[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] A Case Study on Trianon

Part I


(See maps at the end of the book)

Hugh Seton-Watson

R. W. Seton-Watson and the Trianon Settlement

The following is a provisional estimate of the attitude of R. W. Seton-Watson to the Treaty of Trianon. This is of course a part of his general relationship to Hungary, and it is necessary in this article to refer from time to time to that wider background.

Seton-Watson completed his studies of History in Oxford in 1902, and a year later, on the death of his father, inherited an income which relieved him from any immediate need to enter a regular profession, thus enabling him for some years to devote himself to the study of European history and contemporary politics. After two and a half years in Germany, France and Italy-mainly in Berlin and Paris-he came to Austria-Hungary at the end of 1905.

At that time he was very favorably disposed both to the Monarchy and to Hungary. His view of the Monarchy was based on respect for the Habsburg dynasty and its historical achievement, as well as on sympathy for a European state which had long been Britain's ally, and seemed by its very nature to be committed to the sort of European balance of power which it was then considered to be Britain's interest to support. In the Hungarians he saw a nation which had made great sacrifices for the cause of liberty, and also had traditional links with Britain. Hungarian liberalism, whose parliamentary style seemed to resemble the British, and Hungarian Calvinism, which had much in common with the Presbyterian culture of his native Scotland, attracted him. He arrived in Vienna when the conflict between the Hungarians and the Habsburg dynasty was at its height, and he came to Budapest at the time of the 1906 election which gave a big majority to the nationalist Coalition. Seton-Watson's sympathies were thus divided.

After some weeks in Budapest he traveled for some weeks more in the provinces. It was in Transylvania, where he met first Saxon and then Romanian spokesmen, that he first realized the acuteness of the "nationality question." It became clear to him that there was a three-cornered struggle between Vienna, Budapest and the Nationalities.

He would have liked to see all three reconciled with each other. In particular he hoped that agreement between Hungarians and Nationalities would make possible pressure on Vienna to institute more liberal government. As it became clear to him that this was not possible-and his second journey to Hungary in 1907, to the Slovak regions, Ruthenia and Budapest, confirmed this belief-then his hopes were placed on the alternative of joint pressure by Vienna and the Nationalities on Budapest. This combination was associated with hopes of reforms by the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, when he should succeed the old emperor. These hopes were most forcibly expressed to Seton-Watson by Milan Hodza, the Slovak Agrarian, and Alexandru Vaida-Voevod, the Romanian nationalist leader. However, this combination also was disappointed: the Archduke was kept waiting, and Vienna antagonized at least three of the nationalities-Croats, Serbs and Czechs-no less than Budapest antagonized the others. One may in fact argue that the persistent conflict between all three elements-Crown, Hungarian leadership and Nationalities-in the end destroyed the Monarchy.

Seton-Watson's most active period of concern with Hungarian problems was in the years 1906-1908, culminating in the publication of his book Racial Problems in Hungary in the latter year. In the remaining years before 1914 he became more and more absorbed by Croatian and Serbian affairs, on which he published The South Slav Question and the Habsburg Monarchy in 1911 (enlarged German edition 1913). In these problems the role of Hungary was much smaller than that of Vienna, in which the leaders of the growing Yugoslav Movement saw their principal enemy. In 1910 there was an interlude, when Seton-Watson once more concentrated on Hungarian affairs. This was his study of the Hungarian parliamentary election of that year, which he personally witnessed in Szakolka (Skalice). His short book Corruption and Reform in Hungary appeared in 1911.

It is difficult to reconstruct precisely Seton-Watson's political hopes in relation to Hungary on the eve of the Great War. The notion of "Trialism," which would have replaced the Dualism of 1867 by adding a third unit, consisting of all the South Slav provinces,1 attracted him; but of course it would not have solved the nationality problems of Hungary. He continued to have hopes of Franz Ferdinand. Even after his assassination, in the brief period before the outbreak of war, he believed in the maintenance of the Monarchy.2

Probably his hope was that combined pressure from a new emperor and from the Magyar and non-Magyar peoples of Hungary would compel the introduction of universal suffrage in Hungary; and that not only the consequent enormous increase of non-Magyar representation, but also the entry of new democratic and socialist Magyar forces into the Budapest parliament would make possible far-reaching reforms. Certainly he had hopes of Oszkar Jaszi and of the Hungarian socialists, and in this was encouraged by Hodza, who considered that the land-hungry Magyar peasants were natural friends of the Slovaks.

This is the best estimate I can make. Understandably, as he was concerned with day-to-day problems, as well as with the impending appearance of a new international periodical, to be edited by him, entitled European Review,3 he had neither time nor inclination to record his overall view of Hungarian political prospects in the summer of 1914. What is certain is that, at this time, he had no expectation, or indeed desire, that either Slovakia or Transylvania would be removed from Hungary. He never referred in his correspondence of this period, to a new Czech-Slovak unit to be formed within the Monarchy; and as for Transylvania, not only did he himself not advocate incorporation into Romania, but he had good reason to believe that statesmen in the Romanian Kingdom, though desiring it in general terms, were opposed in practice because the consequent weakening of Austria-Hungary would strengthen Russia, and make Romania unhealthily dependent on the Russian Empire.4

* * *

All this changed when war broke out in Europe, and the Monarchy became the enemy of Britain. Seton-Watson regarded Austria's declaration of war on Serbia as proof that the Monarchy had abandoned its role as a major independent factor in the European balance of power, and had become an instrument of Pan-German expansionism, in which he considered the Hungarian ruling class to be willing accomplices. He therefore assumed that Entente victory must bring large-scale losses of territory to the Monarchy; and later, convinced by T. G. Masaryk's arguments for an independent Bohemia to include the Slovak lands, he became an advocate of the complete dissolution of the Monarchy.

In a letter of 6 August 1914 from London to his wife, we find the

words: "Dalmatia, Bosnia, Croatia, Istria must be united to Serbia ... Romania must have all her kinsmen."5

During the first half of the war, Seton-Watson had no official status, but was a sort of unofficial adviser to the British Foreign Office (with which he had had no connection at all until that time). In 1917 and 1918 he was in official employment, first in the Department of Information Intelligence Bureau (DIIB) under the War Cabinet, and then in the Enemy Propaganda Department, headed by Lord Northcliffe. His correspondence and papers show that his main concern was with Yugoslav affairs, affecting policy to both the enemy state Austria and the allied state Italy, and to a lesser extent with the Czechoslovak movement headed in exile by Masaryk and Benes. Hungarian problems played a smaller part, except in relation to Romania. The Slovak lands, which were politically quiet in these years, feature less. His weekly reports to DIIB on Austria-Hungary mention political events in Hungary, but they are less prominent than the affairs of the Cisleithanian Slav territories.

Seton-Watson visited Serbia and Romania in January and February 1915, with the encouragement of Sir Edward Grey. In Bucharest his main aim was to persuade the Romanians to come to the aid of Serbia. In an interview with the daily paper Adeverul he declared: "What Prussian militarism is for us, Magyar hegemony is for you: these are the principal obstacles to European progress. We together with our French and Russian allies must fight the German danger; but you with the Serbs must put an end to the brutal and artificial domination of the Magyar race over all its neighbors."

He was thus bitterly hostile to the dominant policies, and the dominant political leadership, of Hungary. At the same time, however, he was against excessive expansion by neighboring states at the expense of Hungary.

On 4 January 1915 he had a long conversation after dinner with Crown Prince Alexander in his HQ at Kragujevac. Alexander's map showed the borders which it was hoped to attain, and which included the annexation not only of all Bacska but also of the cities and districts of Nagykanizsa and Pecs. Seton-Watson argued that "if there are to be tolerable relations between the new state and the new Hungary, Serbian claims in Backa must be very considerably reduced, if not altogether abandoned" and that "Pecs and all its district are mainly Magyar and German, and must be left to Hungary under all circumstances. '6

As regards Romania, Seton-Watson was convinced that Transylvania and most of Banat must be ceded to Romania, but he did not accept the most extravagant claims of the Romanian government at the expense of Hungary. He was in no way involved in the diplomatic negotiations of 1916, but he learned the approximate terms of the treaty that was being prepared. On 21 July 1916 he wrote to his wife: "We seem-to my horror-to be promising them the Theiss frontier for immediate entry. That will put an end for ever to Magyar intrigues. Unhappily it will also make an independent Hungary almost impossible, and so might upset the whole balance further West."

In October 1916 Seton-Watson published the first issue of a weekly periodical, The New Europe, which lasted for four years, and in which he himself wrote many articles and small news items. He was allowed to continue this work after he became a government official, on condition that he ceased to be Editor and that his contributions were not signed with his name. At the end of the war, leaving government service, he resumed the formal editorship and signed his main articles again.

In the more than 200 issues of the periodical which appeared before it ceased publication in October 1920, Hungarian affairs are frequently discussed, and there is both general and detailed discussion of possible future frontiers. Seton-Watson assumed that Croatia, Banat, Transylvania, the Slovak and Ruthene provinces would be detached from Hungary, but was much less certain about Bacska. His principle was to make the frontiers coincide as far as possible with the ethnic distribution of the population, though certain cases were noted where injustice was inevitable for geographical reasons, by far the most important being the Szekely territory.

* * *

Seton-Watson was not a member of the British delegation to the post-war Peace Conference; but he spent several months of the winter of 1918-1919 in Paris as a member of the office of The Times in close partnership with that paper's Foreign Editor, his old friend from Vienna and colleague in the Enemy Propaganda Department, Henry Wickham Steed. Seton-Watson and Steed were in constant contact with members of the British, American and, to a lesser extent, also the French delegations, as well as with Czechoslovak,

Romanian and Yugoslav representatives. Seton-Watson was respected as an expert on Austria-Hungary, and probably had a certain amount of influence on the general attitudes of the professional diplomats and specialists; but in the only case in which he and Steed made a strong and sustained effort to propose a solution of a difficult problem-the drawing of the frontier between Yugoslavia and Italy in Istria-they failed.

Seton-Watson detested the political climate of the Peace Conference. He was indignant that decisions were made not on the merits of each case but in accordance with the party interests or even personal whims of the leading Allied politicians. He expressed his feelings in The New Europe of 1 January 1920, in a review of the recently published and later widely famed work of John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Fully agreeing with Keynes's description of the atmosphere of the Conference, he wrote: "However long I may live, I hope I shall never breathe such an atmosphere again. The true Paris had been submerged by a wave of fetid intrigue, and a babel of small men in big positions surged round a few big men whom the strain of an unexampled crisis had made small and sterile."

His attitude to Hungary in these months was strongly influenced by the changes in its rulers. The presence of Oszkar Jaszi in Michael Karolyi's government briefly awakened hopes of a better Hungary. (At this time, however, he regarded Karolyi himself with suspicion as a great landowner and a pre-1914 nationalist. It was only in the 1920's that he got to know Karolyi personally, and the two men became firm friends). However, the advent to power of Bela Kun aroused his worst fears. Seton-Watson shared the view, widespread at that time though subsequently shown to be unsound, that the Russian Bolsheviks were agents of Germany. He feared a resurgent unholy alliance of German and Hungarian militarism in co-ordination with Bolshevik revolution. The fact that Hungarian former officers supported Kun, in the belief that he would with Russian help maintain Hungary's territory, lent plausibility to these fears. His first visit to the new republic of Czechoslovakia, in May 1919, coincided with the successful Hungarian counter-offensive in Slovakia. After two weeks in Prague and two more in Slovakia, he returned to Paris to urge the allied authorities to give aid to the Czechoslovak forces.

Kun's replacement by the regime of Admiral Horthy gave Seton-Watson no satisfaction at all. As he saw it, the dangerous Bolshevik

regime had been replaced by the old political class, and Hungary seemed likely to be a centre of reaction and chauvinism in the future too.

Undoubtedly these events tended to preserve Seton-Watson's effective political hostility. His hopes of democratic forces in Hungary appeared unreal; and though he recognized that there were avoidable injustices in the frontiers which were now proposed by the Peace Conference for Hungary, he felt no inclination to battle on behalf of Horthy's Hungary against his friends in the succession states. In a full discussion of the proposed frontiers in The New Europe of 15 January 1920, with population figures for each of the counties of old Hungary (excluding Croatia), he noted that the settlement was "unduly severe to the Magyars," especially in the region of Subotica (Szabadka); in the Grosse Schutt island; and in the region of the frontier with Romania, which "could undoubtedly be pushed further east in such a way as to leave considerable numbers of Magyars in Hungary, without sacrificing more than a few thousand Roumanians." However, it was at least gratifying that "the idea of ceding Miskolcz and the Salgotarjan mines to Czechoslovakia, and Pecs (Funfkirchen) with its no less important mining district to Jugoslavia, would seem to have been abandoned. Both would have been acts of crying and gratuitous injustice." The arguments used by the spokesmen of Horthy's regime, and of their sympathizers in Britain, in order to modify the frontiers, infuriated him. In The New Europe of 22 April 1920, he referred to the argument of Count Apponyi that the cultural superiority of the Hungarians over neighbor peoples was proved by their higher level of literacy and the scanty number of non-Magyars with a middle-school training. "Such an argument in such a mouth is nothing less than infamous, for it was Count Apponyi himself who, by his Education Acts of 1907, carried to their utmost limit those methods of Magyarisation of the schools, to which above all the backwardness of Roumanian and Slovak education was due."

* * *

Between the world wars, Seton-Watson's attitude to the Trianon settlement was consistent. He continued to be aware of its injustices. Some of these he considered irremovable (above all, the Szekely situation). Others could be improved by frontier revision, to which

he was not dogmatically opposed. However, he did not believe that the way to improve Hungary's relations with its neighbors was to begin with frontier revision, but rather that political conciliation should be the aim, and that if once the political climate were improved, then revision could be one of the matters to be discussed.

However, he remained profoundly distrustful of the Horthy regime. He was convinced that the Hungarian leader's aim was not mere frontier revision, but a restoration of the old borders, regardless of the national aspirations of the non-Magyars. And indeed the statements of Hungarian leaders were profoundly ambivalent. The fact that revision was supported by Mussolini and by Lord Rothermere made it seem even less desirable to him.

More urgent, he believed, was the effective implementation of the rights of the Hungarian minorities, as provided by the peace treaties. In 1928, in a visit to Slovakia, his main purpose was to study the situation of the Hungarian minority. He met a number of Hungarian representatives, and received a number of written statements from Hungarians, some of which remain in the papers in our possession. After his inquiries, he wrote a long memorandum for President Masaryk, of which a copy also went to Foreign Minister Benes. There is a copy in the papers, together with a handwritten draft of a letter to Masaryk. There is no record of a reply from either of them; but this may be explained by the likelihood that they discussed it when they met in the following year.

He was also interested in the Hungarian minority in Romania, and on at least one occasion was able to intervene successfully on behalf of a Hungarian journalist. However, his opportunities were limited by the fact that his relations with the Liberal Party governments of the 1920's, dominated by the Bratianu family, were not good. Only when the National Peasants led by Maniu came to power in 1928 was there a better opportunity, and at that time the disputes about the return of King Carol II, and still more the onset of the world economic depression, drove Hungarian minority affairs into the background.

In Yugoslavia he was unable to do anything. In the 1920's the Serb-Croat conflicts absorbed almost all his attention. The dictatorship of King Alexander, introduced on 6 January 1929, developed in such a way that, in Seton-Watson's view, almost the whole population

of Yugoslavia became victims of repression. If nothing could be done for the Croats, or even for the Serbs, it was hopeless to think of the Hungarians.

In 1930 Seton-Watson had a conversation in London with Count Stephen Bethlen, of which a few notes have survived in his papers. The most interesting point which emerged was Bethlen's insistence on a high priority for the improvement of relations with Romania. The advent to power of Maniu, for whom Bethlen expressed respect, seemed to hold out hopes. Seton-Watson was impressed by Bethlen's personality. They did not discuss revision of frontiers, on which they simply "agreed to differ."

The economic depression, the rise of Hitler to power, the ascendancy of Gombos in Hungary, and the retreat of western statesmen before German and Italian claims, made frontier revision seem even less expedient to Seton-Watson. He argued against it in his short book Treaty Revision and the Hungarian Frontiers, published in 1934.

The cession of territory by Czechoslovakia to Hungary after the Munich agreement of 1938 was a source of deep disagreement between Seton-Watson and his younger colleague C. A. Macartney. These two had long known, respected and liked each other, and the differences between their views of the past and present of Central Europe were comparatively small. However, Macartney felt that, though Hitler's victory at Munich was bad, at least some good had come of it through the return to Hungary of territories with a mainly Magyar population; whereas Seton-Watson felt that Hitler was a deadly menace to all Europe, that any surrender to him was a disaster, and that any government which accepted favours from him was making itself his satellite and undermining its own national independence. Macartney put his view in an article in The Times shortly after Munich, and there followed a painful interchange of private letters between the two men.

During the Second World War Seton-Watson advocated the restoration of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania. In particular, he insisted in 1940 that Transylvania should be part of Romania. This by no means implied that the Romanian-Hungarian frontier of 1940 was sacrosanct in every detail. However, the views of Seton-Watson, Macartney and any other western scholar or politician on desirable future frontiers for Hungary were of absolutely

no importance, since the post-1945 frontier settlement was imposed unilaterally, by force, by the dominant Soviet empire.

* * *

Looking back over Seton-Watson's relationship to Hungary, and in particular to territorial problems, there can be no question that he was a consistent political opponent. This does not however mean that he hated Hungarians. On the contrary, he had Hungarian friends whom he greatly esteemed, especially Karolyi and Jaszi, and did his best, both between the wars and during the Second World War, to help Hungarians who had preferred exile to life in a Hungary increasingly dominated (though not with the consent of all Hungarian political leaders) by Hitler. The tragedy was that those Hungarians whom Seton-Watson respected-the radical liberals, socialists and believers in equal status for nationalities-were never in power in Hungary. When it briefly appeared that they might have some influence, they were summarily dismissed either by the old Right or by the extreme Left obedient to Moscow. Stephen Tisza and Stephen Bethlen, Bela Kun and Matyas Rakosi, all rejected, though in different degree, the values of Seton-Watson's Hungarian friends.

This summary, which is intended neither to criticize nor to defend but to explain, and which inevitably leaves a good deal still unexplained, is the best that I can do on the basis of the evidence known to me.


For more than ten years I have been studying-together with my brother Christopher, Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford-the papers of R. W. Seton-Watson in our joint possession, as well as searching for related documents in other archives, in the United Kingdom and abroad. The main result of these labors is a political biography written by us jointly, on the period of his life in which he was most active in political affairs: The making of a New Europe: R. W. Seton-Watson and the last years of Austria-Hungary. It was published jointly by Methuens (London) and the University of Washington Press (Seattle) in April 1981. Apart from this, two volumes of correspondence, together with some other miscellaneous documents, relating to Yugoslav matters, were published in Zagreb (Institute of History) and London (British Academy) in 1976. Edited jointly by us and by our Yugoslav colleagues, Ljubo Boban, Mirjana Gross, Bogdan Krizman and Dragovan Sepic, the volumes are entitled R. W. Seton-Watson and the Yugoslavs:

Correspondence 1906-1941. Both these books contain much material relating to Hungary. Three further articles by myself, containing excerpts from original documents or full texts, are. "R. W. Seton-Watson and the Romanians" in Revue roumaine d'histoire, no.1 (1971), pp. 25-42; "R. W. Seton-Watson's Einstellung zur Habsburger-Monarchie 1906-1914" in Osterreich in Geschichte und Literatur, no.6 (1973), pp. 361-381; and "Anton Stefanek and R. W. Seton-Watson" in Bohemia (yearbook of the Coliegium Carolinum in Munich) (1977), pp. 226-254. Further documents are contained in Szazadok, no. 4, (1977), pp. 749-774 entitled "Jaszi Oszkar es R. W. Seton-Watson levelezese az elso vilaghaboru elotti evekben," with an excellent introductory essay by Geza Jeszenszky. I am, at present, engaged, with Romanian colleagues, on the publication of a volume, similar to the Yugoslav volume of 1976, of documents relating to Seton-Watson's relations with Romanians. I also hope to produce a substantial study, probably a long article with documentary supplements, on his relations with Hungarians. Colleagues at the Historical Institute in Budapest have long expressed an encouraging interest in such an article, and it is my strong hope that I shall produce it soon. Unfortunately the burdens of life in our increasingly despised, obstructed, and bureaucratised universities (a phenomenon which of course also has its counterpart in the United States), together with the weaknesses to which all flesh is heir, have delayed me. Meanwhile. I am most grateful to Professor Kiraly for giving me the opportunity to offer this provisional, and insufficiently documented, contribution.


1. Probably not including Vojvodina, since the incorporation of the Serbs of Bacska and Banat in the South Slav unit would have been extremely difficult. See also below.

2. See his article "The Archduke Francis Ferdinand" in Contemporary Review, August 1914. The article was written before outbreak of war.

3. For details, see The Making of a New Europe, pp. 98-100. He counted very much on the co-operation of Jaszi.

4. See especially the statement to him in June 1909 of Take Ionescu. Ibid., p. 72.

5. Ibid., p. 102.

6. R. W. Seton-Watson and the Yugoslavs: Correspondence 1906-1941, Vol. I, no.117, pp. 192-193. This document is a memorandum written in Nish and dated January 12, 1915, intended for the Foreign Office.

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] A Case Study on Trianon