Before the region became the center of Ukrainian nationalism, local Russophiles were wiped out in some of Europe’s earliest concentration camps.
Galicia, a historic region in western Ukraine, is currently the center of the country’s nationalist movement. However, things were once very different. Just over a hundred years ago, representatives of opposing Russophile and pro-Ukrainian political movements fought over the loyalty of the local Ruthenian population, also known as Rusyns. Russophiles in Galicia welcomed the start of World War I as a step towards an early reunion with Russia. However, the Ukrainian movement remained loyal to Austria-Hungary. With the help of the latter, Vienna killed the intelligentsia Rusyn, whom she considered a “fifth column”. To do this, the Habsburgs set up concentration camps.
What happened next was tantamount to genocide.
The beginning of the tragedy
At the start of the First World War, the Russophile movement in Galicia experienced difficult times. As a result of the “divide and rule” policy implemented by the Austrians, the movement suffered a split. The oldest and most respected organizations ended up in the hands of pro-Austrian leaders who advocated Ukrainian, not Rusyn, identity.
After the army of the Russian Empire crossed the border on August 18, 1914 and launched an offensive in Galicia, massive repressions swept the region. People were enraged by the Austrian authorities for trivial matters – like owning Russian literature, being a member of a Russian society, having a Russian education, or simply sympathizing with St. Petersburg. In some cases, people have been arrested simply for calling themselves Russians. The prisons were full of “enemies of the state” And Dangerous Agents of Moscowand the streets were lined with gallows.
“People suspected of ‘Russophilia’ were hanged from these trees in front of the windows. People were hanging from trees. They would stay there for a day, then be removed and others would take their place…” says one of the peasants of the Gorodetsky district. The crackdowns mainly affected the intelligentsia and Orthodox priests, most of whom had pursued spiritual studies in the Russian Empire.
Repressions against the intelligentsia are followed by those against the general public. Anyone who thought they sympathized with Russia or Russian culture became a suspect. This included people who had previously visited Russia, read Russian newspapers, or were simply known as “Russophiles”. Military courts worked around the clock and a simplified prosecution procedure was introduced for cases of suspected treason.
Members of the Rusyn movement from Galicia who chose the “Ukrainian way” actively participated in the repression. Pro-Austrian politicians prepared lists of “unreliable” suspects and on the basis of mere accusations, and arrested anyone who sympathized with Russia. As a Russophile public figure Ilya Terekh describe, “At the start of the war, the Austrian authorities arrested almost all of the Russian intelligentsia in Galicia and thousands of peasants, on the basis of the lists given to the administrative and military authorities by the Ukrainophiles.”
“People who recognized themselves as Russians or simply had a Russian name were seized indiscriminately.
Anyone who had a Russian newspaper, book, sacred image or even a postcard from Russia was caught, abused and taken away. And then there were endless gallows and executions – thousands of innocent victims, seas of martyr’s blood and orphans’ tears,” said another Russophile, Julian Yavorsky.
In October 1914, the Russian writer Mikhail Prishvin, who served as a medical assistant at the front, writing in his diary: “When I arrived in Galicia…I felt and saw the vivid images of the times of the Inquisition.” Prishvin described the feelings of the Galician Rusyns towards Russia as follows: “The Galicians dream of a great, pure and beautiful Russia. A seventeen-year-old schoolboy accompanied me around Lvov [now Lviv, then Lemberg] and Russian spoken without an accent. He told me about the persecution of the Russian language. Students were not even allowed to have a map of Russia, and before the war he was forced to burn books by Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
hell on earth
Galicia’s prisons were not large enough to accommodate all those who were returned. On August 28, 1914, there were two thousand prisoners in Lviv alone. It was then that the Austrian authorities decided to establish concentration camps. In September 1914, the huge Thalerhof remand prison was set up in Styria. The first prisoners were freed on September 4. According to testimony of one of the survivors, the priest Theodor Merena, the prisoners were “people of different class and age”. They included clergy, lawyers, doctors, teachers, civil servants, peasants, writers and students. The ages of the prisoners ranged from infants to 100 years old.
Sometimes Ukrainian activists loyal to the Austrian regime were accidentally placed in Thalerhof. Most of them were removed quickly. One of them later recalled that all prisoners had a chance to escape by renouncing their Russian name and registering as “Ukrainians” on the “Ukrainian list”.
Until the winter of 1915, there were no barracks in Thalerhof. People slept on the ground in the open air despite the rain and frost. Sanitary conditions in the camp were appalling. The latrines were discovered and used by twenty people at a time. When the barracks were built, they were overcrowded, housing 500 people instead of the planned 200. Prisoners slept on straw beds that were rarely replaced. Naturally, epidemics were widespread. In just two months after November 1914, more than three thousand prisoners died of typhus.
“At Thalerhof, death rarely came naturally – it was injected with the poison of infectious diseases. Violent death was commonplace in Thalerhof.
There was no question of caring for the sick. Even the doctors were hostile towards the prisoners,” writing imprisoned Rusyn writer Vasily Vavrik.
The prisoners received no adequate medical care. At first, Thalerhof didn’t even have a hospital. People died on the wet ground. However, when the hospital barracks were finally built, the doctors gave almost no medicine to the patients.
To sow fear, the prison authorities built poles throughout the camp and regularly hung “violators” from these poles. The violation could be a trifle, like catching someone smoking in the barracks at night. Iron chains were also used as punishment, even on women. In addition, the camp was equipped with barbed wire, observation towers with sentries, barking dogs, posters with slogans, propaganda, torture facilities, a ditch for executions, a gallows and a cemetery.
The camp operated for almost three years and was closed in May 1917 by order of Charles I of Austria. The barracks stood on the site until 1936, when they were finally demolished. 1,767 corpses were then exhumed and reburied in a mass grave in the nearby village of Feldkirchen.
The exact number of victims at Thalerhof is still disputed. Marshal Schleer’s official report dated November 9, 1914 stated that 5,700 Russophiles were imprisoned there at the time. According to one of the survivors, in the fall of the same year there were about 8,000 prisoners. Twenty to thirty thousand Russian Galicians and Bukovinians passed through Thalerhof in total. In the first year and a half alone, around 3,000 prisoners died. According to other sources, 3,800 people were executed in the first half of 1915. In total, during World War I, the Austro-Hungarian authorities killed at least 60,000 Rusyns.
Remember the forgotten
In the interwar period, the former prisoners endeavored to preserve the memory of the drama which affected the Ruthenians of Galicia and to perpetuate the memory of the victims of Thalerhof. The first monument was erected in 1934, and soon similar memorials appeared in other parts of the region. In the years 1924-1932 the Almanac Thalerhof was published. He provided documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts of the genocide. In 1928 and 1934, the Thalerhof congresses, which brought together more than 15,000 participants, were held in Lviv.
Galicia became part of the USSR in 1939. Even before Soviet times there was a tacit ban on the subject Thalerhof, because the very fact of Russian existence in Galicia was considered an obstacle to the ukrainization, which was actively cultivated in Western Ukraine following the World Cup. war two. After the integration of Galicia and Volhynia into the USSR, most Russophile organizations in Lviv were closed. However, memorial services by the monuments continued. As eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the events grew old and died, a new generation of Galicians were brought up in the spirit of atheism and took on a Ukrainian national identity. As a result, fewer and fewer people came to the memorials.
In modern Ukraine, Rusyn’s genocide is not publicly discussed. Thalerhof is not mentioned in any school textbook on the country’s history. The idea that Russians once lived in Galicia – the proud center of “Ukrainian culture” – does not correspond to the nationalist ideology of contemporary Ukraine. Most young people have never even heard of Thalerhof.
The tragedy marked the end of the Russophile movement in Galicia. Anyone who did not submit and take on a Ukrainian identity was physically wiped out. Only a few years after the tragic events, public opinion has changed. The region came under the influence of other movements and politicians. When Austria-Hungary collapsed after World War I, Galicia became a powerful center of the Ukrainian nationalist movement.