The Myth of Galicia: “A Sweet Injection Into Your Mind”
For those of you who are wondering what Galicia is… Galicia no longer exists. As a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it disappeared from the map following the dissolution of the Danube Monarchy in 1918. But it has not been erased from contemporary collective memory and consciousness, nor from the minds of the former inhabitants of this region. As an imaginary space, it still awakens feelings of attachment to the territory that today is part of Southern Poland and Western Ukraine.
In this article, I will discuss two international academic conferences on the history and legacy of this region. The first took place in Kraków, Poland (March 2015) and the second in Vienna, Austria (May 2015). These multidisciplinary meetings brought together scholars from history, politics and literature, representing a range of opinions and perspectives on the region. They were organized to coincide with the exhibition The Myth of Galicia, a cooperation between the International Cultural Centre in Kraków and the Wien Museum in Vienna, shown in 2014/15. The exhibition centred on the history and development of the Galician region and its inhabitants, including Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Austrians.
From the outset, there were foreseeable differences between the two exhibitions despite their close cooperation and their shared title and exhibition catalogue. The focus, emphasis and meanings associated with Galicia would necessarily vary between Vienna and Kraków. Still, when comparing the academic conferences, the discrepancy between the two becomes even more obvious.
Kraków – Live or Let Die
Galicia after Galicia – The myth and its impact on contemporary people and nations, especially Ukraine, was the main point of interest during the conference at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków.
In his welcome speech, Jacek Purchla, director of the ICC, asks, “Where does the power and attractiveness of the myth come from?” In other words, why are we talking about Galicia today? The name Galicia originates from the small town called Halich in contemporary Western Ukraine, once the center of the relatively unknown principality Halych-Volhynia that existed from the end of the 12th to the 14th century. As a region, Galicia was an artificial construct invented by a few Austrian ministers; it had no natural borders (let alone a homogenous population), and it existed for a mere 150 years. Not only does the region no longer exist today, but it is also cut across by the border of the European Union.
Purchla certainly had in mind contemporary Ukraine and the so-called “Remapping of Europe” – the name given to the shift of attention towards Eastern and Southeastern countries – when he spoke about the power and attractiveness of myth. Ukraine was the dominant theme during the conference, evidenced by recurring discussions of Ukraine, as well as the presence of the Ukrainian ambassador in Poland.
The myth of Galicia is very popular and politically powerful in Ukraine. Galicia is synonymous with national identity, a place where Ukrainians can speak their language. Educational institutions were established in the region as early as the 1890s. In Russia, where many Ukrainians also lived, such freedom and development were impossible. Since the declaration of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic there in 1918, along with the Polish-Ukrainian war, Eastern Galicia (today Western Ukraine) is incontestably regarded as the bedrock of Ukrainian nationalism.
Today, we can distinguish two myths of Galicia in Ukraine. The first is a picture of a modern, multicultural Europe as captured in the Euromaidan movement, during which Galicia-banners were flown. Participation, pluralism, tolerance and solidarity were the catchwords of Ukrainian public figures during this time. ‘Galicia’, as a place of common tradition within Europe, is no longer just an idea but an ideal: a place that should and can be real. Moreover, as the Ukrainian writer Jurko Prochasko points out, for the first time, the idea of Galicia has become a metaphor for Ukraine as a whole.
The second mythical variant is a complete contradiction of the first. It refers to the medieval principality of Halych-Volhynia and is closely associated with a fervently nationalist movement embodied by the SS Galicia militia. The name derives from the SS-Volunteer Division Galicia, which was a Nazi-German military division during World War II, initially made up by Ukrainian volunteers from Galicia. This makes it easier today for Russia to claim that ‘Galicia’ is synonymous with fascism. As Emil Brix observed during his last visit in Moscow, the aim of this Russian propaganda is to exacerbate the division between the country’s Russian-leaning East and European-leaning Galician West. Occasionally in Ukraine, the two myths are confused, making the country’s future unclear.
“We have to kill the myth!”, Krzysztof Zamorski exclaims to his audience and colleagues, reacting to current events and myth in Ukraine. “We have to contextualize and deconstruct the myth with knowledge; this is the only possibility to change anything,” he states. Zamorski then goes on to compare the situation to that of Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain; in this instance, Polish development was possible only because the myth was translated into folklore and tourism.
Still, Ukraine is a young nation; should we not compare it with an independent Poland post-World War One? The myth of Galicia played an important role as the Polish Piedmont during that time. Through the communist era in Poland, Galicia held a political function too. People in Kraków hung pictures of Franz Joseph I in their offices as a form of protest against the Soviet regime. Zamorski’s demand that we ‘deconstruct the myth with knowledge’ is therefore unrealistic. Neither enlightenment nor postmodernism will destroy it.
Conversely, Edyta Gawron says during the Panel on the Jewish reception of Galicia, “Let’s not bury the myth, we need it!” The Jews, after all, maintain strong emotional ties to the region, where Jewish culture once flourished and was annihilated during the Second World War. Today we can observe a Jewish revival of Galicia in the form of new myths, like Galicia as “mother Israel” or a place of Jewish hardship and suffering. The myth is useful in that it elucidates the struggle of people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds attempting to live together. Finding a common heritage may help bypass right-wing struggles and may even bring peoples, such as Poles and Ukrainians, closer together. As Prochasko would say, this Galicia is “a sweet injection into our minds that smoothes our desires and fears.”
Myths are not static but dynamic and living narratives; they change with the political and cultural movements of a society. As Robert Traba points out, myths are squarely rooted in reality. Galicia survives today as part of civilians’ personal identities, as well as in the collective memory, knowledge, tradition and culture of their nation. It shapes a country’s future by transforming theory into praxis, and is instrumental in the progress and development of civil societies like modern-day Ukraine.
Vienna – Innocent Literature
This notion that the myth of Galicia is ever-changing was intended as the topic of the conference in Vienna, two months after that in Kraków. Organized by the Doktoratskolleg “Galizien und sein multikulturelles Erbe” of the University of Vienna, the conference was given the title Galicia in Movement – inspired by a quotation from “Reise nach Galizien” (Journey to Galicia) by Joseph Roth from 1924. In this text, Roth describes the eastward movement of the former Habsburg regions following the First World War as a blessing for the West. Ironically today, as the organizers stated, that movement has shifted in the opposite direction: towards the West.
There was not so much movement during the panels and discussions in Vienna, however. It was, more or less, an academic survey of the most recent Galician research. The myth of Galicia, its construction and reconstruction from our present-day perspective, was only discussed in the last of the seven panels. Magdalena Baran-Szoltys and Jagoda Wiezejska focused on Galician identity in post-war Polish and Austrian literature, travel literature, intergenerational family stories, and Andrzej Stasiuk’s work (a Polish writer and defender of the idea of Central Europe). Unfortunately, the panel neglected to consider the influence of contemporary Ukrainian writers, such as Yurii Andrukhovych, Taras Prochasko and Mykola Riabchuk. The final lecture, by Cornelia Gös, dealt with contemporary issues in Ukraine and images of Galicia reproduced in the media and political debates since 2010. Here too, a discussion of the dynamic nature of myth was missing.
The podium discussion with Jurko Prochasko and historians Börries Kuzmany, Isabel Röskau-Rydel and Delphine Bechtel, illuminated why the Vienna conference was so determined to historicize Galicia as a myth of the past. As for the question of whether a myth exists and, if so, what its elements are, the answers were, quite atypically for when it comes to discussing Galicia, pretty similar. As Kuzmany says, the myth is primarily a product of literature and, secondarily, a Jewish narrative. Röskau-Rydel adds nostalgia as a central element of the myth. Prochasko argues that the myth was more than just nostalgia or a fascination with the East. He focuses on the story of his hometown and the grey, Soviet era. Narratives of Galicia were the opposite of his childhood, giving him a sense of life and cultural identity. Modern-day Ukraine was barely mentioned by the panel, nor was it addressed by the conference as a whole.
A Matter of Time, Space… and Sensibility
The question remains, why were the conferences in Kraków and Vienna so different? Time and space certainly play an important role. The capital of Austria was never a part of Galicia; from the beginning, it saw this region as terra incognita, a place of backwardness. Today, few people in Austria have even heard of Galicia. In contrast, Kraków belonged to the crown land from 1846; during the interwar period as well as the communist period it served as a symbol for national independence. Even today, it is geographically closer to Ukraine than Vienna. Due to a long and complicated history, when it comes to questions of nationality, independence and identity, Poles are more sensitive to the issues and therefore are much more adept at understanding this period of development in Ukraine.
The heritage of Galicia is a phenomenon of diversity, polyphony of memory and of myth. Dissonance has been typical for Galicia since the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Still, it is the contradiction within the myth that keeps it alive. As The Myth of Galicia has shown, political debate, clashing cultures and national identities do not prevent international cooperation, but in fact make it possible.
Catalogue of the exhibition (available in English, German, Polish): Purchla, Jacek et. al. (Ed.): The myth of Galicia [9 October 2014 – 8 March 2015, International Cultural Centre Gallery, Kraków ; 25 March – 30 August 2015, Wien Museum, Vienna], Kraków (2014).