The New Europe or British intellectuals’ commitment to the small nations’ cause

By Claudia Louati | 16 November 2010

To quote this document: Claudia Louati, “The New Europe or British intellectuals’ commitment to the small nations’ cause ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 16 November 2010,, displayed on 18 August 2022

Nouvelle Europe has a British namesake, The New Europe, a radical review founded by Robert William Seton-Watson, a historian who specialized on Eastern Europe. If no line of descent exists between the two, it is interesting to study how, during the First World War, a British interest in the fate of Eastern and south-Eastern countries emerged and expressed itself through this publication. With the recent creation of Nouvelle Europe – United Kingdom, our new editorial office based in London, the history and development of this British review, which focused on the “new” Europe, become all the more interesting.

From the Yugoslav cause to the defence of Poland's independance, a committed review

The main focus of The New Europe was “the liberation of oppressed people of the Southern, Central and Eastern parts of the continent”. Founded in 1916, it gathered a certain number of eminent politicians, members of government, journalists, who were all committed to the idea that Britain’s entry into World War I was justified in order to support small nations’ right of independence. In fact, they denounced Vienna’s violent reaction against Serbia after the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and emphasized the struggle for the respect of national integrity.

At first, William Seton-Watson sympathized with the Serbs and Croats without putting into question the existence of the Austrian empire. He reckoned that a reformed Habsburg Monarchy would democratically protect all its people and balance German and Russian power. The imminence of the War and the likely involvement of all European countries in a bloody conflict made him change his mind and embrace the Yugoslav cause. He wrote on 6 August 1914: “the Great Serbian State is inevitable; and we must create it. […] Dalmatia, Bosnia, Croatia, Istria must be united to Serbia”, leading therefore to the dismantling of the Habsburg empire. At the outbreak of the war, he became involved in the organization of help for Serbia with the creation of the Serbian Relief Fund, established by the end of September 1914. He also undertook a leading part in the drafting of the Yugoslav Manifesto that appeared in all the main London newspapers on 13th May 1915 and actively lobbied against the agreement between the Allies and Italy on Rome’s claims over Dalmatia.

Though in a less active manner, Seton-Watson also became interested in the Polish case. He became the honorary secretary of the Advisory Council of British Friends of Poland, an organization that aimed at “supplying reliable information on Polish matters to arouse the interest of the British nation in regard to Poland”. As complete independence appeared difficult to achieve, the Council advocated for “the complete autonomy for the whole country inhabited by Poles under Russian supremacy”, as Lord Eversley wrote to Seton in March 1916.

The idea of creating a review came to Seton-Watson’s mind during a journey in the Balkans. It was to be a regular review especially devoted to the problems of small nations and was first to be called the European Review. In the first issue, published on Thursday 19th October 1916, The New Europe was described as a “weekly review of foreign politics” and the aim was the creation of a “sane and well-informed body of public opinion upon all subjects affecting the future of Europe”. It militated in favour of an “integral” victory, that alone could “secure to Europe permanent peace and the reduction of armaments, the fulfilment of the solemn pledges assumed by statesmen towards our smaller allies, the vindication of national rights and public law, the emancipation of the subject races of central and south-Eastern Europe from German and Magyar control”. A few days after the launch of The New Europe, the inaugural meeting of the Serbian Society triggered offended reactions in Italy. Seton-Watson’s contributions were considered for censorship, as a British official wrote that they could potentially serve the Germans in their attempt to divide the Allies over Italy and the Balkans. However, the review gradually became extremely successful and was recognized by many as a brilliant periodical. It denounced the “Pangerman Plan” which revealed German desire to control Central and Eastern Europe and to create a “Berlin-Bagdad axis”. It also gave a great coverage of 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” (29th March 1917, “Russian Realities”). The end of the old order in Russia was seen by The New Europe as an opportunity for Poland to obtain its independence. When the founder of the review joined the Intelligence Bureau of the Department of Information, The New Europe‘s publications gained a certain influence over the British government and its official propaganda.

Criticism of The New Europe started to rise against the positive view that the review adopted towards the Bolsheviks. Certain contributors decided to leave, just like Italian contributors after the end of the War as The New Europe strongly opposed Italian claims in the Balkans. Seton-Watson however tried to re-establish the balance with an article published on 2nd January 1918 in which he called for a compromise and a reasonable settlement of the Adriatic question which would overcome “inadmissible claims” from both sides. The rupture with the Italians was however irreversible.

Writing history ?

The New Europe’s representatives played an important role during the Paris Peace Conference that basically drew the new map of Europe. Seton-Watson met constantly with British officials and influenced their views on the situation of Central and Eastern Europe and some British members of the Foreign Office were themselves contributors to the review. According to Seton-Watson, the Paris Conference brought about “the new Europe which [his review] had advocated”. It has been argued that the territorial post-war agreements followed the lines set by Britain, as its position was made stronger and more coherent than the other powers’ thanks to the advice of The New Europe. However, the influence of the review should not be overestimated: although its informed contributors enjoyed indeed some influence, the peace treaties were largely the results of politicians’ secret negotiations as Elizabeth Fordham explains. At that time, the review was also going through preoccupying financial difficulties and was challenged by the creation of a new paper that could potentially become a major competitor. The editors then agreed on the development of a literary and artistic section, which was presented as a diversification of The New Europe’s activities in a post-war context that required less focus on foreign policy. It however continued to pay attention to international events and strongly supported the creation of the League of Nations, deploring American’s refusal to get involved in the new organization. It also gave detailed accounts on the Treaty of Trianon and its negotiation, and greeted for example the new frontiers of Hungary.

The New Europe's legacy : insights towards the future of a reunified Europe

Financial difficulties and a certain discouragement on the part of Seton-Watson led however to the end of The New Europe. Although one can deplore its short existence, its achievements are far from insignificant. It raised the awareness of British public opinion and officials on the right of self-determination for the people of Central and Eastern Europe and actively contributed to the territorial debate after the end of the Great War. It sometimes acted as an "expert lobby group" and can be defined as a powerful "think thank" which combined political action and thorough academic thinking. Its support for education and the creation of international relations department in different universities also show how a review could actively participate in the renovation of the teaching of foreign policy and foreign history. In that sense, The New Europe showed the way to its followers. It also established a lasting (even if irregular) preoccupation in Britain about the fate of non-Western Europeans. In the end, The New Europe’s commitment to the question of self-determination is still incredibly topical: with the reunification of Europe, the consequent EU enlargement and the progressive – but still incomplete – settlement of territorial issues in the Balkans, Seton-Watson and his associates would probably have much to write about nowadays. Fortunately however, Nouvelle Europe took over.


Pour aller plus loin 

A lire

  • Fordham ,Elizabeth, "Le combat pour la New Europe. Les radicaux britanniques et la Première Guerre Mondiale", in Mil Neuf Cent. Revue d'histoire intellectuelle, 2005/1 n°23
  • Messinger, Gary S., British propaganda and the state in the First World War, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1992
  •  Seton-Watson, Hugh and Christopher,The Making of a New Europe: R.W. Seton-Watson and the last years of Austria-Hungary, London, Methuen, 1981

Source : N22-006_0001 par peacepalacelibrary, sur flickr