History Today eBook: The Second World War

A Distant Corner of the Eastern Front, 1914

Roger Hudson gives context to a photograph highlighting the plight of Galician Jews after the Russian army's invasion in the Great War.

Two Jews stand disconsolately among the ashes of wooden houses burnt to the ground in their Galician town in 1914, only brick chimney stacks left standing.  The photograph was probably taken in August or September during or shortly after what was known as the Battle of Galicia, which ended in a crushing Russian victory over the Austro-Hungarians. 

Today, many would be hard put to say where Galicia was – find Krakow and let your finger run eastwards across the map to Tarnopol (Ternopil). Until 1772 it was in southern Poland, but when Prussia, Russia and Austria set about partitioning that country, it fell to Austria, becoming the northernmost province of its empire. After the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was established in 1867, Galicia came under the part administered by Austria, though bordering on Hungary to the south. There seem to have been larger numbers of Poles than of Ruthenes – Catholic Ukrainians, as distinct from the Orthodox Ukrainians of the Russian empire – and about 12 per cent of the population were Jews. It was the most populous and the poorest province of Austria, probably also in Europe as a whole.  Unsurprisingly, there was mass emigration to Vienna, the US, Canada and Brazil from the 1880s; surprisingly, the Austrians allowed Galicia a good measure of autonomy, not enforcing the speaking of German, allowing a local assembly and administration, though not encouraging investment or industry.

Jews were emancipated in 1867, so gaining the right to own land and the lifting of restrictions on what occupations they could follow. By 1914 one fifth of large Galician estates were Jewish-owned. The Polish intelligentsia and landowners were in the ascendant and the Jews were aligned with them, not the Ukrainians, at least until 1900 when Polish antisemitism began to grow, while the Ukrainians got less Russophile.

The Austrians made a fundamental strategic error in 1914 by committing 19 divisions to an attack on Serbia, when they should have been concentrating on the threat from Russia in Galicia. The first Russian thrusts there were thrown back amid widespread confusion and incompetence on both sides. But by September there were 35 Russian divisions facing 20 Austrian; Russian victory was assured when the eastern Galician city of Lemberg (or Lvov, Lviv or Lwow) fell on September 10th.  There were 324,000 Austrian casualties, including much of the professional officer corps, and 130,000 prisoners, with many Austrian soldiers of Slav origin happy to surrender.  Przemsyl was the last Austrian stronghold, only falling the following March, with the surrender of a further 117,000 men. The Austrian army never recovered from these blows. Russia may also have lost a quarter of a million men but had much greater reserves of manpower and the victory in Galicia softened the massive blow it had received at the same time from the Germans at Tannenberg and then at the Masurian Lakes in East Prussia.

For Galicia’s Jews the arrival of the Russian soldiery was a disaster, since they came with the tradition of the pogrom firmly embedded among them. Tens of thousands of Jews became refugees, trying to escape murder, rape and pillage. The days when they had helped the Poles to run Galicia, managing their estates, inns, distilleries, breweries, mills and saw mills, were over and did not return in 1918. After a brief war with the short-lived Ukrainian republic, re-emergent Poland took back Galicia. But this was an increasingly antisemitic Poland, with Jews banned from holding government posts and their chances of education restricted. What followed after 1939 needs no retelling.

And what of Galicia today? Radek Sikorski, Poland’s former foreign minister, reports that in 2008 President Putin suggested to Poland that ‘Ukraine is an artificial country and Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together?’ The Poles made it clear to the Russians: ‘We wanted nothing to do with this.’

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