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. Continue reading “Rethinking Empire and Ethnic Diversity in East-Central Europe”