Rethinking Empire and Ethnic Diversity in East-Central Europe

Benno Gammerl. Subjects, Citizens and Others: Administering Ethnic Heterogeneity in the British and Habsburg Empires, 1867-1918, trans by J.W. Neuheiser, Berghahn, Oxford 2018. 92£/978-1-78533-709-3.

Reviewed by George Giannakopoulos (Durham University)

In the summer of 1906, a young Scottish historian embarked on an eight-week journey across the Hungarian end of the Habsburg Empire. Travelling from Vienna to Bratislava and Budapest, and from Cluj to Zagreb and Fiume, Robert W. Seton-Watson prided himself for being among the first foreign observers interested in the national and ethnic diversity in the region. Seton-Watson’s sojourn launched a lasting crusade against the forced assimilation of non-Hungarian populations living under Hungarian jurisdiction which has come to be known as the policies of “Magyarization”. His writings fractured the Victorian edifice of Hungarian liberalism and laid the foundation for the academic study of the Slavonic world in Britain under the auspices of the School of Slavonic Studies in London.

Reacting to Seton-Watson’s polemic, Hungarian liberals drew parallels between Hungary and Britain. They argued that Hungary’s “Magyarization” policy did not differ from similar processes of national homogenisation enforced across the British Empire. Both imperial states, the argument run, included culturally and ethnically heterogeneous populations and made space for cultural autonomy to the extent that freedoms offered did not fracture the unity of the state, the raison d’état. Such an assertion irked the Scottish historian. In his view, Britain and Austria-Hungary were not on the same plane; the long history of liberty and toleration in the British Isles did not measure up to the Magyar policies of “tyranny” and forced assimilation. There was an insurmountable geographical and mental barrier separating an empire of liberty and toleration from a monarchy which had partly fallen under the spell of oriental despotism.

Historical scholarship has long since deconstructed such binaries. And Seton-Watson’s politics of imperial deflection is hardly defensible today (or, at least, one might hope so). However, in the wake of Britain’s desire to erect new barriers with the continent through Brexit alongside continental desires to erect new barriers with the non-European world, the questions raised almost a century ago are still pertinent today: To what extent is Britain different than continental Europe when it comes to ideas about freedom and the rule of law?  Can key aspects of British imperial rule at the turn of the twentieth century be usefully compared to the workings of the Habsburg imperial state? How have these same imperial states managed ethnic diversity? And what may the historically minded reader learn from such a comparison?

These are some of the key questions Benno Gammerl seeks to answer. Gammerl’s contribution has an international and transnational pedigree. The book is a reworked translation of the author’s German PhD project, made possible by the support of the German Historical Institute in London,  and is featured in a series on British and Imperial History alongside other valuable works translated from German. Gammerl offers a critical and reflective historical account of how the British and the Hapsburg empires dealt with ethnic diversity and managed heterogeneity during the final third of the long nineteenth century, from the 1870s until the outbreak of the First World War. Gammerl’s study foregrounds the symbiosis of imperial frameworks and nationalist movements and sets forth a spectrum of approaches to ethnic diversity that may also be applied to the study of other regional empires in the same period.

Gammerl’s story is told “from above”, as the author notes, through a contextual reading of the making of the British and Habsburg legal machinery (immigration laws/migration regulations/citizenship acts, consular reports, parliamentary debates and concrete case studies). As the long nineteenth century came to an end, the author argues, the rise of nationalism, the widening of the democratic sphere and the new global migratory waves exacerbated “ethnic differences” and posed new challenges to the administration of multi-ethnic empires. Despite their differences in scope and constitution, Britain and Austria-Hungary offered parallel, and at times contrasting solutions to such questions. Accordingly, the volume analyses three pairs of case-studies: Hungary and Canada; Austria and India; Bosnia-Herzegovina and East Africa. Each pair gives rise to what the author calls “idealised interpretative models” (p.4) or, put simply, different “approaches” of dealing with ethnic diversity.  Then, the final two chapters of the book expand on a broader analysis of the citizenship and nationality laws in the two imperial states, with an emphasis on Britain.

The successful pursuit of such a comparative endeavour depends on the deconstruction of some long-established binaries that have blinded the thinking of generations of regional experts like Seton-Watson. Chief among those distinctions is the binary between the “liberal west” and the “authoritarian east”, between western civic nationalism and eastern ethnically exclusive nationalism. Neither was Austria-Hungary a prison-house of nationalities, nor was Britain the incubus of the new liberal international world order. Conversely, neither was Austria-Hungary the precursor to the tolerant multicultural state, nor Britain an authoritarian racialist polity. Gammerl replaces such parochial cleavages, however effective, with a Foucauldian understanding of biopolitics, sovereignty, and biopower, to explain how imperial states grappled with ethnic heterogeneity. As the author puts it:

The rather abstract distinction between sovereign power and biopower is useful in terms of an analysis of the ways in which heterogeneity was dealt with as it can describe concrete power techniques that either regulate, discipline and rule in a sovereign fashion or govern by encouragement and incentives in a bio-political laissez-fare manner (p.12)

Shifting the emphasis from the question of liberal and dynastic rule to that of power and techniques of government allows Gammerl to argue that  “the implementation of liberal demands did not lead to more freedom, but rather to the establishment of new promotive techniques of government” existing alongside older “prohibitive” mechanisms. From this perspective, the distinction between territory (ius solis) and blood (ius sanguinis) as key determinants of citizenship and nationality rights loses its significance.

The case-studies examined in the book point to three distinct approaches in the management of heterogeneity. The first approach follows the “nation-state” model. This is how the author describes the state policies of achieving homogenisation either by eliminating ethnic differences or by lumping them together in a heterogeneous unity. Canada and Hungary represent two sides of the see-saw of the process of “ethnicization” of the “nation”. Both regions enjoyed a “semi-peripheral” status in their respective imperial states. In Hungary the turn of the century marked a shift from a view of nationality as a “supra-ethnic” category within a multi-ethnic polity, to the adoption of policies of forcible assimilation. The ethicized re-definition of Hungarian – Magyar – nationhood necessitated the linguistic and political suppression of non-Magyar populations. In Canada, the immigration norms and citizenship regulations enacted in the same period also point to a coherent policy of homogenisation and integration, despite the presence of a relatively autonomous French speaking community. As in other white settler colonies, the policies of exclusion in Canada had a clear racial component in targeting Asian and other non-white immigrants.

The book’s second approach in managing ethnic diversity is labelled “statist”. The emphasis is placed on the formal and legal equality of the population living in a contiguous state indifferent to ethnic particularities. The pair discussed here is the Austrian end of the Dual Monarchy and the British administration of India. Both governments in Austria and in India presented themselves as “benevolent supra-ethnic referees.” Despite some ambivalences (Moravian Compromise) and the rampant anti-Semitism in Lower Austria,  the author argues that from the point of view of the naturalization processes the Austrian nationality and citizenship could be acquired independently from ethnic criteria. The Austrian component of the Habsburg monarchy therefore saw itself as a disinterested arbiter of national and ethnic identities.

One of the most rigorous national movements within Austria was the Czech national movement. Gammerl parallels Czech nationalism with Irish nationalism to the extent that both movements morphed into politically homogenous entities within the British and Austria parliaments and enjoyed far less autonomy when compared with Hungary and Canada. The British equivalent to the national indifference of Austria, the author contends, was the British administration of India. Similar to Austria the Indian Office sought to bind its subjects into a state entity with a uniform legal framework. The policy of preventing the process of regional homogenisation in India along nation-state lines was part of a strategy to contain and counter the rise of Indian nationalism.

The category of race looms large over the volume’s insightful comparisons between aspects of British and Habsburg imperial rule and marks a decisive difference between the British and the Habsburg context. The discussion of the British administration of India showcases the degree to which racial hierarchies prevailed across the British imperial domains.  The author’s attention to the intensity of racial politics in the British imperial domains is in sync with the renewed academic and political interest in the role of race in the historiography of the British empire and the racial spectres of current debates about the role of post-Brexit Britain in the world. In the Austrian context, by contrast, linguistic criteria, and not physiological differences, determined a rather complicated system of ethnonational classification. However, the prevalence of what Gammerl labels “inner-European racism” (p.149) resting on religious and cultural differences and the fear of “racial” others (p.159) gave rise to vicious forms of anti-Semitism which have shaped the region’s history and are still haunting its current political landscape.

The third approach to managing ethnic diversity is labelled “imperialist” and concerns policies and legal regimes formalizing negative discrimination, ascribing citizenship explicitly according to racial norms. British colonial rule in eastern Africa is juxtaposed with the Habsburg Empire’s only semi-colonial venture, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Both regions were in a condition of colonial dependence with active provisions placing sections of the population in a precarious zone, between nationals and non-nationals. British administration of eastern Africa revolved around policies of territorial segregation based on racial criteria enshrined in legal norms. In Bosnia, the Habsburg administration embarked on an experiment of “enlightened absolutism” seeking to promote a homogenous local – Bosnian – national identity; this gave rise to a policy of “ethnic neutrality” between Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. However, the experiment fell prey to its own contradictions since the administration adopted an incoherent policy of interference in the internal affairs of the different ethno-religious communities.

Having established legitimate points of comparison, the volume’s final chapters offer an overview of the British and Habsburg naturalization and citizenship regimes. The author charts the shift from “property” to “nationality” as a key “qualification that granted individuals access to political rights” in Britain and argues that by the time of the introduction of the Aliens Act in 1905, the process of the acquisition of British nationality had been properly ethnised. The focus here again is on exclusions: How did the British state withhold the right to British citizenship from the colonial subjects of the ever-expanding empire and the new migratory waves from eastern Europe? How did the British government manage to adopt discriminatory policies without formally endorsing racial segregation in the acquisition of British citizenship? Here Gammerl’s discussion of the early twentieth century politics of migration control through the introduction of administrative measures sounds eerily familiar today. In contrast to Britain, uniform parliamentary legislation did not apply to questions of nationality and citizenship in Austria-Hungary. The “nation-state” policy of homogenisation pursued in Hungary existed in a state of “contradictory simultaneity” with the more ethnically neutral “statist” approach in Austria relying on the army as a source of cohesion and legitimacy.

The Great War challenged the unity of the world’s empires; it brought the end of the Hapsburg State and marked the extension of Britain’s imperial and international reach. In Gammerl’s story, the war became the catalyst accelerating a process of making ethnic communities that peaked in the turn of the century. The collapse of Austria-Hungary is thus attributed to more nuanced factors than the standard narrative of the empire’s fall as the termination of an anachronistic “prison-house” of nationalities as articulated by Seton-Watson and many others after him. Gammerl also challenges the purported stability of the British Empire. As Pieter Judson has incisively remarked, with Ireland’s Easter Uprising of 1916 it was the British and not the Habsburg empire that became the site of ethnic conflict. “Neither of these empires”, Gammerl argues, “can be clearly placed along a uniform spectrum of modernity, but rather that there were different forms of modernity, each of which had its own possibilities and problems” (p.258). And the legacy of these alternative modernities haunts present attempts to regulate ethnic diversity and difference, from Cyprus to Hungary and from Austria to Brexit Britain.