Harry Truman, the United States President from 1945 – 1953, once remarked that “the only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.” This is certainly appropriate when it comes to Eastern Europe. It is quite easy to find interesting historical topics from this overlooked region that readers of this blog might find fascinating. Part of this is due to the fact that Eastern Europe, other than Russia, is a backwater in the western consciousness. There is a lack of knowledge concerning the nations that were sealed off by the Iron Curtain. The region had been stereotyped at times as pseudo-civilized, corrupt and comparatively backward. Even before the rise of communism in Eastern Europe the area was viewed as primitive by westerners. The level of development historically has lagged behind both Central and Western Europe. It also seems that the area has been suffering from one long bout of extremism. This has been especially true over the past two centuries with rebellions, revolutions, wars and interethnic conflict that tended towards the lethal. Some have said that Eastern Europe has traditionally suffered from a deficit of democracy. It is more like a deficit of moderation. Historically, this has been exacerbated by the wide chasm between the haves and have not’s. Serfdom has a long tradition throughout the region and so does exalted nobility. Aristocrats exploited the masses, followed by the masses revolting and murdering the aristocrats, only then for the masses to murder one another. The region is defined in many respects by its unpredictability.
Disloyal To The Loyal
The unpredictable nature of Eastern European history fascinates as much as it surprises. Case in point, the following incident I discovered for the first time while reading Simon Winder’s Danubia, “At the beginning of 1846 Krakow and western Galicia rose in revolt, and this was easily and ferociously crushed by the Habsburg armies…In the Enlightenment spirit with which the region had been acquired, they accused the aristocrats of disloyalty and of representing an old, discredited past. They urged the region’s peasants to stay loyal and to turn on their masters. The result was a grotesque one. The region’s principal town, Tarnow had its attractive main square transformed by the arrival of innumerable peasant carts heaped with murdered Polish aristocrats – at least a thousand were killed and their manor houses burned down. Somehow, it had become rumored that the best way for the peasants to show their loyalty was by bringing their corpses into the town. The Galician authorities were horrified but also pleased.” As horrific as this incident was, it also illuminates.
By casting a spotlight on that most backward of Habsburg provinces, Galicia, with its violence and resistance, wretched inequalities and rigid class structure, was defined by a divided society. This reputation was reflected in the title given to the aforementioned incident, “Galician Slaughter.” In just two months, between 1,000 and 2,000 nobles were murdered and 470 manor houses put to the torch. There were worse cases of violent insurrection to come in Habsburg lands – the 1848 revolution two years later for example – but the method of murder made the result just as memorable as the outcome. In many cases, peasants severed the heads of nobles, than brought them to Tarnow. This act of primitiveness casts a frightening shadow over Galicia. A nightmare of history so to speak, occurring in the far reaches of an eastern netherworld. The sheer brutality of the incident overshadows the harsh treatment of the rural peasantry by the nobility for centuries on end.
All That Glitters Is Not Galicia
All of this has echoes in similar revolts in European history. Was this bit of history “the only thing new in the world” because it was unknown or overlooked? In my historical knowledge base it was new, but in European history- for example the French Revolution- it has many historical antecedents. Possibly the most fascinating aspect was what the incident says about the Imperial Habsburg administration. It demonstrates the cynical realpolitik they practiced to quell threats to the empire. This was not the first or last time they would find such a strategy useful. Just two years later the Habsburgs would do something similar to put down the greatest threat to their power that would arise during the 19th century. They whipped up resistance to the revolution of 1848-49 in Hungary by turning the disparate nationalities of the empire against the Hungarians. Once the Hungarian revolt was crushed, the Austrians reneged on promises they had made to Croatians, Serbs and Romanians among others.
In the case of the Galician slaughter they used the peasants to help put down the nobles incipient revolt. Then in a chilling double cross, the Habsburgs turned on the peasants who had demanded greater freedoms in return for their murderous service. In the end, the peasants lost nearly as much as the nobility, the lone victor turned out to be the Austrian Habsburgs. It is interesting to note that despite such cynicism, the Habsburg’s have come off smelling like a rose in the public’s historical consciousness. This has much to do with the glittering beauty and culture of Vienna, that urban charm offensive that obscures the violent excesses fomented by the Habsburgs in their near abroad. For their supposed higher level of civilization, Habsburg authorities failed to make Galicia little more than a semi-developed frontier borderland. Whatever fit their political needs was the policy promulgated with little regard to the best interests of the inhabitants. For all the baroque wealth and haute bourgeoisie sophistication associated with the Habsburgs, the truth is they kept power using the most insidious of means when necessary.
The “Galician Slaughter” is no longer history that you (or I) do not know. Once ignorance is stripped away by knowledge the consequences are profound. We find that Eastern Europe is not that much different from the rest of Europe. Its peoples have been manipulated by the great powers, sacrificed on the altar of duplicitous interests and prone to the excesses of imperialism. The “Galician Slaughter” is but one example of many that can be found all across the continent. It is not the only thing new in the world. It is just the history we have come to know for the first time.