The End of Ottoman Rule in Bosnia: Conflicting Agencies and Imperial Appropriations – An Interview with Hannes Grandits
Alex Favalli in conversation with Hannes Grandits
Hannes Grandits is Professor of Southeast European History at Humboldt University in Berlin. Beside the here discussed monography The End of Ottoman Rule in Bosnia (Routledge 2021), he also authored the book Herrschaft und Loyalität in der spätosmanischen Gesellschaft. Das Beispiel der multikonfessionellen Herzegowina (Böhlau 2008) – in translation as Multikonfesionalna Hercegovina. Vlast i lojalnost u kasnoosmanskom društvu (UNMHIS 2014) – and co-edited Conflicting Loyalities in the Balkans with N. Clayer/R. Pichler (I.B. Tauris 2011). Among other things, he is also co-editor of the books Local Perspectives on the Second World War in Southeastern Europe with X. Bougarel, M. Vulesica (Routledge 2019), or Phantomgrenzen im östlichen Europa (Wallstein 2015) and author of “Ländliches und städtisches Familienleben im Wandel” In: Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918. Bd. IX. Sozialgeschichte (ÖAW 2010), 621–699.
Alex Favalli: In your book „The End of Ottoman Rule in Bosnia“ you write about „zeitgeist“ and, simultaneously, emphasise multiple “conflicting agencies” in Bosnia. What kind of and whose zeitgeist are you referring to?
Hannes Grandits: In my book, I was concerned to exemplify Ottoman rule in Bosnia, which existed for more than four centuries by the time of the period under review, and how it was shaping the social fabric in its diverse local contexts. One could also call this local or regional dimension, the “zeitgeist”. The other “zeitgeist”, to which your question is perhaps more directed, is the larger, political, European or even global one of the 1860s and 1870s. It is about, among other things, the age of a burgeoning capitalist world economy (Hobsbawm’s “Age of Capitalism”), about an intensification of trade or communication or a massive expansion of transport infrastructures (“railway age”). It is also about the emergence of national state projects. The example of the creation of an Italian nation state since the end of the 1850s or the founding of the German Empire in 1871 are, of course, the all-defining examples in Europe at that time.
Both the “local” zeitgeist as well as the great European/global zeitgeist must, I am firmly convinced, be seen in relation to each other. This was also the background of the “conflicting agencies” that are the subject of my book, which is written in a very actor-oriented way.
Alex: Thinking of the “Great Eastern Crisis”, you depict the 1860s and 70s as incredibly dynamic and chaotic years in the Balkans. Can you briefly explain the local as well as the regional context of that moment?
Hannes: It was of course local antagonisms, often also local rebellions in the border regions of the still large Ottoman Empire, where everything started. The Great Oriental Crisis, however, became a “great” crisis because the strategic claims of the Great Powers of the time came into open conflict with each other. This had only partly to do with the Balkans themselves. It was the increasing (also strategic) involvement of Russia, Austria-Hungary, the United Kingdom, France, etc. in the conditions of the Ottoman Empire (or in the “Orient”: certainly accelerated after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869), which soon became of elementary importance and always turned local conflicts in the Ottoman Empire into “international affairs”. The crisis that is the subject of my book almost brought the Powers into a “Great War” with each other in 1878. Of course, political crises were not only to be found in the Ottoman Balkans at that time. One only has to think of the American Civil War of 1861-65, the Polish uprising of 1863, the Italian Risorgimento wars or the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71.
Alex: You show how local rebellions on the borderlands of the empire were occurring in parallel to the global political developments of “high European Diplomacy”. How did local developments influence the regional or even the global in this case?
Hannes: That is precisely what my book is about. I try to trace where and why local rebellions broke out and what their inner logic was. In retrospect, it was above all the so-called “Herzegovinian Uprising” of 1875, which can actually also be seen primarily as a conflict over the status and demarcations of the semi-autonomous principality of Montenegro within the Ottoman ruling structure, that triggered a dynamic that was beyond belief for contemporaries at the time. Not only did this uprising not come to a quick end. It involved a plethora of actors, first and foremost various “revolutionaries” from different corners of Europe, to fight against “despotism” (whichever was meant: the Ottoman one or the one in the contexts of origin of these revolutionaries).
The high diplomacy of the Great Powers – all of them of “conservative” worldview – saw this development with concern and also tried to “pacify” it by various diplomatic initiatives. But this did not succeed for years. On the contrary, the Great Powers became so caught up in the maelstrom of events that there was soon the talk of the “Great Eastern Crisis”.
Alex: The many anecdotes of local actors you present reveal perspectives that stand quite in contrast with more conventional narratives about the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. What new aspects of this history do your sources uncover?
Hannes: As a rule, the period of the Great Oriental Crisis is usually told primarily as a “diplomatic affair”. What this or that Great Power diplomat intended, how Bismarck ultimately got involved or how the political competition between Disraeli and Gladstone culminated in the “Orient question” within British politics. The events “on the ground” are often of little or – more often – no interest at all. My concern was to show how in the Bosnian Vilayet or in Ottoman Europe a conflict had completely different logics, how struggles were waged to regain peaceful conditions and to put an end to the spiral of violence. One aspect that, in my opinion, hardly ever plays a role in the literature on that period was the issue of the refugees. The conflict in Bosnia turned hundreds of thousands of people into refugees or internally displaced persons.
Alex: How did the actors on the ground in Bosnia and surrounding countries deal with the issue of refugees? And how was their flight experienced?
Hannes: The stronger focus on the situation of the civilian population also shifts the perspective on the – later historiographically romanticised – insurgency. The violence primarily affected the rural areas close to the border, as the insurgency was increasingly maintained from the outside via the mountainous and often impassable border areas. People fled from their villages to nearby towns (mainly the Muslim population) or across the border (mainly the Christian population) to Habsburg territory, sometimes also to Montenegro. The vast majority of the refugees, however, very soon found themselves in miserable conditions. Hunger and epidemics claimed an enormous number of lives among them. Indeed, the miserable situation of the refugees resulted in much humanitarian (and political) engagement – locally, regionally and beyond. It is not surprising that a quick return was seen by many as the only way out. The Ottoman and Habsburg authorities also soon cooperated in this regard to initiate this logistically. However, it was a strategy of the rebel leaders to undermine precisely this refugee return – not infrequently also with violence against returnee families. They did not want to allow “normalisation” in order to enforce an “internationally mediated solution”.
It surprised me that the enforcement of refugee return was also part of the negotiations of the Berlin Congress of June/July 1878. Ultimately, it was the decisive argument of Austro-Hungarian diplomacy to justify the “inevitability” of a (temporary) occupation of the Bosnian Vilayet – which was strictly rejected by the Ottoman side, but found the approval of the other Great Powers diplomacies.
Alex: Why does this history matter today?
Hannes: The “solution” to the Oriental crisis, as it was ultimately found at the negotiating table of the Congress of Berlin in June/July 1878, de facto established the system of states in South-Eastern Europe that in many respects still exists today. The Congress of Berlin was a success from the point of view of the Great Powers’ diplomats because they succeeded in averting the feared “Great War” against each other. But it was also a favourable outcome for them because they succeeded – at the expense of the Ottoman sovereign territory – in agreeing on strategic zones of influence in the Balkans – or “the Orient” – among themselves. A few years later, also in Berlin, something similar was achieved with regard to the African continent with the so-called “Congo Conference” in 1884/85. It was precisely this departure into the “Age of Imperialism” (Hobsbawm again) that is closely connected with the “Oriental crisis” of the 1870s.
In my book I try to show how this took place, how it should be understood against the background of ongoing “postcolonial” approaches, and how it all came together for Bosnia and the Balkans in general.
Alex: In recent years, many publications have contributed to a rehabilitation of multinational empires by challenging long held assumptions about imperial histories. How would you explain this renewed interest in the history and legacies of empires today?
Hannes: I think that multi-culturalism has become an everyday reality in many places in 21st century Europe – especially in urban settings. For the non-European world, this is often even more true. The 20th century vision of the creation of “modern” (or even “pure”) nation-states as the supreme political goal has not only led to war, expulsion and destruction in two world wars deeply affecting nearly all European societies, but has meanwhile also lost much of its “visionary” attractiveness (though not always and everywhere). A look at the 19th century shows that everyday life in multinational societies was normal for a long time. This should not necessarily only be glorified, but it was the background – also – of European history. In my opinion, this is one of the not unimportant reasons why there is so much interest today in “imperial histories” and their legacies. Moreover, it would also not be historically accurate to tell Europe’s past – and even more that of the Europe’s south-eastern parts – as a simple addition of different national histories.
Alex Favalli works at the Forum Transregionale Studien and is part of the TRAFO Blog’s editorial team.
Citation: The End of Ottoman Rule in Bosnia: Conflicting Agencies and Imperial Appropriations – An Interview with Hannes Grandits, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.09.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48624