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Review March 2024

Galician refugees during the First World War

Review by Patrice M. Dabrowski
Kamil Ruszała, 2021
ISBN 9788324238941
479 Pages
Published by: Universitas
Refugees standing in a square in front of a cart with a cow in the forefront. On the left side there is a man with his back. On the cart a child is crying. Podhajce by K.u.k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle - Wien - Austrian National Library, Austria - Public Domain.

If the twentieth century was indeed the “century of refugees, uprooted and homeless people,” it was with the First World War that its beginnings were witnessed (p. 11).  This excellent if ultimately depressing book presents the long-forgotten yet complicated fates of Galicia’s civilians who during the war fled from the approaching Russian army and/or were evacuated from their homes elsewhere into the territory of Austria-Hungary.  This is the first such book to cover the entirety of their experience, from the beginning of the war through to its end, and the end of the monarchy, into the successor states. Kamil Ruszała has painstakingly pieced this story together out of a myriad of archival documents (state, regional, local) consulted in six countries:  Austria, Czechia, Ukraine, Poland, Slovenia, and Hungary, in at least as many languages, as well as the press of the period and, where possible, a number of memoirs and diaries. Yet, while swimming in a veritable sea of information on this wartime experience, he keeps uppermost the historian’s task, which “is not the presentation of a handful of facts, dates, numbers or surnames but the creation of a narrative which will bring us to understand what caused it, what it looked like, how the asylum-seekers and -providers behaved” as well as the consequences of the waves of refugees that flooded the monarchy (p. 25). The book achieves this most successfully.

The idea of war refugees was a relatively new one a century ago. The whole concept of war refugees who were not prisoners-of-war had not been dealt with in international conventions prior to the First World War. How to refer to the individuals who en masse fled their homes is discussed in the introduction (which also contains information on methodology, sources, and historiography). Novel is the fact that Galicia’s refugees fled not out of economic, political, or religious causes but from war, and—importantly for this story—into a different part of the monarchy, and thus to lands ostensibly inhabited by fellow citizens, who one might assume would be more sympathetic to their plight. In the fall of 1914 a competition was organized by a Polish-language Viennese newspaper to find a name for these Galicians, as many of the suggested terms were inadequate and in other languages—Flüchtling/menekültek/uprchlik—the term “refugee” seemed to carry negative connotations. Not that this helped the Galician refugees, as the rest of the book amply demonstrates. 

These Galicians crossed a mental as well as physical border: many were confronted with what seemed to be foreign lands, with a higher level of economic development than Galicia. Still, most found the conditions there wanting.

The book’s five substantive—and substantial–chapters neatly cover this phenomenon. Chapter 1 shows how violence, chaos, and panic characterized the titular “exodus.” It begins with spymania (with its brutal consequences in particular for the Ukrainian population, many of whom were either summarily executed or imprisoned in Thalerhof); fears of the “Muscovite,” the “Cossack,” and pogroms; and the endless rumors (given that newspapers provided little real information) that fueled the initial panic that caused many to flee spontaneously.  Often little of value or use (for example, food or warm clothes) was taken, both out of the confusion and as those fleeing expected not to be away from home for long. Many east Galicians, especially the region’s Jews, made their way to neighboring Hungary. The provincial executive evacuated to the far west of Galicia, leaving local officials in place. The subsequent forced evacuations of Lviv, Przemyśl, and Kraków (each discussed in turn) were chaotic, disorganized, and hurried and conducted with little regard for property or even life. Other waves of movement took place in response to the Brusilov and Kerensky campaigns of 1916 and 1917. The author provides his best estimate of the numbers (under a million refugees during the four waves) and the ethnic breakdown for various waves.

The huge second chapter details the ordeal of the refugees. They traveled and/or were transported long distances, individually or in groups (the latter for those without means), to hastily assembled refugee camps and communities across Cisleithania and Hungary. These Galicians crossed a mental as well as physical border: many were confronted with what seemed to be foreign lands, with a higher level of economic development than Galicia. Still, most found the conditions there wanting. A system of barrack-filled camps imperfectly organized along national lines overwhelmed the local communities. These were towns, or even cities, within towns: Gmünd’s camp alone housed over 28,000 refugees, as compared to its local population of 4500 (p. 149). While some efforts were made to educate and train refugees—efforts that helped integrate national communities across the social divide—the barracks were more breeding grounds for illness and dissatisfaction than safe places to survive the war.  Yet other refugees moved directly into localities across the country, including Vienna.

The fraught interaction between the refugees and their host communities is presented in chapter 3.  Paradoxically, despite being part of the same country, both lacked prior knowledge of each other; rumors and stereotypes did little to improve relations. Even the camp staff mistreated those under their care. Sometimes thought of as traitors, the Galicians were also blamed for the worsening economic situation. Cities tried to expel refugees and send them to the refugee camps. And refugees were not always grateful or—worse—they contributed to the strengthening of stereotypes. In Hungary, there was a “great divide” between Hungarians and (mostly Jewish) Galicians, many of whom were brutally relocated from Budapest (p. 219). Even Hungarian Jews had little sympathy for their co-religionists. Over time the situation only grew more dire. An interesting concluding section, “Who are we? On the breakdown of identity”, sheds light on ways in which many Galicians, treated not as equal citizens by their fellow Austrians but as an inferior foreign element, became disillusioned and lost faith in the monarchy, especially after the death of Emperor Franz Joseph, although Ruszała acknowledges that more work should be done on this topic.

In the fall of 1918, the disintegration of the monarchy and emergence of new states raised the question of citizenship. It left Galicia’s Jews in a dilemma: to stay or return?

Representing the efforts of the state, chapter 4 systematically details the legal basis for the treatment of the refugees. The state was obliged to help these citizens but was at a loss to calculate, let alone budget for, the costs it would incur. Refugees at large did receive a small daily allowance of 70 halers per adult, 40 per child, paid out in advance each week (p. 283).  This sum was not enough to allow refugees to afford to live in many places within the empire, resulting in them turning to the camps, which ostensibly covered the needs of the most destitute.  Inflation made things worse, even after the allowance was increased. All this put a great strain on Austrian finances (the Hungarians were to be reimbursed by Vienna for what they paid out to refugees). The efforts of Galician politicians and the organization of assistance during the war in a multitude of institutions helped the respective national groups (Poles, Ukrainians, Jews) across the social spectrum to coalesce.

After the war’s end, Galicians were “repatriated,” a word used by the central authorities if not the author, who acknowledges that they remained within the same state—at least for a while longer. The final substantive chapter addresses the titular “difficult returns,” which again took place in messy waves, albeit with individuals desperate to return also doing so on their own. Ruszała explains in detail how repatriation worked, with many ending up first in western Galicia or Austrian Silesia and/or housed again in barracks before being allowed to travel to their homes. The province simply was not ready for them. Expelled also by the exhausted and impatient communities in the hinterland, refugees returned to devastation, hunger, and few resources with which to rebuild their lives. The region did not return to its previous state; nor did all inhabitants return home to the same localities, or even their homes in Galicia home. In the fall of 1918, the disintegration of the monarchy and emergence of new states raised the question of citizenship.  It left Galicia’s Jews in a dilemma:  to stay or return? It is interesting to note that Galicians (or even Poles) were identified in the minds of other Austrian citizens as Jews. Between the Polish-Ukrainian and the Polish-Bolshevik armed conflicts, war was not to end for the former Habsburg subjects for another several years. This book should give readers a greater appreciation for what these Galicians went through before becoming citizens of the new Polish state.

Throughout the book, choice examples from his enormous source base (clearly but a sample of what Ruszała has amassed) illustrate the points made by the author. It is well served by photographs and an impressive 45-page appendix with charts on the various camps, localities, and institutions, quite an undertaking in itself (there are another ten or so charts also within certain chapters).  Galicyjski eksodus narrates well the experience of Galician refugees in Austria-Hungary—an experience that, paradoxically, would soon be forgotten (the reasons for which are also given in a strong conclusion). It would be wonderful to see the book translated into the languages of what are now the host countries (not to mention English), as even they have little memory of what happened over a century ago.

Patrice M. Dabrowski is currently an Associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, a member of the Board of Directors of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America (PIASA), and editor of H-Poland. She is the author of three books: The Carpathians: Discovering the Highlands of Poland and Ukraine (2021), Poland: The First Thousand Years (2014), and Commemorations and the Shaping of Modern Poland (2004). In 2014 she was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. Dabrowski was the 2021 recipient of the Mary Zirin Prize, awarded annually by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies to an independent scholar.