Borders and what they do: lessons from a lost Habsburg province

Why write about a province that has long ceased to be and is currently divided between three states?  Irina Marin explains why she wrote about the historic Habsburg province of the Banat of Temesvár[1]

Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe Well-hidden behind the title Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europeis a monograph of the Banat of Temesvár or, by its Romanian name, Banatul Timișoarei. Why write a book about a historical province that has long ceased to be one and is currently peacefully divided between Romania, Serbia and Hungary? Outside the region and a narrow circle of historians, the Banat is a classic Ruritania, a non-existent land for all the reality it has for outsiders.

Everybody will have heard of Transylvania, Bosnia or Kosovo, but I doubt the Banat of Temesvár is at all known in the English-speaking world. Even when events take place there which are worthy of public attention, people usually refer to the present-day countries rather than the historical province, even if the name ‘Banat’ is still in local usage. So why write a history of this seemingly obscure province?

First of all, because no such history is available in English. The region deserves putting on the map of Anglo-Saxon historical scholarship. This, however, is not a strong enough reason and does not forestall the Ruritanian accusation. We instead should perhaps turn the question around and ask what makes a province worthy of interest. Sadly, more often than not the answer is blood and violence: whether blood sucked by vampires (as in Transylvania) or massacres and ethnic cleansing (as in Bosnia, Kosovo). Extremes of violence should, of course, never be ignored or left unexplored and unexplained.

The problem arises when one concentrates exclusively on such places visited by unprecedented violence. It creates the impression that nothing but ethnic violence comes out of Eastern Europe and fuels myths of  ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ as characteristic of the region.

I have therefore stopped at the Banat of Temesvár as a relatively peaceful province, with just as many ethnicities and religious denominations as these, but if anything dogged by myths of harmonious ethnic cohabitation rather than the perennial ancient-hatred myth. My new book is not intended to solve bibliographical disputes, count populations or work out who was there first. It is instead a historical meditation on the destructive and creative effect of ebbing and flowing borders on an ethnically variegated population, who lived and died under several waves of imperial rule, under nation-states and under communist and post-communist regimes.

Region between Timok and Morava from Map of Banat of Temesvár (1740)

Part of Banat of Temesvár 1740-1996

I start the story in the medieval period, long before there was a province called the Banat of Temesvár, in the marches of the medieval Hungarian Kingdom, which gave the province its name and borderland character. It was paradoxically the Ottoman conquest of Hungarian territories that merged disparate territories into a bigger unit, the Eyalet of Temesvár, which came to form the blueprint for the later Habsburg province. Habsburg rule from the early 18th century altered the newly conquered territory both economically and demographically. Waves of colonization of mostly (but not solely) German population added to the already rich kaleidoskope of peoples and kick-started the economy of the province.

The ups and downs of Habsburg rule in the Banat are followed from the point of view of the main nationalities and confessions: Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians, Jews and Schwaben. The story of the Banat between the 18th and early 20th centuries is the typical history of an imperial province: it follows the transformation of the concept of nation from privileged community to all-encompassing ethnic group; the first flush of parliamentarism and its trials and tribulations; the emergence of citizenship; the fretting over who various communities were and what their place in the Empire should be; and the march to World War I.

Most other studies of the Banat either stop at the end of the Great War, when the province ceased to exist, or follow one the splinters of the province (Romanian or Serbian). What this book brings that is new is comparative coverage of the post-1918 period extending to the present day with the arrest of Ratko Mladić in May 2011 in Lazarevo in the Serbian Banat. The book shows what happened in both halves of the Banat, how they evolved in the two different countries, under two different systems; looks at the fate of the Jewish population during the Second World War; that of the German population after the war; explores life under the two communist regimes, respectively the most relaxed and the most draconian in the Eastern bloc, and finally looks at life after Communism and the rebirth of regionalism within the framework of the EU.

The book is primarily a reflection on how arbitrary borderlines can make the difference between life and death, prosperity and misery. It is a transnational history highlighting both continuities and discontinuities, showing that frontiers can change people’s lives overnight but cannot easily change who they are and how they feel.

Slow, generational change does occur and when it is concluded there is no going back. Freshly drawn borders are like scalpel strokes: they sever living tissue and wrench communities apart. Once healed, however, they create their own normality and shape the people within them in new ways. The trajectory of the Banat of Temesvár as a historical province highlights the paradox of borders, which are, more often than not, out of step with the people: when national frontiers were imposed on the Habsburg imperial borderland, multi-ethnicity was deemed a problem; now when national borders are finally coming into their own and ethnic homogenization is taking place naturally, a new discourse has come into being extolling the virtues of tolerance and harmony in multi-ethnic, multi-cultural communities on both sides of the border.  This comes across as an exercise in ‘where are the snows of yesteryear?’ The frontier has in the meantime forged a new reality.


Irina Marin is Research Fellow at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. She received her PhD from University College London and is currently working on a postdoctoral project on the interconnection between peasant violence and antisemitism in Eastern Europe. Her research so far has focussed on identity politics in the Habsburg Empire, frontier studies, and social conflict.

Her book Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe is published by I.B Tauris.

[1]Text was originally published on UCL SSEES research blog on 3 May 2013.

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