Semiperipheral Empire: Hungarian Balkanism in Global Colonialism

Alexander Ritter von Bensa the Younger/Adolf Obermüller: North Camp at Mostar during the Bosnian campaign, 1878
Heeresgeschichtliches MuseumMuseum of Military History

In postcolonial studies, Eastern Europe’s colonial experiences and ambitions have been routinely silenced in the literature’s focus on (post)colonial centres and peripheries. The region remains largely absent from mainstream textbooks, which is indicative not only of Western academics’ ignorance and knowledge imperialism, but also of Eastern European authors’ relative neglect or inability to contribute. In Hungarian history, the country has been routinely positioned as colonized victim without any significant colonizer role in global history. Recently, this argument has been forcefully taken up by the (far) right-wing government’s political discourse, which has mobilized decolonial arguments to critique “Western imperialists”, while nationalism has sparked nostalgia towards Hungarian imperial “high times” and reignited racism towards the global periphery.

In postcolonial literature on Eastern Europe, the relationship between the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Balkans is a relatively well-developed context. Nevertheless, Austria’s participation in global colonialism has been recurrently denied by expanding on the country’s neutral role during and after WWII, which was opportunistically used to develop good relations with the Non-Aligned Movement. In addition, the recent focus on Austrian colonialism has left Hungarian colonial activities and ambitions as part of the Empire unexplored. During the socialist era, the narrative of Habsburg colonialism – following anti-German sentiment – was used to position Hungary as part of the colonized world during Afro-Asian decolonization, but Hungarian historical participation in colonialist and imperialist projects, such as towards the Balkans, have been simultaneously de-emphasized. These silences still produce huge biases in current Hungarian attitudes, politics, and historical memory. In recent years, Hungarian scholars have been producing detailed accounts of the imperialist ambitions of the Hungarian Kingdom towards the Balkans, but only in Hungarian (or perhaps German), and these remained rather descriptive and unreflective of postcolonial epistemology or global structural analysis.

This paper interprets Hungarian Balkanism in a global historical and world-systemic perspective as part of global colonialism. It argues that the literature’s uneasiness of applying postcolonialism to the region relies on a false fixation on the hegemonic Western-Atlantic concept of global colonial history, which may be resolved by acknowledging the transnational nature of colonialism and examining Eastern Europe’s in-between semiperipheral position in the capitalist world-system and in global colonial history. The paper aims to critique the constructivist and relational postcolonial epistemology of Balkanism (varieties of Orientalism), and the various Eastern European typologies (“continental”, “internal”, “semi-“, “small” imperialism/colonialism) and geographical biases in postcolonial studies, to look at how Hungarian colonialism towards the Balkans from the mid-19th century served in world-systemic linking-delinking strategies, and in relieving structural dependencies. Finally, it looks at the discursive continuities of Balkanism as a form of semiperipheral imperialism: how the government’s nationalist identity politics and global maneuvering (“Eastern Opening”) affected Hungarian Balkanists’ public nostalgia for the imperial “boom era” and their contested relations to Islam.

Turkish President Reccep Erdoğan praying at the Tomb of Gül Baba in Budapest during his visit in 2018. Source: Turkish Presidency / Murat Cetin/Anadolu Agency / 444.hu
Studying the Balkans Globally Workshop 
Department of Politics Faculty of Media and Communications (FMK) Belgrade – Belgrade, 3 April 2020

See a previous version of this project here.

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Citation:

Ginelli Z. (2020): Semiperipheral Empire: Hungarian Balkanism in Global Colonialism. Critical Geographies Blog, 2020.02.29. Link: https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2020/02/29/semiperipheral-empire-hungarian-balkanism-in-global-colonialism

Plotting the Semiperipheral Empire: Hungarian Balkanism and Global Colonialism in Geographical Knowledge, 1867–1948

austria-hungary map

43rd Annual Conference on the Political Economy of the World-System

Albert-Ludwigs-University of Freiburg, Germany

Topic: 2. The Balkans’ inter-imperial linkages

Eastern Europe is the “black sheep” of postcolonial studies: its colonial experiences have been routinely missed out from the relentless focus on (post)colonial centres and peripheries. Since the 1990s, postcolonial literature has extended Orientalism to the Western construction of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and has reinterpreted colonial relations with regards to Soviet imperialism, the postsocialist transition, the European integration, and Eastern Europe’s role in decolonization and socialist globalization. However, due to dominant historical narratives, the imperialist or colonialist ambitions of Eastern or East Central Europe seem to go against the grain, since these countries were often colonized, rarely or never held any colonies, and did not have any significant colonial ambitions.

This contradiction may be resolved by revising the restrictive Western-Atlantic narrative of global history and the territorial understanding of colonialism, and look into the various ways colonialism and imperialism were spatially practiced and geographically imagined in Hungary. Hungarian geographical knowledge production from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries related to the Balkans is a demonstrative case study of semiperipheral imperialism. Hungarian imperialist ambitions grew from the economic boom in the late 19th century and Austro-Hungarian geopolitical interests to secure southern areas against Russia, Turkey and Serbia. Although the tragic defeat in WWI led to the Hapsburg Empire’s demise, huge Hungarian territorial losses and defensive revisionism, these only replenished arguments for Hungarian civilizational superiority in the region.

Hungary’s semiperipheral “in-between” position constructed a complex and ambivalent imperialist-nationalist discourse on various intertwined scales. On the global scale, Hungary was imagined as part of an Empire and the superior white race and civilization. The country was an active observer, participant, and benefiter of “high imperialism”, and Hungarian Balkanism was both deeply intertwined with and a semiperipheral compensation to global colonialism. Standing at both a global civilizational fault line and exchange border, Hungary’s “turn to the East” represented a geopolitical rhetoric of developing Orientalism, approaching the post-Ottoman Balkans, and searching for the Hungarian homeland in Central Asia as an attempt at East-West maneuvering and cultural imperialism in the Asian continent. On the European scale, Hungary countered (mostly) German and Austrian hegemony and Western Europe, but also expanded national hegemony by upholding the merits of European civilization against the half-European periphery and the non-European world, acting as the “lord protector” of Christian Europe against the Muslim East. On the regional scale, the Carpathian Basin became the stage of a Hungarian “civilizing mission” towards culturally backward and “half-Europeanized” landscapes, in order to both bring and protect European civilization by upholding a “bridge” role and an essential “healthy mix” of Eastern and Western traits. The ideal nation-bearing hearthland landscape of the Alföld basin was geographically co-constructed in relation to the Balkan “Other”, while imperialist visions of cultural and economic expansion were naturalized by transforming the “wild” Karst and opening to “the Hungarian sea”. The Balkans offered a gateway to sovereign Hungarian development by de-linking from Western dependency and maturing as a true European nation by linking through active maritime participation to the global colonial world.

See an earlier version of this project here.

© Copyright – Content is protected by copyright!

Ginelli, Z. (2019): Plotting the Semiperipheral Empire: Hungarian Balkanism and Global Colonialism in Geographical Knowledge, 1867–1948. Critical Geographies Blog, 2019.03.18. Link: https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2019/03/18/plotting-the-semiperipheral-empire-hungarian-balkanism-and-global-colonialism-in-geographical-knowledge-1867-1948

Plotting the semiperipheral empire: Hungarian imperialist imaginaries of Balkan landscapes, 1867–1948

Eastern Europe is the “black sheep” of postcolonial studies: its colonial experiences have been routinely missed out from the relentless focus on (post)colonial centres and peripheries. To be sure, postcolonial literature extended Orientalism as the Western construction of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and reinterpreted postcolonialism in relation to Soviet imperialism, postsocialism, Eastern Europe’s role in decolonization and socialist globalization. However, the imperialist or colonialist ambitions of Eastern or East Central Europe seem to go against the grain, since concerning countries were themselves often colonized and rarely or never held any colonies. In contrast, Hungarian geographical knowledge production from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries related to the Balkans is a demonstrative case study of what I call Eastern European semiperipheral imperialism. Hungarian imperialist ambitions emerged from the economic boom in the late 19th century and Austro-Hungarian geopolitical interests to secure southern areas against Russia, Turkey and Serbia. Although the tragic defeat in WWI led to the Hapsburg Empire’s demise, huge Hungarian territorial losses and a defensive revisionism, this only replenished arguments for Hungarian civilizational superiority in the region. Hungary’s “in-between” position constructed a complex and ambivalent imperialist-nationalist discourse operating on various intertwined scales. The Carpathian Basin was envisioned as the scene of a “civilizing mission” by the superior Hungarian culture towards culturally backward and “half-Europeanized” landscapes, in order to both bring and protect European civilization by upholding a “bridge” role and an essential “healthy mix” of Eastern and Western traits. The ideal nation-bearing landscape of the Alföld basin was geographically co-constructed in relation to the Balkan “Other”, while imperialist visions of cultural expansion and economic modernization in the Balkans were naturalized through the concept of landscape: transforming the “wild” Karst and opening to “the Hungarian sea”.