Emperor Joseph’s Solution to Coronavirus

Wall Street Journal April 7, 2020

Here we are 300 years later fighting the same Muslim Invasion!

Only this time, much more perilous with the invasion also coming from within the USA as naive Americans wallow in denial)

A portrait of Joseph I (1678-1711), Holy Roman Emperor.

Before modern medicine, the Habsburg monarchy kept epidemics at bay for more than a century and a half.


As countries around the world frantically erect barriers against the spread of the novel coronavirus, it might be helpful to look at one of the most successful quarantine systems ever created. 

Redacted from an article by A. Wess Mitchell and Charles Ingrao

Wall Street Journal  April 7, 2020

In 1710 Emperor Joseph I decided to block the chronic spread of diseases from the Balkans by creating a continuous “sanitary cordon” along the Habsburg monarchy’s southern frontier with the Ottoman Empire. 

His action failed to save him; he died of smallpox in April 1711 after he huddled with his prime minister, who was unaware that his daughter had just contracted the disease. No one then knew much about “social distancing.” Nonetheless, the empire’s sanitary cordon outlived him by a century and a half.

The system Joseph created had several strengths. In an age when most international borders were defined only by overlapping feudal jurisdictions, the Habsburg-Ottoman frontier was a visibly delineated thousand-mile line of rivers, mountain peaks and border markers posted by a bilateral peace commission. 

It was already a military zone with extensive fortresses and army garrisons, which not only defended against Turkish raids but enforced customs and the processing of Christian refugees fleeing Ottoman rule.

A sense of the scale of this operation can be seen by comparing it with the American border today. Whereas we rely on 21,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents stretched tenuously across the long Mexican and Canadian frontiers, as many as 100,000 fierce, colorfully clad Serb and Croat infantrymen were available to guard a southern Habsburg border zone that was typically dozens of miles deep.

By the middle of the 18th century, 2,000 fortified watchtowers stood every half mile, punctuated by 19 border crossings with facilities that registered, housed and isolated everyone entering for at least 21 days before granting them passports to enter the empire’s territory

Until 1881 the Habsburg Military Frontier played many roles, acting as a barrier to illegal immigration, an early warning system against Ottoman raids, and a source of superb irregulars to fight Austria’s wars. 

The reasons for the cordon’s demise would be recognizable in our own time. It was assaulted by both liberals (because it impeded trade) and nationalists in Hungary and Croatia (because it gave control of the border to the government in Vienna). After the empire split into Austrian and Hungarian halves, Hungary abolished the institution.

The Habsburg experience holds insights for our time. One is the need to foresee rather than react to threats. Another is that physical space matters in fighting epidemics. Hard as it is to swallow for Western publics habituated to globalization, well-regulated, rational borders contribute substantially to the public good. 

Early critics of the Trump administration’s travel restrictions failed to appreciate the urgent medical rationale. As Anthony Fauci testified to Congress, no public-health strategy can contain a contagion already inside the country without stopping the influx of new carriers.

Another is that epidemics are not only about public health; they are also about geopolitics. For the Habsburg authorities, their management was also a security issue.. In the aftermath of this crisis, the West must strike the right balance in a trade relationship that involves less reliance on Chinese supply chains.

Mr. Mitchell served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, 2017-19, and is author of “The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire.” Mr. Ingrao is a professor emeritus of history at Purdue University and author of “The Habsburg Monarchy 1618-1815.”

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