Über die Forschungsgruppe

The empires that once defined the political geography of Europe are no more. One cannot meet a Prussian, Romanov, Habsburg, or Ottoman today; these dusty categories of affiliation have ceded to myriad national communities. Nor do British, French, Dutch, Spanish, or Portuguese identities articulate the same horizons as they did at the height of their respective colonial empires. Yet it would be mistaken to assume that Europe’s bygone empires have become mere relics of history. Imperial pasts continue to inspire nostalgia, identification, pride, anxiety, skepticism, and disdain in the present. The afterlives of empires as objects of memory exceed historical knowledge, precisely because these afterlives shape and recast the present and the future.

Our research group, “Empires of Memory: The Cultural Politics of Historicity in Former Habsburg and Ottoman Cities,” is dedicated to the multiple legacies and memories of empire in the cities of southeast and central Europe. Eight cities orient our pursuit: Vienna, Istanbul, Budapest, Sarajevo, Thessaloniki, Trieste, Zagreb, and Belgrade. These cities are loosely grouped together in pairs meant to suggest a variety of comparisons and contrasts. 

Vienna and Istanbul were the capitals and principal political, economic, and cultural centers of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. Post-imperial nostalgia suffuses both Vienna and Istanbul, albeit in different forms and according to divergent political logics.

Budapest and Sarajevo were ruled by both the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, although they occupied much different positions within the geographies of the respective empires. Overlapping imperial pasts continue to animate public life and political debate in both cities. 

Trieste and Thessaloniki were crucial port cities for much of Habsburg and Ottoman history, respectively, but are currently located within national contexts that broadly eschew these histories. Yet in these cities, too, reappraisal of the imperial past has opened new political and cultural horizons that exceed and destabilize the hermetic presuppositions of nation-states. 

Finally, Zagreb and Belgrade—former Habsburg and Ottoman provincial seats, respectively—offer parallel lessons in how both imperial and socialist pasts are stylized, accentuated, and erased in contemporary cultures of urban memory.

A threefold conceptual distinction serves as a scaffolding for our various research questions. Together, our research group will focus on the processes, projects, and discourses that structure and sanction post-imperial memory and amnesia. First, how are aspects of the cities’ imperial past subject to processes of erasure and perseverance? In what forms, genres and media—narrative, visual, architectural, scholarly, etc.—are memories of Habsburg and Ottoman pasts articulated and elaborated? Secondly, how do specific projects of renovation and urban transformation voice or silence post-imperial features of the city? How do imperial memories, both positive and negative, inform such projects of heritage preservation? Thirdly, how do memories of imperial belonging and community feed into contemporary discourses on identity and belonging, ranging from multiculturalism to exclusivist jingoism? How do discourses on imperial urban pasts link up with broader, national and EU-wide debates and concerns? These three sets of questions entail the three interrelated levels of research and analysis that will guide our collective efforts.

As befits a project focused on the relationship among history, memory, and political and cultural life in the present, “Empires of Memory” is resolutely interdisciplinary. The members of the research group come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, including Anthropology, Cultural Sociology, History, and Political Science, and the project clearly embodies the guiding concerns of the multidisciplinary fields of Urban Studies and Memory Studies as well. Ethnographic and archival methods will form the bedrock of our research; we will supplement these core methods with a variety of other qualitative techniques.

The individual research projects carried out by each group member will both complement and supplement the overarching themes, concerns, and arguments of Empires of Memory. Jeremy F. Walton will pursue the textures and fractures of imperial pasts at specific sites of memory in each of the eight cities. Giulia Carabelli will focus on coffee culture  to discuss the ways in which coffeehouses have become sites for local and global contestations over how to preserve the past (often nostalgically) while also anticipating future integration into the global tourist market Miloš Jovanović  will explore how imperial narratives have historically structured projects of spatial transformation, producing and obscuring inequality in Danubian cities. Piro Rexhepi  will interrogate the contemporary politics of preservation in Sarajevo and Salonika by focusing on how post-imperial sites and memories have fueled new projects of urban renewal, gentrification, and Europeanization, which, in turn, have had drastic effects on the lives of migrant and marginalized urban communities Annika Kirbis will examine the relation between narratives on Habsburg memories and the migration of 'guest workers' as articulated in Vienna's urban heritage and Austrian literature.  While each of these projects stake out their own conceptual and thematic ground, they also enliven and contribute the research agenda of Empires of Memory in general.  

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