An Austrian Misery – The Kingdom of Galicia & Lodomeria (Part One)

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.

Map of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria in 1800

Map of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria in 1800 (Credit: TheLotCarmen)

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.”

East Galician Peasants

East Galician Peasants

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.

Ruined castle of the  Potocki family - Polish aristocratic residence in Pomorzany, Eastern Galicia (Western Ukraine)

Ruined castle of the Potocki family – Polish aristocratic residence in Pomorzany, Eastern Galicia (Western Ukraine) (Credit: Замок в Поморянах)

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.

Coming soon: An Austro-Hungarian Tragedy – The Kingdom of Galicia & Lodomeria (Part Two) 

In Defiance of Fate (Part Two) – History Stuck On Repeat: The Republic of Carpatho-Ruthenia

There is a belief among some historically minded people that everything old becomes new again. This is a clever take on the old cliché that history repeats itself. No historical parallel is perfect, but the present often contains striking similarities to the past. Surprisingly, this has been the case with the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. Despite the fact that the republic officially lasted less than a day, the idea of an independent nation-state for the people of the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine continues to resurface. Why is this so? What are the chances it might actually happen? And most importantly would it be a viable political entity?

Map of Ukraine with Zakarpattia Oblast in red

Map of Ukraine with Zakarpattia Oblast in red

Deferred, But Not Defeated – Independence & Subcarpathia
The dream of an independent Subcarpathian state all but vanished when the region became part of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. Though heavy handed, Soviet rule stabilized the area. It was not until 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated that the idea of a separate Subcarpathian state reemerged. As the region had been part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic it only seemed natural that it would become part of an independent Ukraine. Conversely, because of the area’s unique geographical position which had kept it relatively isolated from the rest of Ukraine and the fact that its Rusyn population was considered to be quite distinct from Ukrainians further east, the local Zakarpattia oblast (province) proposed self-rule. During Ukraine’s independence referendum, Zakarpattians were allowed to vote on autonomy. Almost 80% were in favor of self-rule. Nonetheless, Zakarpattia was given only provincial status. Interestingly, the boundaries of Zakarpattia oblast were exactly the same as those of the short lived Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. The idea of independence had been delayed, but certainly had not died.

Soon another idea was floated to turn back the clock to 1919 and reattach Subcarpathian Ukraine to Czechoslovakia. The split of that state into separate Czech and Slovak nations in 1994 put this idea to rest. Meanwhile, Ukraine suffered from endemic corruption, economic woes and political crisis. It was pretty much a failed state. In 2004 the Orange Revolution seemed to promise a more optimistic future. This turned out to be nothing more than a false dawn. The money and the power, the backroom deal making and convoluted politics only suited either the ruling class in Kiev or those doing business in the Ukrainian industrial heartland of the Donbas region. Zakarpattia was all, but forgotten by Ukraine until the autumn of 2008 when the Republic of Carpathian Ruthenia was formed by a group of 100 delegates known as the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenia.

The Coat of Arms for Zakarpattia Oblast is almost an exact replica of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraines flag

The Coat of Arms for Zakarpattia Oblast is almost an exact replica of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraines flag (Credit: Alex Tora)

History Stuck On Repeat – From Carpatho-Ukraine to Carpatho-Ruthenia
The name change from Carpatho-Ukraine to Carpatho-Ruthenia was not a mistake. For political expediency, the separatists were returning to the early 20th century when the people of the area were known as Ruthenians rather than Ukrainians. This was the time when the first dreams of independence for the region and its people had begun to blossom. The irony of this name change was that in the 2001 census only one tenth of one percent of the region’s citizens actually called themselves Rusyns (another name for Ruthenians). By contrast, eight out of ten Zakarpattians stated that they were Ukrainian.  The local Rusyn dialect had pretty much become indistinguishable from the Ukrainian language. The absorption of Zakarpattia into Ukraine seemed complete. The question became, where did this separatist movement come from?

For that answer, Ukrainians could look no further than their much larger and domineering neighbor. The long shadow cast by Russia over Ukraine reached all the way to the remote slopes of Subcarpathia. It turned out that the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenia was a shadowy front for a Russian funded effort to break Zakarpattia away from Ukraine. Less than a year before, the same situation had been fomented by the Russians in two areas of Georgia, Abkhazia and North Ossetia. With Russian support, these two areas became breakaway republics. The problem for the separatist movement in Zakarpattia was that all of Ukraine stood between themselves and Russia. The movement soon collapsed when Ukrainian nationalists threatened to use all necessary means to bring the separatists back into line. As for the Russians, they eventually decided to focus their destabilizing efforts along their shared border with Ukraine. This past summer they controversially offered weapons and soldiers in support of another separatist movement in Ukraine. The result has been vicious fighting in the Donbas Region. This has led to thousands of Ukrainians being killed and wounded. The rebels have been able to secure a precarious degree of autonomy for themselves. An uneasy peace has brought the conflict largely to a halt for now, but this just might be the start of centralized Ukraine splintering along ethnic, linguistic or geographical lines.

Rural Village in Zakarpattia - whatever the future brings fro Transcarpathia life will continue much as it has for centuries (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

Rural Village in Zakarpattia – whatever the future brings fro Transcarpathia life will continue much as it has for centuries (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

Its Own Internal Logic  – History & Transcarpathia
Will Zakarpattia push for greater autonomy as well? At this time it is very hard to say what will happen. The future of this remote, beautiful, Eastern European backwater is just as murky as it was during the 20th century. It is doubtful that Carpatho-Ruthenia or Carpatho-Ukraine will ever become an independent nation. Then again, who would have believed that such a movement would still be alive in the 21st century? History in this area seems to have its own internal logic. Powers both great and small, conquer and then suddenly vanish. They leave behind traces of their presence, mostly shadows and scars. The past repeats itself, however imperfectly. What remains are the people of this remote, breathtakingly beautiful land.  In defiance of fate they continue their search for independence.

In Defiance of Fate (Part One) -The Republic of One Day: Carpatho-Ukraine

On March 15, 1939, the sun rose on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, in the land known as Subcarpathia. A new day was about to dawn both literally and figuratively. For the eight hundred thousand-odd people living in Subcarpathia at the time, it would be their last day ever as part of Czechoslovakia. The area was about to experience an identity crisis of historic proportions. This remote land, a forgotten backwater, began the day as an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia. At lunchtime it was a newly independent nation, known as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. By the next morning it was part of Hungary. Independence was fleeting, it did not even last the night. In just twenty-four hours, the population had been part of three separate nations. If given a choice, the majority of the populace would have preferred independence, but history was not on their side. The story of this land and its people’s geo-political situation over the past century is filled with fits and starts, false hopes and lost dreams. Independence turned out to be a dead end, but in the process, due more too historical accident rather than design, by the end of the 20th century, the region had received the next best thing, virtual autonomy. Through it all, in defiance of fate, the majority Rusyn population of the area retained a distinct identity.

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Playground of the Powers: Great & Small
Carpatho-Ukraine is a beautiful, bucolic land. It contains the foothills and smaller mountains of the Carpathian range. The Carpathians are well known in Europe, but not the small slice that is part of Ukraine. The majority of the Carpathians lie further south in Romania, famous as part of Transylvania. This is a forgotten land, relatively unknown, with a modern history that is complex and confusing. Ukraine, roughly translated means borderland, and Carpatho-Ukraine, is the ultimate borderland in a border country. A quintessential frontier, it has been an appendage of empires and nation-states from time immemorial. In the last one hundred years it has been the playground of a withering array of political entities. These have included the Austro—Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Red (Communist) Republic, Romania, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine. It has been conquered and occupied, as well as autonomous and independent. Presently it is a province of Ukraine, but has a coat of arms and flag that is almost an exact replica of the one that was used when it declared independence.

The idea of an independent republic that could not even last a day seems to be an historical absurdity. Was Carpatho-Ukraine unworthy of nationhood? Was this an attempt to take advantage of a specific geo-political situation? This slice of the sub-Carpathians failed as an independent nation in 1939 because it was crushed by powerful geo-political entities carving up Europe to suit their own interests. Paradoxically it was only because of power politics that Carpatho-Ukraine was able to gain its independence, if only for one day.

Occupying force - a Hungarian soldier in Khust  (Credit:

Occupying force – a Hungarian soldier in Khust (Credit:

History As Opportunism: The Disintegration of Czechoslovakia
To understand, the situation Carpatho-Ukraine found itself in, one must understand what was happening to Czechoslovakia, the nation-state it was part of from 1919 to 1939. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany first began to dismember Czechoslovakia by occupying the Sudetenland to “protect” the German population from the Czechs. Hitler and his henchmen were not the kind of geo-political players who could ever be appeased. It was not long before the Nazis wanted all of Bohemia and Moravia, the traditional homeland of the Czechs. In addition, Hitler had allowed Hungary to take the southern part of Slovakia, with its large Hungarian population. Meanwhile the rest of Slovakia had declared autonomy. Because of this, Czechoslovakia was being divided or perhaps more to the point, hyphenated. Its name was actually changed to Czecho-Slovakia, reflecting the virtual separation of Slovakia from the Czech portion of the state. Forgotten in the unfolding of this historical tragedy was a third, bit player.

The far eastern quarter of Czechoslovakia was known as Trans-Carpathia. It was neither Czech nor Slovak. Neither was it Hungarian, even though it had been part of the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. It contained a smattering of Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and Jews, but two-thirds of the population was Rusyn or Ruthenian, a people who were akin to the larger Eastern Slav population of Ukraine. Eventually, perhaps inevitably they would come to be called Ukrainians and the land they inhabited as the Carpatho-Ukraine. Following World War I Ukraine as a political entity had failed. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine was attached to Czechoslovakia in 1919. Fast forward two decades, with Czechoslovakia disintegrating, Carpatho-Ukraine declared autonomy on October 11, 1939. Five months later, on March 14th, as the Germans stormed into Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia about to become an independent nation, a Carpatho-Ukrainian parliament convened in the city of Khust. There they voted to become an independent republic.

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine - the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine – the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

No Man’s Land – Oppressors and the Oppressed
Within a few hours of this declaration the leaders of Carpatho-Ukraine fled into exile. The reason, Hungarian troops were already crossing the border. By the evening of March 15th a Hungarian force the size of two army divisions had invaded Carpatho-Ukraine. The new republic’s defense force, known as the Carpathian Sich, consisted of only 5,000 troops. By the next morning, Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist. It was now part of Hungary, despite the fact that less than ten percent of its population was ethnically Hungarian. Why did the Hungarians want this region? It allowed them a strategic wedge between Romania and Czechoslovakia (which ironically now ceased to exist). These states had dismembered “Historic” Hungary in the aftermath of World War I. Now the Hungarians were reconstituting their former domains. Amidst this geo-political morass were the Carpatho-Ukrainians. Their incipient state vanished into oblivion, their autonomy was gone. Nonetheless, a historic seed had been planted.

The Hungarians would come to regret their land grab. Although the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted less than a day, Hungarian rule over the area was also fleeting. Only five years later, in 1944, the Soviet Army came roaring out of the east. Many of the Hungarians and virtually all Germans in the area were either deported to the Gulag or murdered. Carpatho-Ukraine now became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was part of the Soviet Union. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine became a constituent of a constituent republic. Interestingly, the idea of a Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine did not end on that fateful Wednesday of March 15th, 1939. It has had an intriguing after life, one that will be discussed in a coming blog post.



Formidable Yet Forgotten – Palanok Castle & Historic Hungary

Of all the lands lost by Hungary in the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon, those defined as the sub-Carpathians are the least discussed. Today the region is part of southwestern Ukraine. This is a land defined as much by nature as by its people. It is a beautifully rugged landscape covered by thick woods and volcanic hills tucked into hidden, secluded valleys. Following World War I the area was placed in the new nation of Czechoslovakia. This placement did not even last two decades. Prior to the outbreak of World War II it was given back to Hungary by the Germans who were in the process of dismembering Czechoslovakia. By the end of the war it was occupied, as was all of Hungary, by the Soviet Army. It then became part of the Soviet Union. Following the dissolution of the Soviet state, it became part of Ukraine. This remote land was passed from one political entity to the next with little forethought as to the wants or needs of its population. The majority population was Ruthenian, a Slavic people who have become assimilated in the Ukrainian state and are known as such today.

Until World War II there was also a sizable Jewish population which actually constituted a majority in many towns, including Munkacs (Mukacheve, Ukraine). As for Hungarians, they were mostly found during the early 20th century as they are today in urban environments. The population of ethnic Hungarians in this region is approximately 150,000. Compared to the 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania or the 450,000 in Slovakia, those in Ukraine are unlikely to garner much notice. Nonetheless, just as in Romania and Slovakia, the Hungarian influence in this area is marked not just by the people, but also the region’s history. Their cultural heritage is still alive and dynamic. In Hungary, there is scant awareness of this land that was both lost to history and forgotten by memory. Nowhere does the Hungarian historical legacy in the sub-Carpathians come to prominence as dramatically as Palanok Castle in Munkacs (known as Mukachevo in Ukraine).

Palanok Castle - atop Lumkova Hill and Munkacs

Palanok Castle – atop Lumkova Hill and Munkacs

Deep History – Munkacs: Centuries and Millenniums
Today Munkacs is a city of 93,000 people. It is less than an hour’s drive from the border of northeastern Hungary. Far and away the large majority of the populace is Ukrainian. They make up 77% of the inhabitants. Meanwhile, a bit less than ten percent are ethnic Hungarians. A century ago, the demographic makeup was quite different. Munkacs was much smaller, but in those days it was no less a city. It had a population of 18,000, three-quarters of which were Hungarians, many of them Jewish. The area had first come into possession by the Hungarians when the first Magyar tribes arrived in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century. They entered the basin just sixty kilometers north of Munkacs, at the Verecke Pass. During the Middle Ages, Munkacs was made a Royal Free Town. This designation, along with its placement along the Latorica River, helped it become a hub for trade and merchantmen.

Yet it was many millenniums before, that Munkacs future prominence was decided. 68 meter (223 ft.) high Lamkova Hill was created by volcanic activity. This created a nearly impregnable outcropping, with clear lines of sight extending in every direction. Rulers of the area could not help, but notice. The first major constructions built atop this geological formation occurred under the direction of an early 14th century Lithuanian prince, Fedir Koriatovych. Koriatovych was the first of many nobles who made what would become Palanok Castle their home. These included no less a personage than Janos Hunyadi, Regent of Hungary, famed for defeating the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) in 1458.

Palanok Castle & Munkacs - drawing from 1686

Palanok Castle & Munkacs – drawing from 1686

Bastion of Defense – The Fight For Independence
The most interesting period in the castle’s history occurred when it became a center for military activity during the Hungarian fight to stay independent of Habsburg rule. Munkacs had formerly been attached to Transylvania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which had helped guarantee it a degree of independence even as the Ottoman Turks reigned supreme over much of Hungary. When the Turks were finally ousted, the Habsburgs looked to extend their hegemony over all historic Hungarian lands. The notable freedom fighter, Ferenc Rakoczi II made the Palanok Castle his base in what became known as Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711). Like so much of Hungarian history Rakoczi and his forces resisted valiantly, but it was to no avail. The Habsburgs broke their resistance and Rakoczi fled into exile. In 1726, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI granted the castle along with several hundred villages in the area as an estate to the noble, Lothar Franz Von Schonborn who had helped put the emperor on the throne. The Schonborn family kept the castle up until the early 20th century. During much of that time it served as a prison. On one notable occasion, in 1805 -1806 it also served as a safe house for the Holy Crown of Hungary. It was taken there in order to protect it from theft by Napoleon’s forces.

Palanok Castle from a distance 1

Palanok Castle from a distance

The Walls of Palanok – Presence of the Past
The castle’s towering position above Munkacs offered it a high degree of protection across the centuries. This helped preserve the works for posterity. Today it is a historical monument that is open to visitors. The castle is made up of three parts: the low, middle and high. The towering presence of the entire complex would give any potential conqueror second thoughts. In its prime, the fortress sported no less than 164 cannon which could unload a fuselage of shot. This would be all the more deadly due to the force of their weighty plunge from the towering heights. Military engineering and technology, along with its natural situation, made it one of the most formidable works in the whole of historic Hungary.

Formidable yet forgotten, this is the lot of the sub-Carpathian lands that were once an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Wild landscapes with an infusion of Hungarian history dot the area, nowhere more so than Munkacs. The sub-Carpathians are one of Europe’s least visited regions. The fortress at Munkacs makes a fantastic starting point for a visit. It showcases the presence of a past that is not so far or so distant. This is a place where history was shaped and formed by Hungarians. Their successes and failures can still be discerned behind the towering walls of Palanok Castle.