Bach, Ulrich E. Tropics of Vienna: Colonial Utopias of the Habsburg Empire. New York: Berghahn, 2016. viii + 143 pages. Hardcover, $80.00.
Within the vast academic discussion of European imperialism, it is perhaps not surprising that the Austro-Hungarian Empire has received scant attention. Its representatives took part in the famed Berlin Conference of 1885 that inaugurated the so-called European 'Scramble for Africa' in the late nineteenth century, but the Habsburg Dual Monarchy engaged in no formal colonial ventures of its own. By and large, it preferred to exercise its waning great power status within Central and Southern Europe while seeking to cultivate a unique multi-ethnic identity amidst a rising tide of nationalism and anti-Semitism. Yet, as the title of Germanic studies scholar Ulrich E. Bach's book, Tropics of Vienna: Colonial Utopias of the Habsburg Empire, suggests, colonialism was in fact an important part of the cultural imagination within the Habsburg lands.
Through a series of vignettes, Bach convincingly shows how a number of well-known contemporary writers turned the European colonialist discourse inward to the geographies and peoples of Central Europe. Specifically, they "conjure up an idealized image of Vienna projected onto vacant colonial space" (p. 5). In so doing, Bach makes a point to reject the earlier conclusions of the Germanist Russell Berman, who had argued in the 1990s that participation in the colonial culture of Europe hinged on actual experience. Of course, a number of scholars working on Germany have long since moved beyond Berman's more limited view, which means that Bach's departure puts him in line with recent scholarship focusing on the ways in which Germans shared a pervasive but largely imaginary colonial vision. Ultimately, it is Bach's focus on the utopian qualities of Habsburg colonial literature that sets his study apart from the rest. Whereas much of the German scholarship focuses on the connections between colonial possessions and German national aspirations, Bach's Austrians create colonial fantasies--even a few set in faraway lands--not to advocate for a colonial policy but to confront pressing problems closer to home. "These utopias," he explains, "employ a notion of space as a literary device to compensate for the critical situation in Vienna by projecting blueprints for utopian societies elsewhere" (p. 128).
At first glance, Bach's slim volume appears to be little more than a superficial...