Imperial Subjects


Imperial Subjects – Autobiographical Practice and Historical Change in the Empires of the Romanovs, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans (end of 19th – beginning of 20th Century)

Imperial studies enjoy great popularity nowadays as does the historiography of the Russian, the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empire. Structures and practices of empires ruling over extensive territories and a multitude of peoples have especially caught the attention of the researchers. Nevertheless, what is still lacking is the reflection of the discourses of imperial self-description in the former empires of Eastern Europe / Western Asia. It is particularly this field that five researchers from Basel University and two researchers from the University of Munich want to address. The focus of our interest is the autobiographical practices of the members of imperial elites from the three continental empires of the Romanovs, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans at the 19th century well into the beginning of the 20th century. It is a premise of the project that autobiographical practices share significant topics with the self-descriptions of imperial diaspora-groups as well as with imperial biographical discourses. In all three empires, an increase of autobiographical writing and publishing can be discerned in the second half of the 19th century. This has been interpreted as a sign for the significance of the growing culture of the subject, which apart from bourgeois circles also included  the aristocrats as well as individuals from lower social strata. Nevertheless, whether the growing public interest for individual life stories was owed to the radical social change with whom all three empires were confronted in the second half of the 19th century or not has not been considered. At the same time, the question of the future condition of the imperial entities was raised. In the case of the Ottoman Empire the imperial territory was shrinking, while Russia and Habsburg expanded their territories in the last third of the 19th century for the very last time. All three empires were still threatened by diverse national movements inside and outside their borders. The inner equilibrium of power in the empires was fundamentally altered in an age of political reform (»Great Reforms« of the 1860s-1870s and constitutional epoch 1905-1917 in Russia; »Ausgleich« of 1867 in Austria-Hungary; »Tanzimat« 1839-1876 in the Ottoman empire). The social ascent of significant numbers of the lower and middle classes caused by the ongoing industrialization and urbanization of the empires was a decisive factor of change. The old order of the ancient regimes had to be legitimized anew. The ongoing globalization of science, technology and an economy fostered by new ways of communication forced the imperial elites to search for other ways to represent their respective empires on the international stage. The experience of these complex and radical changes in the second half of the 19th century shaped the autobiographical practices in the three empires and is responsible for the boom of autobiographies in the late 19th and the early 20th century.

The aim of the research project is to understand autobiographical practice as an act of social communication. The self-documentation of certain groups of imperial elites and imperial diaspora-groups are analyzed as interpretations of the imperial power from inside. They reveal patterns of the reception of imperial spaces and of the representation of different concepts of collective identity – be it in imperial, national, social, religious, political way or via the acceptance of models of gender roles. Because of its comparative character including relational history the project will contribute to a significant gain of questions that address knowledge of the functioning of empires, including visions for their future, their identity concepts as well as empires as »imagined communities« at the dawn of the modern era.

The outstanding competence of historians of empire from Basel University and the University of Munich will be joined in this research project. Apart from three international conferences and the publication of a series called »Imperial subjects. Autobiography and biography in the realms of the Romanovs, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans« the project will include the writing of three PhD-theses (dissertations) and a habilitation treatise.