Imperial Experts and Their Autobiographical Practices in Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire

21. - 23. Juli 2014, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Internationale Konferenz im Rahmen des SNF/DFG-Forschungsprojektes "Imperial Subjects"

Kontakt – Prof. Dr. Frithjof Benjamin Schenk und Dr. Alexis Hofmeister

Tagungsbericht – Henning Lautenschläger, MA-Student Basel. Den Bericht finden Sie auch auf der Website von H-Soz-Kult.

Zur Projektseite gelangen Sie hier. Das Tagungsprogramm finden Sie hier.


The second conference as part of the DFG and SNF sponsored research project "Imperial Subjects. Autobiographical practices and historical change in the continental empires of the Romanovs, Habsburgs and Ottomans (Middle of the 19th – early 20th century)" took place July 21-22, 2014, in Munich. There, scholars dealt with autobiographical cultures of experts in the three East European empires.

After a warm welcome, BENJAMIN SCHENK (Basel) and MARTIN AUST (Munich) opened the event by establishing a conceptual framework and introducing the questions central to the conference and the research project. Schenk introduced the key concepts: First of all, the term "imperial subject" with its ambiguous meaning refers to both the subordinate character of the people living in empires as well as the quality of a "subject" as an individual. Secondly, the phrase "autobiographical practice", according to Jochen Hellbeck, is meant to widen the term "autobiography" to all forms of self-testimonies and to allude to the practices by which they were produced, published, collected and received. This definition supports the understanding of self-referenced writing as an act of social communication.[2] These two concepts are connected with the accelerated historical change in the context of modernisation and globalisation in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. From then on, an autobiographical boom took place in all three of the East European empires and, as the research project suggests, was deeply connected with the perception and discussion of this change in imperial contexts.

Martin Aust defined the term "imperial expert" and posed a few guiding questions for the conference. In his view, experts in the wider sense can be defined from two perspectives: First, from the top down. The imperial government hired someone as an expert because they had specific skills to perform a certain task. This refers to the phenomenon widely known in Russian history as maloliudstvo (lack of qualified people). The second perspective is more bottom-up: There were of course many self-proclaimed experts who thought their expertise would be very useful or important for the state and who identified themselves strongly with the empire.

Following these introductory thoughts, the conference tried to answer specific questions: How did those experts in their autobiographical practices relate their skills and accomplishments to larger designs of empire and how did they create or adopt their own visions of empire? Did the dynasties and imperial representatives meet the experts’ high expectations? And if not, did this lead to frustration or dissatisfaction? Did autobiographical writings of experts create specific professional spaces of communication or were they part of bigger discourses?

The first panel was devoted to Jewish autobiography. Even though Jewish autobiographical practices presented a common ground for all three East European empires in the 19th century, the first section and its discussion dealt mostly with the Russian case and contexts.

MARINA MOGILNER (Chicago) allowed the audience a closer look into her current research project dealing with Russian-Jewish "race science" at the turn of the 19thcentury. She analysed the examination of the Jewish writer and Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940) with the discourse of race. By defining a "Jewish race", Jewish scholars tried to "normalise" and assert the existence of a Jewish Nation in the context of 19th century sciences. Jabotinsky denied any "Semitic" origin of the Jewish people and determined it a "European race". He also underlined the importance of the "pure blooded" reproduction community of the contemporary Jewry and romanticised the preserved "unspoiled" way of life of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement. Accordingly, in his autobiographical novel "The Five" he tried to demonstrate the "tragic illusiveness of the assimilationist choice". By incorporating topics from his personal and public life and describing what were, in his opinion, the negative effects of the imperial era on the Jewish population – assimilation, hybridity, and the absence of Jewish subjectivity – he simultaneously envisioned a postcolonial future of a heroic and integral Jewish nation.

JÖRG SCHULTE (Köln) examined the autobiographical writings of the Jewish writer Saul Tchernichovsky (1875–1943). His autobiography differed from the common Russian Jewish autobiography that was written as a Bildungsroman in that his was more similar to classical renaissance biographies. It also only covered the years of his childhood in the Russian province of Tauria and was probably written for Jewish children. By translating his Russian childhood into Hebrew and creating a lot of words from old Hebrew and Aramaic, he produced the image of a "mythical childhood", Schulte argued. In his role as writer and poet, Tchernichovsky also gave his former self the appearance of a young artist.

The second and biggest panel at the conference dealt with autobiographical practices in the Ottoman Empire.

In contrast to high state officials, less is known about the lower ranks of officials and experts in the Ottoman world. FELIX KONRAD (Kiel) provided detailed insight into the worldview and thinking of Muhammad al-Baqli, an Egyptian engineer in the rank of an efendi. In 1865 he published a short tribute to the ruling family together with a description of Egypt’s history, his education, and his service for the state. Despite the variety of contents, Konrad cogently analysed the text as a cohesive unit: He interpreted it as self-testimony and as an innovative appeal by al-Baqli for promotion. As Konrad pointed out, al-Baqli reflects views representative of the emerging group of young, highly qualified and state-educated Egyptian and Ottoman experts in the second half of the 19th century: Aware that they were almost completely dependent on the state, they demanded proper social status and payment according to their accomplishments. Their modern views of meritocracy were frustrated by the contemporary dependencies on personal networks that constrained their careers.

EYAL GINIO (Jerusalem) gave a talk on the writings of Ottoman officers taken as prisoners of war. These officers held captive during the Balkan wars in Serbia and Bulgaria produced a huge amount of autobiographical writings and thereby strongly shaped the Ottoman memory of these wars. For most of these men the military defeats and the loss of the greater part of the Balkan Peninsula were caused due to a lack of a national ideal and education in their own state. In their views Bulgarians and Serbs had rapidly risen from backward shepherds to form modern (nation-)states thanks to huge efforts in the education sector and state modernisation. Being able to get an inside view into the enemy’s society while held captive, they considered it a role model for modernizing the Ottoman Empire.

BARBARA HENNING (Bamberg) surveyed the autobiographical fragments of a minor official in the Ottoman provincial administration in Syria. Born into a Kurdish family of notables and educated in state schools, Mehmed Salih Bedirhan (1873/74-1915) negotiated in his texts different frames of self-identification: His vision of imperial success was deeply connected to ideals of individualism and meritocracy. But as his writings reveal, the state as well as his family restricted his possibilities by considering him as part of a collective identity, his family: First he was pressured by his family into a marriage with a relative and to take a post in the provincial administration. Then he was subjected to collective punishment by the Ottoman state due to the involvement of two distant family members in the assassination of a state official. This compelled him to consider his ideal version of a career in the Empire and how it had failed against the reality of imperial collective identities. Here, empire for him not only meant a space of possibilities, but also one of frustration and limitations. Unlike similar known sources such as most of the young turk memoirs, the author died before the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and therefore did not reflect upon it under the precondition of the "unavoidable collapse".

RICHARD WITTMANN (Istanbul) had a look at one individual’s perception of modernisation in late Ottoman society in examining the memoirs of Aşçi Dede Ibrahim (1828-ca. 1910). He did this on the basis of how the Islamic mystic and accountancy officer assessed the introduction of different objects such as photography or European clothing into Ottoman material culture in his memoirs. In this manner he pointed out that Ibrahim had two different frames of reference – "that of the pious Sufi [...] and that of the imperial bureaucrat of the modern, Western and secularized Ottoman army". With different judgements on modern objects Ibrahim positioned himself as an autonomous individual and solved the contradictions between his conflicting points of reference.

Autobiographies from the Habsburg Empire were presented in the third section of the conference. MARION WULLSCHLEGER (Zürich) examined the historical traces of two Habsburg officials in the Austrian Littoral and their autobiographical practices after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alfred Freiherr von Fries-Skene (1870-1947) and Alois Lasciac (1858-1939) were both imperial experts in administrative law and in governing the littoral provinces. In his autobiographical texts written in fascist Italy Lasciac aimed mainly to present himself as an expert of local lore and to defend his honour, feeling that he had been excluded and sidelined in his former career by Alfred Freiherr von Fries-Skene. By contrast, Fries-Skene did not mention Lasciac in his texts at all. His manuscripts created in 1919 and 1941 seem to be intended for publication. He saw the Littoral as a mirror of the Empire, that is, as a heterogeneous entity of peoples cultivated by German mission civilisatrice. He also referred to the reasons for the dissolution of the Empire, mainly the unsolved South Slav question and the anti-parliamentarian politics of the Cisleithanian government.

CHRISTIAN MARCHETTI (Tübingen) offered three different functions of autobiographical practices by presenting the autobiographies of the late Habsburg ethnographers Carl Freiherr von Czoernig (1804-1889), Raimund Friedrich Kaindl (1866-1930), and Baron Franz Nopcsa (1877-1933). While Czoernig described himself as model ethnographer in service to the Empire who can be called a true "imperial subject", the other two men did not write their autobiographies until the interwar period. Published in 1925 from a post-imperial perspective, Kaindl reflected on his work in the context of rising interwar German nationalism: Although he was raised in multicultural Bukovina and presented himself as a loyal-to-the-Emperor liberal, he strongly supported the establishment of a völkische Deutschtumskundeand stressed the positive influence of the German population in the eastern parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his view, the frontier situation of Germans in the Habsburg east "facilitated the völkisch awakening of the German people". Nopcsa, however, an aristocratic geologist, albanologist and adventurer, saw his ethnographic work in terms of gaining a unique transcultural experience and expertise which was not adequately valued by his contemporaries.

The last section about the Russian Empire was opened with the lecture by PETER HOLQUIST (Philadelphia) on the bureaucratic diaries of Fedor Martens (1845-1909), Dmitrii Miliutin (1816-1912), and Petr Valuev (1815-1890). He suggested that apart from the common contemporary tradition of romanticist and self-reflective autobiographical texts such as Alexander Herzen’s there was a second type of autobiographical writing: The bureaucratic diary, lacking subjective elements, was generally dedicated to the men’s life of service and intended for family depositing or archival storage. By the semi-public nature of these texts the professional careers of the writers was to be polished and kept for future generations.

The memoirs of the tsarist and Soviet geographer Veniamin Semenov-Tian Shanskii (1870- 1942) were written during the siege of Leningrad in 1941. GUIDO HAUSMANN (München) pointed out that Tian Shanskii described the former Russian Empire in terms of a place of opportunities and strongly related to his family and the life of other companions from the former imperial elite. He described his career as one of service for the motherland, no matter whether it took place in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Although he came to terms with the new order, he considered it dangerous for the development of the individual. Hausmann also convincingly demonstrated that Tian Shanskii’s memoirs needed to be understood as a continuation of a specific practice of writing family history.

The final discussion mainly focussed on the comparability of the mentioned Empires and the imperial dimension of historical change. MAURUS REINKOWSKI (Basel) underlined the responsibility to compare but also cautioned not to over-homogenise and over-generalise possible similarities. He pleaded to stand the huge variety between the Empires and not to regard it as a disappointment but as a chance for extensive research. Although all three Empires developed similarly in the early modern period and faced comparable challenges at the end of the 19th century, they arguably tried to solve them in different ways. However, some social groups, such as experts or Jews, might still be comparable.

For Benjamin Schenk one of the key questions and opportunities for comparison lies in the imperial challenges that arose in face of rapid modernisation and globalisation and how they were reflected in autobiographical writings.

Marina Mogilner saw comparable topics in the cultures of bureaucracy and modernisation. She stressed the need to look for the imperial specifics posed by the challenges of modernity. What made the challenges of modernisation specifically imperial ones? For her, one important characteristic was that in the face of the long crisis of imperial self-identification empires had to consolidate and conceptualise their identity based on their variety. For a long time before the onset of modernisation, subjects of the East European empires were not forced to identify themselves with the state. She also urged the audience to pay special attention to the language in which the empire tried to do that. Was it a "national", a "modern", or a specifically "imperial" one? Or was the empire lacking the right language?

Altogether the conference stimulated lively and critical discussions and expanded current knowledge on bureaucratic, scientific and cultural experts in all three empires. It also increased the awareness for a closer look at the international and global contexts of expert cultures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Last but not least, the discussion about the comparability of autobiographical writings in the Habsburg, Ottoman and Romanov Empires surely will give fruitful impulses for further research on autobiographical practices in this field of study.


Monday, July 21th, 2014

Martin Aust (München) and Benjamin Schenk (Basel) Welcome and Introduction

Panel 1: Jewish Autobiography

Martin Aust: chair

Marina Mogilner (Chicago): Defining the Racial Self: Autobiographical Contexts of Vladimir Jabotinsky's Engagement with the Discourse of Race

Jörg Schulte (Köln): Hebrew Childhood in Late Imperial Russia: The Autobiography of Saul Tchernichowsky (1875–1943)

Alexis Hofmeister (Basel): commentator

Panel 2: The Ottoman Empire

Murat Kaya (Basel): chair

Felix Konrad (Kiel): Visions of Professionalism, Progress and Social Advancement: the Autobiographical Writing of Muhammad al-Baqli (born 1838/39)

Eyal Ginio (Jerusalem): Reflecting on their own Experiences, Reflecting on the Empire: Ottoman Officers' Writing on the Balkan War

Barbara Henning (Bamberg): A 'passionate Ottoman' in late 19th-century Damascus: Mehmed Salih Bedirhan's Autobiographical Writing in the Context of the Ottoman-Kurdish Bedirhani Family.

Richard Wittmann (Istanbul): Torn between God and His "Shadow on Earth": Self-Positioning in the Life Narrative of a 19th century Ottoman Civil Servant

Maurus Reinkowski (Basel): commentator


Tuesday, July 22th, 2014

Panel 3: The Habsburg Empire

Nora Mengel (München): chair

Marion Wullschleger (Zürich): „Truthfulness and Sincerity“. Habsburg Civil Servants in Trieste and their Autobiographical Practices after the Fall of the Empire.

Christian Marchetti (Tübingen): The Ethnographic „I“ – Autobiographical Writing of Ethnographers in the Late Habsburg Empire

Robert Luft (München): commentator

Panel 4: The Russian Empire

Carla Cordin (Basel): chair

Peter Holquist (Philadelphia): Bureaucratic Diaries: Fedor F. Martens, Dmitrii A. Miliutin and Petr A. Valuev

Guido Hausmann (München): A Testimonial of Scholarly Work in Late Imperial Russia: the Memoirs of the Geographer Veniamin P. Tian-Shanskii (1870-1942)

Benjamin Schenk: commentator

Final discussion


[2] cf. Jochen Hellbeck, Autobiographical Practices in Russia, Göttingen 2004.