The City of Brody in the Long Nineteenth Century. A History of Failure?

Brody, a city today lying in Western Ukraine, became part of the Habsburg Empire following the First Partition of Poland in 1772. Until Austria-Hungary’s collapse at the end of the First World War the town was right on the border with Poland (until 1795) and later with Russia (until 1918).

At first glance, Brody’s performance throughout the long nineteenth century would not qualify as a success story: The city transformed from a centre of international trade and cultural importance into a peripheral town at the Galician-Russian border. Brody lost its position as major commercial hub in east central Europe and failed to embrace an urbanisation and modernisation that was so characteristic for cities in this period.

From the Galician perspective, the economical transformation of Brody was desirable, because the city’s former international orientation had led to a certain self isolation from its Galician surroundings. From a regional point of view Brody’s shrinking proved the city’s successful integration into the social and political realities of the Crownland.  Successfully “galicianised” by the outbreak of the First World War, Brody was everything a Galician city could be: It was a regional commercial centre with a branch line railway station and a branch office of the Austro-Hungarian National Bank like several other Galician middle-sized towns; it was one of the more important border-crossing towns such as Pidvolo?ys’k or Husjatyn; and it was a local educational centre such as Ternopil’, Ivano-Frankivs’k or Kolomyja.

Nevertheless, several features distinguished Brody from other Galician towns even at the beginning of the twentieth century, some of which were vestiges of Brody’s former economic importance. Brody continued to be the seat of one of the three Galician chambers of commerce and thus ranked in the same category as L’viv and Kraków. The town’s ethno-confessional composition also continued to be an important exception. No other Austro-Hungarian town was so predominantly Jewish, with Roman-Catholic Poles and Greek-Catholic Ukrainians never accounting for more than a third of the total population. Moreover, Brody continued to play a certain role in Jewish thinking, in Rabbinic-Talmudic scholarship as well as in the spread of the Haskalah in east central Europe. In close connection with the strong support of Brody’s Jewish elites for the Enlightenment, the German language kept its importance many decades longer than in other Galician cities. However, by the outbreak of the First World War Brody’s Jewish elites had switched from an orientation towards the German-speaking centre of the Empire to a certain degree of auto-polonisation. Special to Brody was also the strong commitment of the city and its environs to Russophile currents, whereas in the rest of Galicia the Ukrainian national movement rapidly gained popularity at the turn of the century.

The dichotomy between the extraordinary Brody and the typical Galician Brody wittingly or unwittingly shaped the city’s perception in travel reports, literature and mental images. Today there are different ways of remembering Habsburg Brody. They mostly but not exclusively run along ethnic lines and omit the non-national.  This is why we find Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish but also Austrian lieux de mémoire in present day Brody. Those places and spaces are often separated from each other along national lines – sometimes however, they overlap.