unit between the San and Zbruch rivers under the name Distrikt Galizien, which – to the disappointment of the Ukrainians – was incorporated into the General Government. Two years later, when the spectre of defeat loomed in the eyes of the Third Reich, recruitment for the 14th SS Galizien Grenadier Division began. Under a banner with a golden lion and three crowns, the collaborationist formation fought Polish partisans, sparing no civilians. Ironically, after the war, the division’s survivors were rescued by General Władysław Anders, who protested against the handing over of the Second Republic’s citizens into the clutches of Joseph Stalin’s henchmen.

At the time, it seemed that the mass murders and resettlements had finally ended the history of multicultural Galicia. Yet not even half a century had passed and portraits of Franz Joseph appeared again in Kraków and Lviv (there was even a plan to erect a statue of the Emperor in the latter city). The myth of the golden age was picked up by the tourism industry, which can monetise nostalgia rather well. Galicia has been revived in shop signs, cafés and restaurants, and local cultural initiatives. The Habsburg heritage was associated with an idealised Europe.

During its lifetime, the monarchy did not get a good press. At first, it was seen as a prison of nations, a conglomeration of random territories that fell into the hands of the Austrian dynasty more by luck than by deliberate policy. It was seen as an anachronistic state, afflicted with a deadly disease and doomed to extinction. Modern historians, such as Peter M. Judson, think otherwise. They interpret the history of Cisleithania in a transnational spirit. What emerges from their work is a vision of a liberal, democratic-leaning power that provides its citizens with a sense of stability and security. A forerunner of the EU. Otto von Habsburg, grandson and would-be heir of Franz Joseph, co-author of this narrative, triumphs (posthumously).

Perhaps the sentiment also influenced the beatification of Otto’s father, the last emperor, Charles I. It was, after all, performed by a pope born in a Galician town. Karol Wojtyła senior, who paraded for 18 years in the uniform of the imperial-royal monarchy, served the Habsburgs not out of obligation, but out of conviction. So did many other Polish patriots. Today, the myth of Galicia is more necessary for Ukrainians. It makes it easier to dissociate themselves from Russia. The zeal to recall Lviv’s links with Vienna sometimes takes extravagant forms. On Serbska Street, in front of the house where Leopold von Sacher-Masoch once lived, there is a monument to the Austrian scandal-monger (an Austrian with strongly pan-Slavic and philo-Semitic convictions, he also wrote scandalous texts and it is from his name that the term “masochism” derives). In the basement of the building, there (still?) is a bar where you can be whipped by corseted waitresses.

A blessing in disguise

Tumultuous history of Polish lion figures in Lviv

As an irritating symbol of Polish “occupation of Lviv” the lions were removed before a tank action on August 25, 1971.

see more
She had a difficult childhood. When it was established by imperial decree in 1772, another, Spanish Galicia, had already existed for centuries. Vienna officials knew this, but the competing names – Anterior Hungary, Austrian Poland, Grand Duchy of Lviv – were laughable. The reference to the mediaeval Principality of Galicia–Volhynia (whose rulers briefly titled themselves kings) was also flawed. First of all, the territory of the duchy in question did not at all coincide with the area detached from the Republic. In addition to Red Ruthenia, the Austrian annexation included Spisz, southern Lesser Poland, the Duchy of Auschwitz and Zator, as well as parts of Volhynia and Podolia. The Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, proclaimed in 1772, as a grossly artificial creation, could not become the beloved child of an increasingly conservative monarchy. Its only natural border was that of the southern Carpathian Mountains, which had separated Poland from Hungary for centuries.

  Empress Maria Theresa found the new acquisition troublesome, not least for moral reasons. Galicia, a few years before it appeared on the map, had suffered heavily during the battles between the Confederates of Bar and the Russians. From the start, it also had the reputation of being a peripheral province, difficult to defend and manage. The salt mines of Bochnia and Wieliczka, as well as the 20,000-strong city of Lviv, one of the richest in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, were undoubtedly tempting morsels. But in Maria Theresa’s eyes, Galicia could only be a consolation prize for lost Silesia.

Her successor, Joseph II, an Enlightenment messianist, announced that he would “cure barbarism and backwardness” in the cheaply conquered territories. The reverse of this civilising mission was the black legend of Galicia – the “land of the bears” – promoted by imperial officials. The first governor, Count Johann Anton Perger, reported to Vienna that he found disastrous roads, an ignorant populace, a sloppy nobility and an uneducated clergy.

Austrian rule ensured that this stereotype was perpetuated. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, the Habsburgs were almost constantly at war. Governors were expected to collect taxes efficiently and obtain cannon fodder. Investments mainly concerned the police, as the country was expected to be peaceful and as such orderly. The plan was to exchange Galicia for other territory: Silesia, Bavaria or Dalmatia, and it became obsolete only after the fall of Napoleon.

Lviv was the greatest beneficiary of the transition of the southern lands of the Commonwealth to Habsburg rule. From being the capital of a province, it became the head of the largest province of the empire (a contender for this dignity was Przemyśl). The university founded by Joseph II was to produce a new elite. The old ones had long resented Vienna’s policies. Imperial officials, usually of bourgeois origin, lived with the Polish nobility like cats and dogs. Added to this was the language barrier. Outside the cities, few people spoke German, so they got along in French. Latin was also in use in the Catholic monarchy.

With more than enough evidence of the disloyalty of the heraldic clan, the authorities began to coax the peasants. In 1846, it became apparent how successful it was in this regard. Instead of an uprising, the peasants – and not at all the Ukrainian peasants – set out to loot the manor houses and massacre their inhabitants (the so-called Galician Slaughter; its most famous leader was Jakub Szela). This was a turning point. The Galician elite, stripped of their illusions, realised that they had to “calculate”, i.e. make a deal with the Emperor. On the Danube, too, they realised that the Germanisation of their Slavic subjects was a pipe dream.

Artists and bureaucrats

Autonomy brought stability that lasted half a century. Poles and Ruthenians became mainstays of the monarchy, but Galicia’s greatest patriots could be found in the synagogues. The cosmopolitanism of the Habsburgs was rightly regarded by the Jews as a guarantee of security, the preservation of religion and tradition. They therefore rejected assimilationist temptations. Accession to Polishness was claimed only by individuals: educated idealists, keeping away from rabbis and tzaddiks. Ironically, in the Austrian partition, literature, science and the fine arts were doing better and better, reaching their high point in the last phase of Franz Joseph’s reign. To stop at just the most famous names, Galicia gave us: Aleksander Fredro, Artur Grottger, Jan Matejko, Helena Modrzejewska, Ignacy Łukasiewicz, Stanisław Wyspiański, the Kossak and Estreicher dynasties.
The universities of Lviv and Krakow educated a new elite. It is also impossible to overestimate the importance of the Ossolineum or the Czartoryski collections transferred from Paris. Galicia was a magnet for talented compatriots from beyond the cordon: from the discoverer of the Tatra Mountains, Wincenty Pol, and the godfather of Zakopane, Stanisław Witkiewicz, to the poet Jan Kasprowicz, the naturalist Gabriela Zapolska and Saint Brother Albert. The Wawel Hill became a destination for patriotic pilgrimages even before the Austrian garrison was removed from it. Kraków – “a treasury of national memorabilia” – aspired to be the spiritual capital of a country temporarily wiped off the map.

Galicia’s political heritage is, to put it mildly, ambiguous. On the one hand, it was a school of political realism and the motherland of the Stańczycy (a political grouping that formed in the 1860s, shortly after the fall of the January Uprising, in the western lands of Galicia). Polish conservatives held governmental positions in Vienna. We gave Cisleithania three prime ministers and an all-powerful finance minister. On the other hand, irredentism had its nest under the Habsburg sceptre, while socialists like Ignacy Daszyński and popularists led by Wincenty Witos won parliamentary seats. It is quite likely that it was in Vienna that they were taught that politics boils down to backroom intrigues and demagogic speeches. There were many who were disgusted by the operetta-like nature of the Austrian Parliament’s proceedings – the young Adolf Hitler to name but one.

Already after the restoration of independence, the Greater Poland press slandered the “Galician crazies”. The officials inherited from the imperial-royal monarchy also had a poor reputation. After 1918, when it came to building the institutional foundations of the Second Republic, the fame of the arrogance and sluggishness of the “Galileans” spread throughout the country. However, bureaucrats with an Austrian bent were a necessary evil, as in other partitions Poles were entrusted only with subordinate posts. Another dowry that Galicia brought to the reborn Republic was the Ukrainian problem. Vienna hounded the minorities. Warsaw had only Polonisation to offer them. The withdrawal of the concessions granted by the Habsburgs greatly accelerated the transition of the Ruthenians from religious to national identification.

From Auschwitz to Ternopil

Galicia was a miniature version of Eastern Europe. From its example, the West formed a view of the social and ethnic problems of this part of the continent, the shabby infrastructure and the widespread lack of hygiene. Apparently, the view from the windows of a train travelling from Vienna to Lviv already spoke for itself. The imperial-royal officials and military officers treated the order to serve in Rzeszów or Brody as an exile to Siberia. These circles gave rise to the concept of Halb-Asien, a half-European country, popularised in the German-language works of Franz Kratter and Hermann Blumenthal. Galicia appeared to progressive Austrians as the most remote and exotic region of the monarchy, a hotbed of backwardness, clericalism and hypocrisy.

Complicated local elites picked up on this narrative. People spoke and wrote about “Galician poverty”, “Galician ignorance”, “Galician counts” and “Galician elections”. Stanisław Szczepanowski, author of the 1888 book Nędza Galicyi w cyfrach [The Misery of Galicia in Figures], contributed most to the perpetuation of the black legend. This scholar calculated that the average life expectancy in the province was 27 years for men and 28.5 years for women, and that 50,000 people died of starvation every year, only to smoothly conclude: “the average Galician eats for half and works for a quarter of a man”. One of the reasons for this dire statistic was the overpopulation of the countryside. By 1914, more than a million people had left the Austrian partition for bread: Poles, Ruthenians, and Jews.

Kosovo: a cap gun on the wall, a mine in the drawer

The disputed zone with Serbia is like a permanently smouldering peat bog – it didn’t ignite this time. This time it did not, but tomorrow?

see more
In addition to these three most numerous nations, there were also many Armenians, Karaites, Moldovans, Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, and Gypsies. The temperature of the disputes in this multicultural melting pot was constantly rising. If by some miracle Galicia had survived, it would have been a permanent state of emergency, a second Ulster, requiring constant subsidies from headquarters.

A cell for a priest, a croissant for a traitor

Alois Woldan, a Slavist at the University of Vienna, claims that there is a “Galician literature, written in German, Polish and Ukrainian”. The latter two promote an arcadian vision of a country that enjoyed a golden age under the benevolent Emperor Franz Joseph. The apologists include some truly formidable writers (Leopold Buczkowski, Andrzej Kuśniewicz, Julian Stryjkowski, Andrzej Stojowski, Włodzimierz Odojewski and Andrzej Kijowski). If we add to this the separate myth of Lviv – antemuralis christianitatis, or the renaissance in popularity of Józef Wittlin, Bruno Schulz and Stanisław Vincenz – it is easier to understand the phenomenon of Galician life after life.

In the Communist Poland, the black legend of Galicia and Lodomeria was in force. The Kraków historian Henryk Wereszycki was the first to dare to state that the Austrian partition had its pluses. Włodzimierz Paźniewski, a poet born in the Tarnopol district, proclaimed in 1978 in “Polityka” that Galicia “is an example of a better Polish fate”. Contemporary historians seem to be overwhelmed by the power of the myth of the emperor – protector of nations and his talented subjects. The general public has no taste for academic hair-splitting. Their imagination is better captured by keywords such as Polish Piedmont, artistic bohemia, Baczewski’s vodka, Mrs Dulska, the Kraków historical school, a wedding in Bronowice, Jordanów gardens, Kościuszko Mound, the Green Balloon literary cabaret, the Riflemen’s Association, the Hutsul Region and a trip to Giewont.

Austria Felix has loyal fans even on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2007, a scholarly symposium was organised in New York with the telling title: “Galicia, Mon Amour”. Descendants of former Jewish emigrants led the way. Larry Wolff, analysing the phenomenon of an artificial creation, which over time acquired an overly concrete identity, also succumbs to the nostalgia typical of a Galitzyaner. However, this does not prevent him from recalling embarrassing episodes such as the pogroms of 1884-1887, inspired by Father Stanisław Stojałowski. This pioneer of the peasant movement, publisher of “Wieniec” and “Pszczółka” (socio-political magazines), also had another face: that of a dangerous miscreant and pan-Slavist. Excommunicated, he spent much time in imperial-royal jails and prisons, but many considered him a hero.

Father Stanisław is worthy of a thick novel, while Szela’s slaughter and oil fever are worthy of an epic film. The series about the regulars of the “Café Habsburg” – Przemyśl’s most elegant pub – could be of interest to fans of spy stories. In the final episode, Colonel Alfred Redl, head of Austrian counter-espionage, would, according to historical truth, allow himself to be recruited by the Russians after eating a croissant stuffed with chocolate. The information that the would-be war minister sold to the enemy before he was exposed contributed greatly to the imperial-royal army’s defeats in 1914.

The end of amity of nations
How many of the nine million inhabitants of Galicia expected the apocalypse? Six years before the outbreak of the First World War, a Ukrainian student shot the imperial governor Andrew Potocki. Wolff compares this incident to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Given that Potocki had pursued a policy of reconciliation, a confrontation between the province’s two most populous nations seemed inevitable. The force needed to dismantle the multi-ethnic monarchy was available to its neighbour to the east, but Tsar Nicholas II did not recognise the existence of the Ukrainians. After the occupation of Lemberg, he immediately announced that the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria was becoming part of Russia for all time.

A year later, the invaders were driven back beyond the Zbruch River, but the seeds of violence were sown. Thousands died defending a country that was about to disappear from the map of Europe. Others fell victim to blunt repression or bandits in uniform. Galicia was dying in instalments, becoming a huge graveyard. No one counted the material losses. The Poles broke with the monarchy when it came to light that, in exchange for food supplies, the Austrians were prepared to gift the Ukrainians not only eastern Galicia but also the Chelm region.

The Jews who lost the most from the fall of the Habsburgs had a dilemma. To wait for the next instalment of the conflict, or to emigrate? The richer ones went to Vienna, the more resourceful even further afield. The last generation of Galitzyaners: Joseph Roth (born in Brody), Helena Rubinstein (Kraków), Shmuel Josef Agnon (Buczacz) and Billy Wilder (Sucha Beskidzka) proved to be the most talented. The heroine of Wilder’s comedy Some Like it Hot, played by Marilyn Monroe, quite coincidentally bears the surname Kowalczyk.

– Wiesław Chełminiak

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Café Habsburg in Przemyśl, postcard from 1913. Photo: National Library, Public Domain, Wikimedi
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear
Between September and December, 1939, 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered.
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.