Larry Wolff


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

Cover Interview of August 15, 2010

In a nutshell

This is a book about a geopolitical space—Galicia—that existed for a very precisely limited historical epoch.

Galicia was created—I would say “invented”—in 1772 at the time of the partitions of Poland, and then abolished at the end of World War I in 1918, disappearing forever from the official map of Europe.  (An historical memory or phantom in the 20th century and still today, the former Galicia occupies southern Poland and western Ukraine, roughly the region between Cracow and Lviv, which were its two principal cities.)

So the book is a study of how an invented, artificial space became real, authentic, historical, and meaningful for the people who lived there (Poles, Ukrainians, Jews) and for the people who governed it (the Habsburg dynasty in Vienna and their administration in Galicia)—and then how the abolition of Galicia brought this province of the Habsburg monarchy back into the realm of the unreal.

The book is an experiment in writing the history of a place as an idea—or rather the multiple and various ideas that gave meaning and identity to Galicia during its historical existence, and then preserved its memory afterwards.

At the same time I argue that the idea of Galicia was important for imperial reasons.  It was part of an imperial ideology that justified and explained Viennese rule over this province, and ordered the relation between the province and the ruling metropolis Vienna.

In particular, I’m interested in how an ideology of civilization enabled the Viennese government to envision a program of reform and development (even messianic transformation) in Galicia, and how this was related to a presumed “Western” metropolitan superiority to an “Eastern” province of the Habsburg monarchy.

The idea of Galicia was shaped by Europe’s mental mapping of the supposed difference between Western Europe and Eastern Europe.  Galicia was mapped as backward, exotic, alien, and eastern from a Viennese perspective, and the Galicians themselves wrestled with these imposed categories as they sought to come to terms with their own provincial identity.

Finally, I argue that the provincial identity of Galicians as Galicians was important and meaningful to them—and not simply a secondary aspect of their religious or national identities as Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews.