Since a re-establishment of the Polish state was politically improbable in the foreseeable future, the Galician-Polish élite considered that co-existence within the Habsburg Monarchy was a fact that ought to be exploited as much as possible – until the time was ripe to regain its own state.
The first words of the Polish national anthem call out the hopes of the Poles to regain their freedom. Poland foundered as a nation because of the Polish Partitions in the late eighteenth century, when the neighbouring Great Powers of Prussia, Russia and Austria partitioned the territory of the Polish aristocratic republic between them.
Galicia and Bukovina are territories we might seek in vain on the map today. Seen from the coeval perspective of the Viennese central authority, these countries were deemed to be obscure marginal regions: as “Semi-Asia” or “Wild East”, they were regarded as the “poorhouse” of the Monarchy.
Poles and Ruthenians dominated the northeastern region of the Habsburg Monarchy. Numerically, the two nationalities belonged to the larger linguistic groups in Austria-Hungary.
The Italians in the Litoral (German: ‘Küstenland’, made up of the county of Görz, Trieste and Istria) were likewise torn between their traditional loyalty to the Habsburg Monarchy and the appeal of Italian irredentism. In view of the growth of the southern Slav nationalist movements in the eastern Adriatic region, they also feared for their privileged position as the dominant ethnic group. Trieste in particular was the scene of severe ethnic conflict.
The Habsburg presence in northern Italy was an important factor in the dynasty’s image as a ‘big player’ amongst the great European powers. However, the dynasty was dealt a number of bitter blows by the Risorgimento, the movement that finally brought about the forging of a unified Italian nation-state.
Even after the expulsion of the Habsburgs from northern Italy had greatly reduced the proportion of Italians in the overall population of the Monarchy, they still enjoyed a privileged position as compared with most of the other nationalities under Habsburg rule.
In the 1980s the concept of ‘Central Europe’ experienced a renaissance in intellectual circles. From the Austrian point of view ‘Central Europe’ was understood as being made up of the successor states of the Monarchy, which some romanticized as having been a happily harmonious patchwork of peoples. The term was not always understood in this way: around 1900 ‘Central Europe’ had quite a different meaning.
From the unification of 1871 onwards, more and more German-Austrians came to see Germany as their ‘true homeland’. A widespread veneration for Bismarck developed, which was only partially tolerated by the Austrian authorities, being regarded as an expression of German irredentism and of a longing to be ‘nationally redeemed’ through unification with the German Reich.
In the nineteenth century the Germans were considered by many to be the most important ‘guarantors of culture’ in Central Europe and were themselves convinced that they had a special cultural ‘mission’ to fulfil. This assumption, however, was increasingly challenged by the newly founded nationalist movements of the smaller peoples of the region.