Borislav Chernev: The Habsburg Mobilisation of Ethnicity and the Ukrainian Question during the Great War

Nationalism was one of the biggest challenges the dynastic empires of East Central Europe faced in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This paper explores one of the strategies Austria-Hungary employed to address this challenge during the Great War. It takes the concept of ‘Imperial mobilisation of ethnicity’, developed by Mark von Hagen in the case of the Russian Empire, and applies it to Habsburg Empire’s policy towards Ukrainians, both in the Austrian crownlands of Galicia and Bukovina, and in Russian Ukraine. It does so in a comparative perspective, examining the Habsburg mobilisation of ethnicity alongside the Russian and German efforts on the ‘entangled’ Eastern Front. Compared to the Habsburg policy towards Poland (the so called ‘Austro-Polish Solution’), which has received considerable scholarly attention, Habsburg policy on the Ukrainian Question has remained a relatively understudied topic.

There were two distinct phases in the Habsburg mobilisation of ethnicity during the Great War as it pertained to the Ukrainian Question. During the first stage, between 1914 and 1917, the Habsburg authorities sponsored the creation and activities of Galician Ukrainian organisations like the Union for the Liberation and Ukraine and the Ukrainian Sich Sharpshooters, whose aim was to combat the Russians and ‘liberate’ Russian Ukraine, possibly creating a united Ukraine under Habsburg suzerainty. During this phase, however, Austria-Hungary was often on the defensive, as much of Galicia was subjected to Russian occupations in 1914-1915 and 1916-early 1917. During the second stage, Austria-Hungary became deeply involved in Russian Ukraine. The February Revolution in Russia unleashed a process of imperial collapse in Eastern Europe which led to the graduate emergence of independent nation-states, most prominently the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and piqued Habsburg and, especially, German interest in Russia’s subject nationalities. At the Brest-Litovsk Peace Conference, the Ukrainian delegation successfully negotiated German and Austrian recognition of Ukrainian independence. The subsequent Austro-German military intervention in Ukraine prevented a Bolshevik takeover in the spring of 1918 and bolstered Ukrainian statehood. In spite of this apparent success of the Habsburg mobilisation of ethnicity with respect to the Ukrainian Question, Austria-Hungary – unlike its ally Germany – remained ambivalent about playing the nationalist card throughout, as this policy had the potential to destabilise the multi-ethnic empire. Indeed, it was all too successful in stirring up ethnic and national tensions at the home front – as had been the case in the Russian Empire as a result of the Romanov mobilisation of ethnicity – thereby contributing to the westward spread of national revolution and imperial collapse.


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