First World War

First World War [Перша Світова Війна; Persha Svitova Viina]. Among the primary causes of the First World War was the rivalry between the Habsburg monarchy and the Russian Empire, which between them ruled all Ukrainian lands. Although the main source of Austro-Russian rivalry was a conflict of interests in the Balkans, there was also tension over the Ukrainian question. Russian adherents of Pan-Slavism had long anticipated the ‘reunification’ of Habsburg-controlled Galicia and Transcarpathia with Russia, and the imperial authorities had subsidized the activities of Russophiles there for many years. In the decade preceding the outbreak of war saw an intensification of Russian activity in Galicia, Bukovyna, Transcarpathia, and among Ukrainian emigrants in North America.

In December 1912, by which time the outbreak of a European war seemed to be only a matter of time, representatives of the three major Ukrainian political parties in GaliciaNational Democratic party, Ukrainian Radical party, and Ukrainian Social Democratic party—met in Lviv and unanimously agreed that in the event of war the Ukrainian people would support Austria against Ukraine's greatest enemy, the Russian Empire. The same sentiments were expressed by an emigrant from Russian-ruled Ukraine, Dmytro Dontsov, at a student congress in Lviv in 1913. When war finally broke out in the east in August 1914, the three representative Galician parties formed the Supreme Ukrainian Council, which pledged its loyalty to the Central Powers and expressed the hope that all of Ukraine would be delivered from Russian rule in the course of the war. Within weeks the council established the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, a volunteer unit in the Austro-Hungarian army. Political émigrés from central Ukraine formed the pro-Austrian Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (SVU) in Lviv in August.

Ukrainian activists in the Russian Empire feared that the outbreak of war would provide the tsarist authorities with a pretext for the complete suppression of the Ukrainian movement. They therefore hastened to present themselves as loyal to the empire and its war effort. Symon Petliura wrote a declaration of loyalty, which was published in the journal Ukrainskaia zhizn’. Another prominent Ukrainian periodical, the daily Rada (Kyiv), also published a declaration of loyalty. The pre-eminent spokesman of the Ukrainian movement in the Russian Empire, the historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, was in Lviv (in the Habsburg monarchy) when war erupted; he left for Kyiv and there distanced himself publicly from the anti-Russian activities of the SVU. In spite of those protestations of loyalty a wave of repression engulfed the Ukrainian movement. The authorities closed down most Ukrainian periodicals, including Rada, arrested Hrushevsky, and deported him to the interior of Russia.

In August and September 1914 a Russian offensive resulted in the occupation of much of Galicia, including its capital, Lviv, as well as all of Bukovyna. Many prominent Ukrainians fled to Vienna, and the Supreme Ukrainian Council (expanded in May 1915 and renamed the General Ukrainian Council) and other Ukrainian organizations and periodicals transferred their activities to the Austrian capital as well. Retreating before the rapid and powerful Russian advance, the Austro-Hungarian military authorities proceeded to blame their defeat on the alleged treason of the Ukrainian population, which purportedly sympathized with the Russians. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Ukrainians, many of whom were actually not Russophiles, were brutally repressed; many were shunted off to concentration camps in Austria, including the notorious Thalerhof, and many others were summarily executed. (A few thousand Ukrainians in Canada were also placed in internment camps, but because of purported sympathies with the Austrians.)

The Russian occupation of Galicia and Bukovyna was characterized by a pogrom against the Ukrainian movement, complete with mass arrests and deportations, the closing down of newspapers, and the burning of Ukrainian books; among those arrested was the Greek Catholic metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, who spent most of the rest of the war in a monastery prison in Russia. The Russian occupation authorities, particularly Bishop Evlogii Georgievsky, persecuted the Greek Catholic church and attempted to convert Galician Ukrainians to Russian Orthodoxy. The Russian administration was aided in all its anti-Ukrainian efforts by the Carpatho-Russian Liberation Committee, a group of Galician Russophiles based in Kyiv that returned to Lviv with the conquering Russian army. In large measure the harshness of the occupational regime had its roots in ideology: the Russians regarded Galicia not as a foreign territory but as a natural part of their realm (denied to them for centuries because of Polish influence). Furthermore, in Austrian-ruled Galicia and Bukovyna the Ukrainian movement had developed relatively freely, and exerted considerable influence on Russian-ruled Ukraine, where the members of the Ukrainian movement were persecuted. The imperial authorities wished to stifle the Ukrainian movement there in order to destroy the source of what they considered pernicious ‘Mazepist’ thinking.

The Russians were driven from most of Austrian-ruled Ukraine in the first half of 1915, but returned to Bukovyna and the easternmost part of Galicia a year later. The second Russian occupation was somewhat milder, but its essential anti-Ukrainian character remained unaltered until the overthrow of tsarism in March 1917. Shortly thereafter the Russian Provisional Government appointed the Ukrainian historian and activist Dmytro Doroshenko as its commissioner for Galicia and Bukovyna. An Austrian administration returned to the region in the summer of 1917.

The Central Powers maintained a more positive relationship with the Ukrainian movement after 1914, although they were far from willing to satisfy Ukrainian aspirations. At first Vienna and then Berlin financed the SVU, which published many informative brochures on the Ukrainian question and also conducted educational work among Ukrainians from the Russian Empire held in Austrian and German prisoner of war camps, in an effort to develop their national consciousness. To increase support for the war effort the Austrian central government held out the prospect of concessions to all of Austria's nationalities. It proved impossible, however, to reconcile conflicting national claims, notably those of the Ukrainians and Poles. In late 1915 and early 1916 Prime Minister K. von Stürgkh of Austria promised the General Ukrainian Council that Ukrainian-inhabited eastern Galicia would become a separate province (crown land) from Polish western Galicia; that territorial division had been a demand of the Galician Ukrainian movement since 1848. The promise was superseded, however, in November 1916, when Emperor Francis Joseph I promised the Poles that the unity of the province would be preserved, and that it would in fact be granted greater autonomy from Vienna—a long-standing political goal of the Polish national movement. In protest the General Ukrainian Council dissolved itself. In its place appeared a Ukrainian Parliamentary Representation, which initially adopted a cooler attitude to Austria than its predecessor had had.

The war had a corrosive effect on the stability of almost all the belligerent states, but it caused the greatest disintegration in the Russian Empire. Largely owing to revolutionary unrest generated by the war (see February Revolution of 1917), Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917. In the wake of this democratic revolution the Central Rada emerged in Kyiv as the focus of Ukrainian political activity. The Central Rada took steps to create Ukrainian armed forces, including the Khmelnytsky Regiment, which fought on the world-war front in the fall of 1917. Beginning in May 1917 the Rada also convened a series of All-Ukrainian military congresses, which passed resolutions essentially supporting the Provisional Government's continuation of the war against the Central Powers. Only small groups on the extreme left of Ukrainian political life (Lev Yurkevych in exile in Switzerland and the International Revolutionary Social Democratic Youth in Galicia) held a position of principled opposition to what they considered an imperialist war.

Continuing the war proved to be a grave error on the part of the Russian Provisional Government; just as the war had contributed to the collapse of tsarism, so too it was a major factor in the victory of the October Revolution of 1917, which swept the Russian Provisional Government from power and brought the Bolsheviks to the helm of the Russian state. As a result of the revolution hostilities were halted on the Russian and Ukrainian fronts. Also as a result the Central Rada called into being the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) in November 1917. In December the UNR found itself at war with Soviet Russia (see Ukrainian-Soviet War, 1917–21). In January 1918 it declared its full independence from Russia, and in February it concluded separately the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers. By that agreement the UNR officially withdrew from the First World War.

In the wake of the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the German army helped the UNR forces (see Army of the Ukrainian National republic) to reconquer Ukraine. Germany hoped to pressure Soviet Russia to make peace so that it could concentrate its forces on the western front; more important, Germany wanted large quantities of food from Ukraine in order to maintain its increasingly restive population for the duration of the war. To facilitate the extraction of foodstuffs, the Germans deposed the Central Rada in April 1918 and replaced it with the authoritarian regime of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky. German backing kept Skoropadsky in power, but his position was seriously undermined by the defeat of Germany on the western front in November 1918. Almost immediately the Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic launched an uprising against the hetman, and in December he was deposed.

The defeat of the Central Powers also resulted in the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and the establishment of the Western Ukrainian National Republic in November 1918.

Because the front moved back and forth across Ukrainian territory, the war brought much physical destruction to Ukraine and crippled its economy for years to come. Much of the damage occurred in Galicia and Bukovyna, which constituted the southern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian eastern front for a long period of time. The political upheaval initiated by the war and the diffusion of weapons as a result of the disintegration of the armies unleashed chaos and civil war.

The peace that followed the First World War was precarious, and undermining it was dissatisfaction with the peace settlement on the part of a number of the nationalities of East Central Europe. Among them were the Ukrainians, who now found themselves divided among the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. The incorporation of Ukrainian territories that had formerly been under Austria-Hungary into the latter three countries was sanctioned by the Paris Peace Conference and the Conference of Ambassadors.

(See also History of Ukraine.)

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John-Paul Himka

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993).]

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