Drawing the Line: Border Commissions in Eastern Europe, 1699–1921

Drawing the Line: Border Commissions in Eastern Europe, 1699–1921

Luminita Gatejel, Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg; Stephan Rindlisbacher, Center for Interdisciplinary Polish Studies, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder)
From - Until
26.11.2021 - 26.11.2021
Stephan Rindlisbacher, Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)

Drawing borders is as difficult, as each individual case is exceptional. In our workshop, we explore the emergence of the borders that separated Eastern European empires and states over the centuries and shaped the daily life of those living in these regions. We invite papers from graduate students and established scholars from different disciplines.

Drawing the Line: Border Commissions in Eastern Europe, 1699–1921

Drawing borders is as difficult, as each individual case is exceptional. For nation-states in particular, establishing internationally recognized borders is a core attribute of statehood. The ongoing conflict over Kosovo and its border with Serbia is one of the most striking contemporary examples. In the aftermath of the First World War, the fall of empires and rise of nation-states in Eastern Europe posed a unique set of challenges, involving almost every country in the region and ultimately sowing the seeds of future conflict. However, not only nation-states have had clearly defined boundaries. Multi-national empires also gradually established visibly marked borders. The rise of scientific method facilitated a shift in the meaning of sovereignty from a jurisdictional to a territorial concept.

Despite the fact that borders often followed “natural” geographic features, such as mountain ridges or rivers, they still relied on negotiated agreements between central authorities, provincial representatives, and the local population. While monarchs, ministers, and ambassadors hashed out agreements in grand state rooms, area specialists, surveyors, and military officers met in bilateral commissions on the frontiers in question to work through the details of the new borders. Thus, experts, that is to say, trained professionals or practitioners from the parties involved, had to come together and settle contentious issues.

The aim of our workshop seeks to focus on such commissions: Who were the members of these commissions? How did they perceive their work? And how did they gain their expertise? Did such experts constitute an epistemic community bound by professional standards, similar values, and a common way of thinking? Did they share similar mental maps, as they discussed and delineated new borders? And more importantly, were they, by means of their expertise, able to influence, even reshape, the outcomes of diplomatic agreements?

This workshop seeks to explore the emergence of the borders that separated European empires and states over the centuries and shaped the daily life of those living in border regions. Sometimes, this process lasted centuries and passed through various stages from “allocation” to “delimitation” and “demarcation”. However, it was seldom a linear process, as borders shifted in the wake of natural disaster or military-political upheaval. Spatially, our workshop centres on the border-making process between the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, whose borders in particular expanded and contracted over the centuries. Our timeframe embraces the period from the Peace of Karlowitz in 1699, when the sultan sent the first-ever representative to a bilateral Ottoman-Habsburg border commission, and ends with the First World War and the Versailles Peace Conference, when these three empires came to an end, and European and American statesmen tried to establish a new post-war order by means of several international peace treaties.

We regard official treaties not as the end but the starting point of an intricate and multi-layered negotiation process that converts the terms of the treaties into visible markers on the ground. Thus, we adopt an explicit grassroots perspective and follow commission members as they walk the border region staking out state boundaries, eliminating enclaves, deciding access to roads, rivers, and railways, as well as natural resources, and creating the basis for tax jurisdictions. In numerous cases, such border commissions established borders that disregarded international agreements and significantly altered their content.

We are looking for submissions on the following dimensions of political border-making:

a) Shifting identities of border commissioners: Who were the members of this apparently all-male community who actively drew the borders? Over the centuries, they evolved from generalists or universal scholars to specialists in narrower fields such as geography, astronomy, cartography, and hydrology. While the members of the first commissions derived legitimacy from monarchs and were beholden to their sovereigns, later appointees belonged to impersonal state bureaucracies and enjoyed greater freedom of inquiry and action. Formal education and the professionalisation of their craft brought greater recognition, even prestige. How did these changes affect the methodology and practice of making borders?

b) Knowledge and the scientific enterprise of border-making: How did these experts create, organise, and disseminate knowledge that contributed to the development of border-making as a professional specialization? Perceiving themselves chiefly as scholars, border experts produced maps, surveys, and statistical data based on first-hand observations. Did they relate to each other as rivals or as peers? Were imperial rivalry and the transfer of knowledge and expertise mutually exclusive? Could we consider border commissions as information hubs for circulating knowledge on a global scale?

c) Negotiating border demarcation: Another relevant question pertains to the interactions of commission members with statesmen and the local population. Were they able to convert their expertise in political influence? Did engagement with locals alter outcomes? Commission members had to balance competing prerogatives, such as geopolitical considerations and defence needs, on the one hand, and local economies and property rights, on the other. One factor complicating decision making was that border commissions were often established shortly after an armed conflict amid considerable destruction and distrust. When did commissions fail and when did they succeed?

We invite graduate students and established scholars to submit an abstract of 300 words and a short CV by 15 June 2021 to Luminita Gatejel (gatejel@ios-regensburg.de). Notices of acceptance will be sent out by end of June 2021. Participants will be expected to circulate their presentation before the conference. Selected papers will be considered for publication as part of a special issue of a historical journal (further details to follow).

Since we do not expect a return to normal international travel by this fall, the workshop will take place on-line on 26 November 2021.

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