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.
See more of: AHA Sessions