Ernest Thompson Seton: A scout appeals for peace

Ernest Thompson Seton, photo: Public Domain

Ever since the publication of the first Czech translation of Longfellow’s Hiawatha in the 1860s, Czechs have had a special affection for the American West. This was always more than just a fantasy about the space and freedom of the open plains; for many Czechs, after centuries under Austrian rule, there was also a somewhat romanticized sense of identity with the fate of Native Americans at the hands of white settlers. So it is not surprising that when scouting gained popularity at the time of the First Czechoslovak Republic, it took on many symbols associated with the American Indian. As David Vaughan reports, a major role in this process was played by the writer Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the pioneers of scouting in the United States, who visited Czechoslovakia in 1936.

Ernest Thompson Seton,  photo: Public Domain
This is the last of a series of programmes I have been making in cooperation with journalism students from the Anglo-American University, working from the Czech Radio archives. The starting point is a recording of a talk that Ernest Thompson Seton gave for Czechoslovak Radio during his 1936 stay in Prague. This was part of what he himself called a peace mission to Europe – Thompson Seton and his wife Julia, who was also a writer, visited several European countries – at a time when war was looming. Here is Thompson Seton, opening his talk.

In days like these one can accept or assume no higher or better mission than that of peace messenger, a personal messenger of peace and understanding among the nations.

Given that he was one of the most important figures in the history of the scouting movement, Ernest Thompson Seton deserves to be better remembered. He was also a writer, a pioneer of what today we would call “animal fiction”, the attempt to tell the story from the point of view of the animal itself. And he would often draw parallels between the hunting down of America’s wildlife and the fate of the country’s native population. Here in the Czech Republic he continues to have a loyal following and his influence is still felt strongly, even among people who have never heard his name: for example, in the particular stress that the Czech scouting movement places on spending as much time as possible in the countryside or in the continuing tradition of the “tramping” movement that also draws from Native American symbols.

In 2010 a conference was held here to mark the 150th anniversary of Thompson Seton’s birth and two years later, his biography by H. Allen Anderson was published in Czech translation. His visit to Prague in 1936 is also well recorded, and a significant fragment in that mosaic is the talk he gave to the radio.

The surest way to achieve understanding is by personal contact and conversation. There is a story told by Charles Lamb and his friend Steele [?], as they sat in their London coffeehouse. A stranger entered. Lamb glared at him, then growled to Steele, “I hate that man.” Steele laughed, “Why, you do not know him, you never even saw him before.” Lamb replied in a more reflective tone, “Perhaps that is why I hate him. If I really knew him, I probably would rate him as a jolly good fellow.”

Ernest Thompson Seton,  Robert Baden-Powell,  Dan Beard,  photo: Public Domain
Ever since founding his first scout group, the Woodcraft Indians, in Connecticut in 1902, Thompson Seton had been convinced that it was possible to live in harmony with the natural world and that this also implied living in harmony with each other. His ideas caught on very early in Czechoslovakia and the first Czech branch of the Woodcraft League was founded as far back as 1922. Its popularity spread and Thompson Seton’s visit to Prague in 1936 drew a good deal of attention. His popularity here was in part due to the same things that brought him into conflict with other central figures of the scouting movement in America and even with scouting’s founder, Lord Baden-Powell. Not everyone in the American scouting movement agreed with his focus on American Indian traditions, and his total rejection of militarism was far from Baden-Powell’s version of the movement. His pacifism is felt strongly in the talk preserved in the radio archive.

During the Great War many soldiers were taken prisoner by the opposing army. These prisoners were sent afar into military camps and prisons. They were fed, sheltered and, if wounded, had medical care. They had in short everything but freedom. Incidentally, they and their captors got acquainted, and although they had been taught to hate each other and to seek each other’s destruction, they now were subjected to other influences. They got acquainted, they began to understand each other. Understanding ripened into respect and respect into friendship. There can be no doubt that thousands of lifelong friendships were in that way founded during the war, all evidencing the great principle that understanding is the best remedy for misunderstanding. Of course, such work would be less expensive and more effectual if brought about by peaceful activities, and this is the wise thought which is at the back of all such undertakings as international expositions, world tours, Rhodes Scholarships, Olympic Games, Peace Ambassadors and whatever tends to make foreign travel easy and contact with foreign countries the great privilege within the reach of all that have moderate means. If I may speak of my personal experience and observation, I have never yet known a man to go and live with a foreign nation without wholly reforming his previous concept of them, especially if that appraisal had been unfavorable. Every American student who spent a few years in France or in Germany came back saying, “I have learned to love those French or those Germans now that I understand them.” Every Rhodes Scholar goes back from Oxford with a new and high appreciation of the old land and something like affection for its sterling qualities and even its eccentricities. I know of several men who spent years among the Negro tribes of Africa and came back in each case with a deep-rooted admiration of these so-called “primitives” and a real personal affection for many, if not all, of their black acquaintances.

Anglo-American University student Michaela Koštálová has made a study of the broadcast:

Michaela Koštálová,  photo: archive of David Vaughan
“The first half of the speech is talking about tolerance between nations and societies in general and I concluded that was why it was broadcast in Czechoslovakia in those days, because the atmosphere in Europe was very tense at that time. Hitler had already had absolute power in Germany for some two years, so it was pretty clear that it was quite possible that war was coming. His speech in general is something like a call for tolerance. He uses very noble phrases, calling for peace and understanding among nations, saying that understanding is the only remedy for misunderstanding. So he is persuading people to get to know each other.

“I find it interesting that he mentions students going abroad to get to know people and he mentions some of his friends or students who went to Germany, met Germans and became friends. Even though there are dissimilarities and a lack of real understanding among peoples, they can still respect and tolerate each other. And I think he mentions Germans on purpose, because at that time if everyone was against Germans, it would make them feel that they needed to fight to prove that they were good.

“I think that if I had been listening to the speech then, I would have found it really uplifting. You think that maybe everything’s going to be fine in the end. Now we know how it actually did turn out in the end, and it’s not easy to listen to it nowadays.”

Part of the tragedy is that scouts in Czechoslovakia ended up being really quite brutally suppressed during the German occupation and by the subsequent communist regime…

“Yes, because even the scout movement is a kind of ideology, or it developed into an ideology. In the Czech Republic the scout movement is called ‘Junák’ and on their website today they say that their main beliefs are fair play, cooperation with others, preserving the environment, a relationship to nature, and so on. These ideals are very democratic and clash with any totalitarian regime. So, of course, this movement was stopped by the Nazis and it happened again under communism.”

A large part of Thompson Seton’s 1936 talk is devoted to his own inspiration, drawn from the Native Americans, the people he describes as “the great Red Men of America”. To Czech audiences at the time this would have seemed both exotic and inspiring, as they stood in the shadow of war.

Fifty-odd years ago I went West to live on the plains of America in contact with the North American Indians. I was attracted by the glamor that Fenimore Cooper and other romanticists had shared about the red man. And yet I was warned and distrustful, because of countless alleged histories of Indians’ cruelty, Indian massacres, Indian cold-blooded atrocities. I had to live with them many years and accumulate a library of thousands of records, talk with hundreds of old-timers, who knew the truth, before I learned that all these stories of wickedness and cruelty were pure fabrications, wicked slanders, invented by the white men to justify the invaders in seizing the Indian lands and dispossessing him of all his property, his gain, his horses, his liberty, as well as his home and children. I came at last to the same conclusion as General Miles, Buffalo Bill and a score of outspoken leaders, who assured me that the Indian was the most heroic and noble type the world has ever seen. He was without degrading vice until the white man introduced whisky, horrible diseases and the love of money, and would easily have resisted the white invader, had he been equipped with the white men’s destructive weapons and boundless resources. The highest development of the red man’s culture was seen in Peru. We know now that under the Incas, those red men faced and solved all the great economic and social problems that are tormenting us today. We that are troubled over these great issues believe that we can most quietly and quickly get light and practical guidance by studying these methods and results of the great red men of the past. It is with this as my compelling thought and motive that I am going about from land to land proclaiming the methods and delivering the gospel message of the great red men of America.

I hope that in a future programme, we’ll be able look in some more detail at the continuing influence of Ernest Thompson Seton in this country.