At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Austrian Empire ranked third among the world's oil-producing states (surpassed only by the United States and Russia), and accounted for five percent of global oil production. By 1918, the Central Powers did not have enough oil to maintain a modern military. How and why did the promise of oil fail Galicia (the province producing the oil) and the Empire?
In a brilliantly conceived work, Alison Frank traces the interaction of technology, nationalist rhetoric, social tensions, provincial politics, and entrepreneurial vision in shaping the Galician oil industry. She portrays this often overlooked oil boom's transformation of the environment, and its reorientation of religious and social divisions that had defined a previously agrarian population, as surprising alliances among traditional foes sprang up among workers and entrepreneurs, at the workplace, and in the pubs and brothels of new oiltowns.
Frank sets this complex story in a context of international finance, technological exchange, and Habsburg history as a sobering counterpoint to traditional modernization narratives. As the oil ran out, the economy, the population, and the environment returned largely to their former state, reminding us that there is nothing ineluctable about the consequences of industrial development.
Combining social, political, and economic history with great aplomb, Oil Empire greatly enriches the history of an understudied region. Frank skillfully engages the bewildering patchwork that was Galicia. Poles battled Ukrainians, Catholics persecuted Jews, agrarian nobles fought bourgeois modernizers, socialists rose and fell, German-speaking civil servants tried to lord it over everyone, and hordes of peasants emigrated to other lands. The imperial center alternately clashed with and ignored the provincial periphery. Frank has constructed a balanced narrative, a sophisticated analysis, and a very persuasive argument.
In this riveting account, Alison Frank deftly brings to life the dramatic world of the Galician oil industry in imperial Austria. Her vivid portrait examines the conflicting efforts of a strange collection of characters indeed--mad scientists, wildcatters, Galician aristocrats, Habsburg bureaucrats, foreign investors, and dueling nationalists--to appropriate the earth's riches to serve their various ambitions. The results transformed an 'Austrian El Dorado' into a living hell on earth.
Oil Empire is a significant and original contribution that situates economic development in its cultural, social, environmental, and political settings. The book will interest scholars of economic history, history of the oil industry, nationalism studies, Central European history, and environmental history.
[Frank's] pioneering and sophisticated book is the fruit of patient archival digging in five languages, a comprehensive command of the relevant literature, and cross-disciplinary, collegial interaction. It integrates technology and business into political, social, and economic history and proves that treasures may lie in forgotten episodes of the past...Frank sets out to explain 'why oil did not make Galicia rich' and achieves a fascinating account of oil producers, worker-peasants, government bureaucrats, landowners, and an assortment of others, often unsavory characters whose economic motives varied even within their respective groups and whose identities were overlaid with multiple ethnic, religious, linguistic, and geographic markers.
Whatever one's views about the merits of regulation, in theory or in practice, Frank deserves to be thanked for piecing together this fascinating story from archives in half a dozen countries, thus opening a new dimension to our understanding of Galicia that has languished far too long almost exclusively in the literary domain.
This book is a good read. Not only is the material absorbing, but Frank often phrases things in refreshing ways. It is an important work for those interested in the history of the Habsburg monarchy, Poles and Ukrainians, and the oil industry.
Frank's fascinating book conducts a historical excursion to those oil fields [of eastern Galicia]--through the ages of their economic rise, boom, decline, and collapse--and she offers a richly insightful analysis of how the program for the development of the oil industry ultimately failed to bring economic prosperity to remedy the proverbial misery of Galicia...Frank's work offers a multifaceted understanding of the oil industry, not only in its social, political, and economic aspects, but also in terms of technology, nationality, and culture...[An] important book. Oil Empire--full of vivid accounts, sharp insights, and provocative questions--will compel historians to reflect on the multiple dimensions of imperial, national, and provincial history in central Europe.
Alison Frank takes "a little known curiosity"--the Galician oil boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--and has written of it one of the boldest and most original histories of East Central Europe to appear in a long time. Frank weaves a marvelous tale about a commodity bubbling up from under the earth's surface...and the myriad characters "who hoped to use oil to achieve a certain goal."...It is, in sum, a madcap history of modernity from the fringes of the Hapsburg Monarchy.
- 2006, Winner of the Barbara Jelavich Book Prize
- 366 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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