Politics of pasts and futures in (post-)imperial contexts

Politics of pasts and futures in (post-)imperial contexts

DFG Graduiertenkolleg 2571 Imperien
Freiburg im Breisgau
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
01.12.2022 - 03.12.2022
Teresa Mayer, Historisches Seminar, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

For their first annual conference, the University of Freiburg’s Research Training Group on Empires chose to investigate “politics of pasts and futures in imperial and post-imperial contexts”, a topic repeatedly gaining importance. This development is not only due to Russia’s war against Ukraine but also to the fact that we become more conscious of how our living world is shaped historically, architecturally, socially, and politically by the omnipresence of imperial (re)imaginaries. The conference’s vast diachronic and interdisciplinary scope allowed for insightful contributions on this topic.

The first panel dealt with the ways in which imperial governments sought to legitimize their claim by relating themselves to previous empires. Especially the Roman Empire, as a kind of paradigm, was a frequent point of reference.

In the sixteenth century, French king François I (r. 1494–1547) combined art and politics through mannerist architecture. CHRISTINE TAUBER (München) guided her listeners through the Grande Galerie of the Palace of Fontainebleau, where François I would display an overwhelmingly rich assemblage of ambivalent art. Tauber pointed out how the king’s architect included elements of imperial Roman mythology and philosophy. Namely, he stylized the room as an ambulatio, a type of gallery combining aesthetic experience and political discussion. The artwork, however, never seemed to offer a clear interpretation; a deliberately created impression, according to Tauber. The king himself was the key to understanding his art: As he guided his visitors through his gallery, he could present himself knowledgeable and superior and the allusions to imperial Rome underlined his conception of power.

RHIANNON GARTH JONES (Aarhus) illustrated another case of monumental architecture being used for visual declarations of power: The early Abbasids (754–861 CE) adapted not only Persian and Arabian, but also Graeco-Roman influences in their building practices. For instance, the palace Dar al-Khilafa in Samarra was decorated with glass produced in Levant and Egypt, alluding to the entire breadth of the empire. The dazzling effect depicted in praise poetry (qasida) carried implications to Graeco-Roman tradition. Central to understanding the visual language, as Garth Jones emphasized, was the Abbasid’s concept of Graeco-Roman as Rum. The malleable term referred to the Roman Empire, whose power the caliphate claimed to inherit, yet also applied to its geopolitical equivalent Constantinople, which it sought to exceed. Further assessing the Abbasid’s visual language of power through the lens of Late Antiquity would prove to be insightful, according to Garth Jones.

Turning to PETER MAKHLOUF (Princeton), who illustrated how conservative intellectuals of the Weimar Republic compared the political situation at the beginning of the 1920s to that of the Roman Empire in the first century BC. The conquest of Alexandria, specifically the Battle of Actium 31 BC, served as leitmotif. The battle was stylized as a crucial turning point in history mirroring the ways in which the interpreters experienced their own present. Makhlouf showed how an Alexandrian threat was constructed in the conservative writings of, among others, Eduard Meyer, Oswald Spengler, and Carl Schmitt. Claiming that they created a dualism between what was perceived as a civilized, Hellenistic-Roman culture and a barbarous, decadent Orient, Makhlouf emphasized how parallels were drawn between the decline of empire after the First World War and its replacement with Bolshevism and nationalism.

The act of alluding to a distant imperial past gains a different quality if one looks at the most frequent referencing point, Rome, itself. JULIAN ZIMMERMANN (Regensburg) investigated the reciprocity between Rome’s former imperial status and its loss thereof during the Middle Ages. From 1144 until the fourteenth century, a socio-political movement of Rome’s middle classes mobilized against the pope and the ruling elites. The communal movement did not simply appropriate a myth of Rome but was in the fortunate position to use the omnipresent symbolic material at hand, such as a public presentation of the rediscovered lex de imperio Vespasiani in 1345. Zimmermann argued that this self-ascription is at the core of metropolicity visible in premodern metropolises such as Rome and represents metropolicity’s interface with imperiality.“

The second panel focused on distant imperial pasts, since empires seldomly referred to their direct predecessors to underline their current position of power.

ROLF STROOTMAN (Utrecht) introduced his concept of imperial leapfrogging to illustrate how empires dealt with their predecessors. While the name might raise a few eyebrows, the idea itself proved to be quite applicable: Imperial conquerors sought to create a narrative of their own past which often left out significant parts of their own history. Thus, minimizing the significance of the immediate past, the Seleucids referred to the Babylonians, the emperor Augustus aligned himself with Alexander the Great, and Sultan Mehmet II. claimed to be a restorer of the Roman empire. Mostly framing themselves as having emerged out of chaos, it was only logical to leave out their predecessors. Strootman’s definition of empire included an imperial court where power relations were (re)negotiated and such ideas were disseminated from.

The contribution of ALEKSANDR OSIPIAN (Berlin) – who, unfortunately, could not attend in person – dealt with the construction and usage of “Novorossiya” in the context of Russian territorial expansion. The current Russian government employs “Novorossiya” as an umbrella-term for the territories Donetsk and Luhansk. The creation of moveable buffer-zones has been an established Russian tactic for centuries. However, as Osipian points out, Putin’s revanchist imperial narrative stands in harsh opposition to the justification Catherine II. employed when she first claimed the region in 1787. She displayed her foundation myth – a re-emerged, enlightened Byzantium – on a heavily staged journey along imitated Roman milestones and costumed Amazons accompanied by European ambassadors.

ROGIER VAN DER HEIJDEN (Freiburg) investigated how different imperial frameworks were connected in the architecture of public spaces. He chose the Wadi B temple of Sardis, which was once the capital of the Lydian empire until it was seized by the Persians around 550 BCE. The Wadi B temple was the centre of the imperial cult in Roman Sardis. However, not only the Roman but also the Lydian empire was present. The burial grounds of Lydian kings outside the city were clearly visible from the terrace, as well as the Catacecaumene, a volcanic landscape which was mythologically important for Sardis. Those lieux de memoire, as van der Heijden marked them, provided the perfect backdrop for the reoccurring festivities which regularly activated memory and connected Lydian to Roman Sardis. This was a widespread phenomenon among provincial metropolises according to van der Heijden.

Distant imperial pasts also appear in contemporary discourses of oppositional online spaces in the Middle East. ELENA FELLNER (Freiburg) presented Twitter threads from 2019 and 2020 which included references to the Shahnameh, a poetic retelling of Iran’s origins written by Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsin around the year 1000. Using the concepts of chrono-synthesis and time collapse, Fellner analysed the heroization of Iranian revolutionaries Navid Afkari, executed in 2020, and Pouya Bakhtiari, shot in the streets in 2019. They were being compared to mythical figures of the Shahnameh. Interestingly, the corresponding demonization in the current discourse, where Islam is seen as fundamentally foreign to Iran, differs heavily from that of the Iranian revolution of 1979, when Iran’s ancient culture was seen as decadent and Islam as a liberation. Referring to Assmann and Conrad, Fellner therefore concludes that memory requires active imagination.1

The third panel investigated breaches and continuities of imperial and postimperial narratives, how they were challenged or sustained, occasionally even demanded within the empire.

DEBORAH HOLMES (Salzburg) studied the effect of reoccurring imperial festivities in the Austro-Hungarian and British Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. She introduced her contribution with a statement by Austrian journalist Joseph Roth, who jested that the newly created independent nations of 1919 would immediately put aside their differences and form a federation if they could only have another imperial jubilee parade. Annual lavish pageants beaming with imperial splendour were crucial to keeping the empire together. According to Holmes, they created a notion of timelessness through their repetitive nature and were a display for a carefully curated imperial identity. The increasingly participatory nature, not only in the Austro-Hungarian, but also in the British Empire (whose Empire Days had even been initiated by a subject of Queen Victoria) amplified and challenged this effect.

Another type of narrative relevant in imperial contexts is that of identity. Focusing on the Malay Archipelago, CHRISTINA WU (Paris) shed light onto the formation of the stereotype of the lazy and violent Malay. Introducing her talk with contemporary examples of its ongoing perpetuation, she traced back its roots to colonial times: The Malays’ refusal to succumb to colonial capitalism and to work in dangerous conditions on the colonizers’ profitable rubber plantations and tin mines led the latter to hiring extensive numbers of Chinese and Indian workers. This caused drastic changes of Malaysia’s demographic structure and a social déclassement of the Malays. Poverty and frustration gave way to local outbursts of violence which came to be known as amok. Wu’s research challenges colonial hypotheses that essentialize an idea of the native and indigenous.

OLIVER PEJIC’s (Florence) contribution further dealt with the Habsburg Empire, specifically with its legacy during the interwar years. He chose a bottom-up perspective to investigate every-day conflicts erupting in the newly formed Yugoslavia. Pejic analysed municipal and judicial documents of Maribor in Lower Styria, formerly Austria, and Sombor in Bačka, formerly Hungary. The vivid examples featured intoxicated ex-militia, innkeepers, and teenage girls as well as strikingly frequent references to the former Habsburg Empire. However, they did not erupt in a vacuum but were motivated by protest or provocation and contained a mixture of chauvinist sentiments, new republicanism, and imperial nostalgia. To better understand transitional periods and the diverse ethnolinguistic identities in post-Habsburg states, Pejic argues that subjective and local experiences should be further incorporated.

Commemorative practices provide another window through which attitudes towards imperiality can be observed, as SEBASTIAN FAHNER (Freiburg) explored regarding the Austrian Social Democrats and Spanish Socialists. Though part of international movements, both incorporated imperial elements. In Vienna, the social democrats staged their commemoration of the beginning of the 1848 revolution as a multinational event: Speeches were given in German, Italian, Czech, Polish, and Slovenian, thus pronouncing the possibility of a peaceful federation. In Spain, Socialists commemorated an event unrelated to Spanish history – the establishment of the Parisian Commune in 1871 – choosing to reject nationalism. Fahner stated that these different approaches could be better understood when incorporating an imperial framework, since each movement provided an alternative status quo which varied according to the viability of empire.

FATMA EDA ÇELIK (Paris) investigated the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish nation-state, focusing on Islamization. After the Ottoman-Russian War in 1877–1878, massive changes in the geopolitical structure of the Empire lead the Sultan to adapt Islam as a policy to re-establish social and political stability. His conceptualization of Islam tightly interwove the idea of ummah with obedience to a single ruler. This was challenged during the Second Constitutional Era (1908–1913) when the Young Turks sought to incorporate minorities and referred to Ottoman multi-religious unity. After the Balkan Wars, the discourse about Islamization as a policy reappeared, namely in leading theological Journals, that of Sebilürreşad and the Journal of Islam (Islam Mecmuası). Çelik therefore argued to see imperial and post-imperial strategies not only as political, but also as theological issues.

The conference concluded with a final discussion centring on the imperial present, the temporal dimension bridging imperial politics of past and future. Choosing a certain period and stylizing it as a “golden age”, which then re-emerged in the respective current times, was a tactic common to almost all imperial contexts discussed. Empires saw themselves as the final entities in their own curated narratives. The future ceases to exist in such an idea of timelessness and the present is idealized. The lively exchange about imperial presents and the emerging open questions concerning imperial collapse and its legacies left the audience in eager anticipation for the next annual conference.

Conference Overview:

Begrüßung: Rogier van der Heijden (Freiburg)

Panel I: Classical Receptions and Translatio Imperii

Christine Tauber (München): Kaiser im eigenen Schloss: François' I Translatio Imperii nach Fontainebleau
Moderation: Christian Feichtinger (Freiburg)

Rihannon Garth Jones (Aarhus): Early ’Abbāsid use of Graeco-Roman traditions to project imperial authority and power
Moderation: Christian Feichtinger (Freiburg)

Peter Makhlouf (Princeton): Die Eroberung Alexandrias: ein Leitmotiv der Weimarer Republik
Moderation: Christian Feichtinger (Freiburg)

Julian Zimmermann (Regensburg): „da caput a cauda mundi.“ Zur Reziprozität metropolitaner Identität und (post-)imperialer Logik im mittelalterlichen Rom
Moderation: Élise Mazurié (Freiburg)

Panel II: Distant Imperial Pasts

Rolf Strootmann (Utrecht): Imperial leapfrogging: How empires anchor their rule in the past
Moderation: Rogier van der Heijden (Freiburg)

Aleksandr Osipian (Berlin): Political justification of territorial expansion from Catherine II to Putin: inventing Novorossiya in imperial and in post-imperial context

Rogier van der Heijden: Constructing imperial pasts: Inventions and innovations of (post-imperial) traditions in the urban fabric of Lydian Sardis in the Roman period
Moderation: Cornelius Beckers (Freiburg)

Elena Fellner (Freiburg): Memories of Empire. Imaginaries of pasts and futures in Iranian anti-regime online spaces
Moderation: Cornelius Beckers (Freiburg)

Panel III: Breaches and Continuities in (Post-)Imperial Narratives

Deborah Holmes (Salzburg): Empire Days. Imperial celebrations in the late British and Austro-Hungarian Empire
Moderation: Sebastian Fahner (Freiburg)

Christina Wu (Paris): Curating indigeneity: Imperial pasts and the shaping of communal identities in the Malay Archipelago (19th-20th Centuries)
Moderation: Élise Mazurié (Freiburg)

Oliver Pejic (Florenz): Contesting the Habsburg Empire in everyday life: The Habsburg legacy as a source of everyday conflict in interwar Yugoslav society
Moderation: Sebastian Fahner (Freiburg)

Sebastian Fahner (Freiburg): Socialist perspectives on history in Spain and the Habsburg Monarchy, 1890–1914. A study of internationalist commemorations in a context of national strife and imperial crisis
Moderation: Élise Mazurié (Freiburg)

Fatma Eda Çelik (Paris): Islamization as an imperial and post-imperial feature
Moderation: Sebastian Fahner (Freiburg)

Abschlussdiskussion: Rogier van der Heijden (Freiburg), Sebastian Fahner (Freiburg), Christian Feichtinger (Freiburg)

1 Aleida Assmann / Sebastian Conrad, Introduction, in: idem (ed.), Memory in a Global Age. Discourses, Practices and Trajectories, Basingstoke 2010, pp. 1–17, p. 4.

Veröffentlicht am
Weitere Informationen
Land Veranstaltung
Sprache(n) der Konferenz
Englisch, Deutsch
Sprache des Berichts