The idea of a liberal international order originated from the critique of imperialism, secret diplomacy, and the lack of state accountability. It proposed the institutionalized cooperation of nation-states. Its main elements, ranging from self-determination to minority rights, were developed in a particularly impressive manner in the circles of British and French liberal intellectuals around the First World War who waged a moralizing propaganda campaign against their ‘declining’ and ‘repressive’ Austro-Hungarian enemy. Despite the grand ideals of such liberals and a host of supporting statistics and maps, a number of political ideas and practices of the ‘old Europe’ continued to prevail at the Versailles Peace Conference and beyond.
In this episode, historians of the Habsburg Empire and the First World War analyze the fascinating story of Robert William Seton-Watson’s propaganda for the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of a ‘New Europe.’ They historicize ideas concerning the ‘balance of power’, European integration, anti-imperialist liberal internationalism, and the making of the post-Habsburg nation-states in Central Europe. The panel argues that while Seton-Watson’s campaign was progressive in its ambition to reconcile ethnic diversity and democracy, it was also rooted in a primordial view of nationhood. Lucija Balikić (History Department, CEU & host) discusses these issues with Pieter Judson (EUI, Florence), Mark Cornwall (University of Southampton), Gábor Egry (Institute of Political History, Budapest) and Samuel Foster (University of East Anglia).
Lucija Balikić: The concept ‘New Europe’ was influential around the First World War and was most prominently employed by the British historian, journalist, and political activist Robert William Seton-Watson and his collaborators in the analogously titled journal they published between 1916 and 1920. This concept provides a rich basis for discussion as its history relates to significant changes in symbolic geography as well as in the meaning of connected concepts such as nation, state, self-determination and minority. Moreover, its usage in the political language of liberals and the way this language got entangled with those employed by representatives of East Central European national movements presents an opportunity to explore transnational intellectual exchanges and the European intellectual space, more generally. Our key interest today concerns the precise role and impact of Western, liberal and scientific expertise in the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sam Foster: First of all, I would actually contend that, rather than being ‘invented’, this idea of the new Europe should actually be viewed as more a final codification of various overlapping intellectual currents and ongoing dialogues mostly originating in France and Germany, that were circulating amongst a very narrow segment of middle and upper class European intellectual opinion. As to when this codification took place, I would surmise that it ran roughly from the early 1860s to the late 1890s.
Internationally, this was a period of major economic reorientation, specifically imperial Germany’s emergence and accelerated industrialization, which had this knock-on effect of beginning, what I would term, the true urbanization of the neighboring Habsburg monarchy.
Alongside this, we can also see the rise of new forms of imperialism that increasingly challenge the older models of overseas colonial expansion, the most notable example would probably be the Spanish American war over Cuba 1898 which was more about consolidating economic clientelism rather than imposing direct rule from the imperial metropole.
If we look at this in the case of East Central Europe, then, it was ultimately this broader socio-economic transition that precipitated this far more aggressive form of national liberalism. As a form of form of liberalism increasingly fixated on a Herderian an idea of the linguistic nation as being the zenith of both cultural and political identity. Unlike the Habsburgs’ Italian Romanian and Serbian subjects, all of whom had their officially designated homelands bordering the Monarchy, this was especially potent I would argue, among those non-Germans and Hungarians, with no such homeland. We can see the evidence of this shift with the appearance of movements such as the Young Slovenes in the early 1860s or the national liberal Young Czech Party in Bohemia and Moravia, both of which rejected the more conciliatory policies of their conservative peers in favor of an even more maximalist vision of political autonomy. If we then look at Britain, it actually represented almost a directed inversion of this dynamic. As Benedict Anderson initially observed, and which I myself have argued in my own book,
the very concept of British identity was this rather strange international outlier that fundamentally existed in opposition to the concept of the modern nation-states. Indeed, it had itself emerged as this top-down reaction to the rise of Irish nationalism and the growth of the Home Rule movement from 1870. Britishness, rather than tearing to the concept of a single national idea or sense of cultural familiarity, was thus more a rhetorical device used by the country’s ruling factions.
Thus, the idea of a New Europe in its British context should be understood as the projection by liberal figures, such as R. W. Seton Watson, of what I would say, was, in fact, an early 20th century domestic struggle over this contested idea of what British identity should actually evolve into, in the face of a changing global status quo, especially in the aftermath of the Second Anglo Boer war in 1902.
Gábor Egry: I would mention three very important, and rather well known, examples of what one could consider as a kind of ‘counter-offer’, so to say. The first is the Austro-Marxist idea of imperial reform for Austria-Hungary, especially because it tackled upon that aspect Sam mentioned, that the New Europe was rather popular among national movements and nationalities without a homeland and the Austro-Marxist proposition for the reform of Austria-Hungary which was actually aiming at an internal reform, which would have, according to the ideas of Karl Renner and Otto Bauer, resolved the nationalities question. You shouldn’t forget that they were Marxist, even though we call them Austro-Marxists. This was one of the interesting counter-proposals, because it wants to reconcile economic rationality, the existence of a larger economic space within Central Europe and national autonomy, but not national independence, nevertheless Renner called it self-determination, Selbstbestimmung in German.
The other one is the Hungarian Oszkar Jaszi’s very late proposal of an interior reform which focus mostly on the existing territorial units within Austria-Hungary and would have provided them with extended autonomy, without actually really tackling the problem Hungary itself, within the Monarchy.
The third one is the German Mitteleuropa concept which had several forms and that was important because it actually met resistance from within Hungary especially, because the Hungarian elites neither wanted to get subordinated so much to Germany as they imagined, and also the Mitteleuropa concept has some kind of provisions for national equality, that we’re not necessarily acceptable for the Hungarians. Nevertheless, all of these ideas, were actually conditioned on the survival of Austria-Hungary, while the New Europe concept was going into the opposite direction.
Mark Cornwall: I’m going to focus a little bit more on concept of defining the New Europe. We could be very specific about this and say what we know by the terminology is very linked to this journal, as you say, British journal founded in 1916 and that was pushed very much by Tomáš Masaryk, pushed on Seton Watson, of course. It meant taking a step out of the old Europe into the New Europe, he called it ‘crossing the Rubicon’ and scientists’ articles, with the name Rubicon. It was obviously also an abstract idea whose principles were there long before, wartime is the culmination of prewar criticism of Austria-Hungary and particularly of authoritarian regimes, or what were seen as authoritarian regimes across Europe. That notion of the New Europe was accelerated by wartime propaganda and the sharpening of the ideological divide. The wartime is absolutely crucial, and the notion essentially that the old Europe must be rejected and removed.
New Europe can’t be divorced from the idea of an old Europe. The purpose of this was to counter negative and authoritarian, or what they thought of as imperialist forces in Europe, and especially a counter to pan-German and what they saw was Magyar chauvinist agendas in Europe.
I would absolutely agree with Gábor on the Mitteleuropa as a kind of opposite, asserting this concept of New Europe, to mean a practical reorganization of the European map. This would solve the nationality problem in Europe, it would emancipate the subject races, what he thought were subject races and I think a crucial point, it would vindicate the rule of law and national right. I think vindicating the rule of law was quite crucial. We see in this the idea of Seton Watson, and others of course across the region, that certain peoples’ orientations were maturing, this is what Seton Watson would say, and inevitably they needed to be accommodated in this New Europe. Austria-Hungary has failed to grasp that, and so this solution would have to be imposed on region, and I would stress here that Seton Watson has had a very primordial view of nations – they had long existed, they were now as re-asserting themselves, they could not be ignored.
You also asked a little bit about how this related to other concepts, which I think is quite difficult question and I’ll have a go at that. How it relates to the nation-state, I think, is rather interesting and I would say it’s more ambiguous that one might think.
Those who push the New Europe were not just promoting nation-states, they certainly were promoting nationalism, those in Britain certainly. Seton Watson, for example, was very happy with multinational framework for peoples, and Sam hinted, took very much the British model as some kind of an ideal model, he tended not to think about Ireland too much or he thought that was a problem. That was the model which ideally would be accepted in the region and therefore, a new state like Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia were ideal with Seton Watson’s way of thinking, because they seem to be kind of fairly multinational, they were good framework for different peoples.
We might think about whether this viewpoint clashed with nationalists in the region, who were perhaps national purists, who did see their states as national states. I kind of tend to say that those in Britain tended to think about this a bit more realistically, that there was a mixture of peoples in this region, and there was a need for compromise. On the minorities question, again rather interesting and difficult to answer, how did New Europe think about that? I think many of those who were tied to this concept, the New Europe, saw these as inevitable, as part of a plan to reframe the region. I think the whole idea of mashing minorities really emerged due to the notion that there were dominant and subject nationalities, which really takes off much more in the war again. This divide was shaped to war propaganda, it’s very much there in the flight of propaganda being sent over the [Habsburg] empire in 1918, it absolutely talks about dominance and subject nationalities. I think those who pushed the concept of New Europe felt that the new European map was one where minorities will be accommodated, they wouldn’t be second class citizens. I think for Seton Watson and others, this was quite a moral issue, they didn’t want grievances to be left there that would smolder.
Lastly, on self-determination – yes, those who were committed to this New Europe were absolutely thinking that new or revised nations were asserting themselves, I think they thought these were kind of organic beings, which could not be ignored. Of course, this would be a democratic, liberal agenda for the region. Going back to what Sam said, namely the 19th century roots of this, it would remove those who were the antithesis of that, in their view. Again, this was very much reasserted by the war propaganda, the need to find a purpose in this war, for why we’re fighting. Of course, it was trumpeted by Woodrow Wilson, but people like Seton Watson would say, ‘we were Wilsonian before Wilson’. I just end by saying the New Europe journal itself shifted its focus after 1919 and turned towards the idea of strengthening the democratic settlement for the region and also turned to other kind of notions, of rejecting the old Europe, which meant things like secret diplomacy, that foreign affairs were concerned for all.
Pieter Judson: There were many, many ideas of a new Europe during this period. These promoted by Seton Watson and the journal are one set of ideas. But one thing we often forget is that when the war ended in the East, so to speak, with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, I mean it ended, but it didn’t end. There was a sense that this was also the beginning of a new Europe, and there is a literature, now that looks that examines how activists in, especially the Middle East, in Iran, looked at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and saw in it a model for the future development of both of Europe and the world, so simply to say that there are several possible new Europes at the moment that, as the others have said, offered other kinds of visions.
I want to raise a question about this idea of Western expertise, in what did this expertise lie? Somebody like Seton Watson had a very close understanding of well, he knew languages and also many of the leaders and activists from this part of Europe, but a lot of people claimed expertise, who knew nothing about this part of the world, and I think we have to remember that, and particularly the ‘Western expertise’ part because, in fact, I think there’s a lot of work being done now.
For example, someone like Natasha Wheatley, looking at the ways in which the legal concepts that structure a lot of the settlement come from the problems of understanding what Austria-Hungary was in a legal and institutional sense, and one of the most important arguments that we haven’t mentioned isn’t about nation, in linguistic or ethnic term but about the old crownlands or the old lands that made up the empire. What a lot of people argued in 1918 and certainly Czech nationalists argued was that these lands, for example, the lands of the Bohemian crown, had never lost their sovereignty or their right to sovereignty. Their sovereignty had simply been sort of slumbering, but it could be revived, so in order to justify the creation of a new state there’s an entire legal expertise, should we call it, that comes actually from Austria-Hungary that makes this argument for creating new states from an old and legitimate state. There’s a lot of non-Western expertise that’s also quite influential at the peace conference and among the negotiations and the understandings of concepts.
Lucija Balikić: We already mentioned Mitteleuropa, these kind of opposite or parallel concepts, but my following question would be the one of, how this concept of New Europe interacted with the pre-existing symbolic geographies and in what way did it reconfigure them? We can also mention Balkans or any of the other ones.
Sam Foster: Just to follow up on what Peter was saying previously, I also think, certainly in terms of time scale, when we look at the Great War, a more useful timeframe in this context is to think of it as Robert Gerwarth has written about, as lasting from 1911 up to 1923. I think the Western-centric ‘1914 to 1918’ is very restrictive and ignores wider processes that are taking place, particularly things such as the Balkan wars or ‘the Second Great War’ that breaks out particularly in the former Russian empire from 1917 to 1923. I think that’s a much more useful timeframe to use when looking at this period. In terms of the idea of the New Europe interacting with pre-existing symbolic geographies, I would actually state that Great War itself acts more as an accelerator of these processes rather than the actual origin of them, in how it de-emphasizes these 19th century notions of modernity that are predicated, particularly on industrial and technological advancement, as we can see with the emergence of these new forms of nationalism. In the British perspective, particularly, this is a fairly predictable outcome, the fact that industrialization was taking place in other countries by the late 19th and early 20th century.
Certainly in the British standpoint, you can no longer have this very clear social and economic metric by which Britain can distinguish and divide itself from the rest of the Europe quite so clearly, and I think Seton Watson and others are very much aware of this. Also to build on that, incidentally, if you actually try to use that metric by 1900, it would transpire the most ‘advanced country’ in the world is actually Belgium, at this stage, so again, it points to the fact that these earlier notions no longer really work. Underlying a lot of this reconfiguration is what Glenda Sluga terms ‘the moral hierarchy’.
This is very much a concept that’s actually seized upon vigorously by Masaryk during the war himself, particularly when he was attempting to convince Britain, the United States and France of the necessity of Austria-Hungary’s partition. And it’s an idea that’s pioneered initially by British and French liberals, but subsequently and embraced by various elements of the Central East European intelligentsia, asserting that what sort of distinguishes Europe’s critical fault lines are not ideas of modernity or industrial progress, but is often referred to as stabilizing qualities inherent to certain societies such as, for example, democratic pluralism. Incidentally, the Czechs tend to use themselves as the model, as the kind of ideal for this, which may not come as any real surprise. This idea of, not so much civilized, but more socially stable societies versus what are, in fact, the sort of undesirable counterparts, which is societies prone towards things such as state militarism.
Mark Cornwall: I’ll be quite brief in answer to this question about symbolic geographies, but I mainly want to pick up on how the notion of the reconfiguration went on and I think it’s mainly about reconfiguring these symbolic geographies in terms of rejecting old stereotypes. To take the example that you mentioned Lucija, the Balkans, for those who were of a liberal frame of mind with regard to the New Europe, it meant imposing order and stability on the Balkans, but also it was about regenerating the region and getting it out of the grasp of imperialist forces, whether they be Ottoman or Habsburg or anyone else and really would come with this idealistic new Southern Slav state which really would epitomize the slogans of cooperation between peoples, of three tribes together and of national progress. I think there was a lot invested in that, which went wrong very quickly, of course. I would also say, picking up on points that we made with regards to the last question, those who push this concept of a liberal New Europe, I think we’re extremely conscious of past national histories as a basis for asserting a new future.
Of course, if you look at other concepts of New Europe which Pieter and Gábor mentioned, which were reasserted across wartime Europe, one of those would be the pan-German mission, but also those in Austria, who really thought of the war as an opportunity to rejuvenate Austria. It may be people like Stefan Zweig and Joseph Redlich or Hoffman (…) and others who really saw this as a kind of opportunity to rejuvenate Austria. They had a mission of Europe coming out of this war, which was not necessarily pan-German, it was really about to rejuvenated Austria. That’s a different type of New Europe, which of course did not happen and I think, we might see a Hungarian mission there as well, but clearly in the eyes of the liberal ‘New Europeans’ some of this looks very negative, as this is really a battle with Mittleeuropa and with pan-Germanism. So the concept of Mitteleuropa is a real challenge which is taken up by New Europe, I would almost venture to say that the whole concept of the journal New Europe – I wonder whether that would have really taken off if they didn’t have the concept of Mitteleuropa as something to work against. It was very much a response to that, Mitteleuropa had to be challenged and basically defeated and there are quite a lot of pieces of the journal New Europe, which really are about Mitteleuropa.
Pieter Judson: Just to add to what Mark has just said, which I think is very important, the idea of Mitteleuropa is of course very much promoted by a lot of people in Germany. It is promoted by some people in Austria-Hungary but it’s really good that you mentioned all those Austrian thinkers who also saw the war as an opportunity to rejuvenate an idea of Austria, that would be separate from Germany, in fact, something apart. So that it’s not clear, but I find it very ironic, in a way, that the New Europe, which is all about taking apart Austria-Hungary is nevertheless really directed against the kind of German idea of middle Europe and something that a lot of Austrians were very worried about and Hungarians too, as Gábor mentioned. To build on something Sam said, which I think is also important, which is the sort of creation of a different or new moral hierarchy, Glenda’s term, and in this, I want to remind us that there were dangers too in pushing the idea of subject nations too far, because if the subject nations were so overwhelmingly dominated by the Germans and Magyars in Austria-Hungary, then they were not ready for democracy, yet, and I think we should remember that Jan Smuts even suggested that they ought to be made into mandates, the way territories taken from the Ottoman Empire were in the Middle East. No one bought this idea of course, but it’s also a danger, when you frame Austria-Hungary too much as a villain in this piece, because, of course, most of the people making the arguments were politically very important people in Austria-Hungary.
Lucija Balikić: The next thing we could tackle is the agency of experts in this peacemaking process after World War I. How did the relationship between political power and scientific expertise play out at the time?
Sam Foster: Just, to come back to what Peter was just saying, another issue with this question of moral hierarchy, as well as one of the problems, particularly in a British and French perspective is that throughout the war so much of this New Europe campaign is invested in the figure of Masaryk and the model for everything is basically the Czechs, who are kind of presented as the universal model for everything else, which again creates a very distorted image and pretty much flattens out all the nuances of the various issues of the wider region thinking, particularly in regards to nationalism. If I could just focus on Seton-Watson himself as a sort of qualifying factor in all this, there’s actually a fairly unusual situation here, especially after November 1918 and while he certainly exerts this unprecedented degree of influence, both in the British public sphere and the lower echelons of British foreign policy-making, even before the First World War and particularly after 1918 his efforts are, often more often than not, being somewhat frustrated by the upper tiers of the British political power, mainly due to the fact that because north of Greece Britain doesn’t really have any kind of immediate strategic or economic goals in this region (Greece is always kind of the key and all geostrategic considerations when Britain looks at this region). So, a lot of his efforts are continually being frustrated when he attempts to see them through.
Besides having a kind of a role in the Britain’s Department for propaganda in Allied countries during the war, he never actually holds any official roles. Even during the Paris Peace Conference, unlike, say, his peer Lewis Namier, he was never actually a member of the delegation. Also, Britain again proves to be something of an exception here, amongst its counterparts at Paris and there’s never this formalized system of scientific representation within its delegation, as you would see within the case of the United States or Yugoslavia or the other attendees. That’s also equally telling of how, thinking about the second part, of the ways in which this relationship between scientific expertise and political power actually unfolds during this period. Yes, politicians or diplomats are willing to listen to information given to them by specialists, but it’s always tempered by the fact that this information, and this expertise, has to ultimately serve in reinforcing their specific agendas and ambitions in advance. This is not then necessarily taking advice, it’s having that sort of initial set of objectives reinforced. That’s what I would say that’s the crux of this relationship.
For example, it’s no coincidence that Jovan Cvijić, the head of the Yugoslavian ethnographic section in Yugoslavia’s delegation in Paris, the year before the peace conference happened to write a major anthropological study, that just so happened to align with both Nikola Pašić’s and Ante Trumbić’s specific demands during the Peace Conference. Obviously, here we can see that expertise itself is important, but only to the degree that said expertise can that be instrumentalized in service of the state.
Gábor Egry: I think that there was a huge problem with the Peace Conference, because it promised too much, new order for the world based on some kind of scientifically justified relations and not just in terms of political relations between all states, defeated and victors, but also ranging to new economic relations, humanitarianism even industrial relations. So that was just too much to promise to a certain extent, especially when, at the end, the politicians, decided. One interesting aspect of this disillusionment or disappointment is that it was probably even reinforced in the case of the defeated because defeated countries like Hungary were not invited to the initial talks. They were just presented with a draft for the peace treaty, so their only sense of agency lied in the hope that those treaties will be formulated based on expert opinion. Therefore, they hoped that through influencing expert opinion, they can somehow still achieve the goals they couldn’t do through political means, as it was customary at in the case of earlier peace negotiations.
It had actually an interesting lasting impact as well, because if you look at the Hungarian revisionist propaganda, for example, there are tropes that actually go back to this idea of some kind of scientifically-based or expertise-based peace treaty. There is a whole range of propaganda material which is not arguing emotionally, but very factually trying to make the point that this peace treaty is impossible to justify, because it left a Hungary that is unviable, and this judgment of an unviable Hungary is based on a set of statistics and expert opinions as well. In a sense, it’s even reflected in the fact that historic Hungary was also transformed in this propaganda into the concept of a Carpathian Basin, which is a mixture of natural and economic geography as well, and it also influenced, in this sense, even the geography as a scientific discipline.
Mark Cornwall: When we think about the propaganda coming out of Hungary in the 1920s, after Trianon, this quite famous work in English called Justice for Hungary, which is a whole load of maps and scientific data to back up the Hungarian case, in retrospect really, I think the role of expertise at the peace conference is very messy and there’s a real difference between the theory of what’s going on and the reality that comes out. But expertise is very noticeable, Sam mentioned the Yugoslav dimension, I’ll pick up the Czechoslovak dimension, under Edvard Beneš’s guidance. The Czech delegation had a huge range of experts, I think it’s one of the biggest in terms of experts, who set out kind of data for the peacemakers. The Czech delegation was very good at this in being easy to deal with, I think, for ‘the peacemakers’.
The same kind of thing happens in the Second World war, of course. Having said that, it’s clear that somebody like Seton Watson, and Sam already mentions his frustrations, Seton Watson at the peace conference was frustrated and sometimes pleasantly surprised. He found many of those people at Paris quite skeptical about the notion of a New Europe and he was certainly very anxious about rising nationalism and some kind of new imperialism, so some kind of old Europe reasserting itself, obviously Italy was the best example of that in 1919. It really showed the real tension between the ideals of what might the New Europe like be and the continued reality of power politics, I suppose. But even having said that, when you look at Seton Watson’s work and he was there for about four months and, as Sam said, said he wasn’t there in any kind of real official capacity, but he was listened to, and Henry Wickham Steed, the editor of The Times was also listened to, they did have an ear of some crucial decision makers. Harold Nicolson in his diary of the peace conference actually writes about being overwhelmingly imbued with the doctrines of the New Europe, so I think some of these people, at least, were listening.
The fear of Seton Watson was that, okay, they might be listened to, but actually what were the ideas being acted on, and the final decisions didn’t reflect the kind of advice they were giving. In other words, the old Europe was reasserting itself and it’s only when Seton Watson went off to Prague, in the middle of 1919 and he met Masaryk, went down to Bratislava, and there, for better or worse, he actually thought ‘New Europe is working’, he saw enough there to think that the Czechoslovak experiment was pushing forward the ideas of New Europe. Perhaps if he would have gone a bit further East, he might have had a different view on that, so I think it was a really a mixed bag in terms of how far expertise is asserted at the conference. We might say, out in East Central Europe the ideals of this New Europe would be very, very distorted. There wasn’t the cooperation that these idealists were hoping for, certain groups were dominating over others, getting into the territory of thinking about a new imperialism, so perhaps that’s where Peter should take over from me.
Pieter Judson: I think this is also a moment where we could mention the situation of Ukraine at the Paris Peace Conference, or the Ukrainian republics who try to gain entrance to the Paris Peace Conference but were, shall we say, skillfully stymied by the Polish delegation, which made sure that no one heard from them until it didn’t matter. I’m not being sarcastic. I think we have to think of the conference as actually generating expertise for later, rather than being a product of expertise. That is to say, expertise became something on which these various issues like borders, then could be argued in the 1920s and 1930s. It became a reason for pursuing policies, for example, where the German government would tell German speakers who were in the new Poland that they shouldn’t migrate to Germany, that they should stay in Poland, so that Germany could continue to make a claim based on expertise, same thing with Hungary.
All of those brilliant maps that Holly Case has talked about, of Transylvania for example. I mean this is a period where the whole science of spatially depicting ethnicity and nationality becomes quite sophisticated. That doesn’t mean it becomes objective or accurate, but it does become sophisticated. So, I would definitely agree with Gábor, there’s also a lot of German-Austrian scientific studies, of very small regions that prove that German Austria should have gotten them, but didn’t. The other point I think, is that the experts had very little agency. It was a situational kind of agency, when they were useful, one relied on their arguments and Mark said this as well, and Sam too, they could be quite useful, but they weren’t necessarily the agents of this settlement at all. I think it’s also interesting that Wilson, who is completely clueless about everything as Larry Wolf’s recent book beautifully shows, nevertheless had this whole stable of experts to whom he didn’t listen at all.
The way we think about it today, often, is that the work of the experts made it possible to found the nation-states, and I would say it’s the political work of people that made it possible to found those states
and I also agree with Mark that the Czech delegation was just brilliant, but they had prepared the longest and they had been making arguments that were grounded in serious legal theory the longest. What mattered also, which we haven’t said, is the situation on the ground and because, the war did not end in the East in November of 1918, that situation, often determined the outcome, rather than whatever was being said in Paris or whatever was being argued by experts.
I think it’s also interesting to remember how few plebiscites were held and that gets to the issue of self-determination. I would say it’s really important what Mark mentioned about Seton-Watson before, that the idea of the New Europe was not necessarily tied to the ethnic nation-state idea, even though we often think it was, but the ways in which the concept of self-determination (which I don’t think Wilson had any clear idea what he meant by it, I think Lenin had a much clearer idea), first of all, it was never clarified, who is the self, and second of all, it was never clarified what was to be determined.
I’ve argued a million times, and it’s not a new argument, that self-determination wasn’t about the ability of individuals to create their futures, it was about the ability of nationalists to create futures.
Lucija Balikić: Do you see any notable contemporary legacies of the concept of New Europe, that you would like to highlight today?
Sam Foster: A notable contemporary legacy has actually been the propensity to misinterpret and fail to understand certain dynamics, mainly because most of these European countries are always using themselves as their main frame of reference. When we look at the Great War and how these new countries, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were presented, as I looked at in my case of British propaganda, they’re not necessarily presented quite so much as countries or entities that might have their own potential agency. They’re always presented as an extension of what fundamentally Britain is doing and it’s more about Britain’s war against Germany. So, I would say if you’re looking at it from a Western perspective that should be a key thing to take on board.
Gábor Egry: I would notice, less connected with the substance of the concept of New Europe or the Seton-Watson’s and journal’s New Europe, the other two aspects. The first is the rhetorical power of the idea of a New Europe, that somehow the whole continent, and especially its Central and Eastern part needs a kind of renewal or could bring a kind of renewal or reorganization. But that also demonstrates how much the concept could be emptied, the Nazis had their Neues Europa, Dick Cheney called once, around the Iraq invasion by the United States, the new EU member states ‘the New Europe’, which most of them actually gladly accepted as opposed to the ailing Western part, and also ideas coming from states like Hungary today, positing the EU as a kind of imperial-colonial power against which Hungarians and Eastern European nation-states should rail and also create the kind of new powerhouse of the continent – are in this sense, related to this kind of idea of the New Europe.
It reveals the second, which is really important, and more substantially connected with the New Europe idea, and that’s the subversive aspect of the New Europe that is somehow formulated against the existing order and very much aiming at a new hierarchy which is justified with moral arguments as well. The old order is not just practically problematic, unviable or should be reformed, but it exists against some kind of moral values, and this is a recurring element of many of those discourses or debates that range around the idea of Central Europe in the 20th and 21st century.
Mark Cornwall: I think the moral dimension is crucial and I like the whole notion of the rhetoric of power. I’m obviously not a political scientist, but I’m a historian and I’ll try to make some judgment on the last 20-30 years.
It’s interesting, the last edition of the journal The New Europe talks about a Commonwealth of Europe as an idea of where people could cooperate replacing the old imperialism and we might therefore say is the European Union, the fruit of this kind of dream in a vague way, in terms of asserting principles of equality, democracy and the rule of law, but certain states might well rub up against this or not see it in that idealistic way at all.
I would particularly stress that the concept of a New Europe was reactivated after 1989 with the fall of authoritarian Soviet regime, the re-emergence of national democratic states, and we are still living with that experiment, rather akin to the interwar period, and Ukraine was just one of the nations to emerge or re-emerge, of course, Putin would say there is no history [of the Ukranian nationhood]. But the fact that Ukraine reemerged, surely that was how somebody like Seton-Watson would have been interpreting this 80 years before, saying that Ukrainians were asserting themselves, this was a maturing nation, they could not be ignored. I would kind of plug here an article by me that’s just about to come out in the Slavonic Review, about Seton-Watson, might as well do that here. Anyway, this New Europe post-1989 was, of course, one which could be assertive, whereas after 1945 a kind of New Europe could not be asserted after the fall of fascism.
Even so, I think we see that the principles of a liberal New Europe are constantly being challenged by the reality of power politics, as we saw after the First World War. And in 2022 we have a Russian regime which is totally at odds with this kind of idea of liberal New Europe, what it stood for or stands for, and it wants to turn the clock back on the changes of the last three decades. I think that kind of ideological challenge very much mirrors interwar Europe actually, where of course people like Seton-Watson saw their New Europe experiment ultimately fail, but it’s very interesting, the kind of parallels that we might see thinking about this subject across the 20th century, up to our day with these kind of markers of perhaps an end of conflict or early 1920s, 1945, 1989 – are we in a new kind of assertion of a New Europe coming up soon?
In collaboration with Ferenc Laczó, Michal Matlak and Lucie Janotová