The Only Thing New In The World – Galician Slaughter 1846

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.

City center of Tarnow, Poland - it was a much different scene in 1846 (Credit: Jakub Hałun)

City center of Tarnow, Poland – it was a much different scene in 1846 (Credit: Jakub Hałun)

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.

Galician Slaughter (Rzeź galicyjska) by Jan Lewicki

Galician Slaughter (Rzeź galicyjska) by Jan Lewicki

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.

19th century map of Galicia

19th century map of Galicia – Tarnow was in the eastern portion of the Kingdom. Today it is located in southeastern Poland

Slaughtering Ignorance
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.

An Incredible Intensity – Lviv, Budapest, Krakow, Berlin & Vienna: Explaining Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe, how best to understand such a complex, and conflicted region? Perhaps one should start with the cities, many different cities, in many different countries. Catalog the impressions and then ponder what it means, if anything, if nothing.

Lviv – A Man With No Legs
Travel to Lviv in western Ukraine, that beautiful city frozen in a state of rapturously Austro-Hungarian glory. Stroll through the heart of the historic old town. Listen to the sound of stilettos on cobblestone, voices of desire. Gaze at the bucolically bright mansions surrounding Ploshcha Rynok. Spend at least one single morning watching a man with no legs in a wheelchair. He patiently waits to see if any passers-by scatter a bit of change in the bowl that sits in his lap. The man does not beg, he just sits there patiently. He is not dirty or ill-kempt, but actually rather well dressed, if modestly so, from the waist up everything seems normal. The complete picture is quite different, like the many sides of this city. This drama takes place in the shadow of the Neo-Renaissance Opera House. Operas are fiction, while the dramas played out on the street are real.

The Opera House in Lviv

The Opera House in Lviv – fiction inside & reality outside

Budapest – Beauty, Horror & Grandeur
Go to Budapest. Float down the Danube, on one side the hills of Buda blossom, staked out by the spires of churches and castles. Opposite lies Pest, home to the Hungarian Parliament, that delicious architectural confection of neo-Gothicism, a scene and style that devours the skyline. Disembark on the embankment just before the Chain Bridge, walk a bit upriver on the Pest side, to find a series of sculpted shoes at water’s edge. It was here, that hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45 to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube.  Buda and Pest, here is a city that combines beauty, horror and grandeur in uncertain order.

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial in Budapest

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial in Budapest – hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45, to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube

Krakow – Defying Disbelief
Onward to Krakow, in that main magnificent square, Rynek Glowny, reputedly the largest medieval square in all of Europe, whatever that is supposed to mean. Here, the glory and pageantry of Poland is spread over 40,000 stunning square meters. All that once was, still remains, the Cloth Hall and the Clock Tower, St Mary’s and the Mickiewicz Monument. Could this square, this astonishing slice of Poland’s rich history, really have once been subject to the diktats of totalitarianism? It all seems too bad to be true. Amid such magnificence one tends to forget the more recent and troubled past. A cure for any case of 20th century Polish historical amnesia is just a tram ride away.

Cloth Hall with the Clock Tower in the background at Rynek Glowny in Krakow (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Cloth Hall with the Clock Tower in the background at Rynek Glowny in Krakow (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Stand outside the gates of Nowa Huta and ponder the terrible, fierce rust bucket beauty that was still born here. This suburb was what Krakow, Poland and all of Eastern Europe was supposed to become. A whole city, an entire nation and a wide swath of Europe forged out of iron and steel. Factories lauded as the new cathedrals, heavy industry as the master mold of mid-20th century civilization. Nothing lasts forever, but this hardly lasted a lifetime. Nowa Huta still exists, but its glory days are gone, its labor days are not. This place has become a piece of modern art that rusts right before the eyes.

Model of Nowa Huta

Model of Nowa Huta – It seemed like a good idea at the time

Berlin – French Kissing Fear
To understand Eastern Europe, surely one must understand Berlin. Why it is so hip, so youthful, so vibrant, so alive. This used to be the world capital of disunity, but now it is united in revelry. 21st century Berlin is a city that seems to be giving fear a French kiss. It is so interesting, all those places where terrible things happened and now most of them can be seen for free. There is enough history here to last several lifetimes, but the past need not detain anyone, when there is another club to hop. Stand beneath the Brandenburg Gate and ponder Frederick the Great, the Kaiser, the Nazis, West vs. East. This is where both ends met the middle and a nation, became arbiter of a world divided against itself.

Now the traveler can dance until dawn in no man’s land, admire galleries worth of graffiti at any random underpass and glide by, rather than through Checkpoint Charlie. That once formidable barrier, looks so small and stupid in retrospect. What is more illuminating, the helpfulness of Berliner’s who rush to provide directions or the fact that nothing really happens here anymore, unless fun and efficiency is now of world historical importance.

An apartment block in East Berlin - putting a coat of color on the past

An apartment block in East Berlin – putting a coat of color on the past

Vienna – The Madness of Fairy Tales
Final stop, the fairy tale city of Vienna. Like all fairy tales, this one has more than its fair share of madness. The Hofburg, at the heart of the city, imposes splendor and arrogance, refinement and oppression upon the visitor in unequal measure. Here is where the Habsburg’s decided what was beautiful and everyone else had to live with it or suffocate from it. This was a world that made its own rules which the rest of the world was supposed to live and die by. And the Hofburg is just the start.

Vienna is a grand illusion, a magic act made out of marble and sculpted stone. There is more than enough of this to go around and around the Ringstrasse. It is enough to drive someone mad. No wonder this city gave the world Freud, Klimt and Wittgenstein. It was not just Metternich and Franz Josef who strolled through the gardens at Schonnbrunn, it was also Hitler and Stalin, at the same time, long before they became deities of death, these men were plotting and plodding amid the perfectly kept pathways. Modern Vienna is filled with an world of underlying tension, irksome and uptight. This can best be seen in the strained countenances of the Viennese. Those faces that stare away from the traveler. They are forever peering out tram windows, looking at nothing in particular, with an incredible intensity.

A tram in Vienna - An incredible (and troubling) intensity

A tram in Vienna – An incredible (and troubling) intensity

A World Turning Inward On Itself
The man with no legs, candy colored baroque buildings, shoes sculpted from stone, forty thousand square meters of magnificence, the heavy heart of heavy industry, a world that bordered on the apocalypse and now on frivolity, the weight of history at the Hofburg and so many other things. These are the impressions that help the traveler understand Eastern Europe, its peoples and it cities. What does all this amount to? There is no clear answer, there never will be. Eastern Europe is complex and conflicted. It is filled with the joys and horrors of life. As in the present, as in the past, it is forever turning inward on itself.