Archive for October 2013

Puskás, Goulash and 1956: Hungary and Britain   3 comments


Fifties’ Football: Legendary Links

In the ‘season’ following the Queen’s Coronation, 1953/54, the best football team in Britain were Wolverhampton Wanderers, from the ‘Black Country’ in the English Midlands. They were champions of the English First Division, the original name of what is now known as ‘the Premiership’ and they had beaten Glasgow Celtic in a ‘floodlit friendly’ at their home stadium, ‘Molineux’. Although this was the first time they had won the Football League Championship since they had been founder members in 1888/9, in previous ten seasons, excluding the war break, they had finished second three times, third twice, had two other placings in the top six, and had also won the FA (Football Association) Cup. They had a deserved reputation as a fast-attacking and well-disciplined team of tremendous athletes.

In the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, the Wolves captain Billy Wright also captained England, and two other players scored against the host team in their 2-0 victory, before the team lost to Uruguay in the quarter-finals, the team which the Hungarians beat in the semi-final to go through to the ill-fated 3-2 defeat in the final against West Germany. With their emphatic 6-3 win against England in 1953 at Wembley, the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Champions  had become the first team from outside the British Isles to defeat England on home soil, and they had followed this up with a 7-1 humiliation in Budapest before the World Cup. Both these defeats were still fresh in the minds of English fans when, in December 1954, the ‘Mighty Magyar’ club team of the Hungarian Army, ‘Honved’, arrived in Wolverhampton. Their team contained many stars from the national, ‘Golden team’, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Ferenc Puskás and his well-drilled fellow-soldiers, Bozsik, Kocsis, Grosics, Lorant, Czibor and Budai. Kocsis had been the leading scorer in the World Cup, so, following their own sensational win over Moscow Spartak a month earlier, the ‘Wolves’ were eager to welcome the tormentors of England to Molineux.

The game was played under the new floodlights on a Monday night, 13th December, with 55,000 cheering fans watching at the ground and many more on the new phenomenon of TV. The BBC broadcast the game live, which pleased the National Servicemen who were allowed to watch it in their canteens, like my cousin John Hartshorne (see picture) who, coming from Wolverhampton, and supporting the Wolves, was given pride of place in front of ‘the box’ and treated as a hero after the game. Millions more tuned in to the radio, as not many people had acquired TV sets at this time. Just as they had twice led out their national teams in 1953/4, Billy Wright and Ferenc Puskás were again side-by-side. The visitors immediately began to play with fantastic ball-control and speed of passing. By half-time they were 2-0 up and in full control, their precision passing and speed of attack drawing gasps of appreciation from the crowd. The first goal came from a pin-point Puskás free kick which found the head of Kocsis and the ball flew past Bert Williams in the Wolves goal like a bullet. This was followed up by a second from the speedy winger, Machos, who was put through the Wolves defence by Kocsis. That was in the first quarter hour! Williams pulled off a string of saves to keep the score down to two at the interval. As the teams left the field, the crowd rose to salute the Hungarian artistry, but were worried that the home team might be humiliated in the second half, just as England had been at Wembley year earlier.

In the second half, however, Wolves called upon all their reserves of fighting spirit and energy. They scored a penalty soon after the restart, and with fifteen minutes left, and the skilful Hungarians tiring on a very muddy pitch, Swinbourne scored twice to win the game 3-2. The crowd went wild with joy on a night on which it became good to be an English football fan once more. Thez were singing all the way home on the bus, and there were great celebrations in the canteens where the National Servicemen were watching. ‘Wolves are champions of the world’ was one of the headlines in the national newspapers the next morning. However, if this was seen a ‘revenge’ for the ‘dents’ in national pride which the defeats of the previous season had inflicted, this was a friendly, since the European Champions’ Cup had not yet come into being.

The ‘Revolution’ of 1956:

This is how it is defined in the ‘Dictionary’ of ‘Hungary and the Hungarians’, ‘forradalom’ in Hungarian:

“…the bitter, desperate uprising against the Soviet Empire was one of the few events in the history of Hungary that was also of importance to the history of the world as a whole; the euphoric experience of the precious few days of freedom that followed the rapid, overnight collapse of an oppressive regime could never be forgotten, despite the forty-year-long, strict taboo against any mention of it; its defeat left an equally deep mark on the nation’s consciousness, as did the painful realization that Hungary’s fate was decided by the bloody fighting on the streets of Budapest; none the less, the events that led to the change in regime became irreversable (with every Hungarian citizen realizing this full well) when it was openly declared that what happened in Hungary in 1956 was a revolution, and not a ‘counter-revolution’.”

This is how a British History school textbook described the events of 1956 in 1985:

“In 1956 Premier Khrushchev‘s speech attacking Stalin’s leadership sent shock waves through Russian satellites in Eastern Europe. Stalin had treated East Germany, Poland and Hungary almost as ‘slave colonies’  of Russia. Hungary was forced to pay war reparations in food and goods to Russia. The standard of living in Eastern Europe got steadily worse; shortages of food were common. Workers in farms and factories were told to work harder for less. Each satellite state had a feared secret police, prison and labour camps. In Hungary alone 25,000 people had been executed without trial since 1945.”

ImageAs one of my guides told me on my second visit to Hungary in July 1989, “You know Orwell’s ‘1984?’ That was Hungary in 1948.” In 1955, the satellites had been forced to sign the Warsaw Pact, a military and foreign policy alliance which bound them to the Soviet Union still further. However, Khrushchev’s speech offered them a new hope of a higher standard of living, less economic direction from Moscow and greater political freedom. Each country would be free to develop its own Socialist society, as long as it remained within the Soviet ‘bloc’. Unrest began in Poland in the summer of 1956. In July, there was a revolt against harsh living and working conditions. Khrushchev flew to Poland and told the people, “We have shed our blood to liberate this country and now you want to hand it over to the Americans.” Nonetheless, the Poles were granted some reforms. When the news of this spread to Hungary, students and workers began to put forward their reforms on 23rd October. This has been recently well-depicted in Andrew J Vajna’s film, Szabadság, Szerelmem (Liberty & Love), in which a student delegation from Szeged arrives in Budapest to put forward a series of demands to the student body in the capital.


George Mikes, a journalist who had left Hungary after the war and was working for the BBC in London, reported:

Tempers were running high. A few thousand people went to the city park and surrounded the giant statue of Stalin. They got a rope round the neck and began to pull it….then it toppled slowly forward – laughter and applause greeted the symbolic fall of the former tyrant.

However, perhaps also symbolic of what was to come, Stalin’s boots remained in place, firmly cemented, while the rest of the statue was dragged through the streets by a dustcart. The protest gathered strength outside the Parliament building and protesters clashed with the hated AVO security police at the radio station. Soviet tanks rolled into the city from their bases nearby and a battle developed:

Every street was smashed – paving stones were torn up, the streets were littered with burnt-out cars. I counted the carcasses of forty Soviet tanks. Two monster T34 tanks lumbered past, dragging bodies behind them…a warning of what happened to freedom fighters.


Street fighting raged on for five days in Budapest, with the rebels being backed by the Hungarian Army and ordinary Police. Sándór Kopácsi, their Chief, wrote an account of these days in 1979, translated into English in 1986. Only the security police remained loyal to the Soviet Union. Hundreds of them were lynched by the rebels, their bodies being hung from lamp-posts. The Russians, many of whom had been in Hungary for years since its ‘liberation’ by the Red Army in 1945, lacked the will and the manpower to crush the revolt. After talks with the new Prime Minister, Imre Nagy, their tanks withdrew from the capital. Seemingly, the Revolution had succeeded. The American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, congratulated the Hungarians on their challenge to the Red Army and assured them ‘you can count on us.’


The Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Uprising

However, the western powers were distracted by events in the Middle East, where a new friend of the Soviet Union, President Gamal Nasser of Egypt, was ‘making a nuisance of himself’. On 14th October, Britain and France moved against Nasser’s Egypt, which had nationalised the Suez Canal, taking it over from the ownership of a British/French company. Although NATO allies with the USA, they did not inform the Americans of their secret plans to retake control of the Canal zone by force, under cover of an Israeli attack on Egypt across the Sinai desert. Meanwhile, in Budapest, Imre Nagy announced the abolition of the one-party system, promising free elections and the formation of a new coalition government. Revolutionary Councils were recognised and the suppressed political parties, including the Social Democrats and the Smallholders, were hastily reconstituted. The Kremlin apologised for its use of troops against what it now agreed was a legitimate Uprising, following the withdrawal of the troops to the border. This was the moment, 1st November, that the Israelis, in league with Britain and France, launched their invasion of Egypt. When Britain bombed Egypt on 31st October, world attention moved away from events in Hungary and Europe and towards the Middle East. Eisenhower was shocked and angry over the invasion, coming as it did just a week before a Presidential Election for him. He now faced two major international crises simultaneously.


The Suez affair distracted attention from events in Hungary just as they entered their most critical phase. It split the western camp and offered the Kremlin a perfect cover to move back into Hungary.  However, Khrushchev was also anxious not to be seen as an imperialist aggressor like those who had invaded Egypt, so his decision was delayed. Nevertheless, when Nagy criticised Soviet troop movements near the border, declaring Hungary’s neutrality and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, Khrushchev was effectively presented with an ultimatum to get out and stay out. Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Moscow also helped to stiffen his resolve, as Deng claimed that the Uprising was not simply anti-Stalinist, but an anti-Communist Counter-Revolution. On the 3rd, following another sitting of the Politburo, fifteen Soviet Army divisions, many from non-Russian parts of the Union, and more than four thousand tanks encircled Budapest. The day after, at dawn, they rolled into the capital and shooting began immediately. The following day, November 5th, Britain dropped paratroops into the Suez zone to drive the Egyptians away from the Canal. Nasser reacted by closing the Canal, thus cutting the West’s economic lifeline by sea. Meanwhile, many Hungarians, buoyed up by the propaganda and promises of the American-backed Radio Free Europe, broadcasting continually from West Germany after the Hungarian state radio station was forced of air, believed that the Americans were on their way. The BBC’s Hungarian correspondent, George Mikes, reported that they had heard that the US troops were only two hours away. But they never arrived, the White House settling for a strong protest to the Kremlin instead. Britain, with its troops committed in the Middle East, also sent strong words to Moscow, but could do nothing to come to the aid of a burning Budapest. Despite Soviet claims that the US was behind the Uprising, the speed of events had clearly caught all the western powers by surprise. The US National Security Council concluded that there could be no intervention, military or political, in the affairs of the Soviet satellites, no incursions beyond the iron curtain. Secretary of State Dulles’ plan of ‘rolling back’ Communism in Eastern Europe was put on hold, and Hungary was left to its own limited devices. Khrushchev seized his opportunity and threatened to deploy rockets against the British and French invasion of Egypt, building on the show of strength of his land forces in Hungary. However, even without Suez, it is unlikely that Eisenhower would have risked a world war over Hungary, any more than he would over Poland. In practice, ‘rollback’ was not a viable option, in Europe at least, so the US fell back on the Truman Doctrine of Containment. The Hungarian people had been abandoned in their hour of need and by November 14th the fighting was over, four thousand Hungarians lay dead, with a further quarter of a million fleeing across the border to Austria, many eventually seeking refuge in Britain and the US. Tom Leimdorfer was a fourteen year-old when he arrived in Britain, later becoming a Headteacher. Thirty-five thousand revolutionaries were arrested, three hundred being executed, including Nagy and other ministers in his government. The tragic story of Nagy’s arrest at the Yugoslav Embassy where he and some of his inner circle were seeking asylum, his imprisonment and trial has been faithfully re-told and re-enacted in Márta Mészáros’ film, A Temetetlen Halott.


What of British reactions to the crushing of Hungary? The following letter, signed by Tony Benn and other leading members of the British Labour Party, was written in January 1957, to the Editor of Pravda:

‘We,…who in the past have always worked for a better understanding between our two countries, are deeply distressed at the use of Soviet armed forces in Hungary…

‘First of all, your newspaper has portrayed the Hungarian Uprising as ‘counter-revolutionary’. May we ask exactly what is meant by this expression? Does it include all systems of government which permit political parties whose programmes are opposed to that of the Communist Party? If, for example, the Hungarian people were to choose a parliamentary system similar to those in Sweden and Finland, would you regard that as counter-revolutionary?

‘Secondly, you said on November 4th that the Government of Imre Nagy ‘had in fact disintegrated’. Did you mean by this that it had resigned or that it was overthrown? If it was overthrown with Soviet arms, does this not amount to Soviet interference in Hungary’s internal affairs?

‘Thirdly, do you consider that the present Government of János Kádár enjoys the support of the majority of the Hungarian people? Would it make any difference to your attitude if it did not? We ask this question because on November 15th, according to Budapest Radio, János Kádár said that his Government hoped to regain the confidence of the people but that ‘we have to take into account the possibility that we may be thoroughly beaten at the election.

‘Fourthly, we recall that the Soviet Union has repeatedly advocated the right of all countries to remain outside military blocks. Does this right to choose neutrality extend, in your view, to the members of the Warsaw Pact?

‘Finally, we recall have said that the Hungarian Uprising was planned long in advance by the West and you have in particular blamed Radio Free Europe. Are you seriously suggesting that masses of Hungarian workers and peasants were led by these means into organising mass strikes aimed at restoring the power of feudal landlords and capitalists?

‘Fenner Brockway, Barbara Castle, Dick Crossman, Anthony Wedgewood Benn, George Wigg’

Task: Give the answers you think the Editor of Pravda would have made publicly to these questions. Give this plenty of thought.


Wolverhampton Wanderers FC v MTK Budapest, 11th December 1956:

Another recent drama-documentary, a collaboration between Lucy Liu, Quentin Tarantino and Andrew G Vajna, A Szabadság Vihara, (‘Freedom’s Fury’) retells the story of the victory of the Hungarian water polo team over the Russian team they had helped to train, at the Melbourne Olympics in December 1956. Following the brutal final, the team disbanded, with many of them going into permanent exile. For the ‘Golden’ football team of the mid-fifties, the events of October/November 1956 brought a premature end to their glory days. They were touring at the time of the conflict, and many of the players decided against returning to their homeland, preferring instead to use their skills in western Europe. Almost exactly two years to the day after the match with Honved, on 11th December 1956, Wolves entertained ‘Red Banner’ or MTK Budapest at Molineux for another floodlit friendly at Molineux. Although not as great a match in footballing terms, the game was, if anything, even more significant. It was held as a benefit match and raised what was then a huge sum of £2,312.3s.0d., which was donated to the Hungarian Relief Fund. At the pre-match banquet, the Hungarians, who had expressed their wish to be known by their original name of MTK, rather than ‘Red Banner’, had promised to play the very best football they could in honour of their gracious hosts. Responding, the Wolves Chairman told his guests that the motto of both the town of Wolverhampton and its football club was ‘out of darkness comes light’ and that he hoped that very soon that would be the way in their native land. They had to wait forty years for the light to shine through the gloom at home. Nevertheless, the match was a worthy contest, as the report below demonstrates.


Find these words and phrases in the text below. Rather than trying to translate them, try to explain their meanings in English:

humiliating victories –
floodlit defeat –
lair –
to demonstrate a brand –
to give the impression of holding something back –
to unleash the kind of power –
to witness –
previous occasions –
’The Molineux Murmur’ –
customary ’roar ’ –
fairy-tale ending –
cool under pressure –
to make a debut –
to save their blushes –
proud unbeaten record –
to palm away –
to drift outside –
smartly hit shot –
ruck of players –
cool, calculating football –
all too frequently guilty –
talented –
to acquit yourself well –
a string of acrobatic saves –
the solemnity of the occasion –
the fare served up –
the course of events –
stricken country –

MTK’s team was packed with Hungarian internationals, three of whom had played in the humiliating victories over England a few years earlier. They became only the second team to escape floodlit defeat at Wolves’ Molineuy lair, demonstrating a brand of top-class individual fooball artistry. In the game itself, Wolves gave the impression of holding something back. Certainly they didn’t unleash the kind of power we had witnessed on previous occasions…. The rather subdued Molineux crowd, sensing this, produced what can only be described as ’the Molineux murmur’ instead of the customary ’roar’. The biggest cheer came when Johnny Hancocks replaced Jimmy Murray eight minutes from time. Everyone was looking for the little magician to provide a fairy-tale ending, but the winger only touched the ball three times…. Wolves couldn’t break down the visitors’ defensive system, which was one of the coolest under pressure ever seen at Molineux. The Hungarians took the lead in the sixth minute, Palotás whipping the ball past the diving Bert Williams following some excellent work by world-famous centre-forward Hidegkúti. Portsmouth schoolboy Pat Neil, making his debut for Wolves, saved their blushes and their proud unbeaten record under the Molineux floodlights. He scored the equaliser after Veres palmed away a corner. Neil was unmarked, having drifted outside the goal-area: his smartly hit shot passed through the ruck of players to beat Veres to his left.… The cool, calculating football of MTK saw them too frequently guilty of trying one pass too many… At half-time, the talented Hidegkúti was replaced by Karasz. The game wasn’t exactly dull; there were chances at both ends. Both goalkeepers acquitted themselves well, making a string of acrobatic saves, but the solemnity of the occasion, set against the backdrop of the Russian crushing of the Hungarian Uprising, was really responsible for the fayre served up that night. The day after the match, the Hungarians were on their way to Vienna, where their future movements would be dictated by the course of political events in their stricken country.


1. Why might Wolves have been ’holding something back’ compared with the way they had played ‘on previous occasions’?

2. What two other reasons are given for MTK leading at half-time?

3. How and why were MTK seen as being ’too clever’ by the Wolves fans?

4. What three other reasons are given to explain why, in the second-half, the game was less exciting, though ’not exactly dull’.

5. Why was the Hungarian team unsure about ’their future movements’ after the match?

British Journalists’ perspectives on the Uprising and ‘Goulash Communism’:

In October 1981, Gordon Brook-Shepherd wrote an article for the Sunday Telegraph in commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolt:

“It has been one thing to hear everyone in Budapest – diplomats, Government officials, party men, and even anti-Communist intellectuals – affirming that János Kádár was the mainstay of Hungary’s hard won stability and unity. It was quite anoher thing to hear survivors from a feudal world…declare that, though Communists were all atheists, Kádár himself was ‘a good man’. Moreover things, on the whole, were ‘better than they used to be’. Seldom in Eastern Europe have I heard such a telling tribute paid across such a wide gulf. For this verdict came, among others, from a family who had made their dutiful daughter break of her engagement purely because the fiancé was the son of a local party boss…

“The first (cause of acceptance of Kádár) was the irrelevance of so much of our fine talk about the struggle for freedom, when applied to a country like Hungary, which suffered so cruelly a generation ago from western rhetoric unsupported by Western aid. Freedom fotr them today id defined as a weekend house, a better apartment in the city, a shorter wait for a better car, more frequent foreign travel and for the intellectuals (as one of them put it to me), ‘the privilege to go on censuring ourselves’. If you do not get what you like, you eventually like what you get.”

Hella Pick wrote in ‘the Guardian’ at the time of Kádár’s seventieth birthday in 1982 that, while at first he was both feared and reviled in the late fifties for his role in helping to suppress the revolt, ‘much of what Mr Kádár did’ was put into ‘the back drawer of memory’. It may not have been forgotten or forgiven, but in the early eighties, most Hungarians accepted that he had genuinely helped them ‘to rise from the ashes of the Uprising’ to gain both self-respect and respect in the eyes of the world. Pick concluded that, even in a free election, Kádár would feel confident of victory.


The invention of ‘Goulash Communism’ was an example of Hungarian innovation. The term refers to the variety of socialism as practised from the early 1960s until Kádár’s now infamous ‘last speech’, his death and the dissolution of Communism in 1989. With some elements of a free market, private enterprise and an improved human rights record, it represented quiet reform and deviation from the strict Leninist principles adhered to by other Communist bloc countries. Since a ‘goulash’ is made with an assortment of ingredients, the term shows how Hungarian Communism was a mixed ideology not based on pure dogma, but on more mixed first principles, or ideology. Goulash communism focused much more on the material well-being of the citizens than had been the case before 1956. It provided a wider latitude for discussion and dissent within the limits of a state socialist system. Hungary by the late eighties had become the favourite destination not only for East German holiday-makers, but also for Westerners who could see a Communist country with their own eyes without having to bear the harsh realities of hard-line Soviet Communism. Goulash Communism meant that Hungarians did not have to queue for the meat and groceries needed to cook an edible goulash.

The Eighties: Educational Exchanges

The link between Coventry and Kecskemét went back decades, one of twenty-six twinnings resulting from the Blitz of November 1940. It had, however, been dormant since the Hungarian troops had been sent to help suppress the Prague Spring of 1968. Together with Tom Leimdorfer, the Quakers’ Peace Education Advisor at Friends’ House in London, himself a Hungarian exile from 1956, I met teachers from ‘behind the iron curtain’ at the second International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn in May of 1988. Although we knew that ‘one swallow does not a summer make’, we were particularly impressed by the frankness of Hungarian delegates who reported how, after establishing exchanges with other countries, children were enabled to speak out about their experiences of violence in their societies. In the Autumn of 1988, a group of us, Quaker teachers, were invited to visit Hungary, as the guests of the state-sponsored, but increasingly independent, Hungarian Peace Council.

On the first full day of our visit, the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, our guide and hostess became very excited about two announcements on Kossúth (state-controlled) Radio. The first was that the Uprising would no longer be described, officially, as a ’Counter-Revolution’ and the second was that the Soviet troops would be invited to leave the country. This came as a dramatic confirmation of the sense we were already getting of a far freer atmosphere than we knew existed in other Warsaw Pact countries, including the one we were looking across the Danube at, the then Czechoslovakia. We visited Kecskemét a few days later and a link was formed with KATE, the English Language teachers association in the town, who needed an invitation to attend the International ELT Conference at the University of Warwick the next year.


So, with the the support of Coventry City Council and the Teachers’ Centre in Coventry, an exchange was established through the One World Education Group, with myself as facilitator. The twelve KATE teachers were hosted by Coventry and Warwickshire Friends and teachers in the Spring of 1989, and a twelve-strong OWEG group were invited to Kecskemét the following summer. At the time, the Exchange Project was reported in the local press in Hungary as having the purpose ’to educate for peace, to develop mutual understanding within the scope of a subject which is not compulsory in school in order that the children should have an all-embracing picture of the world’. In explaining the purpose of the exchange, we tried to emphasise that ’Britain is not too great to learn from Hungary’, the Petö Institutes in Birmingham being just one example, and that Hungary was considered to be a bridge between East and West. Hungary no longer meant just ’goulash, Puskás, and 1956’. We were beginning to learn about Hungarian expertise and aspirations in Science, Mathematics, Music and Art, as well as in society in general (there were even later exchanges of police forces!) In July 1989, just after the barbed wire was first cut in May (Tom Leimdorfer was there, twenty miles south from where he escaped by crawling under it in December 1956), the Lord Mayor of Kecskemét reminded us that whilst it was important that the Iron Curtain should be removed physically, ’it also needs to be removed in people’s hearts and minds…as more and more educational links are forged between ordinary people in the East and the West, so it will become impossible for politicians to keep the existing barriers up, or to build new ones…’ Coventry had long been interested in reconciliation between Western and Eastern Europe – we could now help bring this about by our practical support for the teachers and people of Kecskemét. This public statement, from a then member of the ruling communist party in what was still a ’People’s Republic’, gives a clear indication of the importance of these exchanges and contacts between ’ordinary people’ in the tearing down of the curtain and the fall of the wall, now nearly a generation ago.


Peter Fisher, The Great Power Conflict after 1945, Blackwell History Project, 1985

Margaret Rooke, The Hungarian Revolt of 1956, Longman Case Studies in History, 1986

John Shipley, Wolves Against the World: European Nights, 1953-80. Stroud: 2003

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing, The Cold War. Bantam Books: 1998

György Bolgár, Made in Hungary, Budapest, 2009

István Bart, Hungary and the Hungarians: The Keywords, Budapest: 1999.

Video Posts (Extracts) & Links:

Freedom! (History Channel):

Fifties Football (Sky Sports/FIFA):

BBC2 Newsnight Report, 2006:

BBC Schools Drama-Documentary on Hungary 1956 (GCSE Modern World History):

The Last Speech of János Kádár (Útolsó Beszéde – in Hungarian with subtitles):

Another Brick from the Wall: My (Small) Part in its Downfall, 1987-92   1 comment


Quaker (Photo credit: kendoman26)

Another Brick from the Wall:

My (Small) Part in its Downfall

by Andrew J Chandler

It’s now thirty-one years since I first ‘set foot’ in Hungary, on 22nd October 1988, as the Organiser for the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project. In May 1987, at what turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War, I was concerned about both international conflict and interpersonal conflict, having experienced both verbal and physical abuse against teachers and between pupils, as a teacher in Coventry. The Project, based in the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham at Woodbrooke, George Cadbury’s home, was also set up to continue to support teachers with work on controversial issues in the classroom, later characterised as ‘peace versus patriotism’ in a late-night TV programme I was invited to take part in. Since the hottest days of the Cold War, Quakers had answered invitations to visit schools throughout the West Midlands to show the film The War Game and give their views on Disarmament. The Project organised balanced debates between CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament organisers) and advocates of Peace Through NATO.  These used the BBC ‘Question Time’ format, with fifth and sixth-formers ‘firing’ prepared questions at the speakers, who had no time to prepare their answers, however.

The Project also gave scope for considering Human Rights as well as Earthrights, with a simulation of rainforest destruction with paper cups! We broadened the range of international issues dealt with to include, for example, Hong Kong, eight years before the 1997 handover. This work on global issues led to a  Sixth Form Conference at Woodbrooke with participants from Stafford, Sutton Coldfield and Coventry. Based on a quote from Peter Kropotkin, the Russian scientist, about what learners should demand of teachers, it was entitled ’What kind of world? How do we build it?’ Held over a weekend, it consisted of a series of workshops which were designed to give the students the opportunity to place themselves in the various conflict situations and to think of ways in which they might empower themselves to tackle some of the major issues facing the world at the end of the twentieth century. Various guest speakers, including Jerry Tyrrell, who had been recently appointed as Field Worker to the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project, presented  ’case studies’ of the conflicts from their countries and regions.

Looking back, Warwickshire Monthly Meeting on the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the last year of the decade marked a significant turning point in the life of the Project in more way than one, held during the collapse of the Ceaucescu régime in Romania, the latter sparked by in Temesvár by the resistance of the Hungarian Reformed Church. Reference was made to the pack for upper school pupils, prepared by teachers from the West Midlands and Northern Ireland, ’Conflict and Reconciliation’, the resources for which had been provided by the Project. It aimed to develop an awareness of interpersonal and conflict between cultures at a community, as well as an international level. Although I left in February 1990 to take up an appointment, through Westhill College, with the Hungarian Ministry of Education in Coventry’s twin town of Kecskemét, Hungary, I  returned to complete work on the pack in Belfast in the Spring. This was eventually published by the Christian Education Movement, by then also based in Selly Oak, and launched at a workshop in Sutton Coldfield in the Summer of 1991.

At the time, the work between Northern Ireland (the only part of the UK where the Government-funded Peace Education as part of EMU (Education for Mutual Understanding) and the West Midlands attracted the attention of the Belfast Telegraph and The Times Educational Supplement. Soon after, I was invited to make a presentation on it to an EU-sponsored Peace Education Conference in Brussels which was published in the journal, Trans-Europe Peace (1988). The CEM’s Conflict and Reconciliation pack served as a lasting testimony to the work of Q-PEP, as its Preface contains the remark that we were responsible not only for gathering together much of the material for use in the classroom but also for the insistence on pupil-centred activity-based learning. But the ultimate credit here, as in that of the Preface, goes to teachers like Terry Donaghy, from Belfast, from whom I learnt about the importance of faith-based education in helping pupils to reach out to people of other faiths and traditions. Following the Northern Ireland ‘Peace Accord’, EMU was transformed into Education for Reconciliation, a cross-border initiative which held its last conference recently, in 2012.

Hungary: visa and stamps
Hungary: visa and stamps (Photo credit: Sem Paradeiro)

The link between Coventry and Kecskemét went back decades, one of twenty-six twinnings resulting from the Blitz of November 1940.  It had, however, been dormant since the Hungarian troops had been sent to help suppress the Prague Spring of 1968. In the run-up to the 50th Anniversary of the Blitz, the City Council asked the One World Education Group, which met at the Elm Bank Teachers’ Centre, to produce a pack of materials for use in schools. The Project was asked to help with this. At the same time, members of our Steering Group were keen on the idea of developing school and youth group East-West links, as were Friends elsewhere. In 1987, the Project had already helped co-ordinate the production and staging in Solihull and elsewhere of an exhibition on Life in the Soviet Union, based on an exchange involving Quaker women. In 1988, we had received an invitation to visit the DDR. Tom Leimdorfer, Peace Education Advisor at Friends’ House, himself a Hungarian exile from 1956, and I met teachers from ’behind the iron curtain’ at the second International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn in May of that year. Although we recognised that the sight of one swallow didn’t make a summer, I wrote in the Q-PEP newsletter shortly afterwards, that…

… coming as it did just before the Moscow summit, there was a distinct atmosphere of Glasnost, which meant that the exchanges between the participants were relaxed, open and constructive… the spirit was very much in evidence in the opening session when children from the USA and USSR joined together spontaneously in songs from a peace musical.

It was also apparent in the openness with which a Soviet representative spoke about the new Soviet Children’s Fund, a baby of Glasnost, through which they were beginning to deal with child abuse and the problems of the one-third of families in which the parents were divorced. We were also particularly impressed by the frankness of Hungarian delegates who reported how, after establishing exchanges with other countries, parents meetings were held and children were enabled to speak about their experiences of abuse.

Since Éva Horváth, of Hungarian Teachers for Peace, had visited the West Midlands Q-PEP with a delegation the previous year, we looked forward to the 1990 Congress in Budapest, little knowing that she would be inviting the delegates to a very different country. Prior to that, in the Autumn of 1988, a group of us, Quaker teachers, were invited to visit Hungary, as the guests of the state-sponsored, but increasingly independent, Hungarian Peace Council.  On the first full day of our visit, the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, our guide and hostess became very excited about two announcements on Kossúth (state-controlled) Radio. The first was that the Uprising would no longer be described, officially, as a ’Counter-Revolution’ and the second was that the Soviet troops would be invited to leave the country.  This came as a dramatic confirmation of the sense we were already getting of a far freer atmosphere than we knew from Friends and teachers existed in other Warsaw Pact countries, including the one we were looking across the Danube at, Czechoslovakia. We visited Kecskemét a few days later and a link was formed with KATE, the English Language teachers association in the town, who needed an invitation to attend the International ELT Conference at the University of Warwick the next year.

So, with the approval of the Project Steering Group and the support of the City Council and Martin Pounce at the Teachers’ Centre in Coventry, an exchange was established through the One World Education Group, with me as facilitator (one result of this was that Martin later became the LEA’s International Officer). The twelve KATE teachers were hosted by Coventry and Warwickshire Friends and teachers in the Spring of 1989, and a twelve-strong OWEG group were invited to Kecskemét the following summer, including Frank Scotford, a retired teacher and ’elder statesman’ from Coventry, Gill Kirkham, a music teacher from Kenilworth, John Illingworth, a special needs teacher and bell-ringer from Monks Kirkby, and Gill Brown, a Quaker teacher at the Blue Coat School.  Stefánia Rozinka was one of our hosts who had been unable to take part in the first leg of the exchange due to her university studies in history, just as I had been unable to accept an invitation to visit the DDR the previous year because of mine, and so, academic work over, we became engaged within a week of meeting each other and the rest, as they say, is literally, ’personal’ history! This exchange also had longer-lasting effects in terms of school, teacher and trainee-teacher exchanges, the latter attracting significant funding from the EU.

I believe that the significance of Q-PEP’s work in this area cannot be overstated. At the time, the Project was reported in the local press in Hungary as having the purpose ’to educate for peace, to develop mutual understanding within the scope of a subject which is not compulsory in school in order that the children should have an all-embracing picture of the world’.  In explaining the purpose of the exchange, we tried to emphasise that ’Britain is not too great to learn from Hungary’, the Petö Institutes in Birmingham being just one example, and that Hungary was considered to be a bridge between East and West. Hungary no longer meant just goulash, Puskás, and 1956. We were beginning to learn about Hungarian expertise and aspirations in Science, Mathematics, Music and Art, as well as in society in general (there were even later exchanges of police forces!) In July 1989, just after the barbed wire was first cut in May (Tom Leimdorfer was there, twenty miles south from where he escaped by crawling under it in December 1956), the Lord Mayor of Kecskemét reminded us that whilst it was important that the Iron Curtain should be removed physically, …

… it also needs to be removed in people’s hearts and minds…as more and more educational links are forged between ordinary people in the East and the West, so it will become impossible for politicians to keep the existing barriers up, or to build new ones …

Coventry had long been interested in reconciliation between Western and Eastern Europe – we could now help bring this about by our practical support for the teachers and people of Kecskemét. This public statement, from a then member of the ruling communist party in what was still a ’People’s Republic’, gives a clear indication of the importance of these exchanges and contacts between ’ordinary people’ in the tearing down of the curtain and the fall of the wall, now more than twenty years ago.

Following my three-semester secondment to the Hungarian Ministry of Education, and a further year as a teacher-fellow at Westhill College in Birmingham, I was then invited to return to Hungary to co-ordinate a teacher-exchange being set up by Devon County Council with Baranya County Assembly in southern Hungary, in 1992. By that time the coup had failed in the former USSR, and the Cold War was officially over, so longer-term ‘transition’ programmes could take shape, like the wholesale re-training of Russian Language Teachers to teach English as a Foreign Language in Hungary, a process which took a further four years with the support of ‘NESTs’ (Native English-Speaking Teachers) who took the place of their Hungarian colleagues in the classroom while the latter attended university training colleges part-time. My initial period of work in and with Hungary, therefore, came to an end in 1996, by which time a remarkable transformation had taken place in the education system there, as elsewhere. Fifteen years later, I returned to Hungary in 2011, to take up a role as a Consultant in English Language Teaching (CELT) for the Church Schools in the town. Since September 2012, I have also been a teacher-fellow at the College of Education in the town, now part of Neumann János University.

First published, October 2008

Updated May 2012, October 2013, November 2019.

‘These Tremendous Years’: A Chronicle of Britain in 1938: Chapter Two: Who Killed the Miner?   1 comment

Chapter Two: Who Killed the Miner?

Narrative One: Surveying the Survivors

0051938 saw the publication of a whole series of reports and surveys ‘diagnosing’ what had been afflicting the south Wales valleys over the previous decade and a half and continuing the argument, begun in earnest four years earlier, over the best remedy for the patient. The Pilgrim Trust published its report into unemployment, Men Without Work (Cambridge).  Among many other findings, it found that the social service clubs for the unemployed were failing to attract support from the unemployed themselves. Of the 187 unemployed visited and interviewed in South Wales, only 35 attended the clubs. In another survey also conducted in the same year, Disinherited Youth, the Carnegie Trust found that the young unemployed men often felt that such clubs existed principally for the older men and did not find activities such as boot-repairing, carpentry and upholstery very appealing. In addition, despite the claims that these institutions were run in keeping with the democratic traditions of coalfield society, the reality was very different.  The researcher, A J Lush, found that out of the ten occupational centres in Pontypridd, only two allowed their members a fair measure of responsibility for control and management. Moreover, many of the organisers sent into the valleys were stalwart conservative zealots, chiefly concerned to provide strong ‘moral’ leadership and terribly ignorant on the most vital subjects inherent in the work involved.  Their lack of understanding of the traditions of coalfield society and of the needs of the unemployed would lead them to organise programmes of lectures which had little or no relevance to their audience. Not unnaturally, among younger and older unemployed alike, there was a resistance to what was viewed as state intervention by voluntary means, which was also expressed more vociferously in refusals to participate in government training and transference schemes, often led by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. However, this spirit of resistance was also part of a wider ‘welling up’ in coalfield communities, against the sense of true ‘demoralisation’ resulting from the invasion of the lives of families by hosts of bureaucrats and social workers. The Means Test man, the Unemployment Benefit or ‘Dole’ Officer, with his ‘Genuinely Seeking Work’ requirements, the Juvenile Employment Officer, the university ‘settlement’ students, the ‘Bloody Quakers’ (BQ’s) and even the social surveyors and left-wing intellectual film-makers, all seemed intent on re-making the coalfield communities in somebody else’s image.


Perhaps this ‘invasion’ was part of the reason that the Welsh working-class decided, in large part, to remake themselves in exodus and exile, in the new industrial towns of the Midlands and South of England. Most of those who decided to leave the valleys did so without the ‘assistance’ available through the Industrial Transference Board of the Ministry of Labour. Although similar factors often influenced both assisted transference and voluntary migration, and although the contemporary communist and nationalist propagandists frequently confused the two, the latter process was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment. It was an autonomous, self-organised response. They went on their own terms, often as whole families, eventually moving whole clubs and societies by 1938/9. Large numbers of people migrated from one particular locality in the valleys to a particular town in the Midlands. For instance, an official report contained the astounding fact that one family from Cwmamman was responsible for the removal of another thirty-six families from the village.

A study by the economist Brinley Thomas showed that the insured population of the Midland Division of the Ministry of Labour had increased by 20% since 1931, compared with 3% for the country as a whole. He also showed that 21,5% of all immigrants to Coventry were from the coalfield areas of south Wales. Comparable statistics for Oxford were published in 1938 in the Barnett House Survey of Social Services in the Oxford District. Of the seven thousand ‘foreigners’ who, as in Coventry, had exchanged their employment books, issued by other divisions of the Ministry of Labour, 1,200 were from Wales (17%), a number which even exceeded the numbers from London, the South East and the Midlands. The numbers from other depressed areas in the North and Scotland were significantly smaller still and smaller than those found in Coventry. More than half of the Welsh immigrants to Oxford had found their way into the motor industry, mostly at the Pressed Steel factory. The next biggest employer of ‘foreigners’ was the building industry. Half of the workers employed in these trades were from outside Oxford and many of these worked for the Merthyr contractor, Moss, who was responsible for building much of the new housing in Cowley.  By comparison, a third of the Welsh male migrants in the insured workforce of Coventry went into the motor and aircraft industries, still the largest number, but there were also sizable numbers found in general engineering and metal trades (27%), services and distribution (20%) and coal mining (12%).

In Oxford, the Barnett House Survey, published in 1938, reported their findings of a distinct lumpiness in the migration streams. This, they noted, militated against the Ministry’s plans for a more rational and complete distribution of manpower in accordance with the shifts in the demand for labour and the assimilation of the new elements of the population by the old, Of the 1,200 Welsh workers officially recorded in Oxford, 215 had employment books originating in the Maesteg District.  Of these, 150, or a sixth of all the Welsh ‘foreigners’ in the city were from one exchange area, Pontycymmer, in the Garw Valley.  The flow to Oxford from the valley had begun during the 1926 Lock-out, when a few men walked to Oxford, found employment at the Pressed Steel works, which was just opening and looking for unskilled labourers, and were soon joined by friends and relatives. From that point onwards, 15-25% of those leaving the valley went to Cowley. but the fact that only 150 of the 270 Garwites remained in the city in 1938 must mean that many moved on to other Midland industrial centres. I have dealt in detail with The Case of the Cowley Garwites in another online article, You Can’t Stop Them Singing (details below). These were powerful, practical examples in the retention of cultural autonomy, a power and a practice which was well-expressed by one of the older unemployed of the Rhondda who, in a written statement of 1938 to the Pilgrim Trust, explained his decision to stay put:

For an outsider, who views the situation from the angle of the people of the abyss, or the slum worker out of work, the idea he gets of the depressed areas or Special Areas may be totally wrong… I want to suggest that our people are fully conscious of the economic principles which have brought change to the valleys. The question is, to migrate or remain. I have chosen to remain…

Neither of the two choices represented a capitulation to the outsiders, therefore. However, both presented their different challenges. For those who stayed, the challenge was to maintain their own cultural institutions. Later in 1938, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service published its fourth annual report, including a survey into the plight of the Free Churches in the Special Area. Not Dead But Gone to Slough was the apocryphal mock epitaph which appeared on Dai’s coffin,  paraded through the valley streets in protest at the effects of continuing heavy unemployment and mass emigration to the English towns and cities.  The problem created by the fact that the bulk of those who moved away was in the age group which would produce the next generation was still further compounded by the increased burden placed upon those in the same group who were left behind by the increasing proportion of those who were no longer economically active. This had a tendency to delay marriage and restrict parenthood. The fact that those who had moved away were also restricted in these respects by migration had not only altered significantly the age structure of the Special Areas by 1938, but also did little to halt the decline in the birth rate in the recipient areas, and therefore nationally. Add to this the effects from the threat of war, and the over-concentration of the population in precisely those areas most vulnerable from aerial attacks from the continent, and it is easy to see why there were serious concerns about the distribution of the population in 1938, highlighted by the Barlow Report which the government had received and published the previous year.

For those who decided to go, there were serious obstacles to their development of their new model of migration, which seemed based on a Sunday afternoon ‘bring and share’. Miles Davies’ broadcast on the London Welsh highlighted the importance of what sociologists refer to ‘cultural retention’ among the streams of migrants arriving in English towns and cities. This was a natural by-product of the collective organisation of migration. However, it also became a core element in the process itself. The presence, or absence, of Welsh cultural institutions in the recipient areas, was a strong factor in determining the direction of migration by 1938. These institutions acted as stabilising agents on the lives of migrants, providing them with a badge of identity and helping them to convey a notion of respectability to those they settled among. As Idris Davies’ poem illustrated, they grew sentimental over things they had smiled at in Wales and saw the mining valleys more beautiful than they had ever seen them with their own eyes.  The choirs and rugby clubs they established in the new industrial areas became the outward expressions of an internalised, idealised image of the coalfield communities they had left behind.  The exiles’ collective self-image was well-expressed in Miles Davies’ broadcast:

What is there in this Rhondda Valley which is missing from the City of London? Climb with me for a moment to the top of the mountain overlooking Tonypandy… To the left and right, the narrow valley twists and turns.  You can trace the beds of the river past the slag heaps and the pit heads, past the new swimming baths, past rows and rows of cottages, with their slate roofs glistening in the sun. Immediately below us, the traffic lights of Tonypandy are winking steadily; and across the valley are the long streets of Penygraig, some tilted up the hill, some terracing the mountainside.  It is all so near and so clear. You can pick out Dai Jones’ house below. There is the wash that his wife has just put out blowing in the wind; a brave show of colour. You can perhaps see Mrs Jones herself talking to her neighbour over the fence. Now and then you can you can hear the clang of the winding shaft of the colliery, or shunting coal trucks. But for the most part, it is very peaceful up on the hill-top, and you are more aware of the lark than of the colliery. …. that is the kind of picture that often comes to the mind of the Rhondda exile.

It was precisely this sort of imagined scene which helped to provide the binding agent for the Welsh in the working-class communities in the Midlands, a binding agent which was capable of resisting the economic, social and cultural pressures which were brought to bear on the immigrants. A social solidarity reinforced by the projection of an idealised image of ‘the Valleys’ provided a protection against a tangible atmosphere of prejudice and the state of precariousness which it produced.

Davies told of the surprise which many Welsh miners in London felt that the men they met often at work did not share their desire to be attached to a group or club. There was nothing that ‘the Rhondda man’ liked more than taking his part in a committee and nothing he missed more on arriving in London than following up such interests. When Davies suggested to them that there was entertainment enough in London if they cared to seek it out, he was met by the following replies:

“In London”, said one, “we have our entertainments provided for us. We pay our money down and we take our choice”. “In the Rhondda”, remarked another, “we used to try and amuse ourselves, whereas up here we look on while someone else amuses us.” A third suggested that it was all a matter of expense. “When I was down home”, he said, “I would spend the best part of two evenings in the week at choir practice; two evenings at least would find me at the Miners’ Institute, and even if I spent Saturday night at the pictures, it would cost me very little. It costs me enough to go out once or twice a week.”

Davies found that in a few districts in and around London, Welsh people were setting up their own clubs and societies which were distinct from the older Welsh religious and social organisations, often based on (mainly) Welsh Language chapels. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the established Welsh causes had little or no contact with the newcomers, or that they were not proactive in providing social activities for them. Wheeler Street Congregational Church had one of the largest congregations in Birmingham, and of the 337 regular attendees in 1938, over half were said to be ‘exiles from the depressed area’ of South Wales. This was seen partly as the result of the setting up of the Urdd y Brodyr (League of Brethren), which catered for the needs of young Welshmen arriving in the city, helping them to find work and accommodation. It also established a newspaper library, comprising the local weeklies from the Rhondda, Pontypridd, Aberdare, Merthyr and other mining valleys. However, the established Welsh causes and societies touched the lives of only a very small proportion of the coalfield exiles, and the Wales which was celebrated in their worship and social activities remained that of the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, largely rural and Welsh-speaking. Their ministers and deacons generally lacked the contact with, and understanding of, the valleys of the industrial south. One notable exception to this was Rev Howard Ingli James, of Queens Road Baptist Church in Coventry, who had arrived at the city centre church in the early thirties from Pantgwydr, Swansea. He had taken WEA classes in the valleys and continually referred to the miners he had met in his sermons at Queen’s Road:

I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day. Did I say I paid for it? No, never, when I think what those men had to go through to get it that coal for me to enjoy – and then I say I paid for it?! No money would pay for what they did.

His championing of working-class causes and politics in both pulpit and press brought him into regular conflict with many of the established professional Coventrians in the congregation and the corporation, but his projection of so positive an image of coalfield communities had a solidifying effect on those Welsh who attended chapel and many who didn’t, but knew him through the forty-five strong Male Voice Choir founded by the Welsh choirmaster of Queens’ Road, which held its practices there. Unlike in London, the Welsh migrants to Birmingham, Coventry and Oxford, took the lead in establishing autonomous working-class cultural organisations rather than simply relying on the increasing provision of leisure facilities by commercial operations. The clubs, such as the Oxford Physical Culture Club and the Cowley Workers’ Club, were not exclusively Welsh, but the immigrants were prominent in their organisation. This was also the case in the Pressed Steel works in Cowley, where they dominated not only the trade union branch but also the Rugby Club. By the end of 1938, the Welsh communities in the Midland cities were well-established and more permanent in character, contrasting with their diaspora experience in London.

Narrative Two: Poverty, Population and Politics

In the new areas, the new Welsh immigrants may have been able to find chapels, schools and clubs in which to integrate themselves and contribute to the social life of those areas, but they often had no homes of their own to go to. Overcrowding was a serious problem both in Coventry and Oxford. Sir Wyndham Deedes, from the National Council of Social Service, visited Coventry in 1938 and wrote of a great deal of overcrowding, not only in those houses where overcrowding is to be expected but in what seem to be ‘respectable’ streets. However, Coventry City Council’s decision to build houses for rent was already beginning to ease this situation and even helped attract ‘second stage’ migrants from London and Oxford, where the provision of housing at reasonable rents was lacking. This had become a serious obstacle both to voluntary migration and official transference as the Ministry of Labour’s General Review of the Industrial Transference Scheme revealed:

One of the most serious obstacles to the permanent settlement of depressed area men probably arises from the acute shortage of suitable housing accommodation in many non-depressed areas. In a number of districts to which men have been transferred, it is practically impossible to obtain a house or other suitable accommodation; in others, rents are so high, especially when compared to those payable in the depressed areas, that transferees are unable to avail themselves of the accommodation which is available.

The concentration of expanding industries in the manufacturing centres of the Midlands had led to the growth of those employed in vehicle production from 227,000 in 1920 to 516,000 by 1938. Those, like William Morris and Herbert Austin, who had the capital, had chosen the location for their factories, and labour had migrated to it. Few of Morris’ workers came to Cowley from the surrounding villages or the Oxford Colleges and print shops, despite the higher wages on offer. The work was best-suited to those used to heavy engineering and coal-mining. especially as press shops and mass production techniques were added. Nevertheless, the motor trade was seasonal in nature, based around orders taken at the annual motor-show in late summer, hence the continuing insecurity among its migrant workers. The 1938 Survey of Oxford concluded that the level of unemployment locally could only be reduced if the motor industry could ensure constant employment.

Meanwhile, the coal industry began to pick up towards the end of 1938 as Britain was put on a war footing. The average Cowley car-worker was earning about seven shillings, or 10% more than the average South Wales miner working full shifts, but this could be more than accounted for by the high costs of rent and leisure activities in Oxford. However, in Coventry engineering wages were the highest in the country, approaching 10% above those in Cowley. In addition, while on average only 25% was being earned over the basic rate by means of piecework throughout the country, in Coventry this had reached an additional 80%. The delay in the conversion of the Cowley factories compared with those in and around Coventry was another factor in Cowley and other centres losing many of their workers to Coventry.

However, while some of the Cowley Welsh may have been tempted to return to the valleys and to coal-mining, there is little evidence that they did. The contrast in the appearance of the migrants to that of those they left behind could not have been more marked in the summer of 1938. A J Lush reported that the holidaying migrants announced their success in the new areas by being dressed in the latest-cut clothes that the cheaper tailors produce. He went on to point out that a well-dressed young man from Birmingham was a better advertisement for transference than all the efforts of the Ministry of Labour. The mirror image was graphically described in an interview I conducted in 1982 with Haydn Roberts (b.1915, Ystrad), who returned to the Rhondda from Coventry on holiday in the summer of 1938:

The lads that were left in 1938 (it was nearing war-time and the pits were picking up) had gone back down the pits. I remember going home and going to see them, and they were old men. They were really old gnarled men… working hard, and silicosis and all that. They were the same age as me… that was something I noticed particularly. They said I did the right thing.

Despite the plight of the Special areas, other reports showed that Britain’s population as a whole, taking the long view, had increased its productive capacity by 27% between 1911 and 1938. This led one contemporary commentator to the conclusion that: At least from the point of view of material well-being, the composition of Britain’s population in 1938 was more effective than it was a generation earlier. This had been achieved through long-distance internal migration and natural increase (the positive gap between births and deaths, which had been expanding, despite the depression, in all parts of Britain). Mass emigration was no longer needed to reduce the surplus population of those in poverty. Nevertheless, there were striking differences in the statistics which became public at this time. Whereas the numbers of people aged 15-44 in the South and Midlands of England increased by a quarter between 1921 and ’38, the numbers in the same age groups in Wales decreased by a fifth. As for its future, Wales’ loss in the numbers of children in its population over the same period was 27 per cent, more than double that of the South and Midlands. It had far fewer present dependents in its population, true, but far fewer future workers too. By 1938 south Wales had been relegated from having the youngest population in Britain to a position below the national average, and well below the Midlands and South-East in the proportion of 15-34 year males in its population. The pre-war bubble in the Welsh population had clearly been burst.

In his seminal work of the period, Poverty and Population, published in 1938, Richard Titmuss was one of the first statisticians to attempt to assess the extent, character and causes of social waste and to relate the findings to the problem of an ageing and diminishing population. He concluded (1) that those regions suffering from economic under-privilege and most exposed to malnutrition-inducing conditions contain by far a higher proportion of our children; and (2) that it is only higher fertility in these regions that has prevented an earlier and probably calamitous fall in the size of the population. Although south Wales had maintained a high birth rate and a low crude death rate over the inter-war period, Titmuss calculated that, in the ten years following the General Strike, as many as 65,000 of its inhabitants may have died avoidable deaths.

Add to this figure those who were not dead, but gone to Slough, London, Coventry, Oxford, Birmingham, etc., and the figure for the total loss of the Welsh population by these ‘avoidable’ methods between 1920 and 1939 was over half a million, more than one in five of the people of Wales in 1920.  Of course, most of this loss was borne by the industrial south, where migration alone accounted for 20% of the 1920 population. Rural Wales continued to lose its people at a rate which was second only to its industrial kinsman within Britain. Rather than migrating into the industrial south, the rural, Welsh-speaking Welsh, had no choice but to set their faces towards the English border. Six years later, The Welsh Reconstruction Advisory Council produced statistics to show that, in proportionate terms, the continuing depopulation of rural Wales between 1926 and 1938 was almost as serious a problem as the mass exodus which took place between these years from the south. Clearly, just as the growth of the coal industry in the half century to 1920 had helped Wales to retain its rural-born Welsh-speaking population, the dramatic fall of King Coal had linguistic and cultural implications for the whole country. By the mid-twenties, the invisible umbilical cord between rural Wales and industrial Wales had been cut, and in 1938 there was no sign of an end to the haemorrhaging. In future, the economic and human connections of the regions of Wales would lie over the border in Merseyside, the West Midlands and Bristol.

However, although a new political consensus had emerged by the beginning of 1938 to remove transference as the main plank of government policy towards the Special Areas, the policy could not be ended immediately, nor was there an end to the general exodus of workers, since the rearmament boom was swallowing up more and more labour. Protests were still heard, especially from voices within the nascent Welsh Nationalist Party, which, following the Munich Agreement, compared the transference policy as ‘just another Fascist way of murdering a small defenceless nation without going to war about it’. They denounced the Welsh MPs and civil servants as collaborators. But these new nationalist voices were too few and too late being heard.


Aneurin Bevan, then a young MP, had called for an end to the policy two and a half years earlier, criticising the existing leadership of ‘the Welsh Nation’ for its ‘defeatist attitude’ towards the policy and for failing to establish industries in the Rhondda rather than London. There had been plenty of evidence to show that the exodus had not been a repatriation of the English migrants who had moved into the coalfield in the half century to 1920, as some nationalists had hoped and argued. By the late 1930s, it was clearly Welsh expatriation, and some even argued that, if it continued, ‘the south Wales of tomorrow’ would be left ‘peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run’. In fact, the expatriation involved Welsh-speakers and English-speakers equally. By the late thirties, many nationalists were clearly embarrassed by this fact but preferred to retreat into their Welsh-speaking heartlands than confront the economic realities which confronted both north and south, urban and rural. D J Davies, a miner’s son from west Wales, who had emigrated to America before the Great War and worked as a coal-miner there before returning to Wales to become an agricultural economist, was asked to join the Nationalist Party’s Executive Committee in 1938. He kept up a constant, if often solitary, criticism of the refusal of “y Blaid” to use English in its organisation, and of its insistence on basing its operations in Caernarfonshire. Davies accepted the invitation for the sake of party unity but pleaded for the head office to be moved to south Wales. He became increasingly frustrated by the failure of the Party to make any headway by 1938, and called for a complete change in tactics and emphasis:

If ‘y Blaid’ feels for the whole of the Welsh nation, it should be on the spot shouting from the housetops over the draining away of about a fifth of our best people by migration… If ‘y Blaid’ really means business it should get down to this sickening and murderous factor in our national life in the most practical way by coming down here to work on the spot.

“Y Blaid” remained unmoved, in every sense, and remained a party of Welsh-speakers, mainly concentrated in the north and west of Wales. Its only concession was to allow the publication of some pamphlets in English, including Transference Must Stop, not published until 1943, by which time most non-essential transference of labour within Britain had stopped anyway, and the exodus from the valleys referred to by D J Davies was certainly over.  In reality, the transference policy had long since ceased to occupy centre-stage by the time the Germans occupied the Sudetenland in October 1938. By then, the construction of a new economic base was well underway by then, and Geoffrey Crawshay, the Special Areas’ Commissioner’s prophecy about the return of the natives was beginning, in part, to be fulfilled. The Board of Trade’s Survey of Industrial Development for 1938 showed that, of the forty-two new factories established in south Wales since 1932, only twenty-four were located in the Special Area, including the thirteen new factories at Treforest. Shortly before the outbreak of war, the estate was providing work for 2,500 workers at twenty factories under the direction of refugee industrialists from Austria and Czechoslovakia. The majority of these workers were women, better suited to the more delicate, high-precision work available, than older unemployed men who had only ever known heavy industrial work.  So, in 1938 the economy of the region was gradually being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament and the siting of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Bridgend, which helped to bring an end to the draining of population from the Ogmore, Garw and Llynfi valleys.

The Communist Party was more willing to admit that it had made mistakes by 1938. Its Central Committee recognised that it had mistakenly analysed Welsh nationalism, and the Districts combined to produce a bilingual pamphlet for the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff calling for a united front to embrace the nationalists. Even in 1938, they would have made uneasy bedfellows. By the time the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain, 174 volunteers from Wales had fought there, thirty-three dying there. Nearly all of them were Communists or sympathetic to communist ideas. To have served in Spain had become as much as a badge of honour as to have gone to jail for the cause. The miners’ lodges had raised money and the Welsh people, themselves poverty-stricken, gave money, food and goods to the Spanish Republic, also taking in the Basque refugee children while ships out of Cardiff tried to run the Franco blockade of Bilbao.  By contrast, Welsh nationalists had consistently supported Franco, despite the fact that most Basques and Catalans were on the Republican side, and despite the role of the Welsh volunteers. The Party’s leader, Saunders Lewis, a recent convert to Catholicism, rejected both communism and fascism, but was most vehemently anti-Marxist. J E Daniel, another leading figure, was quite clear of where the Party’s international allegiances should lie:

Whatever the emnity between Fascism and Democracy, it becomes friendship in the face of the great enemy Communism. That is the lesson Hitler is trying to teach Europe.

For both Daniel and Lewis, the struggle was between Communism and what they called the European Tradition. This introduced a sharp ideological division between the writers in Welsh and the Anglo-Welsh.  Niclas y Glais was the one exception to this divide,  a Marxist writing in Welsh. However, his Llais y Werin (People’s Voice) was a short-lived experiment. However, despite the work of D J and Nöelle Davies on the one side, and Niclas on the other, the abyss between the Popular Front Wales of the European Left and the European Tradition of Lewis and Daniel continued to grow in scale. Lewis himself pointed out that the English press had been far from unequivocal in its attitude towards Hitler’s anti-semitism before Kristallnacht:

In one day English public opinion which had for years been strongly in support of Germany was entirely turned against her. The Welsh followed, like sheep through a gap.

Welsh nationalist reports on events were therefore meant “to free our countrymen from this massed attack of poisonous English propaganda.” In October 1938, the Party’s Journal, Y Ddraig Goch, launched the following stinging attack on the English press:

These papers (the liberal ‘Daily Herald’, ‘News Chronicle’ and ‘Manchester Guardian’) are Wales’ most dangerous enemies. Their position is responsible for the fact that everyone in Wales these days is being taken over by intemperate anger against Hitler, rather than severe regret for not having fought for twenty years against the policy of England and France that placed Hitler on his throne.

The English press served English imperialism, which was the root of the international conflict. It was not a case of morality, but of power and ambition. Of England’s real nature there was no doubt. In addition, the lack of readiness of the Party leaders to declare support for the Basque refugees was noted by members who drew attention to Breton action on behalf of the Basques:

It is interesting to note that the Nationalist Party and cultural movement of at least one other Celtic country has been appalled by the destruction that has overcome the Basques … At least Brittany does not underestimate the struggle of a small nation to save its own soul.

A message of sympathy to the Basques, recognising their ‘terrible crisis’ had been agreed at the Party Conference in August 1937 but was not sent to the Autonomous Government of Euzkadi for six months. Eventually sent on 5th February 1938, it stated, quite neutrally, that:

The Welsh Nationalist Party desires that the Basques will have the freedom to live their own national life, just as we work for our own nation.

A reply from the from the Euzkadi Government in Basque and English asked for an English translation since the party had sent the message only in Welsh, in strict keeping with its monolingual policy at that time. When the delay was revealed a few days later, the reason given was that it the executive was reluctant to send a message which was unconnected with Welsh matters, to which it had previously restricted itself.

On the broader front, in October 1938 the party  summed up its attitude to the impending European war with its Wales Neutral declaration:

The Nationalist Party declares that there is no just cause for war in Europe at present…. it will not take part in England’s wars. Therefore, no Welsh Nationalist may join in this war nor agree to work in armaments factories nor help with the war in any way.

Naturally, this was very much in keeping with the party’s strong pacifist traditions, though Saunders Lewis, its leader until 1939, continued to argue that the war should be opposed purely on the grounds that it was ‘an English war, for English aims’. Indeed, he had been unhappy with the decision of the 1938 party conference that force should never be used in the quest for Welsh self-government. Whilst this may or may not have been  intended as a condemnation of the ‘Burning of the Bombing School’ in Caernarfonshire undertaken by Lewis and two others in 1936 (for which they were given nine-month prison sentences), it did seem to mark the desire of the membership to move away from direct action towards more democratic, constitutional methods.  The direct action methods used by the three leaders had only involved violence against property, but it was significant that the delegates at the conference felt the need to make clear both their opposition to fascism and their support for a democratic Wales. Having made it clear that he would step down as party president in 1939, Lewis made it clear that he thought the party would fail if it limited itself to constitutional methods.

Narrative Three: Projecting the Valleys

009Following the 1937 Quota Act, American film companies began to establish their own studios around London so that they could make “British” films and it was under this dispensation that MGM made The Citadel in 1938.  At the time, several British critics thought it was one of the best British films ever and comments were made about the obvious American production values and about the emergence of Robert Donat as a Hollywood-style star. Also, the film offered a real sense of both South Wales and London. A.J. Cronin was very keen for his best-selling novel, about an idealistic and ambitious young doctor,  to be turned into a film, but even he could not have anticipated the film being so well made. The south Wales locations were authentic, and there was some excellent acting by Ralph Richardson and Emlyn Williams, complementing that of Donat. Williams had added some authentic Welsh dialogue, including a convincingly detailed denunciation of the evils of private medicine. The director, King Vidor (right), was well-known in Hollywood for making films that represented his own popular form of social realism.  He was determined to represent the common man in his movies, and to expose the sharp-practices of corporate vested interests. Though it served its purpose for the Hollywood box office,

The Citadel gave the cinema-goera fuller view than any other previous feature film of south Wales. Its narrative was melodramatic, concerned with the salvation of its hero, a Christian knight figure who had to discover his true self by pointing the masses towards a greater good.  Its message was therefore essentially individualistic with little room for organised protest or trade unionism.  The miners are shown as being backwards in thinking, clinging to their Medical Aid Society, so that the doctor’s wife asks, “Did anyone ever try to help the people and the people not object?” The Americans realised that the social problems of the coalfield, set against its photogenic backdrop, could provide ideal material for melodrama. A whole series of experimental social films were made over the next two years which, sooner or later, made it past the censors, though some were so radical that they had to wait for the outbreak of war to be released.

As ever in Welsh history, the most authentic and enduring advocacy of the condition and suffering of the Welsh people in this period came from their own bards. Of these, Idris Davies (1905-1953) was the archetypal poet of the Welsh valleys, because he wrote about little else. He was born and brought up in the Rhymney Valley, on the Monmouth-Glamorgan boundary.  He took part in the General Strike of 1926, but, as an autodidact, eventually became a schoolmaster.  In 1938 he published Gwalia Deserta, including the poems London Welsh and Do You Remember 1926?:


Do you remember 1926?

The great dream and the swift disaster,

The fanatic and the traitor,

The bravery of simple, faithful folk?

‘Ay, ay, we remember 1926,’

said Dai and Shinkin,

As they stood on the kerb

in Charing Cross Road,

“And we shall remember 1926

until our blood is dry.”

However, perhaps the best poem in this anthology is not so directly descriptive of the conditions in the valleys and in exile during the Depression years.  Gwalia Deserta XV begins ‘O what can you give me? Say the sad bells of Rhymney’. He finds in an old nursery rhyme a symbol for suffering. The poem was later recorded as a folk-song by Pete Seeger. The line, ‘And who robbed the miner? Cry the grim bells of Blaina’, not only summed up the inter-war experience of south Wales, but also both paralleled and foreshadowed the powerful protest songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

It’s sad that the Thirties did not produce more great poetry in English. It did produce Anglo-Welsh poets such as Vernon Watkins of Swansea, Glyn Jones of Merthyr and Alun Lewis of Aberdare, but their subject was not necessarily the plight of Wales. The issues involved were perhaps more productive of passion or despair, but there is more than a mere social portrait in Idris Davies’ poetry. There is also biting satire. For him, the poetry was in the pity of Wales. His poems may lack the verbal or technical originality of Dylan Thomas and the prophetic voice of R S Thomas, but the power of them is found in their simple, direct appeal to the simple yet profound emotions which his era gave rise to. T. S. Eliot felt that the value of Davies’ work lay in its being “a poetic document about a particular epoch in a particular place.”


Gwyn A Williams, (1985) When was Wales? Harmondsworth: Penguin.

D Hywel Davies, (1983) The Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925-1945. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

René Cutforth, (1976) Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Gerald Morgan, (1968) This World of Wales.  Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

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‘These Tremendous Years’: A Chronicle of Britain in 1938 – Part One

The Magyar Martyrs of 6th October 1849: Mythology and Realism.   2 comments


The first government of Hungary

The first government of Hungary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 15th March, the ‘Ides of March’ is, in Hungary, the day on which we all wear tricolour cockades on the streets, in commemoration of the 1848 Uprising against the Hapsburg Empire, which began in Pest on that day.  The 6th October, though not a national holiday, is equally as significant an event, as it was on this day in 1849, az aradi vértanúk napja, that thirteen generals were executed in the town of Arad in Transylvania (pictured above) on the orders of the Austrian Field-Marshal Haynau. I was once pulled up by a Hungarian history teacher for clinking a beer-glass, because that was what the Austrian officers were said to have done as they hung or shot the thirteen. Although the ‘thirteen’ are remembered as the symbolic martyrs of the War of Independence, there were a great many other civilians who lost their lives under Haynau’s reign of terror which had begun with the surrender of the Hungarian Revolutionary Army at Világos in August (see below). More than another hundred died and many thousands were imprisoned, while the ordinary Hungarian soldiers were enlisted in  the imperial army  and forced to serve in the far-flung corners of the empire.  Also on 6th October 1849, the Austrians executed Count Lajos Batthyány (below), the Prime Minister of the short-lived Republic, who had been a moderating influence on his revolutionary cabinet.

English: Count Lajos Batthyány de Németújvár (...

English: Count Lajos Batthyány de Németújvár (1807–1849), Hungarian landowner, politician and the first prime minister between 1848–1849. Magyar: Németújvári gróf Batthyány Lajos (1807–1849), magyar földbirtokos, politikus és 1848–1849 között az első felelős magyar miniszterelnök. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the end of the Hungarian People’s Republic in 1989 and the beginning of the (Third) Republic of Hungary in October of that year, the commemoration of the events of 1848-9 have played a significant role in the re-mythologising of Hungarian history, in which even the Ruritanian and pro-fascist Horthy Government can be rehabilitated. Apparently, Horthy did not co-operate in sending half a million Hungarian Jews to the gas-chambers, and did not stand by while the fascist Arrow Cross Party roamed the streets shooting those Jews who remained in the capital and could be found, dumping their bodies in the Danube. These were, according to recent public statements, actions committed purely by the tiny occupying forces of the German Army and SS, and are to be commemorated in the same way as the hundred thousand deaths under forty years of systematic Soviet rule and large-scale occupation by the Red Army.

In this context, it’s worth taking a little time to look at the historical reality of the events of 1848-9, and the broader European context for the Hungarian Revolution, so conveniently omitted from the leaders’ speeches in recent years. The Dictionary Definition of the 1848 Revolution, or forradalom  reads as follows:

‘The historical upheaval when the modern, unified Hungarian nation (magyar nemzet) was born, specifically, the war of Independence (szabadságharc) which erupted six months after the momentous day of March 15 (Március 15) and which, despite its defeat, remained in the national consciousness as something illustrious (which it was), and which Jokai (who participated personally) called “times that changed one’s soul”; it is such an unequivecocally uplifting and ceremonious occasion in the history of Hungary, that every government, regardless of persuasion, has tried to turn it to its advantage by interpreting it to meet its own ends.” (Bart, István: ‘Hungary and the Hungarians: The Keywords’: Budapest, 1999.)

To many of the ‘bourgeois’ Europeans in 1848 it seemed likely that Britain’s exceptionally liberal political system (one in five of men in England and Wales had the vote after 1832; one in eight in Scotland and Ireland) had something to do with its economic success, and that prosperity could come through reform. This was the argument put forward by many who wanted to liberalise the old, autocratic regimes of ‘the continental powers’. Nowhere was this ‘Victorian’ idea of progress better symbolised on the continent than in Budapest, whose very name became synonymous with the linking of the two banks of the Danube into the eventual capital by the building of the Chain Bridge under the direction of the opulent Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), a brilliant and fanatical supporter of progress promoted from above who also founded the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and improved navigation conditions on Hungary’s two main rivers, the Danube and the Tisza. The Lánchíd was actually designed and constructed by two British engineers and inaugurated in 1848 (picture below). In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, there had also been a rise in the use of the Hungarian language among the social elites, which up to that point had used German, and this was accompanied by the broadening of the foundations of both nationalist ideology and bourgeois economic development. Kossuth symbolised the former route to freedom as a member of the lesser gentry and the chief speaker of the opposition progressive liberals in the ‘lower table’ of the Imperial Diet at Pozsony (Bratislava). The conservatives held power at ‘the upper table’ however, though here too there were powerful advocates of change, led by Count Lajos Batthyány, the chairman of the opposition party. Their chief economic demand, the liberation of the serfs, was to be the means by which they would win their power struggle, but until March 1848 this seemed a long way off and it was the the spilling over of the wave of revolutions from western Europe into the Hapsburg Empire which suddenly made all things possible to the liberal Hungarian politicians.

In 1989, another year of popular revolution throughout Europe, in which Viktor Orbán first came to prominence,  my visit to the Historical Exhibition of the National Museum of Hungary was accompanied by a commentary on the last gallery, referring to its contents as ‘the relics of the bourgeois revolution of 1848 and the struggle for freedom…the last wave of European revolutions‘. This ‘wave’ broke into one of anti-Vienna radicalisation among the Hungarian middle classes, forcing the Emperor, Ferdinand V, to give his sanction to the the acts of Parliament, ‘guaranteeing the basic conditions of national independence and bourgeois development’. In the first show-case, therefore, alongside the portraits of the leaders of the March 15th Uprising, including Sándor Petőfi, seen below, were various artefacts of the other European revolutions of that year.

In reality, it was in France where the revolutionary movement first took hold and was strongest, establishing Louis-Philippe as ‘the Citizen King’ in 1830. The Belgians followed suit and also established a constitutional monarchy: Meanwhile, writing from a Britain which was, in Disraeli’s phrase, in danger of becoming ‘Two Nations’, Marx and Engels had begun to write ‘The Communist Manifesto’, arguing for international revolution led by the urban proletariat, which would take over from the bourgeoisie in the developed industrial economies. One of Marx’s arguments was that the proletariat would get poorer, and this became convincing during the ‘slump’ of 1846. As factories closed, the number of unemployed workers in the industrial centres of Europe rose rapidly, so that in Paris alone, 120,000 were without jobs by the end of 1847.

From the start of 1848, it was clear that it was going to be a busy year. In January, the Sicilians set up their own government, independent from Naples, and there was unrest in Schleswig-Holstein on the death of the King of Denmark. However, it was the events of February in France which really lit the fuse of revolution in Europe. Louis-Philippe’s ‘public order’ clamp-downs on the opposition led to serious riots, and on the second day (23rd February), nervous troops opened fire, killing twenty. The next morning there were 100,000 angry citizens on the streets, barricades went up with the tricoluer rising above them and a new generation of French citizens found themselves singing ‘the Marseillaise’. Louis-Philippe ‘gracefully lowered himself into the dustbin of history’, to be replaced by a mixed bag of opposition deputies, left-wing journalists and socialist theoreticians, who proclaimed the Second Republic. Paris cheered and the autocrats of Europe trembled, suddenly finding virtues in liberal politicians they had previously tried to ignore. In March 1848, the Kings of Prussia, Holland and Piedmont-Sardinia, the Austrian Emperor and the Pope all agreed to liberal constitutions. The German princes also agreed to the calling of a national parliament, which came into existence in Frankfurt at the end of the month. From the Pyrenees to Poland, liberalism had triumphed. South of the Alps, Italian patriotism had scored successes in Venice and Milan, and King Charles Albert had declared war on Austria on March 24th, the same day that Schleswig-Holstein declared independence from Denmark.

So it was that on 13th March, Vienna had become the scene of fervent revolutionary activity, as had Pest, Milan and Venice a few days later. This sudden turn of international events created an opportunity for the Hungarian liberals to make an immediate bid for domestic political power, even without first ensuring the support of the peasant masses. Kossuth, to his credit, seized the moment and, with his colleagues, issued a twelve-point programme including the abolition of serfdom. When news of the Vienna disturbances had reached Pest, the poet Petőfi had rallied a group of revolutionary intellectuals around him, who in turn mobilised the people of the city. Without waiting for the censors, they printed and published The Twelve Points as well as Petőfi’s Nemzeti dal (‘National Song’), thereby establishing the freedom of the press in a single day. They then forced the Municipal Council of Pest (see the picture below) to grant their demands and freed Mihály Táncsics, the radical peasant leader, from prison. On the 18th March the Diet, meeting at Pozsony, enacted legislation to put itself on a representative basis, created an autonomous government for Hungary, as a step towards total independence within the Empire, established equality before the law for nobles and non-nobles alike, abolished censorship, set up a National Guard, introduced general taxation, abolished church tithes and reunited Hungary with Transylvania. By enacting this legislation, the Diet made it possible for Hungarians of various classes to embark upon a path of prosperity despite their different interests, through the creation of a liberal, bourgeois society.

Széchenyi epitomised the other path to bourgeois freedom, which ran in parallel to Kossuth’s political route. The two men had never disagreed about major goals, only about the paths leading to them. Széchenyi was afraid that Kossuth’s route would lead to all his progressive projects burning in a sea of flames. He believed that the obstacles to progress could be removed by patient argument. While he could argue, Kossuth could inspire, and inspiration became indispensable ammunition in the heady days of March 1848. However, as István Lázár has pointed out, ‘it is not certain that all this vindicates the inspirer against the arguer…’ 

The twin of the Twelve Points, Sándor Petőfi’s ‘National Song’, written in the course of the night of March 15th, 1848, opens on this high-sounding note:

Artist Mihály Zichy's rendition of Sándor Pető...

Artist Mihály Zichy’s rendition of Sándor Petőfi reciting the Nemzeti dal to the crowd on March 15, 1848. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Rise Hungarians, your country calls!

The time is now, now or never!

Shall we be slaves or free?

This is the question, choose!

To the God of the Hungarians

We swear,

We swear we shall slaves

No longer be!”

At the time, it could only partially fill a role as the Hungarian “Marseillaise” in the 1848-9 War of Independence, because it had no memorable music composed for it, perhaps because it was written and published in such a hurry. So, when it was performed by actors, singers and zealous patriots, it was recited rather than sung, with the crowd shouting the refrain aloud, but not singing it.  In 1848, the rapid publication and distribution of revolutionary documents were essential to prove the connection between word and deed. If the abolition of censorship was the first of The Twelve Points, demonstrators proved there was no time lag by seizing the best-known press in Pest and immediately printing the prose and poetic proclamations, flooding the streets with leaflets.

Against the backdrop of pan-European revolution, prospects for the Austrian Empire looked grim, and the hopes for Hungarian freedom were high. The Czechs were calling for a pan-Slav conference and those who had forced Metternich into exile were still on the streets of Vienna. The Italian states were in open revolt against Hapsburg rule, and Ferdinand V was forced to retire to Innsbruck, to be replaced by his young nephew, Franz Joseph. The Austrian armies regained control over their Italian states and in Prague, so that their forces could be redirected against the Hungarians.

However, the invasion of Hungary ended in humiliating defeat and by early 1849 virtually the whole country was under the control of the patriot leader Kossuth. Franz Joseph made a successful appeal to his fellow-autocrat, the Tsar, and Russian contingents swelled the ranks of the Austrian forces on Hungary’s borders. Then the tide of affairs began to turn against the revolutionaries across the continent. Garibaldi’s forces were defeated at San Marino, and with the defeat of the Neopolitans in May, Hungary was recovered for the Hapsburgs by the combined forces of Austria and Russia in August. Only the Venetian Republic, which had successfully withstood Radetzky’s bombardment, held out longer, finally being starved into surrender.

Near the central wall in the National Museum were the armchairs of the first autonomous government of Hungary, upholstered with velvet. Above them hung the portraits of the cabinet members with the Premier, Lajos Batthyány, in the centre. This has now been replicated in statue form in the Cathedral city of Kalocsa, on the Danube (see my picture below). On a little stand in the centre one could read the most significant document of the fight for freedom, the Declaration of Independence issued on 14th April, 1849. This effectively deposed the Hapsburgs from the Hungarian throne in perpetuity and elected Lajos Kossuth as the Governer-President, or ‘Regent’ of the Republic. Next to it were documents chronicling the country’s struggle for survival in the face of counter-revolutionary attacks, Kossúth’s activities in organising the Army and governing the state. There were also the arms and equipment belonging to Kosuth and the commander-in-chief Artúr Görgey. Two banners hoisted above the show-cases were flanked by a map showing the glorious campaign of the Spring of 1849 which had resulted in the liberation of almost the whole territory of Hungary from Austrian occupation, an area including the mountainous region of Transylvania, as well as the whole of the Carpathian basin. Only by enlisting the support of the Romanovs could the Austrian autocrats reverse such losses. Further displays recalled the great battles fought by legendary generals such as János Damjanich and József Bem, as well as the heroism of territorials who successfully organised independent guerilla bands in support of the regular army.

The exhibition also dealt with the nationalities issue within the Hungarian territories, since some of the non-Magyar peoples sided with the Emperor and attacked the Magyars. They had good reason to do so, since their their towns and villages had been plundered by the Magyar revolutionaries, with thousands of civilians being ruthlessly killed. Belated attempts were made to make peace with the nationalities, including the left wing of the Romanian National Movement, and the leaders of the Croatian and Serbian liberals. Their leaders’ portraits were also on display in the National Museum. However, the liberal leaders of the Hungarian Revolution completely disregarded the opinion of its own left-wing, that, if they were to prevent a victory by the forces of reaction, they would have to recognise the separate nationhood of the non-Magyar peoples by granting them territorial autonomy in a confederated republic. Thus, the narrow nationalism of the political elite, and their failure to meet the radical demands of the peasants, put forward by Táncsics, were factors in the Fall of the Revolution. In today’s Magyarorszag, not much emphasis is given to  the way the revolution achieved the freedom of the press, including the abolition of censorship. When I visited the Gallery, the nineteenth century printing press stood at the centre of the exhibition as a reminder of this revolutionary gain.

Finally, the exhibition featured an inkstand from the manor-house in Világos, where Görgey signed the unconditional surrender on 11th August 1849. The surrender is depicted in the pictures below, as is the execution of the thirteen valiant ‘Honved’ generals executed at Arad and the execution of Lajos Battyány, the same day, the 6th October, another day commemorated in Hungary as marking the end of Hungary’s short-lived freedom, which nevertheless lasted far longer than the revolutions elsewhere, almost twenty months in all. Neither were these the last of the executions. The retaliation of the Hapsburgs surpassed all former reactions and dungeons were filled by people who were literally left to rot. The final exhibits were the carvings made by the men and the embroidery done by women prisoners. On leaving the exhibition, the visitor can read the words of Lajos Kossuth, etched above the door: “It is my wish that if everything will be lost in Hungary, at least one thing should remain: the liberation of the people from the burden of villeinage…” Kossuth managed to escape to the United States, where he was hailed as a hero of liberty, with statues of him being erected.


A daguerreotype of Sándor Petőfi, one of the first of its kind in Hungary, from 1847. It can be considered a faithful representation of the poet’s features, which were over-romanticised in later portraits, such as the one above. He fell on the battlefield at Segesvár.



The capture of Buda Castle, May 21st, 1849. During the seesawing battles that took place in the War of Independence from Vienna to Transylvania, Buda, Pest and Óbuda fell to the Austrians without direct combat, and the Hungarian government fled to Debrecen. However, the rebel army laid siege to it at the beginning of May, 1848, and captured it on 21st, without real casualties. It was retaken in July. Although the inhabitants of the capital played a major role in the events of March, 1848, they seem to have endured the subsequent events with little involvement, other than providing soldiers.


The surrender at Világos, painted 1851. In mid-August 1849, after the collapse of political confidence in Kossuth, Görgey, commander-in-chief, surrendered not only his own forces, but aklso the remaining scattered forces, to the Russian armies near Arad in Transylvania. He was given a personal amnesty, but the Austrian general, Haynau, camped nearby, carried out mass reprisals on the Hungarian troops.


Today, we live in an age of argument in Europe, not an age of revolutions, so that the ability, quietly and diplomatically, to ‘stay at the table’ is needed and valued more than the ability to make oratorical declarations, recite songs and make grand gestures in public. The route taken by the two counts, Széchenyi and Batthány, may be more useful to Hungary today than that of Kossuth and Petőfi, just as patriotic, but perhaps more productive of progress. There’s a season for songs, poems and speeches, for ardent rhetoric and oratory, but there’s also a season for bridge-building, peace-making and wise compromises. Perhaps, in the Autumn of 2013, the time for the latter has arrived again.

I keep asking, if Hungary is no longer a Republic, since the new constitution was passed in 2011, what is it? I thought the point of the 1989 Constitution was to show, not only that it wanted to disassociate itself from its recent past as a ‘Soviet satellite’ but also with the past of Hapsburg imperialism and autocracy, as well as the authoritarian rule of Admiral Horthy. Yet, having abandoned its status as a ‘Republic’, it now lacks a defining adjective. It is simply a ‘land’.  A land of myths and fairy-tales? Ireland may be voting to abolish its Senate, but I cannot imagine it abandoning its constitution as a Republic and I doubt if I could find an Irish person who could. Neither, however, in the present international climate, do they pretend that they can do without the help of their trading partners in Britain and Europe.

Hungary’s history is different, of course, but not so different that lessons cannot be drawn from the attitude of other countries towards the European Union. I have been a friend of Hungary since 1987/88, and entered one country and left another in the Autumn of 1989, when the new Republic was declared. Those were ‘interesting times’, perhaps too interesting for many ordinary Hungarian families. As a member of a Hungarian family for the past 24 years, one which chose to return in hard times in Hungary two years ago, I understand why Hungarian pride is hurting again. However,  will a new ‘Magyarok’  mythology help heal the wounds and seal the scars left by the past century, or merely serve to reopen them?

I have to admit that Mrs Thatcher showed herself to be a good friend of the ‘bourgeois revolutionaries’ of Hungary in 1989, even if she didn’t much care for Walesa and his proletarian Poles. Many of my Magyar friends visited Britain at this time, or shortly before, when travel restrictions were eased by the last ‘Communist’ government.  They were struck by the ease with which a once strong leader, the ‘iron lady’, could be so easily toppled from power when she became too dictatorial in the new atmosphere which was emerging in Europe and further afield at that time. It seems to me that In the current ‘austere’ atmosphere of retrenchment, all European countries need all the ‘friends’ they can get and none of them, quite literally, can afford to make enemies. Bi-lateral relationships are no longer enough. Take car manufacture. British jobs depend on Japanese and Chinese companies assembling parts produced elsewhere in Europe in Britain, where there is a highly-skilled workforce. Hungarian jobs depend on German companies manufacturing parts in Hungary, where semi-skilled labour is cheaper and production costs are lower. Is that ‘slavery’? Or is it a sign that twenty-first century Hungary is becoming ‘the manufacturing centre of central Europe’ in an inter-dependent single market? Integration and independence need not be polar opposites, after all.


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