Moving the Frontier: Turning Bosnia Habsburg in the Late Nineteenth Century

Friday, January 7, 2011: 3:10 PM
Room 204 (Hynes Convention Center)
Maureen Healy , Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR
In the final decades of its existence the Habsburg state embarked on what has been called a “colonial” mission in the Balkans. This paper explores the administrative dimensions of that mission, the occupation and eventual annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina between the years 1878-1918. It looks at the ways that Austro-Hungarian men described their own administrative work (rational, dispassionate, altruistic, technologically competent) and the nature of the society they sought to administer (static, passive, “asleep”).The civil servants sent to carry out this work had a formidable task: to turn a place “Turkish” into a province of Europe. Aspects of Bosnian life deemed to be in need of drastic modernization included transportation, industry, agriculture, architecture, education, law and hygiene. In some cases, Turkish meant backwards; but it could also mean outside of time altogether, an example of  what Anne McClintock has called “anachronistic space.”

This paper tests Gingrich’s theory of “frontier orientalism” by looking at the work-a-day efforts of civil servants who were trying—in their rather mundane municipal projects—to change a border of Europe. In attempting this flip of a territory and its inhabitants, their memoirs and travel writings show the malleability of orientalist myths and metaphors. The “Turkish” past could be overwritten, and Muslim inhabitants could be schooled and employed, but the Orthodox Christian (Serb) population could not be turned Habsburg. An Austrian civil servant traveling in 1892 described coming across a village scene: men and women were gathered around an old man playing a guzla and “singing old Serbian heroic songs.” The observer supposed that not a single participant could read or write, “but these national songs fill their fantasies with heroic figures who once fought for freedom against the Turks.” Ironically, the movement that undermined the Habsburg mission in the Balkans was itself fueled by orientalist myths.