The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture

Article excerpt

Larry Wolff. The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. xi, 486 pp. Illustrations. Index. $60.00, cloth.

Larry Wolffs new book is about "how an imagined or invented entity, like Galicia in the eighteenth century, became geopolitically real, meaningful, and historical in the nineteenth century - before receding again into the domain of fantasy in the twentieth century" (p. 7). The Habsburg state came up with the idea of Galicia to justify taking part in the 1772 partition of Poland. Galicia was manufactured out of medieval claims of the Hungarian crown to the former Rus' principality of Galicia- Volhynia. There was some geographical congruence between the principality that disappeared in the late fourteenth century and the Austrian land that appeared in the late eighteenth, but the threads binding the two "Galicias" were very thin. Still, the invention began to take on a life of its own.

After only twenty years of existence, Galicia figured as "the fatherland" in the conception of some Polish noblemen. By 1848 the Ruthenian (Ukrainian) clergy and intelligentsia wanted to partition Galicia into western (Polish) and eastern (Ruthenian) sections. Wolff feels that the contention over partition confirms that Galicia had become the political framework in which its inhabitants were then thinking. The reality of Galicia solidified even more after the land received autonomy within Austria in 1867. After the fall of the Habsburgs, Wolff shows, Galicia, as fantasy or apparition, haunted culture and politics for decades.

What is attractive about this book, however, is less the particular ground it covers than the way it does so. The study is a highly intelligent, delightful read, as much a work of art as an investigation of history. It is skilfully paced - the intellectual history of Galicia moves forward in almost imperceptible increments from the 1770s into the 1920s. True, the major transitions are marked by chapter divisions, but there is a tremendous fluidity in the presentation and never does the reader feel rushed to the next historical station. Wolff often makes his points through examples from literature, music, and the visual arts, even film - he manages to make legitimate use, for example, oí Some Like It Hot. Crucial figures who explain Galicia to the reader include the great Polish playwright Alexander Fredro, Mozart's son Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Alfred Döb lin, Isaac Babel, and Bruno Szulc. Wolff quotes passages in his own elegant and sensitive translations. …