Biography of Habsburg Universities, 1848-1918

A review of Habsburg Universities 1848-1918. Biography of a Space, by Jan Surman.

Jan Surman’s dissertation powerfully conveys the fascination of the Habsburg world for the field of Science Studies today. His topic, as he neatly describes it, is “the development of science in the space between the projects of empire and of nations” (p. 17). Focusing on the Austrian half of the Monarchy between the revolutionary year of 1848 and its dissolution following the First World War, Surman shows how science and scientists responded to the dual forces of nationalism and internationalism. Here, “science” is to be understood in the sense of Wissenschaft, encompassing both the natural and human sciences. Surman brilliantly elucidates the dilemmas facing scholars whose loyalty was demanded both by the empire and by one or more national groups. By assembling a vast array of data from the archives of universities and scientific academies, Surman is able to analyze the impact of nationalization on typical career patterns and research agendas. At the same time, Surman makes a major contribution to Habsburg history by showing us the Monarchy through the eyes of scholars, as a space of intellectual and political practice.

Indeed, Surman has written a “spatial history of science.” He is influenced, in this respect, by theories of the social production of space, as he lays out in his first chapter. He draws in particular on the ideas of the Russian literary theorist Yuri Lotman, according to whom the diversity of an imperial periphery permits intellectual creativity that could not occur in the more homogeneous context of the empire’s center. As Surman notes, Lotman’s model of imperial knowledge production has affinities with that of Kapil Raj, who stresses the productive role of encounters between divergent knowledge systems on the imperial periphery. As Surman cautions, neither model can be applied in any simple way to the Habsburg lands. Indeed, as Pieter Judson and others have recently argued, the Monarchy was not even an empire by common standards. (The only obvious candidates for Habsburg “colonies” are Galicia, annexed in stages between 1772 and 1846, and, according to some, well integrated into the Monarchy thereafter; and Bosnia-Herzogovina, occupied by the Habsburg army in 1878 and annexed in 1908. Otherwise, the dynasty expanded its territory primarily by marrying well.) As others have noted, post-colonial theory does not transfer in any obvious way to a territory such as this. Fortunately, Surman’s analytical framework is highly sensitive to the nuances of Habsburg politics. Indeed, he acknowledges the difficulty of assessing “intercultural” transfer in a context where political and ethnic identities were so fluid.

Surman’s second chapter charts the emergence of scholarship in national languages at the Habsburg universities before 1848. Chapter 3 then explains the significance of 1848 for the universities. In the aftermath of the revolutions, the imperial state reaffirmed the universities’ role in the training of loyal civil servants. At the same time, however, the revolutions intensified the universities’ role in the advancement of national cultures. Surman argues that 1848 was the moment when the choice of a language of scholarship was no longer a matter primarily of the efficiency of communication; instead, languages came to be valued more for their symbolic value. After 1848, Habsburg scholars were typically torn between two views of science: 1) science as universal knowledge — and thus to be conducted in a Weltsprache, and 2) science as a vehicle for national self-consciousness and cultural progress — and thus to be conducted in the language of a “small nation.”

Chapter 4 analyzes Surman’s key data on the extent of mobility of scholars between Habsburg universities, or what Surman calls “the geography of scientific transfer” (p. 162). It is here that his spatial orientation really pays off. Before the liberalization of the Monarchy in 1867, the state aimed to forge unity by 1) bringing in loyal, Catholic scholars from abroad, and 2) circulating scholars between universities, in an effort to create geographic continuity across the empire. To illustrate the typical pattern of scholarly migration, Surman quotes Theodor Mommsen’s memorable quip: “sentenced to Chernivtsi, pardoned to Graz, promoted to Vienna” (p. 252). It was, as Surman explains, common wisdom that Habsburg universities were divided into “universities of entrance, promotion, and final station” (p. 41). Habsburg scholars who “became ‘German’” were held up as models and as representatives of the idealized cultural space of “Germany.”

This approach to unification failed after 1867, due to the increasingly strained relationship between the universities and the education ministry in Vienna. These tensions must be inferred from hints in the archival records. Surman has excavated the ministry’s archives relentlessly, and he knows just how to read the nuances of these documents. For instance, “direct exchange of information between the two ministries is hardly visible to the historian’s eyes, most often hidden behind ominous formulations such as ‘mit Einvernehmen’ (in agreement) and ‘im kurzen Wege’ (meaning brief, internal communication)” (p. 224). Nor are political motives explicit; rather, “financial reasons were the most often cited cause for not following of the order of the faculty’s proposal” (p. 224). However, the “accentuation of nationality”(p. 233)  can be seen in the rising use of words like “tradition, continuation, and student” (p. 233), and in the demand for knowledge of local languages or local natural environments. In short, the overriding goal became “scientific autarchy” for the cultural nation. Not surprisingly, the period 1867-1918 saw an overall decrease in the number of appointments of non-Habsburg scholars to Habsburg universities. Yet there was simultaneously an increase in appointments from outside the Monarchy at universities like the one in Cracow, where Polish-speakers from the Russian empire were brought in to contribute to the nation-building project. The result, Surman argues, was a new geography of knowledge transfer, one no longer bound by imperial borders, but instead by a common language. Yet linguistic ties alone did not determine scholarly mobility after 1867, and Surman also gives due attention to the influence of religious affiliations.

Chapter 5 moves on to considering the effect of this mobility on research trends. For example, Surman discusses several philologists who turned to studying Romanian or Ukrainian upon moving to regions where these languages predominated, and who then theorized anew the relationships between Habsburg languages. Surman also emphasizes the influence of the regional ideology of pan-Slavism, which created a space for interaction among the emerging national groups, even beyond the Monarchy’s borders — stretching to include, for instance, Polish-speakers in the Russian empire. In effect, Surman shows that Habsburg scholars themselves recognized the value of “intercultural mobility” to knowledge production. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, for instance, championed communication across cultural divides as a means of “humanistic development.” Here Surman also notes that the very “impurity” of the national movements — for instance, their selective incorporation of Jews — was to their intellectual benefit.

The dissertation is, in sum, a staggering feat of research and analysis and, at 566 pages, unprecedented in its scope and detail. Moreover, Surman has presented his analyzed data in appendices that provide a broad profile on the teaching corps at Habsburg universities, including statistics on the migration of professors between universities, average salaries at universities inside and outside the Monarchy, and the percentage of faculty offspring in academia. Thus, alongside his extensive and penetrating analysis, Surman also provides an excellent starting point for further studies.

Deborah R. Coen
Assistant Professor
Barnard College
Columbia University

Primary Sources

Archival collections used include: Archive of the Vienna University, Archive of Charles University, Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, Archive of Jagiellonian University, Archive of the University of Innsbruck, Archive of the University of Graz, Moravian Land Archive in Brno, National Archives in Prague, Collection of the Manuscripts of the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow, Austrian State Archives, State Regional Archives Litoměřice – Děčín Branch, Archive of L’viv Oblast, State Archives of Chernivtsi Oblast, Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine in L’viv.

Newspapers and periodicals from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century in German, French, Russian, Czech and Polish
Printed official texts and stenographic protocols
Lexika and reference books

Dissertation Information

University of Vienna. 2012. 566 pp. Primary Advisors: Mitchell G. Ash and Soňa Štrbáňová.


Image: With permission from the Vienna University Archives, Bilderslg. Sign. 106.I.3018.

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