The Galician myth: between Central Europe and the East

Andrea Pradelli
10 min readApr 29, 2021

Divided between Poland and Ukraine, Galicia is the symbol of a lost world. The Twentieth century has erased even its name, to the extent that today many people mistake it with the homonym Spanish region.

Galicia is created in 1772, when Austria, Prussia and Russia carve up the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The “Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria” is the part obtained by Maria Theresia’s Austria. The Empress accepts reluctantly, maybe because she still remembers the time when Sobieski’s Poland had saved Vienna. A partial compensation for the loss of the rich Silesia to Frederick II’s Prussia, the new crownland is poor and heterogeneous and it is still dominated by feudal masters. It comprises Poles to the West and Ukrainians (or better, Ruthenians) to the East, but also a flourishing Jewish community. In the mid 1800s Jews are 10% of the population, with peaks of 90% in cities like Brody. Galicia’s main centres are Krakow to the West and Lviv (Lemberg in German, Lwów in Polish) to the East, together with smaller towns as Brody, Ternopil and the sadly known Oświęcim (Auschwitz).

Galicia and Vienna

Galicia in Austria-Hungary after the Ausgleich

Confronted with the “Polish chaos”, Emperor Joseph II tries to turn Galicia into a laboratory for enlightened absolutism, as Maria Theresia had done successfully in the Duchy of Milan. However, enacting refoms means to defy the privileges of feudal lords and needs large funds, which are difficult to obtain due to the wars against Prussia and the Ottomans and the penny-pinching attitude of the Emperor. Nonetheless, Austrian reforms gain some success. The 1782 Patent of Toleration removes most restrictions on Jews, corvées are gradually reduced until the 1848 abolition of serfdom and education slowly advances. Paradoxically, the success of Austria’s approach is seen in the moment of crisis. In 1846 the Krakow uprising spreads to Galicia, but peasants do not join the struggle for Polish independence. Instead, they take the chance to rebel against their masters, seeing the Emperor as the sole ally against feudal exploitation.

After the uprising, Krakow is annexed to Austria, and soon after come the abolition of serfdom (1848) and the 1867 Austro-Hungarian compromise (Ausgleich). Galicia becomes part of the Austrian part of the Empire (Cisleithania). In the same year, Vienna emancipates the Jews and gives the Galician diet (Sejm) a wide autonomy.

Lviv’s Sejm

A multiethnic melting-pot

Under the Austrian Crown both Poles and Ukrainians have much more freedoms than their “compatriots” under Prussia or Russia. Although successor states’ propaganda has defined it “prison of the people” (Völkerkerker), in fact Austria-Hungary had an extremely advanced legislation on linguistic minorities. The 1867 constitution bestows all citizens the right to use their mothertongue in dealing with the Public Administration, while a 1884 declaration of the Austrian Supreme Court establishes that communities need to provide a school in a certain language if it is spoken by at least 40 citizens living within a 2-hours walking distance to the school.

While France, Russia and Germany use brute force to impose the national language, Austria encourages Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian cultural associations and restores Polish national monuments. Poles from the German and Russian partitions take tours to Krakow to “breathe free air”, while Galicia welcomes Jews and Ukrainians persecuted by the Czar. Two Poles will even become Prime Ministers of the Empire, Alfred Potoki and Count Badeni.

Nationalism exists, but it rarely aims at independence, instead it seeks greater autonomy for each national group inside the Empire. Moreover, nationalists often fail to “nationalise” the masses, who are caught up in other problems. As an example, in the oil city of Drohobych/Drohobycz Jewish commoners and Ukrainian farmers clash with the police to defend their candidate at the Reichsrat against the opponent backed by Jewish powerbrokers and Polish landowners. Both groups do not seem to bother about nationality issues.

The Jews

A Galician shtetl

In this multiethnic puzzle a legendary figure stands out, the Galician Jew. Immortalised by Joseph Roth, until WWII (s)he is a symbol of backwardness, to the extent that Hitler himself writes in Mein Kampf that he had become an antisemite after meeting one of them. After Nazi massacres, instead, the Galician Jewry has become a nostalgic icon.

At the eve of WWI, the Jews are more then 10% of Galicia’s population, and since 1867 they are fully emancipated. They mostly live in urban centres and in the famous shtetl, small or medium-sized villages mostly inhabited by Jews. Their life is extraordinarily depicted by Martin Pollack in his book Galicia: a journey through the lost heart of Central Europe (2001). Against common sense, the average Galician Jew lives a life of misery, in villages where even synagogues are built in wood. Only a few Jews engage in agriculture, instead, the most work as intermediaries between peasants and landowners.With the rise of mass politics, as highlighted by Eric Hobsbawm, this fact will facilitate the spread of antisemitism. Other Jews live on simple crafts, like the shoemaker or the railway worker, while some survive with nixers bordering illegality. Among the latter, the most famous is the Fehlermacher, a village doctor who causes small mutilations to their “clients”, so that they can avoid military service.

Despite their misery, the Jews never renounce to education: one can live without bread, but not without a teacher. Every village has its own school, almost always a religious one, and the community is ready to make sacrifices to allow the most brilliant pupils to enroll to the University or the Conservatory. The Jews dominate intellectual professions: in Galicia they are 41% of cultural workers, 58% of public servants, 68% of doctors. Free from persecution, Jewish culture blossoms. The daily language is Yiddish, but many also learn Hebrew, German or Polish. Lviv gives birth to the first newspaper in Yiddsh language , the Lemberger Togblat. Hasidism, a mystical movement of spiritual renewal, spreads among the masses. Thaumaturge rabbis attract crowds of believers, to the desperation of great scholars of the Talmud and the Torah

The Jews do not limit themselves to religion. Jewish Galicia “ produces” four Nobel prize winners, two in physics (Isidor Isaac Rabi and Georges Charpak), one in chemistry (Roald Hoffman) and one in literature (S.Y. Agnon), as well as the pianist Severin Eisenberger and Moritz Szeps, the advisor to the Dauphin of Austria Rudolph. However, the most famous Galician intellectual is the already mentioned Joseph Roth, author of The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb. The Jews also dominate trade. Between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century Brody, on the border with Russia, becomes a “port without the sea”. It is the center of trade between central and northern Europe and Russia and it has been a free port since 1779. The freedom of Galician Jews is envied by their coreligionists in Czarist Russia, who often emigrate en masse to escape the pogroms, causing integration issues.

A land of men and books

On the border between Central Europe and the East, Galicia had an impressive cultural vibrancy, being the birthplace of writers of all ethnicities. Among the Jews we can count Bruno Schulz, author of The Crocodiles’ Road, the Hasidic theologians Martin Buber and Nachman of Breslov, the journalist Karl Emil Franzos and the poet Józef Wittlin, author of Mój Lwów(My Lviv). Galicia is also the birthplace of the nobleman Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from which the term masochism is born. Among the Ukrainians we must remember the socialist writer Ivan Franko, who in his writings denounces the misery and exploitation of the Galician people, while criticizing Marx and Engels and dreaming of an autonomous, if not independent, Ukraine. On the opposite front, Ludwig von Mises is born in Lviv in 1881. Born into a Jewish family recently ennobled by Kaiser Franz Joseph, Mises is one of the fathers of the libertarian Austrian school. His most famous student is the future Nobel Prize winner Friedrich von Hayek.

Krakow and Lviv are the cultural centers of the region. The former was the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and is the cradle of Polish culture. Here statues are erected to Polish heroes and the ancient Royal Palace is restored, unthinkable in the German and Russian partitions. The second has been a University seat since 1661. Initally, the University’s language is German, but in 1871 it is replaced by Polish, while courses in Ruthenian are inaugurated. However, culture also flourishes in small towns and Jewish shtetl, while emigrants to Vienna or America spread the Galician myth throughout the world. Quoting Paul Celan, a native of nearby Bukovina, Galicia is a “land of men and books”.

The black legend

A famine in Galicia

Galicia is certainly no land of milk and honey. On the contrary, it is one of the Empire’s poorest crownlands, where the misery is so dire that emigration is often the sole escape. The condition of peasants, often Ruthenians, is desperate. Despite the abolition of serfdom in 1848, the power of Polish landowners remains oppressive and social mobility is low. In a world of latifundia and small holdings there is little room for innovation. Farming techniques remain antiquated and agriculture rarely manages to feed the people. In what Ivan Franko calls “Galician hell”, hunger is always just around the corner. The Ukrainian writer describes six years of famine: 1848, 1849, 1855, 1865, 1876 and 1889. Galician misery is so dire that even the Irish famine pales in comparison. The Poles call the Kingdom “Golicja i Głodomeria”, the land of the naked (goły) and the hungry (głodny). Besides poverty, Galicia is also swept by endemic alcoholism. This happens because part of the peasants’ pay is given in alchool produced by landowners.

In the second half of the 19th century, two hopes for modernization arise: railroads and oil. Austria’s railway network connects Lviv to Vienna in just 12 hours (today it takes longer!) and opens to Galician agriculture the rich markets of Central Europe, in exchange for the cheap products of Bohemian and Austrian factories. The stations, all identical and elegant, become the symbol of modernity and of Galicia’s access to the Empire’s “market of 50 million people”, a sort of ante litteram European single market. However, Central European competition outclasses Galicia’s weak industry, creating a new nightmare: unemployment.

In the mid-19th century, large oilfields are found between Drohobych and Boryslav. The new “Galician Pennsylvania” attracts American and British investors as well as Jewish magnates and public investments: the dream of redemption is no longer an illusion. At the turn of the century, Galicia is the world’s fourth largest oil producer. The region begins to grow and to close the gap with other crownlands. Before the war, the Empire is anything but a decadent and doomed country. Instead, between 1870 and 1913 it grows more than England, France and Germany and has the world’s fourth largest machine building industry. The West is much richer than the East, but the gap begins to narrow.

For the workers who flock from the countryside, however, the dream often becomes a nightmare. Especially in the oil fields, life is very hard. There are few rights, exploitation is constant, and women and children are not exempt from work. As Cisleithania introduces universal manhood suffrage in 1907, socialist and catholic parties can make their voices heard in the Reichsrat, but there is still a long way to go. Galician elections are a symbol of corruption, as landowners seek any means to make their candidates win. In Vienna, the region is called “Scandalicia” . For Austrian officials, being sent to Galicia was considered a punishment, just like for the Romans in Germania. Despite this, Austrian public administration is considerably more honest and efficient than that of neighbouring Russia, and the effects are still felt today. A recent study (Becker et al., 2014) shows that in former Habsburg crownlands trust in institutions is significantly higher than in former Russian or Ottoman regions.

The end of Galicia

The Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp is located in former Galicia

Like all legends, that of Galicia also comes to an end. The “Age of Extremes” does not spare anything to Galicia, which is devastated by both World Wars. After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, a military dictatorship is established in the Habsburg Empire, destroying the rule of law. Russia invades Galicia in 1914. The following year the Austrians return, but they are wary of the Ruthenians, potential Russian spies, and engage in summary executions. In 1918 the Double Monarchy, now totally delegitimized in the eyes of its citizens, collapses, and with it the common roof that had protected Central European peoples. The small successor states are “national” only on paper and ethnic tensions are continuous, especially against the Jews, who remain a people without a nation.

The Second World War destroys what remains of the old multiethnic Galicia. The very symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, is located in the former Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Galicia is first divided between Hitler and Stalin, then it becomes the theater of Operation Barbarossa. Nothing is spared to Lviv: only in 1941 the city hosts first the NKVD prison massacre, then of one of the most infamous Nazi pogroms. The end of the war is anything but a liberation. The Soviets divide the region between Poland and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine and implement massive population exchanges to make the new states ethnically homogeneous. Today, Galicia remains divided and marginal. The vibrant Habsburg melting-pot only lives in legend, a melanchonic memory that can still teach lessons to today’s Europe.


Becker et al. (2014). ‘The empire is dead, long live the empire! Long-run persistence of trust and corruption in the bureaucracy’. The Economic Journal, 126: 40–74

Fejtő, F. (1990). Requiem per un impero defunto. La dissoluzione del mondo austro-ungarico. Edizione italiana tradotta da Olga Visentini. Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., Milano

Hodge, N. (2007). ‘Habsburg Krakow: 1795–1809 & 1846–1918’. Local Life. Available at:

Judson, P. (2018). The Habsburg Empire: A New History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard

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Andrea Pradelli

PhD student in Economics at Trento University. Passionate about politics, economics, languages and history, especially the Habsburg Empire.