Nationalizing a Borderland
War, Ethnicity, and Anti-Jewish Violence in East Galicia, 1914-1920
By Alexander Victor Prusin
The University of Alabama Press, 2016
Nowadays the nation state, along with its concomitant evil: nationalism, is seen as the source of all conflict.
Yet consider for a moment that the Great War was a conflict between empires. In Galicia, for example, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the war began, the Russian Empire laid claim to primordial Russian (or, at any rate, pan-Slavic) lands. While the German Empire eyed the territory from afar with a keen sense of entitlement; they wanted their Volksboden and Kulturboden (i.e., land where ethnic Germans lived and land which had been developed by German hands, wielding sword and plough) back. That is how they saw matters. Naturally, the people who actually lived in Galicia had their own aspirations too: Poles and Ukrainians, nationalists for the most part who sometimes found themselves strategically aligned with an invader. And then there were the Jews, a people wanting only to be left alone, maligned and distrusted by all.
It became a chaotic battleground, did Galicia, what with all these competing interests. At the start, the Russian army swiftly overran Austrian forces and soon occupied the territory. They imposed martial law and here the Jews in particular were seen as an enemy within, sympathetic to the Austrian cause and suspected of espionage and sabotage. Expulsions and deportations of Jews to other parts of Russia was the official policy, but this was likely as not accompanied by pillage, looting and violent atrocity. Jews were considered fair game by ill-disciplined Cossacks.
As the Russians lost their hold on the war – due to an Austrian/German resurgence and revolutionary turmoil back home – reprisals against the civilian population and, Yes, especially Jews, increased. Violence reached its height with the Russian retreat in the Autumn of 1917: the pogrom in Brody was a brutal envoi.
Once the Russians had scarpered and left, conflict flared up between Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, with the Jews sat in the middle. Some Zionist factions called for national rights; and a Jewish homeland might conceivably have been on the cards in a region of Galicia. It was a period of great historical flux, so why not? (An interesting, alternate history: remember the Khazars.) But in actual fact most Jewish groups adopted a stance of strict neutrality, which was however perceived by the Poles as ingratitude, bordering on betrayal. It was as though the Jews were playing the odds, and would side with whoever turned out the victor. Following Polish victory, there was a pogrom in Lwow in Nov 1918. Buildings, including synagogues, were burned to the ground and hundreds of Jews were murdered. Prusin writes that ‘the very inception of Poland was marked by brutal and undisguised murder, which augured a grim future’; and so it transpired. When Poland came into being at the end of the Great War, it never got around to implementing the Minority Rights Treaty, which would have guaranteed civil rights to Jews.
The Polish-Soviet war of 1920 saw anti-Semitism, always present, morph into a new trope: the Judeo-Bolshevik myth. As Prusin explains it:
The notion of ‘Judeo-Communism’ gained its most powerful momentum in the period 1917 to 1919, when during the revolutions in Russia, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, many Jews became prominent in Communist movements. In the context of the tumultuous European politics of the period, when the empires collapsed and new national states came into being, anti-Communism and anti-Semitism amalgamated into a powerful myth of the world Jewish conspiracy, which instilled fear in various social and political groups.
As we know, the Judeo-Bolshevik myth became a central tenet of Nazi ideology: it occupied a seminal role in the writings of Alfred Rosenberg, who persuaded Hitler of its truth (I’m guessing this didn’t take much time). It fuelled anti Semitic violence in Germany. And Poland’s Madagascar Plan, precursor to the Holocaust, took much of its impetus from the Judeo-Bolshevik myth.
Nationalizing a Borderland is a fascinating, if harrowing case study. Making intensive use of primary and secondary sources, including the national archives of Poland and Ukraine, Prusin focuses his attention on a particular place and time – Galicia between 1914 and 1920 – in order to explore how empires fall and nation-states arise from their ashes. You are left with the uneasy question: does the birth of a nation necessarily involve ethnic violence?
The publisher’s description of Nationalizing a Borderland can be read here.