Cody J. Inglis
“The War That Never Ended: Postwar Continuity and New Challenges in the Aftermath of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, 1918–1923,”
October 24–26, 2019, Kraków, Poland
Can we compare the historical trajectories of Ottoman and Habsburg successor states as they developed through the early interwar period? Or, perhaps at a broader level, can we compare the multiple interwar periods that marked the slow, uneven, and often violent “exits from war” in East-Central and Southeastern Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant, and the Caucasus? These twin questions stood at the heart of the conference that took place between October 24th and 26th, 2019, at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, entitled “The War That Never Ended: Postwar Continuity and New Challenges in the Aftermath of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, 1918–1923.”
Overall, the conference—organized by Tomasz Pudłocki (Jagiellonian University, Kraków), Kamil Ruszała (Jagiellonian University, Kraków), and Kumru Toktamis (Pratt Institute, New York City)—focused on topical areas that fit into contemporary research trends on the histories of imperial continuity and change between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and their respective successor states. In that sense, the conference sat well within a research agenda that has shifted from marginal to mainstream in the past decade. However, this conference marked the outlines of something not yet in the spotlight of contemporary historical research into the early years of the interwar period: a comparison between the modes of state collapse and reconstitution in post-Habsburg and -Ottoman imperial spaces.
The groundwork for such a potential comparison was worked out along three broad lines: scales of research; continuity, rupture, and legacy between empires and their successor states; and cross-border interactions. Beyond these themes, which serve as organizational heuristics to synthesize the papers given, there were two keynote lectures, given by Gábor Egry and Maciej Górny, which served as reflections on the state of the art and as broader arguments about future directions of research within the emerging academic subfield of post-imperial transitions.
While this report will focus mainly on a synthesis of the main lines of argumentation or methodological foci among the papers presented, it does not claim complete representation of the nuances of each paper. Thus, individual papers will not be discussed by name. For the conference program and other details of the conference, please refer to the conference website at
- Scales of Research
Among most of the papers presented in Kraków, there was an emphasis on differentiated spatial scales. Spatially, many papers could be organized along clear-cut spatial levels, e.g., the international, the state-national, the regional, or the local/urban. In other cases, however, there was a focus on particular events, institutions, people, or ideas that resonated at multiple levels of spatial analysis at once. This prompted a greater methodological question about the ways in which we can assess the challenges faced by new states created in the wake of the First World War and how the character of these challenges shift depending on the perspective from which and spatial level within which one situates their topic of research. Within states, it is clear that processes were differentiated between district or provincial seats versus state capitals (as was the case with violent postwar retributions), while in other cases developments could only be discerned if one took a cross-border or international perspective (as with biographies of persons who were extremely mobile in the postwar period). Certainly, this was an emphatic push to take one’s objects or subjects of research and see how the questions surrounding them can be answered (or asked!) differently at different scales of analysis. As a further step, one would be able to find different partners for comparison at different levels of spatial analysis. Certainly, at this point one can reflect on a wide body of literature on relational modes of historical research (e.g., comparison, transfer, entanglement, histoire croisée) and ask how research questions about post-imperial transitions and the scales at which these transitions occur can be enriched through the toolkits of these types of historical research.
- Continuity, Rupture, and Legacy between Empires and their Successor States
While questions about continuity and rupture are key—and perhaps foundational—to History as such, they likewise present extremely creative means to assess phenomena changed or produced by intense and even radical changes over the short term. In post-Habsburg and -Ottoman territories, these questions are rightly posed. When states collapse, there are two questions that become clear: How did it happen? and What did it produce? When we focus on these two questions, we can begin to compare different phenomena—e.g., retribution and violence, treaty negotiations, smuggling, revolution and revolt, changes in loyalty, resistance to new forms of state administration, discourses about transition itself, and so on—across the Habsburg and Ottoman cases. When we introduce different scales into the picture, then it becomes possible to assess these phenomena—when and where they appear—between similar agrarian or urban contexts, among the district or provincial levels of state administration, the practices of regional courts, etc., between these cases. Although there are plenty of variables that must be grappled with and differences in the cases to account for, the papers of the conference made clear that there are many fruitful results waiting to be shown through such a comparative research frame.
III. Cross-Border Interactions
When the successor states of collapsed empires have their new boundaries demarcated, it is not only the maps that change. Ways of everyday life are altered for those who previously only had to cross an internal administrative boundary (such as the crownland or district in the Habsburg case) to do their business, collect their roaming livestock, or see their relatives. However, when new, internationalized borders were imposed, the relative freedom of movement enjoyed before the First World War was circumscribed within the optics of nation-states. These new states sought to police their new borders—by doing so, realizing long-sought nationalist aspirations, as in the Polish, Czech(oslovak), and Romanian cases—as a matter of national defense and security. Where a customs union once existed, isolationist and protectionist policies soon followed. And, certainly, contestations over territories awarded led to a different kind of cross-border interaction altogether: malice and violence. International intervention appeared in many of these cases (both in the Habsburg and Ottoman successor territories) in different forms. While cross-border interactions are certainly part of the first two threads for future comparison described above, they are, in some respect, a unique space for analysis; they bring different phenomena to the fore that resonate through many different levels of analysis at once and trigger many different processes, reactions, and comments by people involved across the newly internationalized borders. Indeed, the demarcation of the borders themselves require not only international arbitration, but also local expertise from representative governments as well as a whole host of legal, economic, demographic, and historical justifications for why certain stretches of territory ought to be included on one side of the borderline. By comparing these cross-border interactions, noting their scale, and assessing the ways in which they took form—as well as referring to the host of related variables and factors that conditioned their appearance at all—we can begin to come to a more complete picture of how small acts of transgression or communication in the immediate postwar period can demonstrate much larger processes of imperial collapse and transition in both the Habsburg and Ottoman cases.