Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Imperial Borderlands: Institutions and Legacies of the Habsburg Military Frontier

Bogdan G. Popescu

Migration of the Serbs, by Serbian painter Paja Jovanović

Security concerns often necessitate the establishment of specialized institutions in border regions that diverge from the norm in civilian territories. Scholars discuss how those residing in these frontier zones frequently endure unique challenges, a consequence of the state’s dual pursuit of safeguarding the periphery and subjugating its inhabitants in the name of national security (Longo, 2017).

Simultaneously, existing literature portrays borders as havens for fugitives and those seeking sanctuary from state authorities (Scott, 2010). These areas may also experience shared administration by neighboring nations, blurring the lines of sovereignty (Lee, 2020). Furthermore, borders can challenge established notions of nationality and ethnicity (Sahlins, 1991).

Nevertheless, few studies examine the distinct institutions within these border areas and their enduring repercussions. “Imperial Borderlands” by Bogdan Popescu addresses this gap in the scholarly landscape by delving into the institutions that evolved in border regions and their long-lasting impacts. The book focuses on the buffer zone between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. These two historical powers governed parts of Central and Eastern Europe.

The author concentrates on a substantial portion of the Habsburg buffer zone, which aligns with the contemporary territory of Croatia, often referred to by historians as the Habsburg military colony. Established in 1553, this buffer region played a pivotal role as a defensive measure employed by the Habsburg Empire to guard against the Ottoman threat, a role it fulfilled until its discontinuation in 1881. Figure 1 illustrates the boundary of the buffer area in red within the broader expanse of the Habsburg Empire, depicted in pink.

Ottoman and Habsburg States in 1797

Characteristics of the Habsburg Military Frontier

This region’s Habsburg military buffer zone exhibited several distinct features that reshaped the local society. It was established in 1551, leading to a comprehensive transformation. Large landowners were displaced, communal property arrangements (known as “zadruga” in Serbo-Croatian or “hauscommunität” in German) were formalized, and imperial governors from Vienna were appointed. These measures were implemented to assert control and reconfigure the region’s social structure, which was designated as a “military colony,” envisioned as an area with a constant supply of self-sufficient soldiers.

Additionally, intentional limitations were imposed on infrastructural investments in the region, aiming to preserve the existing social organization within the colony. The labor market within the Habsburg military colony was marked by inflexibility, effectively compelling locals to engage in specific roles mandated by the empire, such as border patrol and defense against Ottoman attacks.

To assess the short and long-term repercussions of military colonialism, the study capitalizes on the disjointed nature of the border between the Habsburg civilian territory and the Habsburg military colony. The findings, derived from a variety of historical censuses digitized from the eras of the Habsburg Empire, Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Croatia, and modern-day Croatia, indicate that the former military zone had reduced access to public goods, including roads, railways, and healthcare.

Furthermore, the communal property arrangements persisted beyond the formal dissolution of the military colony. Analyses using the 1895 census, conducted 14 years after the official abolition of the border, reveal that communal properties were notably more prevalent in the former buffer area. This suggests that people lived in extended family clans, consisting of 12 to 60 individuals residing together, without individual property rights, until approximately 1920 (Erlich, 1966).

Historical ethnographic accounts affirm the pivotal role communal properties play in ensuring soldiers’ subsistence. Even as the military colony lost its relevance, family clans remained significant. For instance, a former Zadruga member interviewed in the 1940s expressed nostalgia for the services members were no longer benefiting from, stating that wives had to manage everything independently, from caring for children to tending to livestock and household chores. Such services elucidate why zadrugas did not vanish immediately following the dissolution of the military colony, persisting until around 1918.

Legacies on Norms and Attitudes

In the short term, findings from historical anthropologists affirm the endurance of “collectivist attitudes” due to the prolonged existence of zadrugas in the former military colony. Only during the interwar period did “individualistic trends” begin to surface. Contemporary individual-level surveys conducted between 2010 and 2016 reveal intriguing patterns as well. Individuals residing in the former military area tend to exhibit lower trust in others but higher trust in their family members than those in civilian areas. Moreover, regarding their attitudes toward the state, residents of the former military colony expressed diminished trust in the presidency while also perceiving a greater need for bribing road police and seeking unemployment benefits.

External Validity

The insights from this book apply to other cases. To illustrate how other states managed their peripheries, the book examines the contemporaneous case of the Russian colonies, which were created to defend the Russian empire against attacks by Poland-Lithuania and the Ottoman Empires (Khodarkovsky 2002). The oldest colonies are the Cossacks who lived in their self-governing lands (Pipes 1950; Romaniello 2012). They had well-defined rights and duties and were known for their loyalty to the tsar and their brutality in battle. They continued to be part of the Russian army until 1917. Additional colonies with an administration similar to the Habsburgs were created in the nineteenth century under Alexander I. The Habsburgs and the Russians constituted a model that the French Empire tried to emulate in their African territories in the early nineteenth century (Rothenberg 1966). Like the European colonies, the French also forced military colonists to live in designated areas, recruited additional indigenous forces, and created specific laws defining their obligations, their property, and the types of activities they could be involved in.


States employ various strategies to address their security concerns. Yet, there is a significant gap in research regarding understanding the lasting effects of policies enacted by central authorities in peripheral regions. This project has concentrated on examining the specific approach taken by the Habsburg Empire in response to the security threat posed by the Ottoman Empire.

To fortify the border against Ottoman incursions, the Habsburg Empire introduced a unique category of imperial subjects known as colonists. These individuals were granted land in exchange for their commitment to defend the border. Being a colonist came with distinct characteristics, including limited access to public infrastructure, living under communal property rights, and adhering to a regulated labor market. Exposure to such policies resulted in detrimental immediate and long-term outcomes.

The Habsburg military colony was not an isolated case within the Habsburg Empire. This model was an example for other contemporary empires, such as the Russian Tsardom and French Algeria. Be sure to explore the Popescu’s Imperial Borderlands that delves into the detailed discussions and interactions in Paris and St. Petersburg, showcasing how the Habsburg military colonial model was adopted in various other regions.

Imperial Borderlands by
Bogdan G. Popescu

About The Author

Bogdan G. Popescu

Bogdan G. Popescu is an Assistant Professor at John Cabot University, Rome. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago, held postdoctoral positions a...

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