Saturday, November 22, 2008

90th Anniversary of The Making of Eastern Europe as We Know it

November is full of important anniversaries ending in symbolic 5s and 0s this year.  11 November marked 90 years since the end of World War I with the predictably dwindling handful of living veterans being photographed and honored in ways they were not until the war had been surpassed by a second World War II.  Meanwhile Ukrainians are marking the 75th anniversary of the famine hoping that it will get greater notice among non-Ukrainians than did the event itself.  Outside of East Central and Eastern Europe, the broader impact of the end of World War I has likewise been largely neglected, and yet the events of November 1918 are key to shaping that part of the world for the rest of the twentieth century because the marked the moment when nationality finally replaced the tradition of imperial power as the source of legitimacy for states in the region.  

National histories have presented that shift has been seen as beginning much earlier although the establishment of nation states was prevented by inertia and a European state system that saw the continued existence of Austria-Hungary as preferable to the chaos that would occur in its absence. Yet, even as a few more radical nationalist were more than ready for the change, most citizens of Austria-Hungary were not until efforts to reconcile competing interests of various nationalities collapsed during the last year of the war.  Unfortunately.  the winding up of the war did not really resolve the problems politicians in Austria-Hungary had been working on before 3 November 1918, as became clear the day before when Ruthenian (that was their official ethnonym in Austria-Hungary) troops in Galicia mutinied and seized control of Lemberg, (Lviv) which Ukrainian nationalists in Galicia planned would become the capital of the Western Ukrainian Republic.

The Ukrainian gambit was a risky one.  While Lemberg lay within Eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainians were the dominant nationality, they were a minority in the Galician capital, where Poles held a slight majority with Jews the second largest ethnic group.  What is more Polish nationalists had spent the previous 20 years building up the idea of Lemberg's Polishness in the minds of Poles in Galicia and other parts of historical Poland.   Meanwhile the unofficial, but de facto Polish diplomatic contacts with the Entente powers was far better developed than the Ukrainians, which paved the way for the French decision to allow General Haller's army to cross into Galicia and wrest Lemberg from the Ukrainian forces.  

Haller's army succeeded, although not before numerous Polish soldiers, many mere boy scouts had died.  Then on 22 some Poles started a pogrom against Jews, who had calculated that the best thing to do was to remain neutral.  Initial reports were of casualties in the thousands were made, but today the accepted number of 73 victims.   Within the broader scheme of things the numbers do not matter so much as the event, which made put paid to any real expectation that the concept of minority rights would play a serious role in limiting state power in what would become the Wilsonian world order. A fact that was further borne out by the punitive measures taken on Ukrainian civil servants and railway workers.   

These events were not unique in the Habsburg successor states, most notably the Communist revolution in Hungary and its overthrow were far more dramatic.  Yet at the center of all these lay the highly problematic task of applying the principle of national sovereignty to peoples living in close proximity to each other who had been allowed to establish distinct national identities within Austria-Hungary.  

To be sure the events of 1918-1920 did not insure subsequent developments including the extermination of Jews and the ethnic cleansing of Poles and Ukrainians, who were deemed on the wrong side of post WWII Polish-Ukrainian border.  Nor are such wounds permanent.  Much to the chagrin of Moscow, Polish-Ukrainian relations since the end of the cold war, and there have been serious efforts to resolve remaining tensions regarding Lviv.  Most notably, the cemetery Poles built to honor the dead of the 1918-19 war has been restored, with a site that includes a memorial to Ukrainian dead as well.

Local Polish forces including a large number of scouts defended the city,  

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