The Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, it is a name that gleams and sparkles while rolling off the tongue. The name conjures up images of castles and manor houses, a quasi-magical land. The reality could not have been more different. The Kingdom existed from 1772 to 1918 as part of the Austrian Empire and then as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For nearly a century and a half it was a byword for backwardness and poverty, the opposite of modernity. To a great extent such a reputation was spot on, but the wild ideological swings, violence and tumult that befell the area following the Empire’s disintegration made many look back at the Kingdom as a force for good rather than repression, an island of stability in a region that experienced constant upheaval. The truth was rather different, more complex and rather depressing.
The Netherworld Of Austria’s Empire – A Rural Frontier
Where did that glittering name, the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria come from? It was largely artificial, just like its borders. The idea of a kingdom sounded good, but was really a misnomer. The title implied independence, but there was no stand-alone Kingdom. Put simply, Galicia and Lodomeria were Latinized versions of the names Halychyna and Volyn, the historical regions that made up the territory. Located in what is today southeastern Poland and western Ukraine the territory was taken by the Habsburgs during the First Partition of Poland in 1772. The name they gave it may have been impressive and lent a veneer of sophistication, but it did not change the true nature of the place. The name was symptomatic of what the Habsburgs wanted the place to be, rather than what it was. In 1772 the newly created kingdom had a diverse and complex population of 2.2 million. The aristocrats were Polish, the peasants either Mazurians (Poles of Western Galicia) or Ruthenians (Ukrainians), the Jews low level merchants or poor farmers and ethnic Germans the administrators of this ethnic mix. The aristocratic element made up about 3% of the populace, while the overriding majority of the population consisted of peasants who worked, but had little control over the land. In the late 18th century, seven out of every ten inhabitants of the kingdom were serfs. Rural backwardness was endemic to the region.
Austrian ignorance and indifference toward the area did little to help matters, especially early on. For a place that was always viewed as a netherworld by the Austrians, Galicia was strangely hard to ignore. It was their largest province, with 25% of the entire land base of the Austrian administered portion of the empire. Between 1772 and 1843 the population doubled. By the turn of the 20th century it had risen by another two-thirds, increasing to seven million. At the start of World War One, another million inhabitants had been added. Yet in the decades prior to the outbreak of World War One, Galicia was exporting people by the millions to points all across the globe. The reasons for this were many, but can best be summed up as a lack of opportunity and grinding poverty. Some historians have called Galicia the poorest part of Europe at the dawn of the 20th century. There was even a pejorative Polish phrase that characterized the province’s dire condition, “bieda galicyjska” which translates to “Galician Misery.”
Rich Earth, Poor People – The Galician Conundrum
In actuality, Galicia was not the poorest part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when it came to income. Eastern Hungary had a lower average income per person, but Galicia’s personal income level was not much higher. It was on par with Transylvania. This is deceptive. Average income is just that, an average. Income of the elites can pull the average up. The major difference between Galicia and a place such as Transylvania was that the latter had large tracts of inhospitable, mountainous land with its more fertile areas plagued by an extremely short growing season. Conversely, Galicia was blessed with bountiful land, an astonishing 96% of which was considered productive. Half of the province contained rich black earth, ripe for agricultural fertility. Unfortunately, the archaic socio-economic system made the entire province a developmental disaster. Caught up in this disaster were its people.
At the top of the pecking order were the landed gentry, a ruling class made up almost entirely of ethnic Poles. They controlled the most fertile agricultural land and almost all of the forests. In the mid to late 19th century they also managed to gain control over the political apparatuses of the province. Following the defeats of Austria in Italy in 1859 and the Austro- Prussian War of 1866, power was decentralized in order to keep the empire from falling apart. Galicia was given a wide degree of latitude in managing its own affairs. The Polish ruling class took advantage of this to entrench their power base. All laws made in the province were almost entirely to their benefit. Language laws were constructed to benefit the Poles. In 1867 the official language of the schools became Polish, 1868 it became the official language of the courts and then in 1869 the official language of the province. That did not mean that all Poles were aristocrats, far from it.
Land Without Livelihood
In western Galicia, a majority of the Polish speaking population were peasants, but Polish speakers, whatever their socio-economic status had many more opportunities. Eastern Galicia’s population was made up of predominantly Ukrainian peasants. In the first decades of the 20th century “only” two-thirds of Galicia’s Poles were involved in agriculture, whereas 94% of Ukrainians were still working the land. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in towns and cities or immigrated. Many Jews were involved in money lending, which made them especially reviled by the impoverished peasants who became deeply indebted to them. They took out loans in order to survive, but often ended up losing the only thing they owned, land. What was a peasant without their land? In Galicia that was a question no one, ruling class nor subjects, could answer.