Exploring Ukraine’s Habsburg Heritage
Exploring Ukraine’s Habsburg Heritage
Joint Austrian-Ukrainian Commission of Historians aims to shed new light on the shared past
International perceptions of Ukraine tend to focus almost exclusively on the country’s Soviet and imperial Russian past, but this ignores the considerable Habsburg influence on the development of the modern Ukrainian state. From the late seventeen hundreds until the early twentieth century, much of today’s western Ukraine fell within the boundaries of the Vienna-based Habsburg Empire. Ideas of Ukrainian national identity flourished in the relatively liberal Habsburg domains and served as a source of considerable inspiration for those living across the border in the Ukrainian lands controlled by the Russian tsars. At a time when Russia was placing draconian restrictions on the use of the Ukrainian language, Habsburg Ukrainians had their own schools, printed press and burgeoning literary traditions.
The role of Habsburg history in Ukraine’s journey towards statehood was strictly taboo during the Soviet era, but it has become the subject of renewed interest since the dawn of Ukrainian independence in 1991. Founded in 2017, the Austrian-Ukrainian Commission of Historians is one of the leading academic bodies looking to explore issues related to Ukraine’s Habsburg heritage. Business Ukraine magazine spoke to Commission Co-Chair Dr. Wolfgang Mueller about the Habsburg factor in Ukrainian history and its importance in shaping today’s Ukraine.
Professor Mueller, what is the reason for your interest in Ukraine?
Ukraine is the largest country located entirely in Europe and it is the key to many of the issues that are at stake in European politics today. Some observers said in 2014 that events in Ukraine would decide the fate of Europe. Moreover, Russian relations with Ukraine tell us a lot about Russia. This is not to say that Ukraine is not a fascinating research subject in itself. Andreas Kappeler, one of the best German-language experts on Ukraine, has pointed to the fact that the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14 were Europe’s largest civic movements since the East European revolutions of 1989-90. The emergence of Ukrainian society as a political actor and its ability to stand up in defense of a European future is definitely an impressive phenomenon.
Twenty-eight years since the collapse of the USSR, many outside observers still routinely refer to Ukraine as a post-Soviet country. To what extent can we also talk about Ukraine as a post-Habsburg country?
In terms of the available political and social science data, it is clearly visible that western Ukraine, and in particular the regions that were once part of the Habsburg Monarchy, differ on a number of issues from the rest of the country. When we look at the latest presidential elections, this becomes particularly visible. However, this is only one part of a bigger story. The other part is that within the Habsburg Monarchy, the idea of a Ukrainian nation was able to develop far more freely than it was within the Russian Empire. Therefore, we can say that the policies of the Habsburg Monarchy helped shape the later development of today’s Ukrainian state in its entirety.
What role does knowledge of Ukraine’s Habsburg past play in shaping modern Austrian attitudes towards Ukraine?
Ukraine’s Habsburg past is rarely addressed in the contemporary Austrian media discourse outside of academia or political statements. Most Austrians would not regard Ukraine as an indirect successor state of the Habsburg Monarchy.
For the past five years, Ukraine’s undeclared war with Russia has thrust the country into the international headlines. What impact has this had on Austrian interest in Ukrainian history?
I would speak of Russia’s undeclared war rather than the other way round. In response to the Euromaidan Revolution and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis of 2014, Austrian levels of interest in Ukraine rose significantly. This interest then dropped throughout 2015. It has since been pushed aside entirely by the migration crisis.
In many European countries, traditional Russian historical narratives about Ukraine have heavily influenced perceptions of the current conflict. Has this Russocentric approach to Ukrainian history been a major issue in Austria?
This certainly holds true for Austria as well. While Austrians have some ideas about Russian history and culture, most know precious little about Ukraine and have no points of reference. This is clearly a problem. Moreover, among those Austrians and Germans who do not express solidarity with Ukraine in the current conflict, there is widespread opinion that “the West just needs to make peace with Russia” and then all will be fine. This is essentially a neo-Bismarckian worldview. It ignores the fact that in 1918 and again in 1991, numerous sovereign states have emerged between Germany and Russia, and these states have the right to choose their own way.
Modern Ukraine has a large number of striking landmarks dating back to the Habsburg era. Which is your personal favorite?
I would chose the University of Chernivtsi, which hosted the latest session of the Ukrainian-Austrian Commission of Historians. This university traces its roots back to 1875 when it was founded as the Franz-Josephs-Universitat of Czernowitz, as the city was then known. At the time, Chernivtsi was the capital of the Duchy of Bukovina within the Habsburg Empire. Instruction at the university took place in German, Romanian and Ukrainian. Prominent alumni include Ukrainian poet and activist Ivan Franko, and Joseph Schumpeter, who went on to become a professor at Harvard University and one of the most influential economists of the twentieth century. The university is the former palace of the Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans. Built under Habsburg rule, it is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
About the interviewee: Dr. Wolfgang Mueller is a Professor of East European History at the University of Vienna and a Corresponding Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He is currently the Co-Chair of the Austrian-Ukrainian Commission of Historians together with Ukrainian counterpart Dr. Ihor Zhaloba