Archive for January 2015
On 27 January 1945, two days after KGB Deputy-Commissioner received a report that his orders for the arrest of Raoul Wallenberg had been carried out, a temporary executive committee made an announcement in Budapest on behalf of the Royal Swedish Embassy. It addressed all holders of Swedish passports: “Seeing that all persons of Jewish origin are now citizens enjoying equal rights, activity has come to a natural end.” It wished those previously protected much good fortune and success for the future. However, although the fifty-one day battle for Budapest was at an end, the SS had still not surrendered and Vilmos Bondor drew an accurate picture of the chaos which reigned in the capital:
In the capital chaos reigned. Russian deserters formed gangs of bandits and plundered. The pockets of SS did the same. The newly-appointed Hungarian authorities looked on helplessly. They lacked manpower and experience. Police appointments were made from among the comrades, and those with any expertise were soon in prison.
In any case, the police were not allowed to touch the Russian soldiers, who were therefore allowed to continue to do as they pleased. The German and Arrow Cross terror had been ended, but the survivors were soon experiencing the beginnings of a new tyranny, the first waves of Stalinist dictatorship.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most momentous event in twentieth century Hungarian history was taking place in occupied, and now liberated Poland – the liberation of Auschwitz. However, the liberation of Auschwitz was not given much attention in the international press at the time, as we might expect from a perspective of seventy years later. As Laurence Rees has pointed out in this month’s BBC History Magazine, both Pravda and The Jewish Chronicle reported the story at the beginning of February, but the use of Zykon B was already known about from the Majdanek camp six months before. For many Soviet troops, Auschwitz was just another of the countless examples of Nazi brutality. Pravda ‘explained’ what had happened there asthe logical conclusion of capitalism – a giant factory for murdering the workers themselves when they were no longer useful. From this point onwards, there was an ideological line drawn between the communist and capitalist worlds over the historical significance of Auschwitz. The Soviets sought to reduce the emphasis on Jewish suffering, often referring to the six million murdered only as “victims of fascism”.
In Hungary, it was impossible to research, write about, or even commemorate the Holocaust for the next forty years. I was astounded to discover that when our bilingual team went to interview the villagers of Apostag in 1990, this was the first time the villagers had spoken about the events of April 1944, when sixty Jewish families had been removed and then deported. Even in post-Communist Hungary they were somewhat reticent to denounce neighbours and local police chiefs who played the major role in this (they didn’t see a single German soldier or SS man). This evidence has now been supported many times over by the Steven Spielberg Voices of the Shoah project and in the detailed testimonies published for Holocaust Memorial Day, and in newspapers like The Guardian this year, the seventieth anniversary of the liberation. Three of the five ‘witnesses’ quoted extensively there were Hungarian, one from rural Hungary itself and the other two from territories occupied by Hungary in Czechoslovakia and Romania. All three testify to the fact that persecution of the Jewish communities by the Hungarian authorities began long before the Germans occupied Hungary on 19 March, leading to the mass deportations to Auschwitz. They also support the earlier evidence that the deportations, carried out by the use of cattle trucks, the conditions of which led to many deaths before the victims left Hungary, were almost exclusively the work of the Hungarian Gendarmerie.
Perhaps this is why the current Hungarian government is not as keen to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945 as it is to commemorate the occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944. In fact, the ‘occupation’ was small-scale, as agreed the previous day between Hitler and Regent Horthy, who remained in power for a further seven months, making his government legally responsible for the deportations of over half a million Hungarian Jews. The choice of the 19 March for Hungary’s ‘Commemoration of the Victims of German Occupation’ allows the current state to avoid making an apology for the war crimes of the Horthy regime, and to argue that the Hungarian nation as a whole was the victim of Nazi aggression, thus re-writing history for a second time, substituting a nationalist hyper-text for a communist one.
The first Zeppelin air raid on Great Britain took place on 19-20 January. Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn were hit by Zeppelins L3 and L4 respectively. Four people were killed as the airships went about their missions untroubled by defensive measures. It was virtually impossible to find them in the dark and the two aircraft that did venture up both had engine failures and crash landings. One of the crew ended up thrown into a ditch full of freezing water. Several bombs fell on the royal estate at Sandringham and one of the craters was converted into a duck pond.
The White Feather
Henry Joseph Wilding, a bombardier of the Royal Field Artillery, was charged with causing grievous bodily harm to Arthur Houghton by striking him with fist at High Street, Finchley, on Sunday night. He is said to be the holder of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. According to the evidence someone put a white feather on Wilding’s hat and he said it was Houghton and struck him, knocking his head against a wall.
The Times, 19 January
Being handed a white feather was a sign of being regarded as a coward; many men who were wounded or on leave were given them by women and on occasions ex-servicemen would immediately attempt to rejoin the army. Badges were issued to soldiers who had been honourably discharged and also to civilians on vital war service, to prevent feathers being presented.
President Gorbachev arrived back in Moscow from Vilnius to face another end-of-Cold War crisis on 15 January. Ethnic rioting and civil war had broken out in Azerbaijan. The Muslims there were concerned that the largely Armenian Christian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was rebelling against their rule and manoeuvring for independence from Moscow. There were riots near the Iranian border and the Azerbaijanis mobilised. Gorbachev sent troops: in the subsequent fighting hundreds of Azerbaijanis, perhaps as many as a thousand, were killed.
Source: Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantham Press.
On 13 January 1945, the Soviet Red Army’s advance into Budapest had reached the middle of the fashionable main arterial boulevard known as Andrássy út, and the parallel Benczúr utca. An ambitious Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenburg, who had been working with the Red Cross to protect the remaining Jews in the capital from the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross paramilitaries, was talking of making contact with Marshal Malinovski, the general in charge of the advance, as soon as possible. He went behind the Russian lines with a military escort, a major and his Hungarian helper, Vilmos Langfelder. The same day, in Berlin, a telegraphic summary informed Adolf Eichmann, now in Berlin, that the Swedish Ambassador in Budapest, Danielsson, had gone into hiding and that Wallenburg had been placed under German protection.
By this stage, Eichmann was more and more a burden to the upper echelons of the SS. The collapse of Nazi power was accelerating, and every initiative of the German military leadership was a failure. The inner circle of high-ranking officers clung to their blind faith that the wonder-weapons Hitler had promised could soon be put into action. Others were hoping for a split to emerge between the Allies at any moment, and a third group was already making plans to escape before Germany’s ruin was made total. Fantasists talked of a separate peace, spreading the myth that the West would in no way permit or tolerate Stalin and the Red Army penetrating deep into central Europe. Several of them blamed the series of nightmares on Eichmann’s fanatical genocidal activities. He was personally aware, as were the other Nazi leaders, that he was near the top of the Allies’ lists of war criminals, and they kept their distance from him as catastrophe loomed.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Domokos Szent-Iványi was preparing to leave Moscow for Debrecen. His skills as a diplomat and a linguist had been needed in the Russian capital, but the Soviet-backed Provisional Government in Debrecen, and especially comrades Gerő and Rákosi, were getting nervous about what he was doing on his extended sojourn there. Both governments decided that he should return to Hungary, so he left Moscow on 13th, arriving in Debrecen five days later. When he left Moscow, the Hungarian Armistice Delegation were still in the city, having arrived during his stay there. Back in Debrecen, Szent-Iványi made friends with the Speaker of the House, or President of the Diet, and the leader of the Smallholders’ Party, Ferenc Nagy, among others. After making official calls on Premier Miklós and the Cabinet Ministers, he had a meeting with Géza Teleki and Gábor Faragho in the home of the Presbyterian Bishop Imre Révész. The Hungarian Independence Movement members in Debrecen found themselves in an almost impossible situation. Power was essentially in the hands of the Soviet Secret Service, the NKVD, and their mouthpieces Gerő, Rákosi, and a few others, and that power was steadily growing.
Meanwhile, on 14 January, Wallenberg appeared in a Russian car, saying that he had transferred his effects and a briefcase containing 222,000 pengő to his flat in Zugló, a suburb of Pest. However, the address he gave turned out to be completely unknown, so that it’s possible that he had already been taken captive by the NKVD and was being held at the first Soviet interrogation centre in the Széchenyi Baths building, making contact with high-ranking officers. On the morning of the 16th or 17th (statements differ), Wallenberg caused a stir by appearing at the international ghetto, at the Swedish embassy office. With him were a Russian lieutenant colonel and Langfelder. At Wallenberg’s request the car called at the Swedish Embassy offices, the protected houses, before the car moved off in the direction of Gödöllő. During the journey he said that the Russians had treated him excellently. General Chernyshev, commander of the Pest parts of the city that had been taken, had agreed to his request to go to Debrecen. The escort consisted of three soldiers on motorcycles with side cars, one of them a captain. The Swede joked to one of the helpers in German that he didn’t know whether they were there to defend him or to keep an eye on him. I don’t know whether I’m a guest or a prisoner, he added with a laugh. This was the last anyone saw of Wallenberg in Budapest.
On 16th, before Wallenberg’s putative departure for Debrecen, the quarter where the ‘protected houses’ was liberated. On 17th, German and Hungarian troops withdrew from Pest into Buda, and the Germans blew up the five bridges across the Danube that linked the two halves of the city. Within Buda, especially around the central fortress which was defended by SS troops, the fighting became intense. The morning of the 18th brought the other tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest release from the Arrow Cross and Nazi terror, from mining and from air-raids. Advancing house-to-house, often from cellar-to-cellar, the Soviet forces reached the end of the central ghetto. They demolished the wooden gates and the pallisades in several places. Outside the Dohány utca synagogue, heaps of corpses lay in the streets, frozen hard. Burials began at once in the garden of the synagogue, with 2,281 bodies buried in twenty-four common graves. Forty-five men and women had been shot.
Pest was secured by the Red Army by the end of the day. With Wallenberg’s departure for Debrecen the Swedish humanitarian action was considered finished and the head of the office prepared a final report. In it he listed the in detail the Swedish protected and maintained offices, officials’ flats and the protected houses. He put the number of persons provided with passes and other documents at four thousand, the number of Hungarian colleagues as two hundred, and the total of their family members at four hundred. He reckoned the number supplied with Swedish Red Cross letters of protection as 2,500. He started to close the inventories and wind up the activity.
Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013), The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.
Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books.
Szabolcs Szíta (2012), The Power of Humanity: Raoul Wallenberg and his Aides in Budapest. Budapest: Corvina Books.
January 2015 Preface:
I first published this blogpost in April 2012, but have decided to re-publish it because of the number of times I have heard ‘secularism’ as a term misused over the last few days, mainly in response to the tragic events in Paris. ‘Experts’ have been called in to talk about ‘lycité’, and have pointed out that although there is a strict separation of state and church in France, the Catholic church still has a special status in terms of state funding, recognition in ceremonial events and the celebration of ‘holidays’ – not just Christmas and Easter, but also ‘Toussaint’ (‘All Saints’ – a two week school holiday) and ‘Shrovetide’ (‘La Jour des chandleurs!), among others. If France were truly a secular country, they have pointed out, equal preference in funding, ceremonial and celebrations would be given to the main protestant church and to Judaism and Islam. Eid…
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Reblogged for 25th Anniversary of Mandela’s release…
The BBC’s ‘veteran’ international correspondent, John Simpson, turns seventy next year. He is one of only two people on earth who were on hand to witness each of the following events of 1989-90: the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the quiet revolutions in Poland and Hungary, the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the violent overthrow of Ceaucescu in Romania and the release of Nelson Mandela. Between them, and the transition of power in the Soviet Union which took place in the following year, resulting in its final disintegration, these events have changed the individual lives of a majority of the human race. After Gorbachev came to power in the Kremlin, The African National Congress was warned by the senior Soviet diplomat in Lusaka in 1988 that it could no longer Moscow’s unconditional support. The Soviet agenda had switched from the expensive policies of confrontation…
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