Post-imperial biographies and trajectories in a confined space 1918-1940

Date: 31 August 2017, 02:30–05:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 328



Recent trends in the historiography of empires emphasise the importance of biographies in order to understand the mechanisms of control, negotiation, resource allocation and the relationship of centre and periphery. New Imperial History also treats the end of empires and the continuities as significant for their interpretation. (Hirschhausen 2015) The end of WWI and the ensuing revolutions brought about a significant rupture in the regions belonging to Austria-Hungary, but they also offer an excellent vantage point as the collapse of the imperial structures and the subsequent nationalizing efforts of the new nation states could reveal the mechanisms and structures of local societies hitherto often hidden by the facade of imperial unity. While the disappearance of the institutions of the state bestowed agency upon local actors without the restrictions imposed upon them by central control, the establishment of the new rule could reposition those who had an experience in dealing with the centre.

In this panel we aim to highlight different types of post-imperial biographies of persons who were part of a regional elite in an Empire and retained their importance in the successor states. A politician-middleman and agile city modernizer, György Bernády, who learned how to navigate between a distant center and a hostile local elite with lending their attention to modernization efforts. An intellectual and public servant, whose life took an unexpected (post-)imperial turn, and made efforts after 1919 to reconfigure cultural life of the Hungarian minority in Czechoslovakia and connect separate cultural spaces both sides of the border, attempting to make it more fluid. Finally, an aristocrat turned entrepreneur, brother-in-law of Hungarian Prime Minister István Bethlen, Count Ármin Mikes, whose flourishing forestry business across the Balkans during WWI offered a solid basis for being co-opted into Greater Romania’s national liberal elite what enabled him to safeguard his interests vis-á-vis nationalizing efforts. Later he became an interlocutor between Romanian and Hungarian politics too.

Their imperial experience helped them enormously to prevail among the new circumstances of a hurriedly nationalizing but helplessly fragmented new nation states, while in this effort they continued to connect post-imperial vertical and hierarchical spaces. They also reveal the entanglement of social groups and societal cultures through ethnic boundaries, often a legacy of the imperial order and times. Not the least their activity helped to reconfigure the relation of post-imperial spaces and states upholding remnants of an imperial order and transcending the confinement of the new boundaries of nation states. Thus, they not only illustrate a global phenomenon but they actively contributed to situating the successor states in the new global order.

Ulrike von Hirschhausen (2015), New Imperial History? Program, Potenzial, Perspektiven. Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 41. 718–757.


Gábor Egry (Institute of Political History Budapest)

Chair / Commentator

Attila Melegh (Corvinus University Budapest / Demographic Research Institute Budapest)


Gábor Egry (Institute of Political History Budapest)

János Fodor (Babes-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca)

Veronika Szeghy-Gayer (Hungarian Academy of Sciences)

Zaur Gasimov (Orient Institut Istanbul / Max Weber Foundation Bonn)



Gábor Egry: An imperial entrepreneur from the remote wilderness

Count Ármin Mikes, a landowner and forestry entrepreneur in the peripheral Szekler region consciously used his family and political connections for his material advantage. During WWI he managed to gain huge concessions for the exploitation of forests in Montenegro, under Austro-Hungarian occupation, while after 1919 he established confidential relations with the political elite of the Old Kingdom that helped him to avoid expropriation and continue his business on favourable terms. In the thirties Mikes served as an interlocutor between his brother-in-law and Romania politicians in an attempt to settle the Transylvanian question before Germany can exploit the conflict. Seemingly being only a countryside aristocrat, who spent most of his life in a small village of a backward region, Mikes represents the imperial figure who moved swiftly in government and business circles and used his social capital ruthlessly. He, nevertheless, embodies a figure who was little affected by the dismemberment of the empire and adapted easily to the new spatial configurations in his business activity.

János Fodor: The missing link? György Bernády as middleman between centre, periphery, elite and society

György Bernády, liberal politician, first as Member of Parliament, then mayor of Targu Mures and lord lieutenant of the city proved his ability to cooperate with local elite utterly hostile to the government he represented. During his tenure he devoted his energy to city modernization. After 1919 he returned from Budapest to Romania where he served as a leading figure of the Hungarian minority party. However, he was rather the representative of Budapest and also a middleman between the Bucharest elite and Hungarian capitalists. He held business connections with Ármin Mikes, the national liberal political elite and advocated political cooperation with the latter. He was supposed to ascend to the chairmanship of the Hungarian party with the blessing of Bucharest and Budapest, but finally he was rejected. Nevertheless, he continued to act as the middleman and he Romanian MP and city mayor in Targu Mures, this time with the help of the Bucharest liberals who were often treated with enmity similar to the one the Hungarian pre-WWI government enjoyed there. Besides his political connections, he represented the missing link in the minority party, which could connect the middle- and working class with the aristocratic and gentry leadership.

Veronika Szeghy-Gayer: Decentralizing the Hungarian cultural life in interwar Czechoslovakia: the biography of Ferenc Sziklay

Ferenc Sziklay, an intellectual and teacher, represents a specific model of post-imperial biographies. As public servant of a nationalizing state his pre-1918 life resembles a trajectory characteristic for natio-states, However, with the dismemberment of Hungary the adapted to the new circumstances and became a prominent organizer of minority cultural life in Czechoslovakia. While he remained faithful to his national goals among the realities of the successor states, and with the loss of his position as a public employee, he turned to a life more typical for imperial subjects acting over vast distances. While physical distance of separate Hungarian groups from Budapest and each other was not significant, the boundary regimes and their peripheral status in Czechoslovakia reconfigured relationship reminiscent of imperial centre-periphery ones. Sziklay tried to connect them with each other and Budapest, negotiate their position vis-á-vis Prague and contrary to the homogenizing typical for nation-building, he aimed to reconnect these groups ont he basis of a revived local-regional variety of Hungarainness, a curious adaptation to the new realities.

Zaur Gasimov: Between Persia, Ottomans and Soviets: Mehmed Emin Rasulzade’s life and work

Born in Russian Baku, Mehmed Emin Rasulzade (1884-1955) edited a socialist paper in Persia, then headed the Azerbaijani Republic between 1918 and 1920, and later on taught at the Oriental Studies Department in Petersburg. In 1922, he left the Soviet Russia for Turkey and started an anti-Communist activity in Istanbul by founding several papers with the financial support coming from Poland. In 1929, he moved to Poland and continued his activities from Warsaw till the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939, he moved to Romania and spent the war years in Bucharest residing in the Polish embassy. In my contribution, I will focus on Rasulzade’s considerations and thought about empires, the intercultural encounters and civilizational dialogue in the transboundary context.

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