Roads to Happiness: Traffic Infrastructure in South-East Europe, Hegemonic Discourse, and its Challenges

Roads to Happiness: Traffic Infrastructure in South-East Europe, Hegemonic Discourse, and its Challenges

Malte Fuhrmann, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; Hannes Grandits, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
16.03.2023 - 18.03.2023
Florian Riedler, Ost- und Südosteuropäische Geschichte, Universität Leipzig

The terrible train crash in Greece with over fifty casualties that happened just weeks before the workshop threw a stark light on the broken promises around infrastructure. After a long weekend, the passengers wanted to return home, but instead their trip ended in disaster. This recent accident aligns with the central idea and aim of the workshop: to critically examine the promises that transport infrastructures in particular make, the promise of providing a “road to happiness” – to a better place, a brighter future, enhanced economic development and so on. The workshop focused on the historical dimension of this promise in 19th- and 20th-century South-East Europe.

In his opening contribution, MALTE FUHRMANN (Berlin) advocated that South-East Europe in its wider geographical context should be part of an emerging new history of infrastructure, one that is particularly interested in cultural questions, mental maps and the environment, as well as power and hegemony. Setting the agenda for the following case studies, Fuhrmann highlighted themes that have been frequently associated with infrastructure development such as colonisation, imperial expansion, territorialisation, the drawing of political borders and social processes of othering. He proposed that South-East European infrastructure should be studied as a symptom of a larger dispositif of developmentality (after Foucault) that included many of the aforementioned themes.

It is perhaps not surprising that most of the case studies presented during the workshop focused on the railway, as it was the key-transport infrastructure of the 19th century – an era when the concept of infrastructure as understood today was formed. As in the rest of Europe, the public saw railways as a symbol of progress. However, because of the particular characteristics of railway development in the area on which these studies focused, progress in this particular context often remained elusive.

BORIANA ANTONOVA-GOLEVA (Sofia) gave an overview of railway development in Ottoman South-East Europe; this began in the second half of the 19th century. She revealed the typical pattern of railway construction (a pattern that continued into the 20th century): total dependence on foreign capital and know-how, resulting in corruption and political interference. Early railway projects, in which groups of foreign investors allied themselves with different factions in the Ottoman government, had a political and military motivation. In exceptional cases, local business elites were also involved, but they were never successful in bringing projects to fruition. Therefore, the few railways that were actually realised had only a limited economic effect. However, the promise of infrastructure was already being formulated in the Ottoman context: Ottoman Bulgarian newspapers in particular highlighted the role of railways for Bulgarian enlightenment and education.

A contrast between the hopeful rhetoric of modernisation and the actual modest economic effect of railway construction in the Ottoman Empire was still valid at the end of the 19th century, as ANDREA GRITTI (Paris) showed. When railways were built in Macedonia, there was an influx of skilled workers from Italy. However, this diminished as soon as construction was finished, and left no traces on the local labour market.

The other papers that were presented mainly followed up two themes connected with railway construction. The first was the importance awarded to railways by the Ottoman successor states as they developed their national territories. In the case of Romania, SILVIA MARTON (Bucharest) introduced a political scandal connected with the German railway developer Bethel Henry Strousberg that shook the country in the 1870s. After the developer went bankrupt, his concession to build a national railway network was renegotiated, with some costly disadvantages for the Romanian state.

CONSTANTIN ARDELEANU (Bucharest) highlighted the external and internal geopolitics of infrastructure development in Romania. With the Strousberg railway and the joint project to build a Black Sea port in Jibrieni, north of the Danube delta (today Prymorske in Ukraine), the young Romanian state aimed to unify and centralise its territory. At the same time, it wanted to insert itself into the networks of trade and transport that connected Europe with the Orient. Strousberg’s bankruptcy shelved the port project, and this could not be revived before it became redundant: the region north of the Danube was annexed by Russia in 1878.

In the 20th century, railway development continued to offer paradigmatic examples of how transport infrastructures were tied to processes of nation building. DANIJEL KEŽIĆ (Regensburg) presented a case study of Yugoslavian plans to construct a direct railway link from Belgrade to the Adriatic coast. However, the few successive projects that were intended to give a form to the economic and social space of the new state were never realised. Among the reasons for this failure were the conflicting interests of the political elites and, perhaps even more decisively, the persistence of the existing railway infrastructure. After the First World War, Yugoslavia had inherited the railways of Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and Bosnia had a separate narrow-gauge network; these constituent parts continued to shape the Yugoslavian network and resisted unification.

Railway development in Turkey, presented by ÖZGE SEZER (Cottbus), was more successful, because it did not have to overwrite an older network. In the 1920s, the railway became an important means to integrate Eastern Anatolia into the newly founded Republic of Turkey’s national territory. The modernist style of newly constructed station buildings and iconic steel bridges also expressed the significance of transport infrastructure for the country’s modernisation on a symbolic level. Overall, the railway was part of a project of internal colonisation that the Republican regime in Ankara pursued in rural areas.

The ideological aspect of infrastructure development formed the workshop’s second main theme. In Romania’s case, ANDREI-DAN SORESCU (Bucharest) showed how Strousberg’s bankruptcy triggered anti-German rhetoric in the Romanian political public. This was linked to German imperialism under Bismarck, who had been involved in the renegotiation of the concession – to Romania’s disadvantage. At the same time, it also relied on older anxieties about being encircled and colonised by Germans.

As RAUL CÂRSTOCEA (Bucharest/Maynooth) pointed out, Strousberg was perceived not only as an agent of German imperialism, but also as a Jewish capitalist. Romanian antisemitism linked the railway developer with the Jewish question in Romania, where the large Jewish population still awaited emancipation. When the European Great Powers forced Romania to award its Jews citizenship rights in 1878, there was an alignment of antisemitic, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist opinion that had originated in the question of infrastructure development.

Such ideological implications of infrastructure can still be encountered in the 21st century, as LYUBOMIR POZHARLIEV (Leipzig) demonstrated. In Sofia today, trolleybuses, an established and functioning transport infrastructure, are increasingly being exchanged for electric buses. The former are perceived as a retrograde socialist technology, while the latter stand for an ecologically rebranded and progressive European Union.

These case studies highlighted the centrality of railways in the historiographical questions that had been raised initially. They were framed by two papers that placed them in a larger chronological picture. NENAD STEFANOV (Berlin) and FLORIAN RIEDLER (Leipzig) addressed the longue durée of infrastructure development in the Balkans by presenting their research on the road connection from Istanbul to Belgrade. Built by the Romans and maintained by Byzantines and Ottomans alike, this road can count as imperial infrastructure par excellence. With a high degree of temporal continuity (in the second half of the 19th century an important railway line was also built on this route), the road is an example of the various geographical scales on which infrastructure operates. It enabled transcontinental trade and at the same time formed micro-regions and cities such as Belgrade.

In his keynote lecture, DIMITRIS DALAKOGLOU (Amsterdam) brought the workshop to the present, sketching the role of infrastructure development in South-East Europe after the Second World War. After the destruction of the war, the construction of houses and public utilities aimed to reconstruct European societies in capitalist and socialist versions. Transport infrastructure maintained two different mobility regimes that were only dismantled in 1989. That year ushered in a second boom phase of infrastructure development, characterised by the creative destruction and rebuilding of the formerly socialist part of South-East Europe. When this phase came to an end with the financial crisis of 2008, new infrastructure could no longer be financed and even the maintenance of existing public works became difficult. Dalakoglou ended on the pessimistic note that with the collapse of the promise of development through infrastructure, Europe has become a mere identity project, and concomitantly, its main objective the policing of its external borders.

Although in Dalakoglou's account the road to happiness ends (at least for now) at the external borders of Europe, as a tool for historical analysis of infrastructure development this idea will be useful in future. The “road to happiness” is a vivid metaphor that bundles together various approaches and themes for a new history of infrastructure. The history of infrastructure development in South-East Europe in particular, including the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region, remains to be rewritten from such a perspective. Other than railways, numerous roads and other transport infrastructure as well as networks of urban utilities in their various imperial and national contexts await discovery.

Conference overview:


Dimitris Dalakoglou (Amsterdam): The Grand (De)Constructions: Roads, Mobility, and Infrastructures in South East Europe after World War II

Panel 1: Trafficways from Empire to Nation State

Malte Fuhrmann (Berlin): Developmentality in South-East Europe: Paths, Entanglements, and Ideospheres

Florian Riedler (Leipzig) and Nenad Stefanov (Berlin): From Balkan Routes to Mobility Region: Some Reflections on Historical Mobility between Istanbul and Belgrade

Boriana Antonova-Goleva (Sofia): Transforming the Ottoman Periphery: The Social Impact of the Rusçuk and Varna Railway

Panel 2: Colonial Anxieties, Corruption and Antisemitism in Nineteenth-Century Romania

Silvia Marton (Bucharest): ‘The German Gang’ and the ‘Crooks’: Morality of Politicians, Business Interests, and Political Connections

Constantin Ardeleanu (Bucharest): Collateral Damage: The Strousberg Scandal, Romania’s Anxieties and a National Port in Southern Bessarabia (1860s–1870s)

Andrei-Dan Sorescu (Bucharest): Teutophobia, Colonialism, Anti-Semitism: The Strousberg Scandal, its Prehistory and Echoes

Raul Cârstocea (Bucharest/Maynooth): The Strousberg Affair and the Fragility of Romanian Sovereignty: The ‘Jewish Question’ as National and Colonial Question

Panel 3: Railway Construction = Nation Building?

Danijel Kežić (Regensburg): The Belgrade–Sarajevo–Split Railway Project and the Failed Spatial Integration of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes

Özge Sezer (Cottbus): Bridging the State to the People: Railways in Eastern Turkey during the Early Republic

Panel 4: Whose Transport System is it Anyway? Decolonizing Infrastructures

Lyubomir Pozharliev (Leipzig): Eastern Trolleybuses versus Western E-Buses: Decolonial Insights from Sofia

Andrea Gritti (Paris): Who Built the First Railways in Macedonia? Histories of Italian and Ottoman Migrant Workers

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