The states that were formed after the First World War arose around the idea of an "exclusive nation" based on the culture of dominant ethnic groups: A historian discusses the interethnic coexistence of Galicians

A look at the inter-ethnic coexistence and cohabitation of Galicians in the years between the two world wars

A conversation with Petro Chorniy, a historian, social anthropologist, Candidate of Historical Sciences, and Research Fellow of the Institute of Ethnology at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He won the Marten Feller and Zhanna Kovba Award instituted by the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies for his monograph Ethnic Groups of Galicia during the Interwar Period: Interethnic (Co)Habitation and Sociocultural Transformations.

Vasyl Shandro: What are the basics of the economic, social, cultural, and political conditions after the First World War in Galicia?

Petro Chorniy: We have to begin with the First World War. This war led to the collapse of the European continental empires. It affirmed the right of nations to self-determination and the formation of their own sovereign states. Some nations were able to avail themselves of this opportunity, this great chance, and others, like the Ukrainians and specifically Galician Ukrainians, were not. Galicia ended up in the Polish state. Galicia was a space of cultures that had coexisted over the space of many generations. Each of them — Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, Karaim, and German — regarded Galicia as its own little fatherland.

Vasyl Shandro: In this context, can we call the representatives of these various ethnicities Galicians? That is, does a "Galician" within the framework of our current conversation necessarily mean "a Ukrainian" or a "Ukrainian-Ruthenian"?

Petro Chorniy: During this interwar period, it is entirely correct to call the representatives of the above-mentioned ethnic groups Galicians. Today Galicia is a homogenous culture —Ukrainian — and we are accustomed to viewing Galicians as Ukrainians exclusively. In fact, this was not quite so. We know that Jews in their milieu singled out the concept of "Galician Jew."

During the interwar period, Ukrainians constituted 65–67 percent of the population of Galicia

Vasyl Shandro: During the twentieth-century interwar period, the population of Galicia was politically subordinated to Poland. The Ukrainian state was unable to cope with the problems that had emerged after the First World War. On the one hand, a Western Ukrainian National Republic was created, and on the other hand, the Ukrainian National Republic [in central and eastern Ukraine—Ed.] was formed. And there was even the Act of Union of both these states, which was a very important event. However, to maintain a Ukrainian state that was under attack from the Bolsheviks from the east, from Russia, was not successful. So, people end up on one side under Soviet occupation and on the other side under Polish occupation, although the Poles do not very much like that term.

Petro Chorniy: Yes, in keeping with international law at the time, we can speak about the Polish occupation of Galicia until 15 March 1923, a period marked by the normalization of the status of this territory where earlier the ZUNR [Western Ukrainian National Republic] had proclaimed statehood. In June 1919, the Entente allowed the Poles to administer [eastern] Galicia until a final decision at the international level on who would own the territory. So, in this period of time between 1919 to 1923, this can be called an occupation. In 1923 the Conference of Ambassadors of the Allied countries de jure handed Galicia over to Poland, with the Ukrainians' right to national-territorial autonomy. The claim that this was an occupation has become controversial and is still discussed by historians and jurists, and some colleagues view the entire interwar era in Galicia as a Polish occupation.

Vasyl Shandro: Who lived alongside Ukrainians in Galicia?

Petro Chorniy: During the interwar period, Ukrainians constituted 65 to 67 percent of the population; Poles — 25 percent; and Jews 10 percent. There were members of the German, Karaim, and Czech communities, though the Czechs were more numerous in Volyn. The three groups of Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews dominated in Galicia and influenced political life and the economy. However, you have to consider that these figures that I cite are reflected differently in urban and village spaces. Ukrainians predominated in rural areas, in some places up to one hundred percent. In small cities like Brody and Sambir, Jews formed over seventy percent of the population. In large cities like Lviv, Poles constituted over fifty percent of the population. Galicia's ethnic diversity was very complex, and the cultural space varied from urban to village locations, and this has to be taken into account.

Assimilation or the preservation of one's culture?

Vasyl Shandro: What criteria do scholars apply in determining ethnic affiliation? For example, are language and religion sufficient criteria to identify ethnicity?

Petro Chorniy: The main analytical concept of my research is the term "culture" and the concept of "ethnicity" that derives from it. In applying these categories, I tried to show how various communities coexisted in Galicia. A hundred years ago, it was significantly easier to define these groups through religion and language. Identity that was based on these categories was crucial. National identities were clearly defined in communities. Ukrainians now knew, for example, they were not Poles or Ruthenians. The First World War had prompted dynamic nation-building processes. The same held for Jewish communities, as identity was sharpened, and one part wanted to build a Jewish state on the territory of Palestine and worked toward that goal. Another part wanted to integrate into interwar Poland's cultural and political space but nonetheless retain a cultural autonomy.

The principal ways of preserving cultural autonomy on the territory of Galicia were private schools or gymnasiums, where the languages of instruction were Ukrainian, Yiddish, or German. The possibility of a religious education in one's own tradition was also provided. Those who did not have this became dissolved within a foreign culture. For example, part of the small German community, which was Catholic by tradition, attended Polish Roman Catholic churches and mostly Polish-language schools. Within two to three generations, they became assimilated into the Polish culture, unlike those Germans who were Protestant — Lutheran or Calvinist — who understood this was an element on which to maintain their identity in a foreign land, because they knew they had left their historic territory and did not want to dissolve and assimilate into this vast multicultural society.

Vasyl Shandro: Did the issues of "one's own" and "outsider" become more acute in the different communities of Galicia during the postwar period?

Petro Chorniy: The interwar period accentuated these categories. The states that were formed after the First World War arose around the idea of an "exclusive nation" based on the culture of the ethnic group that was numerically dominant in the state. In the case of interwar Poland, we are talking about Polish culture. In keeping with this principle, ethnic groups that had the juridical status of national minorities — Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, etc. — were excluded in practice from the state-building process. Their civic rights were restricted, and they were deprived of opportunities for comprehensive development.

"Othering," which was accentuated, forced Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews to protect themselves in a form I call sociocultural enclosure. But they also needed to coexist somehow in the new state and adapt to the new conditions. The Polish political elite believed that the Ukrainian question was quite regional, in Galicia and Volyn, and that it could assimilate Ukrainians through Polish-language schools over a few generations.

Where the Jews were concerned, the situation was quite complex. They did not live in compact groups, like the Ukrainians in Galicia, but throughout all of interwar Poland. There were three million of them in the 1920s and 1930s. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe, and second in size after the US. Consequently, the Jewish question was the main one for the Polish authorities. On the one hand, you had a small segment of the Polish elite that believed it was possible to assimilate the Jews. However, the majority, especially the Endeks, the Polish nationalists, thought that they would not succeed in doing this because of the religious factor. They believed that this could be harmful to Polish Christian culture and lead to the demise of their own ethnic group. For that reason, they readily encouraged the migration of Jews — ousting them from Poland. The Jewish community was not monolithic and divided in opinion. There were the Zionists who wanted to build their own nation and saw there was no place for them in Europe and viewed Palestine as the space where the Jewish state should be reborn. The Jewish nationalists, the Zionists, worked with the youth to encourage emigration, and the Polish state supported this. This lasted until the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the Second World War.

Vasyl Shandro: Was this heterogeneity also inherent in the Ukrainian community and in the members of all ethnic groups during the interwar period?

Petro Chorniy: Yes, each community was divided on both sides of the political spectrum: the right and the left. For example, the Jewish community: the Zionists were on the right of the political spectrum, and they tried every which way to encourage the building of a state in Palestine. However, most Jews were left-wing or left-centrist in their political views. They had no desire to migrate anywhere; they wanted to integrate.

The Ukrainians of Galicia, compared to the Ukrainians of the Dnipro region, had a positive experience of civic and political existence in the Austrian Empire. This legacy — above all, the development of cultural institutions (Prosvita societies, a broad network of Ukrainian-language schools, the Sich movement, etc.) and foundations — what we call civic society today — helped them immensely during the interwar period, when the Polish authorities significantly restricted and prohibited their activity and development.

By contrast, Ukrainians in the Russian Empire and, later, under Bolshevik rule, were essentially stripped of political rights and institutional development. For the Bolsheviks, the short-lived period of so-called "Ukrainization" was a period of feigned affection for Ukrainian culture until such time as they gained complete power over the Ukrainians. Once they succeeded in doing this, they stopped doing this and set about destroying all the cultural achievements throughout the 1930s. This shows the great contrast between Galicia and Ukraine during the interwar period.

Vasyl Shandro: This brings us to the end of the first part of our conversation. In the second part, we will be discussing whether it was somehow possible to move up the steps of power and become incorporated in the power structure, whether interethnic marriages were possible in the interwar decade, and many other topics.

For the complete program, listen to the audio file.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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