Larry Wolff


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

Cover Interview of August 15, 2010

The wide angle

The theories and approaches of The Idea of Galicia are closely related to earlier work that I have done on Eastern Europe more generally.

In 1994 I published a book called Inventing Eastern Europe, which argued that the geopolitical difference between Eastern Europe and Western Europe (which was taken totally for granted during the era of the Cold War, up until 1989) was in fact an artificial, culturally imposed distinction, created by the philosophers and travelers of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

I argued that “Eastern Europe” was in fact invented, along with “Western Europe”—but since it was invented in the West, it was Western Europe that appropriated for itself the identity of the civilized half of the continent while Eastern Europe was characterized by relative backwardness.  (The concepts of backwardness and development were also created precisely at this time and partly for this purpose.)

I argue that this invention was a work of “mental mapping” (as opposed to scientific geographical mapping) and that it was at the same time a work of “demi-Orientalism” (as opposed to the full Orientalism that was discussed by Edward Said as the Western characterization of the absolute “otherness” of Asia and the Middle East).

These cultural processes of invention, mental mapping, and demi-Orientalism in Eastern Europe are extremely important for my approach to Galicia.  I argue that Galicia was an invented space, created by the Habsburgs who needed a name for the territory that they annexed from Poland in 1772, that Galicia was mentally mapped (as the Habsburgs explored and reformed the province, “discovering” its backwardness), and that Galicia was demi-Orientalized as being both eastern and exotic on the one hand, but still redeemably European on the other, that is, Eastern European.

A famous German-language series of fictional stories about Galicia, published in the nineteenth century by the Galician writer Karl Emil Franzos, was entitled Halb-Asien (“half-Asia”)—a neat and unusual summation of the supposedly demi-Oriental character of Galicia.

I make use of a lot of literary sources—which offer some of the “fantasy” aspects suggested in the subtitle—as I am interested in the way that fantasy and history interact to produce an idea of Galicia.  The general issues of my book are thus connected to broader theories about mental mapping, the ideology of empire, Orientalism and demi-Orientalism, and the relation between Eastern Europe and Western Europe.

While The Idea of Galicia is closely related to my own earlier research and publications, it is also a subject that I came to for reasons of family history.  My father’s parents were born in Galicia, as subjects of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph.  Although they lived most of their lives in the United States, they nevertheless maintained a sense of identity as Galicians.

Millions of Americans (in the United States and Canada) today are the descendants of Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish emigrants from Galicia, and one of the ways in which Galicia has survived its own geopolitical existence is in the family memories and histories of what could be called a Galician diaspora.

Among Jewish Galicians this sense of identity with the province was particularly powerful—Jewish ethnography still uses the identity category of “Galitzianer” to represent a particular form of Jewish culture, customs, cooking, religious temperament, political background, and Yiddish pronunciation.

One of the general problems that the book addresses in its final chapters is how to measure and register the “afterlife” of a geopolitical space that has been abolished from the map.  Emigration and diaspora offer one approach, but it is also possible, in both Poland and Ukraine, to find traces of Galician identity and agenda within contemporary politics.

Especially in western Ukraine the memory of Galicia reinforces a powerful sense of European identity.  Some Ukrainians in Lviv in 2000 celebrated the 170th birthday of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph!  The celebration was a reminder that Lviv, the provincial capital of Galicia, had been imperially related to Vienna long before it was bound to Moscow after World War II.

So one of the general problems that I study in my book is that of historical pentimento:  the map of nineteenth-century Galicia hidden behind the contemporary map of post-communist Poland and post-Soviet Ukraine.