The travelling Scots’s ‘New Europe’

‘The savagery of Prussia and the stupidity of Austria are now combined. Mercilessness and muddle-headedness are met together; unrighteousness and unreasonableness have kissed each other’
GK Chesterton 1915

On the centenary of the Vienna congress, a young, alienated and toothless mind sprang his tortured anxiety over Austro-Hungary: ‘But how would things go if all tranquility, all prosperity, all contentment should come to a horrible end’. A former lieutenant of the Habsburg army, he had been born in one of the monarchy’s largest cities. He lived within walking distance of the oldest German university. Within his region was the lion’s share of the empire’s industry and the most consciously awakened Slavic population. This was the Bohemian capital Prague and the hapless young man was Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. The Habsburg subject’s cockroach-like experience mirrored that of the small subject nationalities, frequently stuck in a maddeningly frustrated, forlornly misunderstood and politically disabled state. Samsa’s transformation into a monstrous vermin reflects the anxious, impotent and constipated condition of the non-ruling nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915: ‘People did not understand his words any more, although they seemed clear enough to him, clearer than previously. But at least people now thought that things were not all right with him and were prepared to help him.’ This preparedness to give help would come from the Scottish writer Robert Seton-Watson whose concern for small nations would make him a champion of the subject nationalities.


Robert Seton-Watson has been described by the current Regius professor of history at Cambridge, R Evans as the person who was instrumental in the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.


The Oxford historian, journalist and political activist has been described as the father of many Central European states as well as the gravedigger of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Writing under the name Scotus Viator, the travelling Scot had by 1914 emerged as the leading expert on the multinational monarchy. In 1915, as the second winter of the war froze the Skoda cannons guarding the Carpathian crevices, Seton-Watson began to think of alternatives to the old-style diplomacy of the treaty of London and the Pan-German vision for Europe, Mitteleuropa. The Scot would soon start to distil a different policy spirit to the central European status quo in his newspaper ‘The New Europe’. The paper filled a gap in the British media by focusing on continental European questions and in particular Austro-Hungary. The current Regius professor of history at Cambridge, Evans argues that Seton-Watson ‘played a pivotal role in bringing about the collapse of the centuries old Austro-Hungarian Empire’. A network of political exiles from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy led by Seton-Watson and The Times journalist Wickham Steed would have a major impact on Entente foreign policy, aiming to replace Kafka’s mute Mitteleuropa with a new Europe.


Kafka’s tragic hero, who ‘no longer trusted himself to decide any more’ alluded to subaltern subject nations. By 1915, many had established exile organisations in London. Although recent research carried out by the US historian Deak has shown that the Austro-Hungarian 1867 constitution was ‘the most liberal in the 19th century with an extensive list of civil rights’, the constant conflict and resulting impotence was reflected not just in Mitteleuropa metropoles but also minor Mediterranean bays, such as the port of Rijeka. Not far away from this Hungarian town where the Croats spoke Italian, in the town of Kastav, a young Croat writer Nazor looked jealously upon the contested Adriatic. His 1915 fable about a bear, Medvjed Brundo explores a similar theme as Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, the subaltern straightjacketing of the monarchy’s non-dominant subjects. Medvjed Brundo speaks of bitter struggles between the forest animals and their enemies, the plundering Venetian loggers. The South Slavs are allegorically represented by wild animals trapped in a two way battle between themselves and against the Venetians. The fable alludes to the region’s linguistic and political struggles between the Italians and the South Slavs. The plundering oppressor on Hungary’s minor Mediterreanean bay acts like Samsa’s family that have ‘fattened themselves on Gregor’. Seton-Watson would take up both Nazor’s and Kafka’s cause by lobbying against Austro-Hungarian un-constitutionalism, British secret treaties and Italian imperialism.
Nazor’s bear and Kafka’s bug demonstrate the condition of the subaltern in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915. The incapacitated and powerless animalisation of Gregor Samsa and the worries of Nazor’s forest beasts demonstrates the fate of the unheard in Central Europe in 1915, trapped, enclosed and restricted in an oppressive and alienating environment that was, according to Kafka constantly ‘in a state of worry and murky thoughts’. This situation was widespread as Poles jostled with Ukrainians in Lemberg, Germans shouted at Czechs in Prague and Croatians scuffled with Italians on the Austrian littoral. The sclerotic and sometimes suffocating constitutional system was noticed by Seton-Watson at the dawn of the 20th century while a correspondent for The Spectator newspaper in Austro-Hungary.


Seton’s ideas about Central Europe were based on the Whig legacy of Prime Minister Gladstone, who favoured an active engagement with continental Europe and had condemned Ottoman atrocities in his ‘Bulgarian horrors’ pamphlet. Seton-Watson followed a writer-adventurer model started by Byron, who ‘crossed the whitening foam of the Albion to seek a foreign home’ in the first-Pan European cause, aiming to help the Greeks in their struggle against the Ottomans. Seton-Watson’s liberal sympathies and Scottish origins found him to be temperamentally inclined to champion the rights of the subject nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The 1907 Černovà massacre of fifteen Slovaks corroded his faith in the righteousness of Franz Joseph’s Empire.


Seton-Watson had come to the multinational monarchy ‘imbued with conventional admiration felt by most people in Britain for Louis Kossuth’. In 1897, a year after Hungary had celebrated a thousand years of arrival on the Central European plain, The Times correspondent in Vienna Steed echoed this sentiment, praising Hungary as ‘a model constitutional state led by a group of exceptionally able statesmen, all of them of the moderate liberal type’. Steed also claimed that ‘there is no people on the continent of Europe which has more constantly commanded the sympathy and the respect of Englishmen that the people of Hungary.’ Yet Seton-Watson was shocked by the human rights abuses of the Hungarian authorities such as the Černovà massacre. This disenchantment with Hungarian ‘tyrannous designs of hegemony’ was revealed in his 1908 book ‘Racial problems in Hungary’.


After criticising the effects of Magyarisation, he turned to the effervescent South Slav question, publishing the book ‘The South Slav question and the Habsburg monarchy’. The 1911 review by The Spectator describes Seton-Watson as the man that has ‘revealed to Englishmen the facts of the long and ugly story of the intolerant treatment which the Magyars, the dominant race of Hungary, have accorded to the Slav races of Hungary and Croatia.’According to the Stanford university historian Larry Wolf, Seton-Watson’s book ‘defined the South Slav question and challenged the legitimacy of the Hapsburg monarchy just as the Eastern Question challenged that of the Ottoman Empire’. It began to revise the traditional British views of the need for a geographically unified Danube entity. Seton-Watson had earlier written that: ‘The disruption of the dual monarchy would be an event equal in its far reaching consequences to the French revolution, and involving beyond all questions a general European war, of which none can foretell the issue but which might perhaps deal a fatal blow to European civilisation’. Yet by 1914, Seton-Watson started a gradual shift in British policy towards removing its traditional support for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became the main advocate of the breakup of the Austro-Hungary.


Writing to his wife in august 1914, he explains his new vision of Europe: “From now onwards the Great Serbian State is inevitable; and we must create it.… Dalmatia, Bosnia, Croatia, Istria must be united to Serbia…Romania must have all her kinsmen’. From November 1914 to May 1915, Seton-Watson had access to the foreign office due to his extensive contacts with Central Europe. Together with the former British attaché to Montenegro Sir Arthur Evans, Seton-Watson and Steed became engaged in a British tradition of supporting the independence aspirations of the nations of Europe. Since Byron ‘dreamed that Greece may be free’, numerous British figures, sensing the subaltern sorrow of people like Kafka and Nazor, found their own peripheral pet peoples in Europe. Examples such as Durham for the Albanians, Brailford for Bulgarians and Burrows with Greece would act as ventriloquists for the unheard. This tradition was given additional immediacy in 1915 by Neumann’s Mittleuropa. Fears of a Pan-German confederation, stretching from the Baltic to Bagdad would be used by Seton-Watson and Times journalist Wickham Steed to lobby for a new Europe.


By the spring of 1915, Europe’s illusions of a short war were over. The Schlieffen plan had failed. Austro-Hungary faced a war on several fronts. Even the ‘Empire on which the sun never set’ found its blindly vigorous enthusiasm for war blunt against the towering Teutonic enemy. Britannia’s rule of the waves was no longer absolute, as German submarines sank British battleships like the HMS Formidable. The ‘fortress built by nature’ was penetrated by German Zeppelins, whose bombings caused Britain’s first civilian deaths in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. On the rain soaked fields of the Western front, khaki-clad British troops became bogged down in muddy trenches. The Ottoman Empire, who Britain had defended during its previous continental engagement in the Crimea, was now fighting alongside the Central Powers. The sick man of Europe’s army was being nursed and mobilised into modernity by the Prussian pernicketiness of general Liman von Sanders. Calling for ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über Allah’, the Berlin-Bagdad axis sent shivers down the spine of the British foreign office. As a young Winston Churchill prepared both Britain’s navy and colonial troops for an attack in Gallipoli, the writer Chesterton published the poem Lepanto, commemorating the watershed victory against the Ottoman Empire as an ode to a new crusade.


The losing streak led the Entente to focus on the sloppier parts of the enemy and try, in the words of Lloyd George, to ‘knock out the props’ by getting the remaining neutral power Italy to fight against Austro-Hungary. Secret diplomatic negotiations show a desperate effort to win over Italy. The 1915 treaty of London sealed Italy’s conversion to the Entente. Diplomatic documents show a detailed negotiation process involving the British Prime Minister Asquith, the Foreign minister Grey as well as their diplomatic aides. The British ambassador in Rome Sir Rodd points out to Grey that Italy’s entry into the war could be a decisive, swinging factor in a conflict that had not ended in a quick and glorious victory: ‘We can have immediate co-operation of Italy, ensuring, I believe the co-operation of Romania and affecting that of all the other Balkan state. Price of Italian co-operation involves sacrifice of Dalmatia. The Entente powers considered that Italy switching sides would act as a magnet for the other neutral states such as Bulgaria, Romania and Greece and thus start encircling the Central powers and blocking their route to the East and preventing a Pan-German, Eurasian state from Berlin to Bagdad.


Two days after the start of the Armenian genocide and a day after the British invasion of the shores of Gallipoli, the Entente signed the Treaty of London on the 26 April. In exchange for a ‘million Italian bayonets’, Italy was promised a generous loan as well as the Austro-Hungarian territories of the Eastern Adriatic and South Tyrol. Italy rushed into the Entente aiming to ‘liberate’ some 800 000 irredemed Italians and secure dominance on the Adriatic. The Futurist artist Bocconi caught the brash bravado of battle with his painting ‘Charge of the lancers’, showing the Italian fanti galloping through the moving canvas into their ‘the fourth war of independence’. By scuttling the Central powers stranglehold on the Adriatic lake, the Entente launched what the Slovene historian Klabjan has called ‘the Scramble for the Adriatic’. As the Italian navy was mobilised, Austro-Hungary’s only maritime supply route via the Adriatic was shut off by the combined Entente naval forces, slowly strangling the already overstretched empire.

Although a flagrant violation of the principle of nationality, the Treaty of London was typical of old diplomacy. Italy’s demands for strategic bases in the Adriatic followed Britain’s logic of maintaining naval bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus and Malta. Not content with fiddling with the Mediterranean, Britain and the Entente were also re-arranging the Middle East and Mitteleuropa. The Constantinople agreements between the Entente meant that the Bosporus straights were promised to the Russians on March 14. The Entente also baited Bulgaria with Serb land in Macedonia and Romania with the Hungarian territory of Banat. Further East, Britain also offers Hussein bin Ali Sharif of Mecca their recognition of an independent Arab kingdom. Seton-Watson saw secret treaties as ‘iniquitous’ and he soon put himself at the forefront of lobbying against the problem of secret diplomacy and calling for a new European order.


The Scottish writer embarked on an intensive campaign on behalf of the subject nations of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Targeting the Treaty of London, he published a letter in The Times: ‘To all the South Slavs of Austro-Hungary this war has been one long and hideous martyrdom. There is one means, and only one means of rendering it popular. It is that Italy should engage in the war with the object of annexing the Dalmatian coast and islands. In that event, the entire population will offer a desperate resistance to the Italian invader, and Austria-Hungary, by representing the Entente powers as the inspirers of an anti-Slav conspiracy, will have one last chance of rallying her disaffected southern Slav populations.’ The Scottish writer felt that the Treaty of London drove a wedge between the prospects of an Italo-Slav, anti-Germanic shield. This possible Slav-Italian alliance was seen as vital to act as chief barrier to Germanic expansionism, from which a re-framed and revitalised liberal brotherhood of nations would replace papist, conservative and authoritarian Austria-Hungary.

As a reaction to the mute anxiety represented by Kafka’s Mitteleurope, in 1915 Seton-Watson helped establish the school of Slavonic studies that would give the subaltern subjects of Austro-Hungary a platform in London. The school was also intended as a training ground for Foreign Service and a source of policy advice regarding Central and Eastern Europe. Seton-Watson became the first holder of the chair of Central European history. The inaugural lecture was held by Masaryk, on October 1915, the same month that Kafka had published his ‘Metamorphosis’, reflecting on the ‘The problem of small nations in the European crisis’. Seton-Watson claimed that this was ‘a challenge to Britain to cast off her insularity, to neglect Europe’s race problems at her own peril’. Masaryk’s lecture made a plea for the recognition of ‘the rights of small nations of Europe to self-determination’. In the same year, Masaryk wrote to the British foreign office hoping to have Pan-Slav aspirations play a role in physically dividing Austria from Hungary and driving a wedge in the Pan German plans.

The future Czechoslovak president argued for a territorial link between a South Slav and a Czechoslovak state for: ‘this corridor would facilitate the economic interchange of both countries –industrial Bohemia and agricultural Serbo-Croatia. By forming this corridor the Allies would prevent Germany from colonizing the Balkans and Asia Minor, and they would prevent the Magyars from being the obedient advance guard of Berlin.’ The current head of the Austrian army museum, Dr Ortner explained in an interview that: ‘what became the federal state of Burgenland after the war was assigned to Austria so Hungary would forever be in dispute with its neighbour.’ Aside from the Czechs, numerous exile groups like the Yugoslav committee made London their base from 1915. They worked with Seton-Watson in an energetic lobbying campaign to press for a unified south-Slav state. The most notable success of this was the exhibition of the Croatian sculptor Meštrović at the Victoria and Albert museum in London, whose captivating statues of Slav folk heroes were reviewed as rare examples of contemporary art that ‘stabs the spirit awake.’ Lobbying from London, Seton-Watson and his followers aimed to make the Slavs of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy a shield against Pan-German expansionism prescribed in Naumann’s Mitteleuropa.


The 1915 publication of Mitteleuropa was seen by the Entente as the emergence of a German continental behemoth. Mitteleuropa envisaged a confederate system that was German in culture and language, just like Kafka had been. Mitteleuropa did not envisage a super state organised on German lines but rather a federation of sovereign countries that joined together willingly as equals on the basis of mutual agreements and mutual interests. Only defence and economic planning were dealt by a common authority. Naumann felt that small states have no chance in the world of the 20th century and that only a large, supranational entity could reconcile polar opposites like state and economy, the Emperor and the working class and German and Slavic populations. Despite representing only the opinions of the author, outside Germany it was taken to be the official German aim not just for the domination of central Europe but also replacing the Ottoman Empire as the major empire in the Middle East. A map titled ‘The Pan-German plans as realised by war in Europe and Asia’ shows how the territories of the Central powers were seen to threaten British interests in the Suez, Bombay and Cape Town through the transcontinental Berlin-Bagdad railway project.

Fear of a turbo-German Europe can be seen in the writings of Chesterton, who wrote in 1915 that: ‘this is not a quarrel between England and Germany but between Europe and Germany. Prussia is the captain of the Germanics in shining armour. Austria a loyal secundant whose hands are tied by the whips of German superiors.’ Chesterton echoed Seton-Watson’s sentiments when he described the war as a ‘crusade for national rights against German and Magyar despotism.’ British wartime propaganda had labelled the Germans as ‘the Hun’ to transform the enemy into a mere prolongation of the rampaging, barbaric Hunnic Empire, once again bent on destroying civilisation. Alarmed at the Entente’s duplicitous policies like the treaty of London and the real possibility of a German dominated Mitteleuropa, Seton-Watson set up the newspaper ‘The New Europe’ as an Atlantic riposte to the spectre of wholescale European Kafkaesque entrapment. The weekly claimed to be ‘the only paper in which a full analysis of internal developments in Austria and Hungary could be found’ and stood for ‘the rights of small nations’. Indeed, the entry of the UK into the war had been justified in the name of the rights of small nations like Belgium and Serbia to independence, which 1915 secret diplomacy had forgotten. The New Europe thought dismantling Austro-Hungary was the key to allied victory.

The New Europe can be interpreted as a voice of the voiceless, answering the hoarse calls of Kafka or Nazor. Aside from Masaryk, the paper had contacts within the exile groups such as the Polish general Pilsudski and the chairman of the Yugoslav committee Trumbić. Its numerous European contributors included members of the Academie Française. The British contingent included Oxbridge graduates such as the MP Whyte, the director of King’s College London and the historian Arnold Toynbee. The famous historian imagined: ‘A pluralism of self-governing nations would be capable to live side by side’. The New Europe antidote to Pangermanism was the creation of a new European order resting on the principle of nationalities. For this reason it is striking that the Irish question was never brought up, despite being founded after the nationalist Eastern Rising in Dublin. Their focus on events across the channel meant that The New Europe was one of the few media outlets that supported and gave coverage to the first Russian Revolution in 1917 and rejoiced itself about the fall of the tsarist regime that Seton-Watson described as “corrupt, brutal and crassly superstitious”. As Europe’s Great War entered its fourth year, a new Europe was already beginning to emerge as the Brest-Litovsk agreement rearranged the map of Europe in the interest of Berlin.

Russia’s withdrawal and the USA’s entry into the war meant that The New Europe gained Wilson as an ally. Despite the Austro-Hungarian and German armies merging, the K.u.K army collapsed in 1918. Wilson’s principle of ‘self-determination’ lead states like Czechoslovakia and the South Slav parts to declared independence in 1918. Due to the Treaty of London, the Eastern Adriatic question emerged as a political Rubik’s cube, with the former Hungarian port of Rijeka being at the epicentre of rival claims. The pro-Yugoslav partisanship of The New Europe in the Adriatic question would lead to many of its Italian contributors to withdraw, with one of them noting that: ‘the point of view taken by ‘The New Europe’ is too Yugoslav in taste’. Wilson’s 14 points meant that the treaty of London was annulled, for the 9th point demanded ‘a readjustment of the frontiers of Italy along clearly recognisable lines of nationality’ and was thus hostile to Italy’s annexation plans for Rijeka and Dalmatia.

Wilson’s rejection of Rome’s maximalist claims led to the Italian president Orlando to declare that ‘he could ‘not accept the propositions of President Wilson as the line of the Eastern Adriatic border that he has taken is that which has been published by ‘The New Europe’ which is a form of official publication of the Yugoslavs’. Sketched out by Sir Arthur Evans in the October 1917 edition of The New Europe, the map erased both British promises and Italian expectations of 1915 by adjusting the Eastern Adriatic border towards Istria. Steed’s good relations with the British foreign secretary Balfour and Wilson’s deputy colonel House resulted in Wilson validating Evans’ border proposal. Writing to the Italian president, the Versailles victors pointed out that Rijeka ‘taken as a whole is Slav, not Italian.’ The letter finished by noting that Rijeka should not be ‘severed from the territories to which economically, geographically and ethnologically it naturally belongs.’ The Italian delegation promptly left the negotiations in protest, complaining of ‘mutilated victory’ and seriously damaging Seton-Watson’s vision of an Italo-Slav alliance as a brake on German aspirations.

After Versailles was signed, the Italian poet D’Annunzio and two thousand Italian veterans occupied the port of Rijeka. For a brief period, the former Magyar port became a centre of the world’s attention. After forcing the withdrawal of Entente forces, D’Annunzio attempted to deflect the illegitimacy of his occupation through playing the anti-imperialist, anti-British card: ‘We may all perish under the ruins of Fiume, but from the ruins our spirit will rise strong and active. From the indomitable Sinn Fein in Ireland to the Red Flag… That voracious empire which has taken possession of Persia, Mesopotamia, the new Arabia, a great part of Africa, and is not yet satisfied, can, if it wants, send its aerial murderers to us’. The inventor of the black shirts and the raised hand salute defiantly announces ‘a crusade of all poor and free men, against the nations which are usurpers and accumulators of riches. This new crusade will establish true justice; justice which has been crucified by a cold hearted madman with his 14 blunt nails and with a hammer borrowed from the German chancellor’. Despite the Italian navy bombing D’Annunzio out of his self-proclaimed republic, the subsequent treaty of Rapallo in 1920 gave Rijeka to Italy.

As Versailles Europe replaced Vienna Europe, it seemed that The New Europe’s aim was achieved. By 1920, due to financial problems, Seton-Watson was forced to stop publishing, with the ultimate article mentioning that: ‘the dominant currents of thought during the war all had a supranational orientation. The three great doctrines of the war- the League of nations, Mitteleuropa and the Bolshevik international were different expressions of this feeling; and despite the irreconcilable conflict between them, they are symptoms of a universal state of mind.’ Seton-Watson finished the article lauding Wilson and the League of Nations, which ‘still holds the field in popular imagination. This is our good reason for refusing to despair of the Commonwealth of Europe.’ His major legacy was to ventriloquize the subaltern silence brooded over by Kafka and Nazor in the pages of The New Europe. Many of Seton-Watson’s friends from the region such as Masaryk and Beneš in Czechoslovakia, Trumbić and Pribičević in Yugoslavia and Mainu and Vaida in Romania would soon achieve political eminence in their countries. The Czechoslovak government would donate a significant amount of money in 1920s to make possible a home for the school of Slavonic studies in London’s elegant Bloomsbury district. Sharp eyed observers in the Orwellian looking Senate house library will notice that the Masaryk room still exists as a tribute to the philosopher-politician.

Despite the closing of The New Europe, the seeds of a new order were already visible in 1920 as the Little Entente consisting of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania was established. This alliance aimed to prevent Hungarian revisionism or Habsburg restoration. Rather like on the Adriatic, Seton-Watson and Steed would play a key role in the Trianon territorial arrangement through their work as government advisors. While Seton-Watson would gain honorary degrees from Zagreb, Belgrade, Prague and Bratislava, in Hungary he was blamed for the loss of two thirds of the lands of the crown of St Stephen. This ‘ill-deserved robbery’ meant that Seton-Watson has been described by Hungarian historians as ‘one of the spiritual preparers of the mutilation of our country’ due to the millions of Hungarians that remained outside the border of Hungary. The Hungarian minority in Romania today remain the EU’s largest ethnic minority. Mournful anti-Trianon monuments in Hungary often show a guillotine poised above a map of the pre-1918 Magyar territories.

In the interwar period, Seton-Watson’s influence declined. The First World War was the last conflict where one man could significantly influence policy. After 1920, this was no longer possible, with his sons Christopher and Hugh noting that ‘after 1920, Britain’s influence in international affairs declined considerably.’ Yet Britain would continue to mark Central Europe. Like the Treaty of London, Britain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938 Munich agreement gave away other people’s liberty to a state bent on war. Chamberlain’s comment that Czechoslovakia was a question of ‘a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing’ was anathema to Seton-Watson who strongly opposed appeasement and responded that ‘peace can neither be attained by yielding to dictation nor by the suppression of awkward facts’. By the time the Second World War broke out, Seton-Watson could do little as the government mobilised human and material resources and made sure that nothing which might affect policy should be done outside its control. Churchill’s percentages agreement and conceptualisation of the Iron Curtain in the 1940s can be seen as the last major impact of the British Empire on Central Europe.

As a battered Europe emerged from the ashes, the Kafkaesque silence would return to haunt Central Europe. The 1948 defenestration of Masaryk’s son in Prague represents the submergence into a mute, darker captive mind. Barbed wire, torture and Soviet tanks made the bumbling bureaucrats of Kakanien and Schweiks in suicidaly handsome uniforms seem quaint. Observing the change whilst playing with dates, Orwell’s 1984 dystopian novel accurately captured the totalitarian tragedy of Central Europe. As 1984 arrived, with a melancholic melange of Kafka and Orwell’s nightmares on his mind, the exiled Czech writer Kundera lamented the tragedy of Central Europe which had been ‘kidnapped, displaced and brainwashed’. Kundera embraced what Magris called the Habsburg myth, wistful literary recreations of a world that had vanished but not disappeared, lamenting a pre-1914 world of social harmony, tolerance and order.


As the Habsburg myth of social harmony re-emerged in Central Europe, its spirit chipped away at Seton-Watson’s broken mirror interpretation of Austro-Hungary. Zweig’s ‘ordered world with definite classes and calm transitions’ or Kosztolány’s yearning for borderless travel from Budapest to Rijeka was reinterpreted as a missed chance by Kundera. Like Zweig, Kundera wrote from exile with melancholic affection for what Kafka could not stand, lamenting ‘the Austrian’s failure as the misfortune of the whole of Europe. Dissatisfied, the other nations of central Europe blew apart the empire in 1918, without realising that in spite of its inadequacies, it was irreplaceable’. Austria was ‘ripped out of its Central European setting… losing all of its importance. It would take the fall of the Iron Curtain, appropriately cracking first on the Austro-Hungarian border for the Alpine republic again to function as a pole of attraction for Central Europe.

As the Berlin wall fell and a reunited Germany supported the secessionist South Slav republics of Slovenia and Croatia, European heads of state like Mitterrand and Thatcher sounded alarmist calls against Mitteleuropa again being pulled perilously into orbit around a German sun. Yet it was the Pan-Europa of Otto Habsburg and EU enlargement that was to become the watchword of the new Europe. After entering the EU in 1995, Austria became the largest beneficiary of EU enlargement, with its investments in the region going from almost zero in the 1990s to nearly €19 billion in 2004. Most of the investments remain financial intermediation. Austrian banks have replaced soviet tanks in the former states of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Today Austria, as its national anthem joyfully exclaims, ‘lies at the heart of the continent like a strong heart, bearing since ancient times the burden of a high mission. A century ago, Austro-Hungarian subjects toiled in frozen trenches and tunnelled through the embattled Alps. Today many toil in the cold comfort of credits taken from Austrian banks, with their previously flawless credibility recently being shattered by the bankruptcy of the Hypo Alpe Adria bank.

In March 2015, Austrians gathered at the Diplomatic academy in Vienna to hear the first call for project proposals in an event sponsored by the Austrian federal government. The latest EU regional investment plan Interreg Central Europe that aims to invest 246 million Europe for transnational co-operation among Central European cities and regions. According to Peter Schneider, a spokesman for the organisers, the idea is: ‘to decentralise development and make it more focused on smaller towns and regional projects.’ Despite the money first being sent to Brussels, like a hundred years ago, the money is managed and distributed around central Europe by Vienna. Interrg Central Europe, the EU’s cohesion policy program, aims at building transnational knowledge, creating networks and realising pilot actions in order to prepare large scale-investments. In this way, it performs a similar role to the Austro-Hungarian Empire which built roads, railways and lighthouses to connect its diverse population.

A hundred years after Naumann’s projections, Mitteleuropa indeed lives on through an Austrian sponsored research Institut für Donauraum und Mitteleuropa. For young scholars from Central Europe, the IDM organises research symposiums. Although Seton-Watson would shiver at the mention of Mitteleuropa, he would be pleased that English is the official language of symposiums. The director is former Austrian minister Busek, who reveals in an interview that ‘all central European countries who have joined the EU are a success but I had more hope for Hungary, which was previously the most liberal country and today due to power games has become an illiberal democracy, where the leader Orban has more in common with Erdogan and Putin’. He categorically rejects any link with Neumann’s Mitteleuropa, stating that ‘Naumann’s book had absolutely no influence on the IDM or anything else in the past, today or the future’. Despite his curt dismissal of any continuity between 1915 and 2015, the former Viennese deputy mayor lets slip the institute’s previous links to Sudeten German exile organisations, a transnational Mitteleuropean community par excellence. This year, perhaps as a secret tribute to the centenary of Naumann’s book, the subject of the annual Austrian teacher training seminar was the EU policy in the Danube region. This positive metamorphosis of Mitteleuropa imagines Europe’s means that the Danube today like a hundred years ago forms the vital link towards Oskar Janzi’s vision of the united states of the Danube.

A century after Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, the EU would certainly give The New Europe a lot to write about. With Britain preparing a referendum on EU membership, Seton-Watson’s 1915 aim to ‘focus discussion on the future of Europe’ strikes a familiar chord in 2015. Traveling between the Atlantic and the Adriatic today, Seton-Watson would experience mixed emotions. He would be ambivalent about the boomeranged subaltern issue of Scottish de-evolution. The collapse of the multinational copies of Austro-Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia would make him question the purpose of his wartime advocacy, since the successor states resemble the size of the average Cisleithanian province. The Danube German yet Romanian head of state Klaus Johannis would remind the Scottish journalist of the residual human mosaic of urban Mitteleuropa. The founder of ‘The New Europe’ would experience a sense of déjà vu in the EU’s muddle-headedness, German preponderance and accusations of unaccountability. In a continent similarly sclerotic today as in 1915, he would still encounter the melancholic combination of fatalism and nostalgia recalled by Kafka as: ‘beautiful days that would never come back with the same splendor’. Like Samsa’s bug in ‘The metamorphosis’, a hundred years later the EU is breaming with humanity, unable to fly and often supine in the face of danger. Larger than the Austro-Hungarian Empire yet somehow less important, the EU has absorbed the fate of Central European countries. This declinophobic destiny, which Kundera describes as ‘running the risk of becoming small’ hauntingly echoes the morbidly imagined but intensely real world of Kafka, whose timeless mediations still represent the nightmarish solitude of the EU, living impotently in a mesmerising worldwide whirlpool, while anxiously anticipating the destiny of Europe.