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Elke-Nicole Kappus


To many ethnographers at the turn of the century a journey to Istria seemed like travelling into the living past. In one of the poorest and most 'backward' regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire they hoped to find - influenced by the evolutionist paradigm of the time - traces of 'earlier cultural stages' as well as of 'primitive' European peoples. The Habsburg ethnographers were enchanted that the richness of ethnographic 'nuances' which they discovered in the Istrian interior and which enabled them to study 'truly authentic folk culture' - and perhaps also to rescue it from destruction by modernity.

Influenced in their orientation toward the past and their nostalgic disavowal of 'modernity' by scientific premises and societal as well as political ideals, the group of ethnographers around Haberland developed a theory of nationhood which was quite different from the one proposed by the nationalist movements of the time: As convinced monarchists, they portrayed the 'backward' rural people of the Istrian interior as 'true' and 'authentic' folk as compared to the modern and 'artificial' nations which were mobilising in the Istrian towns. Describing as 'Istrian' the sum of the cultural varieties which had been detected and categorised, Istria quite often appears in the ethnographic writings of that time as a mirror of the Empire itself in which the ethnographic colourfulness was seen as the very strength and legitimisation of the multi-national state.

The text argues that the Empire's ethnographers have contributed greatly to the image of Istria as an 'authentically' multi-cultural territory. Yet in formulating territorial, socio-professional or other differences of the Istrian 'peoples' in national terms, they have equally contributed to the construction of national categories, which - imbedded in the bipolar opposition between 'backwardness' and 'progress', 'traditional' vs. 'modern', rural vs. urban etc. -leaving them to re-interpretation and instrumentalisation by the national ideologies which survived the multi-cultural ideal of the Empire.


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