Austria-Hungary’s Civilizing Mission in Bosnia: Health as Politics By Other Means

Note: This is the second essay of three that I have written about Western orientalist discourse on Bosnia. This relatively short essay will discuss Austro-Hungarian biopolitics during its occupation of Bosnia, and how even spheres of knowledge deemed “apolitical” (i.e. the physical sciences, esp. medicine) can affirm orientalist narratives. 


A group of peasants in Bosnia, Austria-Hungary. Taken sometime between 1890-1900.

In 1878, Austria-Hungary invaded the formerly Ottoman-controlled region of Bosnia with the intention of making it a “model colony” because of its strategic importance in southeastern Europe. The Austro-Hungarian state believed that this peasant society, among others in southeast Europe, would bring a “traditional habit of imperial loyalty” and would make “Vienna the arbitrator” of all their disputes [1]. It was also at this time that the scientific fields of anthropology, biology, and the like were proposing natural categories for people. Science had begun to accrue serious power. For the advocates of eugenics in Vienna, this was an opportunity to transform the oriental Bosniak into a hygienic, proper European after being stunted from development under centuries of Ottoman rule. Thus, Bosnia became a playground for a new kind of biopolitics, where Austria-Hungary could exert social and political power over what it defined as “health” and “life.” The goal, therefore, “was not the individual well-being of Bosnians, but rather the ability of this population to serve the Austro-Hungarian interests in the area” [2]. The “cleansing” of Bosnia from the decrepit conditions that caused its people poor health was to be seen synonymous with repairing the Bosnian mind, which had been inculcated with supposed backwardness ever since it had been Ottoman. Part of the Austro-Hungarian civilizing mission was the establishment of public and hygienic policies within Bosnia. In the Foucauldian tradition, this is a case example of Western biopolitics. The native Bosniak population was described by the Austrians as “spineless” and “weak” because of their capitulation to Islamization under Ottoman rule [3]. Therefore, a new narrative needed to be constructed that would not defer its legacy to Turkish rule [4]. Re-engineering the Bosniak body was a major component of this Austro-Hungarian narrative in-the-making.

Throughout the 1880s, political writing in Austria-Hungary centered mostly on the question of Bosnia, specifically the Muslims living there. It was written that Bosnia was a region seemingly “without culture” and that its “’Asian’ population [were to be] viewed simply as raw ‘material’ from which the Austro-Hungarian authorities had to manufacture ‘Europeans’” [5]. Although some commentators doubted the ability of these “Turks” to modernize, the state’s official policy was one of open arms – that Muslims were willing to accept progress, i.e. Austro-Hungarian rule. In fact, there was great hope that the Bosniaks would adopt the European lifestyle. It would also allow the European imagination to have a taste of restructuring an identity from scratch, from the top down. It was exercise in how valid eugenics truly was and if it were even possible to construct a “European” through social engineering.

In order to have successful biopolitics, the state must properly ground the group in question in a certain biological context; it, firstly, becomes necessary to naturalize their identity. As Brigitte Fuchs writes in Orientalizing Disease: Austro-Hungarian Policies of ‘Race,’ Gender, and Hygiene in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1874 – 1914, it was first crucial to establish a Southern Slavic identity which was multi-confessional and allowed room for all these different religions under one ethnic signifier [6]. This was crucial given that roughly half of the population in the monarchy was Slavic [7]. Soon, archaeological and historical work was being done towards this end.  In Vienna, an Ethnographic Commission was established in 1884 which recorded “Bosnian ‘monuments of the Slav language’” such that included local wears, costumes, and farms [8]. It was crucial to situate Bosnia in Western life, as opposed to the Orient, as Brigitte Fuchs writes:

An archaeological commission presided over by Moritz Hoernes (1852 – 1917)…documented the country’s prehistoric and Roman sites. Roman sites served to place Bosnian and Herzegovinian prehistory and its human remnants in a Western tradition and were elaborated into a myth of the contemporary Bosnians’ common origin with the population of the Austrian crown [9].

Hoernes would go on to describe Bosnians, Albanians, Herzegovinians, and Serbs as all belonging to the “Dinaric race” which were said to constitute the main body of the peoples in the Austrian Alps [10]. This effectively connected the narrative of these peoples to their occupier, the Austro-Hungarians.

With the narrative tied to a common origin, diagnoses could now be made without supposed hesitation. Austria-Hungary attempted to establish a public health system throughout the entire region, although by the early 20th century Bosnia was still disproportionately affected by diseases such as typhus fever and cholera [11]. By the time of the initial occupation, however, Bosnia was said by Austro-Hungarian health officials to be “degenerating” with “neurasthenia,” “hysteria,” and many “nervous diseases” [12]. Likewise, Bosnia was also said to lack proper drinkable water, manageable climate, and fresh food; was largely impassible because of its uneven terrain; and relatively unlivable because of its rampant diseases which included typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, and syphilis [13] .Since the implantation of a sanitary policy was the standard of a proper civilization – “cleanliness is next to godliness,” as the idiom goes – Bosnia needed to be cut off from the rest of the empire until it was hygienic. The Habsburg Military Frontier functioned as this sanitary border, “to stop the spread of contagious diseases from Ottoman lands” – thus, this wall served as a boundary between the civilized and the barbarian, and the West and the East [14]. However, this was eventually completely deregulated as of 1882, which fit nicely into the meta-narrative of the Austro-Hungarians. Now the matrix of associations was one of Islam, Ottoman rule, and rampant disease which, if we follow this twisted colonial logic, the occupiers were here to correct.


The Military Frontier was established in 1553 by Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I to separate themselves from Ottoman lands, seen as filthy and diseased. It functioned as a militarized sanitary cordon. Having existed for hundreds of years, the frontier was dismantled by 1882 since by then Bosnia was under Austrian control and its supposed “backwardness” could now be corrected.


The Military Frontier was mainly divided into two administrative units (and then further into regiments) — the regions of Slavonia and Croatia were responsible for policing these borders. The patrolling units were strategically Croatian and Serbian. Land was given for service.

Orientalist discourse can manifest itself in the spheres of power assumed to be apolitical. Biopolitics proved to be a vehicle with which Austria-Hungary was able to impose its hegemony while claiming objectivity. It aimed for Bosnia to be its model colony and also therefore needed to be elevated to proper hygienic standards, but these same standards were entrenched in power politics. Seldom, if ever, does an occupying power care about humanitarian assistance without pushing a certain narrative, or a certain kind of politics – in the case of Bosnia, Austria-Hungary was playing the part of the “savior,” as an attempt to save Bosnia’s from its own wretched history. The cleansing of Bosnia of its disease and lewdness was symbolic of an attempted cleansing of the narrative; Austria-Hungary hoped to wash away the “Turk” and discover the “European” that lay underneath it, but all it found was difficulty, and ultimately, resistance that it could not reconcile.


[1] Snyder, Timothy. The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Hapsburg Archduke (Basic Books, 2010), pp. 24.
[2] Bashford, Alison. Levine, Phillipa. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 400.
[3] Fuchs, Brigitte. Health, Hygiene, and Eugenics in Southeastern Europe to 1945 (Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 58.
[4] Ibid., pp. 60.
[5] Ibid., pp. 61.
[6] Ibid., pp. 60.
[7] The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Hapsburg Archduke (Basic Books, 2010), pp. 23.
[8] Health, Hygiene, and Eugenics in Southeastern Europe to 1945 (Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 62.
[9] Given what was discussed earlier in regards to the Italian humanists re-discovering Rome, this fits that narrative.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., pp. 33.
[12] Public Health Service. Report of the Federal Security Agency (U.S. Government Printing, 1916), pp. 328.
[13] Health, Hygiene, and Eugenics in Southeastern Europe to 1945 (Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 64.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., 66.

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