Science & Tech

When oil became black gold

2 min read

Texas, Alaska, Russia, the Middle East – these are the regions one is likely to think of when asked to name the world’s top oil- producing areas.

Galicia, an area of Eastern Europe now divided between Poland and Ukraine, would probably not make it onto anyone’s list. And yet, 100 years ago, Galicia ranked as the third largest oil producer in the world.

It was the Kingdom of Galicia back then, a part of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Oil was discovered there in 1894, and production reached a peak in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, there was so much oil that the major problem for producers was finding people to buy it.

And yet, by the time World War I began in 1914, production had fallen off dramatically, leaving the German-led forces without sufficient means to fuel a modern mechanized military. The Allies, on the other hand, continued to obtain abundant supplies from Russia and the United States, leading Lord Curzon, later British foreign secretary, to remark after the war’s end that “the Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.”

The rise and fall of the Galician oil industry is the subject of a new book by Assistant History Professor Alison Frank. She was drawn to the subject not out of a fascination with oil or economics, but through an interest in Austria-Hungary – the multinational state with its capital in Vienna, whose writers, artists, and scientists played a vital role in giving birth to the modern era.

Her book, “Oil Empire: Visions of Prosperity in Austrian Galicia” (Harvard University Press, 2005), tells a sad tale, one to which those who extol the free market economy as a cure-all for society’s ills would do well to pay attention, although Frank emphasizes that the book is not policy-oriented.

“It’s not a case study aimed at telling policymakers what not to do in Kazakhstan, although I do think there are certain lessons to be learned,” she said.