Subjects, Citizens, and Others – Administering Ethnic Heterogeneity in the British and Habsburg Empires, 1867–1918

by Benno Gammerl

British nostalgia for an imperial past imagined as heroic and fabulous has been a persistent feature of culture and politics in the UK since the 1960s, from the early Doctor Who episodes to the ongoing debates about Brexit. A longing for bygone imperial grandeur can also be observed in some of the nation states that have established themselves since 1918 in the territories formerly ruled by the Habsburg Empire. Although the links between past and present are more fractured, complicated and contested in these contexts, imperial nostalgia still transpires for example from the Austrian film ‘1 April 2000’ that promoted the termination of Allied occupation in 1952 and most disquietingly from current Hungarian claims to the ‘lost lands’ that had once belonged to the Hungarian Crown.

Assessing and dealing with imperial legacies and traditions poses thus not only a problem for historical research, but also for contemporary culture and politics. It is therefore crucial to venture beyond the simplistic and misleading question, whether this or that empire had been bad or good, and to devise more nuanced perspectives on imperial formations. The distinction between imperial – as the broader term – and imperialist – as the narrower term – forms of exercising power and of governing ethnically diverse populations is one of the ways in which ‘Subjects, Citizens, and Others’ opens up such more appropriate vistas.

Imperial rule could, the book argues, follow imperialist, statist and nation state approaches when it came to the question how tensions between the empires’ cohesion and the ethnic heterogeneity of their populations should be navigated. Depending on which approach policies concerning nationality and citizenship adopted, the effects of actual measures could range from racist discrimination to the inclusive recognition of cultural diversity. As situations and policies varied vastly across different periods and different parts of both empires, the study analyses Canadian and Hungarian, Indian and Austrian, East African and Bosnian as well as British trajectories in order to grasp the very intricacies and inconsistencies that characterized imperial policies.

Just a few examples to illustrate this point: Canada prohibited the immigration of ‘Asiatic’ British subjects in the early 20th century. Simultaneously British consular authorities attempted to deny the children of Muslim subjects of the British crown the privileges conferred by British subject status. While such measures clearly intended to exclude and discriminate against certain racial groups, some members of the British government were at the same time trying to uphold the principle of ethnic neutrality in discussions about who should be entitled to an old age pension in the United Kingdom. And in India certain politicians were searching for ways in which different racial and ethno-religious groups could be granted what they considered a fair share in political participation.

A similar contemporaneity of contradictive policies can also be observed in the Habsburg Empire: On the one hand, some German-speaking municipalities in the Austrian half of the empire implemented anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic measures around 1900. At the same time, the predominantly Muslim population of Bosnia was discriminated against and denied the rights that Austrian and Hungarian nationals enjoyed. On the other hand, Habsburg authorities insisted time and again on the equal treatment of all citizens irrespective of their ethnic and cultural identities. And they simultaneously created constitutional systems that should grant all officially recognized ethno-national groups access to political decision making processes, thus implementing a politics of recognition of ethnic diversity.

’Mostar: Muslim women’ (Rudolf von Ottenfeld), published in the so-called Kronprinzenwerk: Die österreichisch-ungarische Monarchie in Wort und Bild. Bosnien und Hercegovina, Vienna: k.k. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1901, p. 323, from:

By delving into these multifaceted aspects the study pays equal attention to developments at the overarching imperial level and to processes that unfolded within the empires’ constituent parts. In terms of methodology this approach allows for a new, balanced and nuanced way to explore imperial histories. The same holds true for the books comparative framework. Juxtaposing the British and the Habsburg cases, the analysis emphatically rejects the established dichotomy between a ‘Western’, modern and maritime form of Empire and its ‘Eastern’, backward and continental counterpart. This revision of assumptions and preconceptions deeply engrained in historiography promises to hold a lot of potential for future research. It will hopefully stimulate fresh vistas on transnational history in general and on the history of imperial formations in particular.

Such new perspectives might in turn also enable more appropriate and differentiated evaluations of imperial legacies and traditions in the present. They could help to avoid overhasty celebrations of the Habsburg heritage that allegedly makes sure that democracy will prevail in the ‘Western’ parts of Ukraine while autocracy will loom large in the country’s ‘Eastern’ provinces. They could at the same time engender a renewed interest in certain aspects of the constitutional arrangements that aimed for the recognition of ethnic diversity in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Revisiting these might prove conducive to discussions about how the nationals of the European Union’s member states could be integrated into a cohesive, yet diverse citizenry.

In a similar vein, such fresh vistas could also help to avoid overemphasizing the achievements of the British Empire, while glossing over the atrocities and injustices it entailed. Yet while it is certainly legitimate to hold the British government to account for the violence and the injuries it committed, it might also be worthwhile to reconsider some of the ideas on how to enable the political participation of an ethnically heterogeneous population that were discussed during the time of British rule in South Asia. Parts of these proposals can still prove valuable in present-day debates, at least more valuable than much of what the current governments of India and Pakistan have to contribute when it comes to issues of democracy and the recognition of cultural diversity.

Along these lines, one can challenge the misleading versions of imperial nostalgia nationalists employ to promote their exclusionary and discriminatory agendas. At the same time, the all too simple and futile question, whether an empire had been bad or good, could be supplemented by much more engaging and fruitful discussions about one of the most pressing issues of the present: How can one fairly organize ethnically diverse bodies politic?



Benno Gammerl. Picutre: private.

Benno Gammerl has studied in Germany and the United Kingdom. He holds master’s degrees from Goldsmiths College (2000) and the Freie Universität Berlin (2003) where he also obtained his PhD in 2008. His dissertation entitled “Subjects, Citizens, and Others. Administering Ethnic Heterogeneity in the British and Habsburg Empires, 1867-1918” won the Friedrich Meinecke Prize of the Freie Universität Berlin in 2009 and the Wolfgang J. Mommsen Award of the German Historical Institute in London in 2012. The English translation of his book was published in the GHI London’s book series “Studies in British and Imperial History” (Berghahn Books, 2017). Gammerl did research and taught at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Centre for the History of Emotions in Berlin, before the German Academic Exchange Service enabled him to join Goldsmiths, University of London as a Lecturer in Queer History in 2017.






Citation: Benno Gammerl, Subjects, Citizens, and Others Administering Ethnic Heterogeneity in the British and Habsburg Empires, 1867-1918, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.04.2018,

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Editorial Board (12. April 2018). Subjects, Citizens, and Others – Administering Ethnic Heterogeneity in the British and Habsburg Empires, 1867–1918. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 20. Juli 2024 von

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