Purdue University Press, West Lafayette 2016
Christoph Mick's book, first published in German (Kriegsehrfahrungen in einer multiethnischen Stadt. Lemberg 1914-1947, 2010), comprises of a meticulous and multifaceted presentation of the key elements of history that have shaped the face of Lwów today and our memory of the city from 1914-1947. And as the subtitle forewarns, it is not – owing to the violent subject matter – an easy read.
The complex fates of Lwów and its citizens from the outbreak of the First World War up until the violent ”repatriation” after the Second World War has attracted the eye of researchers worldwide. Excepting short intervals of calm, the city was always at the epicenter of local and global conflicts virtually throughout the whole first half of the 20th century. The co-existence of numerous nations and cultures in a single urban area, its conflicts and cooperation, the construction and reconstruction of national and local identities, the mythologisation of this multicultural world and the deconstruction of the same myth – all have become, in the last few years, the subject of study which has long been anticipated, such as Ola Hnatiuk's excellent Odwaga i starch (Courage and fear) reviewed inHerito(issue no. 21) or Tarik Cyril Amar's hotly debated The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv.
Mick consistently structures his narrative chronologically, using the successive transitions in state and occupying powers as milestones: from “the first Russian occupation” in mid-1914 up until the seventh transition in July 1944, which the author calls „re-sovietisation.” Its ample list of family names as well as the diligent and impartial fact-checking is complimented by an outline of the demographic and geopolitical background, which by themselves would make the German researcher's book a very helpful resource. However, despite all that, this is only where the importance and value of the work begin.
Eschewing a narrow, national perspective allows Mick to show how deeply intertwined and frequently commensurate the already known problems of the Polish and Ukrainian struggles for freedom, independence, and autonomy (or privileges, depending on the period) were. Secondly, this allows him to situate these struggles in the significantly broader context of European history, and entangles it unavoidably with the politics of the Hapsburg and Russian Empires, along with those of the Second Republic and the Soviet Union. The actual politics of these powers was, according to the author, neither “directed against (insert modifier of choice) us”, nor “favoring us” at any given time. It rather resembled a form of external circumstances which exerted influence upon the life and activities of representatives of the different Lvovian communities – Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish – and their interactions.
The main protagonists of Mick's account are national narrative and collective memory. The breadth of sources used inspires respect: Polish, Ukrainian, German, Russian and Jewish journals, archival materials, memoirs, as well as, albeit to a lesser extent, non-fiction and belles-lettres. The primary goal is not so much to account for “what happened” (although, as noted above, the value of the book as a systematic account of the history of the city in the given period is also tremendous) but “how it was all received, understood, turned into stories, remembered.” As an example, consider this sentence from the chapter that deals with the availability of basic goods during the First World War: “All groups were struggling with the same problems connected to the lack of supplies and food shortages, yet they differed in their interpretations and perceptions of the same difficulties” (p. 96). This juxtaposition of different perspectives and of different ways of perceiving the same events, or phenomena, allows us to see more clearly how complicated and subtle the history of the city has been.
The author not only takes the steam out of the stereotypical idyll of interwar Lwów by focusing on the many forms of violence mentioned in the subtitle of the English edition (from leveraging (?) to pogroms and murder) but also demonstrates how the diverse configurations and different consequences for historical memory came about. There is yet another reason why this book is important and necessary. The matter-of-factness and emotional reserve of Mick's narration of this diverse collection of sources emphasise the brutal senselessness of the pogroms, riots, coups – in the light of earlier events, the reactions of the powers that be, the accounts of the press, the reactions of public opinion all appear dishearteningly difficult to avoid. However much we may wish it to have been otherwise, this spiral continues unabated during the interwar period, which shows for example the role played by the state and local powers in the pogrom in the city’s Jewish quarter from 22–24 November 1918, in an already independent Poland. The slowness of the courts, the dragging out of procedures, the attempt to justify the actions of the perpetrators and blaming the victims paint yet another disturbing picture of Polish anti-semitism.
Mick's book is neither a light nor an easy read considering the topic and its academic language. If one takes the time to measure up one's own knowledge and convictions to the complex image Christoph Mick paints through diligent research and balanced representation, one will however find it rewarding.
Translated from the Polish by Alexander Lindskog