140 years after this historical figure’s birth, Ambassador of Slovakia Ľubomír Rehák attends a ceremony at the grave of Professor Robert William Seton-Watson

WE OFTEN ONLY REMEMBERextraordinary or extravagant personalities in history. Professor Robert William Seton-Watson was a British political activist and historian who was quite well-known in his time, but nowadays, his active role in encouraging the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is widely forgotten.

Born in London to Scottish parents, he later lived the Isle of Skye, but he was also a truly committed traveller, as his Latin pseudonym Scotus Viator(‘travelling Scotsman’) indicates. He worked at Oxford University, at King´s College London, the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, and was an analytical expert at the Foreign Office dealing with Central and South-Eastern Europe – be it at the Department of Enemy Propaganda during World War I or the Political Intelligence Department during World War II. From 1946 to 1949 he was President of the Royal Historical Society.

Throughout his life, he was also an active journalist, writing mainly for The Spectatorand The Times. He usually added a note to his articles: “Further information will be gladly supplied to those who write to the address: Ayton House, Abernethy, Perthshire”.  So, the local post office was busy with his correspondence from both the UK and abroad.

Seton-Watson was also a key historical personality in Slovakiaand other countries in the region. Wishing to write a history of Austria-Hungary,he enrolled at Vienna University in 1905 and started to study Policy on National Minorities, (then called ‘a racial question’) in the Kingdom of Hungary. As an admirer of the liberal Hungary of Lajos Kossúth, he became a relentless critic of the Hungarian government for its systematic violation of national rights and its policy of Magyarisation of the non-Magyar nationalities. “The Magyars try to keep back the truth from me,” he noted in 1907.

The Slovaks, who settled in the upper part of the Kingdom of Hungary much earlier than the Magyar tribes who came to the Carpathian region in the tenth century, were the most victimised by this policy of national oppression. Slovaks were brutally chastised for any display of their Slavic identity.  They were denied the right to speak and be educated in their own language – indeed they were even denied the right to exist.  Seton-Watson remarked: “under such a system of repression it is a marvel that there are any educated Slovaks left.”

Seton-Watson passionately studied the situation in Slovakiaand other parts of the Kingdom with minorities, including Romanians, Ruthenians, Serbs and Croats. In 1907 he published an account in The Timesnewspaper of Magyar gendarmes shooting a crowd of Slovak peasants at Černová who were protesting against the exclusion of Slovak priest Andrej Hlinka from the consecration of a new church in the village. Seton-Watson defended his Doctorate of Letters in 1910 with the publication of his book, Racial Problems in Hungarytwo years earlier, making a reputation for himself as a specialist in Central Europe.
One remarkable detail that complements Seton-Watson’s magnanimity is that royalties from the Czech edition of the book were used as bursaries for Slovak Protestant theology students at the University of Edinburgh. The first two, Fedor Ruppeldt (later Bishop of Žilina) and Vladimír Roy, (who went on to become a prominent Slovak poet), arrived at the end of 1910 followed by Martin Rázus and a number of others. Rázus became an outstanding poet, politician and a member of the Czechoslovak parliament.

Seton-Watson was not only a specialist, but he was a sincere friend of many political activists and members of the cultural elite in Slovakia, and he was a voice who brought our name and our suffering before the European forum. As Father Hlinka wrote: “The Slovak nation owes a debt of gratitude to this man, for without him the work of our liberation would not have been accomplished.”

Seton-Watson was instrumental in forming the idea of a new Republic of Czechoslovakia by the British establishment during World War I, and he was advising the leaders of Czechoslovakia right up until his retirement. In the Slovakia town of Ružomberok, there is a bust of Seton-Watson on the building of the Municipality Office remembering his intervention in the Černová case. On the bridge over the Morava River joining the Czech Republic and Slovakia there used to be a plaque commemorating the 30th anniversary of Seton-Watson’s first visit to Slovakia’s territory. Unfortunately, it was thrown into the river in 1939 when the Nazis came to power. Now, Slovak diplomats are working on the idea of unveiling Seton-Watson’s bust in Bratislava.

It is remarkable to note that, like a true friend, he was not afraid to voice his criticisms of Czechoslovak politics from time-to-time.  In an introduction of remarks on his father’s documents, published by the Masaryk Institute and Matica Slovenská in 1995, his son Christopher Seton-Watson states: “Despite his English education he remained a Scot in spirit and outlook. The Union of England and Scotland in 1707, in which the two nations have since lived in harmony while retaining their separate identities, seemed to him the ideal model for other countries with national problems, such as Czechoslovakia.” That’s why he disagreed with Father Hlinka’s autonomist requirements in the 1920s and 1930s. But equally, he discreetly criticised Prague for mistakes in policy line towards German and Hungarian minorities and the treatment of Slovaks. In propaganda in Budapest, he was described as a villain and enemy of the Magyars. Obviously, that was not true either. He was critical of Magyarisation, chauvinism and revisionism, but he was fair and friendly to the Hungarian people, as former foreign minister Géza Jesenszky also mentioned.

Between the wars, Czechoslovakia was a prosperous and democratic country, but its deficiencies played a significant role in its collapse under external pressure from Adolf Hitler. During that time, Seton-Watson was a valuable advisor to the Czechoslovak government in exile in the UK. Here, in Scotland, the best of the Czechoslovak armed forces trained with the Special Operations Executive in Arisaig to be sent to the occupied country. Among them was Slovak Jozef Gabčík, who was leader of the group that assassinated Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. Other soldiers who trained here participated in the Slovak National Uprising, the 75th anniversary of which we celebrated on 29 August.  Seton-Watson suffered during Czechoslovakia’s fall to Soviet oppression after 1948. Czechs and Slovaks tried to reverse history again in the 1960s but were brutally suppressed again. On 20 August we remembered the start of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops in 1968.

As we commemorate this great man, I am confident that he would be satisfied with the results of his work; a consolidated Central Europe, with self-confident nations, like Slovakia and the Slovakian people, who he helped save from extinction. Thank you, Professor.


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