Britain's leading expert on Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the first half of the twentieth century. A historian whose books did much to explain the complicated region to a wider audience, his travels there also brought him into contact with many of its future national leaders.

Seton-Watson was born in 1879, the year after the Balkan settlement at the Congress of Berlin dashed Bulgarian national aspirations and helped to ensure that his academic life was always going to be far from uneventful. Strangely enough, he had originally intended to specialise in the German Reformation until a research trip to Vienna aroused his interest in the many nationalities of Austria-Hungary.

He initially viewed the Magyars, who dominated the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy and had starred in a glorious but abortive French-style revolution in 1848, with the enthusiasm of the student romantic nationalist who had published a volume of poetry called Scotland Forever! while still at school.

Visiting Hungary for himself and witnessing what the Magyars called assimilation and the Slovaks, Romanians and Croats called repression soon robbed him of the idea, and he brought the widespread rigging of Hungary's 1910 elections to Western attention by publishing Absolutism in Croatia.

A tireless champion during World War I of the need for Austria-Hungary to be broken up into its component national parts, he was only converted to this view after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914. The Archduke's circle had been steadily calling for trialism, a reorganisation of the Monarchy which would give the South Slavs - Austria's Serbs, Croats and Slovenes - autonomy as a unit with the same powers as Austria and Hungary.

Seton-Watson had believed trialism was the Habsburgs' last chance to keep the South Slavs, increasingly attracted by a rising Serbia, satisfied and loyal; by the time war broke out, he'd swung over to the opinion of his close friend Henry Wickham Steed, the foreign editor of The Times, that the Monarchy could not and should not survive.

Sought out by the Foreign Office for his wealth of knowledge, Seton-Watson spent most of his time in the early years of the war with various national leaders who had managed to escape from Austria-Hungary, or in the case of the Croat Frano Supilo had happened to be up in the Swiss Alps at the time. (It's all right for some.) Supilo was one of the leading members of the Yugoslav Committee of Croat, Serb and Slovene émigrés from Austria-Hungary. Under the chairmanship of the Dalmatian lawyer Ante Trumbić, it formed in Italy and moved to London in April 1915.

Steed quickly put him in touch with the future Czech president Tomas Masaryk, for whom he secured a lectureship at King's College, London. In between advising the Foreign Office and organising the Serbian Relief Fund, which sent humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Serbian army, he found time to talk thousands of primary schools into celebrating Kosovo Day. Although a Serbian national festival, Seton-Watson intended the event to draw attention to all the Croats, Slovenes and Serbs in whatever country they happened to live.

Perhaps his finest hour as an unofficial publicist was the founding of his weekly magazine The New Europe, which ran from 1916 to 1920. TNE attracted not only like-minded British propagandists as contributors, but a roll-call of eminent European liberal internationalists such as Salvador de Madariaga and the Russian Pavel Milyukov, a protagonist of the February Revolution.

Seton-Watson became further drawn into British officialdom after he was unexpectedly called up to the army in 1917. Steed, and Seton's sons, believed this was the work of a meddlesome Liberal MP by the name of Joseph King, prepared to use any means to avoid Britain committing herself to other people's aspirations and needlessly prolonging the war. (Did anyone say 'A far-away country of which we know nothing?')

He kicked his heels on basic training in Blackpool for a month until the intervention of a friend of his with Navy connections won him a job at the Intelligence Bureau of the Foreign Office summarising newspaper reports from Austria-Hungary and reminding them, whenever given half a chance, what ought to be done with it.

The next year he moved to the new Department for Propaganda in Enemy Countries, joining Steed under his press-baron boss Lord Northcliffe. The pair took advantage of Northcliffe's frequent bouts of illness to ensure the Department targeted Austria-Hungary first, their strategy being to undermine her by encouraging her Slav soldiers to desert and her Slav populations to secede.

In 1918 the British government finally accepted that Austria-Hungary couldn't be detached from Germany and assisting the various nationalities would help to knock her out of the war sooner. ('Emperor Karl von Habsburg, you are the weakest link. Goodbye.')

While they eventually committed to Czechoslovak independence, the Allies never fully recognised the Yugoslavs during the war - to Seton-Watson's dismay - at the insistence of the Italian foreign secretary Sidney Sonnino, who had his eye on territory in Istria and Dalmatia. These claims were strongly contested by the South Slavs.

In fact, Seton-Watson spent a large part of 1918 banging Italian and Yugoslav Committee heads together to try to cut a deal that would satisfy both nations, only to have to reckon with the Serbian prime minister Nikola Pasic whom his Yugoslav friends suspected of supporting a Yugoslavian state as a front for continued Serbian domination.

Ultimately, neither of these last two efforts succeeded: no sooner had Italy signed an armistice with the disintegrating Austria-Hungary in November 1918 than she dashed in to occupy her Adriatic claims. The Yugoslavs' urgency to secure Serbian military support led them to rush into unification with Serbia, as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, before fine-tuning the constitutional arrangements, a disagreement which plagued the Yugoslavian kingdom throughout its life.

Seton-Watson's attacks on the Italian policy lost him his Italian contributors to The New Europe, angry that he wasn't as critical of the Croats where appropriate. The journal itself went under not long after, and he continued in the Masaryk Chair of Central European History at his School of Slavonic and East European Studies until 1945. He died in 1951, having looked on as his adopted nations passed through a second war, underwent Communist coups and became part of the Soviet bloc.

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