Migrant Knowledge

Where Is the Migration Innovation? The Habsburg State vs. Facilitators of Migration

On April 24, 1896, the head of the government office of the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia-Dalmatia dispatched a letter to the Hungarian minister at the Imperial and Royal Hoflager in Vienna.1 Referring to earlier correspondence, the letter briefed the minister about the recent district court verdict against Samuel J. Klein, the kosher butcher of the Jewish community in the small Croatian town of Krapina, who on March 31, had been sentenced to three days in jail and expulsion from the municipality.

Why did such a trivial court case draw attention from the highest echelons of power in Croatia and Hungary? Samuel J. Klein began to attract the attention of the authorities in January 1896, when they received notice of a petition by him to the Consul General of the Republic of Uruguay in Vienna. In it, Klein had asked for a concession to establish a colony in Uruguay to resettle 500 people. This set alarm bells ringing with the Habsburg authorities as they considered settlement to Latin America a very sensitive issue at that time. In the ensuing investigation by the local authorities, who interviewed Klein, it turned out that he had already requested permission in the past from the governments of Spain and Paraguay to settle Russian and Romanian Jews in South America. Klein had allegedly been born in Romania, but he travelled with an American passport issued by the U.S. embassy in Paris in 1893.

Klein maintained that he had moved to this small provincial town in Croatia because of a nearby spa, where he hoped to cure his ailing stomach. The authorities, however, suspected he was in contact with Lazar Schwarz, the notorious “head of a consortium” that traded young girls to America and “sold them there.” Klein’s extraordinary language proficiency—German, French, English, Spanish, Romanian, and Hebrew—made him the ideal person for such a transnational endeavor. He was the perfect middleman, having contacts in America, where he had lived for a couple of years. Klein denied any association with the trafficker. He gave humanitarian reasons to justify his plan to organize the resettlement of Jews from Romania and Russia. Representatives of the local Jewish community also vouched for Klein’s character.

The fact that Klein was sentenced to only a minor punishment for the violation of public order suggests that the authorities could not prove his involvement in a large-scale human trafficking enterprise. From the surviving record, we cannot tell whether Klein’s philanthropic motives were just a pretext for finding a niche in the booming business of emigration by catering to the small Jewish minority in Croatia. Most likely they were. What we can say, though, is that Klein showed innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. He produced narratives that made sense at a time when overseas migration had become a massive movement in the south-eastern and eastern provinces of the Dual Monarchy. He neatly linked the plight of Jews in Russia and Romania with the newly opening opportunities for colonization in Latin America. But Klein was not the only one who showed innovative zeal. The state appears to have been improving its capacity to track its citizens and control their movements, as well as to learn more about social relations in remote parts of the country.

Nowadays, migration is often seen as a force of innovation. In his sweeping survey, Patrick Manning views “migration as an engine for social change” that contributed substantially to “the dynamics of ideas.”2 Cross-community migration brings “new resources and new ideas into a receiving community” which “stimulates further innovation.”3 Manning emphasizes “the ubiquity of innovation and the benefits of systems of exchanging ideas.”4 The thought that migration and innovation are linked only recently gained traction in the public mind, at least among those not disposed against immigration. An Ngram search reveals a steep uptick in the use of the phrase “migration and innovation” since around 2000 (Figure 1).

screenshot of ngram discribed and referenced in the text
Figure 1  Ngram search of "migration and innovation" (screenshot by author).

But where exactly can we locate the innovation and how can we identify a causal relation with migration? Human societies have been innovating and human beings have been moving since time immemorial, but are these two things necessarily linked to each other? If so, which one comes first? One of the most influential philosophers of all, Immanuel Kant, was famous for his sedentary lifestyle in Königsberg. In the Global Innovation Index ranking, no clear correlation between levels of migration and the ranking of countries in the index is visible. Its 2019 report, for example, which focuses on health, does not mention “migration” once in its more than 400 pages.

Yet, I want to argue that there is at least one area where we can clearly see innovation because of migration: at and around international borders. This pertains to increasingly sophisticated techniques employed by states to monitor and control movement, and to control those places that render acts of physical mobility into migration in the first place. The “invention of the passport,” pace Torpey,5 can serve as an illustration of what is at stake. In a relationship of mutual causation, the innovation of state control capacities is inherently connected with practices from “below” aimed at bypassing, undermining, contesting, and overcoming them. The migrant and the “human trafficker” are to the border control agent what the egg is to the hen, and vice versa. Nicholas De Genova, in his analysis of migration policies in the Mediterranean, asserts that “state tactics of bordering have been abundantly shown to be convulsive reaction formations, responding always to the primacy of the sheer autonomy of migration.”6 But the reverse relationship is true as well. If state borders turn into real obstacles, those who want to move across them will develop new tactics to realize their mobility goals, which will provoke the state to come up with new responses. Michael Schubert, in an analysis of cross-border control policies by the German Confederation, claims that “the illegalization of migration and migrants ultimately became a driving force in the formation of states.”7 As Nicholas De Genova puts it, state borders are productive “as the effect of histories to reactivate tactics on the part of state powers in response to these human movements . . .”8

The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy is a good place to search for historical evidence of that. In the early twentieth century, it turned into the most important supplier of emigrants to the United States, sending more than 3.5 million people between 1876 and 1910. This rendered the Habsburg Monarchy an attractive market for the north European steamship companies that controlled the Atlantic passenger traffic and, by extension, for their agents. Austria-Hungary was a liberal emigration state, especially its Austrian “half.”9 Yet, while citizens could leave relatively easily (in Cisleithania, emigration was even a constitutional right), the state considered it its prerogative to regulate how. Prospective emigrants, for example, needed to have a valid emigration passport. The state also wanted to prevent the departure of certain population groups: young men who had not yet served in the army, persons who would be barred from entering the United States, underage people, and criminals with pending cases at home. In line with its nationalizing policies, the Hungarian government discouraged Magyars from leaving while tacitly encouraging members of the non-Magyar minorities to go. A special case was Brazil, which actively recruited immigrants from Austria and Hungary, many of whom fell into destitution and were repatriated at state expense. The state reacted by banning emigration to Brazil, which in turn triggered special surveillance practices.

The governments in Vienna, Budapest, and even Zagreb also felt pressure to at least seem to be acting because public opinion was growing increasingly wary of mass emigration. Critics of emigration deplored the loss of vital manpower for nation-building, feared for the emigrants’ morality in far-away America, expressed concern about the emigrants social plight, worried about young women being forced into “white slavery,” or invented other convenient reasons to push the government to restrict the emigration of farm hands on which Polish and Hungarian landlords depended.10 In a time of increasingly competitive politics, governments could not easily ignore public opinion. Moreover, the modernizing state as such did not want its image of sovereign power over territory and people to become tainted by those who ignored its prerogative to decide who was in or out. States began to go to great lengths to police their borders, the membrane between in and out, and they produced administrative and surveillance innovations for this purpose all the time.

In such a context, facilitators of migration easily became a convenient scapegoat. Like today, their image could hardly have been worse; they were described as criminals who preyed on naive migrants without caring at all about their safety. Such assertions still often miss the point, as Gabriela Sanchez highlights in her account of “coyotes” on the U.S.–Mexico border, where she found smuggling to be mostly “a community activity driven by solidarity.”11 But the trope of the heinous human trafficker has long provided governments and interest groups with a useful rhetorical device, as it denies migrants’ agency. In Austria-Hungary around the turn to the twentieth century, the ire of the press, lawmakers, and bureaucrats targeted those who helped citizens of the monarchy to leave. Emigration agents and their subcontractors were portrayed as enticing ignorant peasants to take the risky journey across the Atlantic in order to defraud them and, in the case of Brazil, to sell them into indentured servitude. Scapegoating migration agents was (and remains) a convenient strategy for governments who fail to resolve the underlying reasons for why people engage their services or want to leave. Moreover, persecuting migration facilitators is a relatively easy and cheap way for the state to maintain its image of having control of cross-border traffic.12

In Austria, facilitating emigration was already outlawed in 1852. A 1897 law legalized the activities of emigrant agents, if they had a government concession, but it also made violations of these rules a criminal offense. Emigration agencies were forbidden from actively recruiting emigrants and from selling tickets for steerage on foreign steamship companies. Similar provisions were in place in Hungary, with the first established in 1881. The Hungarian minister of trade issued several decrees, starting in 1885, that ordered postal officers not to deliver brochures advertising emigration and prepaid tickets. The Croatian government outlawed the emigration agents’ business in 1890. A 1901 decree regulating transportation firms licensed by the Croatian government prohibited the use of agents for selling tickets for overseas travel. The decree outlawed any action intended to “encourage the worker and peasant population to travel or to migrate to overseas countries.”13 To enforce these rules, the government increased its monitoring capacity and started to pay closer attention to its rural hinterland. Tara Zahra cites a Hungarian report from 1905–6 that the authorities were monitoring more than 1,500 persons suspected of encouraging emigration.14

Yet, these efforts had primarily one effect. They spurred innovation on the side of the agents and their main business partners, the large steamship lines. Agent networks were vast and included intermediaries who enjoyed the trust of the local population. Large agencies, such as F. Missler in Bremen, operated networks of hundreds or even thousands of (sub)agents. The major steamship companies were powerful enough to ignore government restrictions, not least because it was their local agents who got caught. In Austria, the largest such clandestine network was operated by the Austro-Americana Line, which was heavily subsidized by the government.15 Against the attempts of the Hungarian government to create an emigration monopoly for its port of Fiume, the North Atlantic Steamship Lines Association, a cartel of the leading German, English and, French transatlantic lines, launched a sophisticated and successful media campaign in the United States. In 1911, Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Count Khuen-Héderváry conceded that despite “the most energetic measures,” the business of agents had continued unabated. This was true even though the Hungarian authorities had punished 1,968 people for violations of the ban on encouraging emigration in the previous year.16 The Austrian government, with its relatively well-functioning bureaucracy, failed to stamp out illicit emigration businesses as well. In 1913, its minister of trade conceded to parliament that “the continuous circumvention and the planned violation of existing laws and other regulations have become an outright characteristic of the emigration business.”

Emigration agents found flexible solutions to new constraints, for example by rerouting emigrant traffic. An example from Austria highlights this tactic. Most overseas emigrants from Austria and Hungary left through Hamburg or Bremerhaven, so they had to pass through Germany. When Prussian police began to inspect emigrants coming from Austria (and Russia) more thoroughly in 190817 it was only a matter of months before a new route through Switzerland appeared. The sleepy Swiss border town of Buchs suddenly became a major transit point for emigrants from East-Central and Southeastern Europe. This was due to the fact that the train from Innsbruck in Austria to Buchs passed through the Duchy of Liechtenstein, whose border with Austria was effectively not policed.18 It is estimated that up to 100,000 emigrants left annually through Vorarlberg and Switzerland. The route through Buchs was particularly popular among conscripts who were barred from departure. When the Austrian police crushed one of these clandestine networks in 1913, they discovered an elaborate business operation, which included ten agents in Croatia, one of them a district official.19

"Vozni red!" – pap shows stops with contemporary Croatian spellings in the Habsburg empire: Sisakk, Zagreb, Steinbrick, Pragerhof, Marburg, Villah, Franzensfeste, Insbruk, Būks
Figure 2  Map for the rail journey from Siska, Croatia, to Buchs, Switzerland. Detail from larger Viktor Klaus Agency newspaper ad. Source: Croatian State Archive, HDA, f. 1619, kut. 2.

In reaction to the relocation of the emigrant flow, the Austrian police intensified inspections on trains to Switzerland. Police arrested conscripts at the Innsbruck station suspected of traveling to Buchs. Border control moved to the interior, an innovation that prefigured deterritorialized border controls in the European Union’s Schengen Area. Of course, the agencies adapted. For example, they stopped issuing train tickets to suspicion-arousing destinations such as Buchs, instead issuing tickets only for short sections of the journey. The large Viktor Klaus Agency from Switzerland created a special scheme for emigrants from Croatia that included several transfers (Figure 2). A timetable for the trip from Siska to Buchs in one of its adverts contained a warning to emigrants changing trains in Innsbruck: “Do not leave the train station and do not talk with anyone so they don’t expose you because I do not have any secret agents or representatives.” (Figure 3) The agency also tried to disguise emigrants as seasonal workers for the province of Vorarlberg and provided them with forged work papers.20

"Vozni red iz Siska do Buksa" with the following warning after "Insbruk" entry: "Neizlazi iz kolodvora i ne upuštaj se sa nikim u razgovor da te ne zavede jer ja nemam nikakovog tajnog agenta ili zastupnika."
Figure 3  Timetable for the journey from Siska, Croatia, to Buchs, Switzerland. Detail from Viktor Klaus Agency newspaper ad. Source: Croatian State Archive, HDA, f. 1619, kut. 2.

More stories can be told of the entangled race between the state, on the one side, and the migrants and their helpers, on the other, to determine who can move across a border and by what means. I propose considering this interface between state actions and migrant actions as an important field of innovation and knowledge production. Governments felt challenged by newly emerging businesses that offered transportation across borders to those not permitted to cross them. Consequently, governments developed new methods of monitoring such people and their movements. Migrants and agents, for their part, found creative solutions to new restrictions. Sanchez points out that the smugglers operating at the U.S.–Mexican border “effectively navigate the constraints of their marginalization by fulfilling an essential need within an also marginal community.”21 They “not only show the de-territorialized character of the border, but their success at promoting migration constitutes a direct challenge to the very state desperate to re-establish its diminishing powers.”22 But is the state’s power really contracting? Its powers to effectively control migration might be limited, but not its capacity to develop new techniques of border control, including performative displays of its sovereign power—techniques that can come in handy in other areas where the state wants to classify, control, direct, include, and exclude people.


Ulf Brunnbauer is academic director of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg, and he holds the Chair of History of Southeast and Eastern Europe at the University of Regensburg.

  1. The case is documented in the Croatian State Archives, Zagreb, HDA, f. 78, kut. 496, sv. 6-14 (1896), br. 347–975. ↩︎
  2. Patrick Manning, Migration in World History (New York: Routledge, 2010), 2. ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 11. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 89. ↩︎
  5. John C. Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance Citizenship and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. See also Andreas Fahrmeir, “Conclusion: Historical Perspectives on Borderlands, Boundaries and Migration Control,” in “Migrations and Border Processes: Politics and Practices of Belonging and Exclusion from the 19th to the 21st Century,” ed. Margit Fauser, Anne Friedrichs, and Levke Harders, special issue, Journal of Borderlands Studies 34, no. 4 (2019): 623–31. ↩︎
  6. Nicholas De Genova, “Introduction,” in The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering, ed. Nicholas De Genova. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 11. ↩︎
  7. Michael Schubert, “The Creation of Illegal Migration in the German Confederation, 1815–1866,” Journal of Borderlands Studies 34, no. 4 (2019): 528. ↩︎
  8. De Genova, “Introduction,” 6. ↩︎
  9. On the migration policies of Austria and Hungary see Leopold Caro, Auswanderung und Auswanderungspolitik in Österreich (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1909); Hans Chmelar, Höhepunkte der österreichischen Auswanderung: Die Auswanderung aus den im Reichsrat vertretenen Königreichen und Ländern in den Jahren 1905–1914 (Vienna: Verl. der Österreich. Akad. der Wiss., 1974); Julianna Puskás, From Hungary to the United States (1880–1914) (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1982); Ulf Brunnbauer, Globalizing Southeastern Europe: Emigrants, America, and the State since the Late Nineteenth Century (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 2016), chap. 4. ↩︎
  10. See also Tara Zahra, The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), 26. ↩︎
  11. Gabriella E. Sanchez, Human Smuggling and Border Crossings (London: Routledge, 2015), 4. See also Allison Schmidt, “Background Knowledge: Interrogating Perceptions of Smugglers with Joseph Roth,” Migrant Knowledge, October 30, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/10/30/background-knowledge. ↩︎
  12. See the spectacular court case against emigration agents in the Galician town of Wadowice in 1889, as described by Zahra, The Great Departure, chap. 1. ↩︎
  13. For these legislative initiatives, see Brunnbauer, Globalizing Southeastern Europe, 151–65. ↩︎
  14. Zahra, The Great Departure, 26. ↩︎
  15. Brunnbauer, Globalizing Southeastern Europe, 128. ↩︎
  16. “Der Poolvertrag,” Pester Lloyd, March 24, 1911, 4. ↩︎
  17. Michael Just, Ost- und südosteuropäische Amerikaauswanderung 1881–1914 (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1988), 86–7; Eugenie Richard Sensenig-Dabbous, Von Metternich bis EU Beitritt: Reichsfremde, Staatsfremde und Drittausländer: Immigration und Einanderungspolitik in Österreich (Salzburg: Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institut für Gesellschafts- und Kulturgeschichte, 1998), 167. ↩︎
  18. Chmelar, Höhepunkte der österreichischen Auswanderung, 89. ↩︎
  19. Eugenie Sensenig, “Brennpunkt Buchs: Vorarlbergs Stellung im Schleppnetzwerk der Monarchie,” Montfort: Zeitschrift für Geschichte, Heimat- und Volkskunde Vorarlbergs 50, no. 4 (1998): 284–86. ↩︎
  20. Ibid., 289. ↩︎
  21. Sanchez, Human Smuggling and Border Crossings, 6. ↩︎
  22. Ibid., 127. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Ulf Brunnbauer, "Where Is the Migration Innovation? The Habsburg State vs. Facilitators of Migration," Migrant Knowledge, March 8, 2021, https://migrantknowledge.org/2021/03/08/habsburg-state-migration-facilitation/.