These Weeks in the Twentieth Century   Leave a comment

1916: The Battle of Verdun

After a bombardment using a million shells, a hundred thousand German troops attacked the French city of Verdun. Rather than a full-frontal attack, small groups of stormtroopers went forward into action with flame-throwers and grenades. The Germans gained the upper hand and took the large fort of Douaumont on 25 February  without a shot being fired. German church bells were rung and a holiday granted in celebration.

The bloody battle continued through the spring and summer and into the autumn; Douaumont was recaptured almost eight months to the day after it was taken. German general Erich von Falkenhayn had claimed the siege of the city would ‘bleed the French white’, but the casualties were high on both sides; the French lost 540,000 lives, and the Germans 430,000. After the Battle of Verdun, the Germans did not undertake another large-scale offensive on the Western Front until the spring of 1918.

Two-thirds of the whole French Army took part in the battle. General Nivelle’s memorable Order of the Day issued on 23 June was:

Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes comrades.

(You shall not let them pass, my comrades.)

It is estimated that a hundred thousand corpses lie under the battlefield to this day.

Introduction of Conscription in Britain

Meanwhile, the Military Service Act brought military conscription into force in March, for the first time in British history. All single men aged between 18 and 41 were eligible for call-up (married men were included from May and in 1918 the upper age limit was increased to 51). Exemptions were granted to those who were unfit, ill, in essential jobs (such as munitions workers, miners and farmers), ministers of religion and those who had a concientious objection to combatant service.

1941: A Transylvanian Jew in Budapest

By the beginning of 1940, most young Jewish men in Hungary were already in labour battalions, and the young men of Kolozsvár, now part of Hungary again (see map below), were swiftly called up to join them. The Jewish journalist Rezső Kasztner was one of these young men, serving for a few months in a battalion of mostly Jewish intellectuals, building military fortifications in northern Transylvania. He managed to negotiate a special dispensation for medical reasons and returned to Kolozsvár, where he continued to to work on behalf of the Hungarian refugees from Romania. He found that bribery was still effective among the officials, and managed to win exemption cards for sickly Jews and the sons of widows. He had connections on the black market, knew where to trade currencies, and what the going rates were for bribes in dollars and Swiss francs. Local government officials would still see him without an appointment and continued to treat him with the deference due to a member of a prominent Jewish-Hungarian family.

However, in January 1941, members of the Romanian Iron Guard had launched a rebellion to overthrow Antonescu’s Romanian government. Its ranks were swelled by nationalist fervour and the hope for easy loot, so the guards hunted for Jews in villages and small towns. Thousands were herded into box-cars and left on railway sidings for days, while in Bucharest, human bodies were hung on meat hooks and displayed in the windows of butcher shops. After March 1941, German troops were stationed in Romania, preparing for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Although the new Hungarian laws affecting the Transylvanian Jews were troubling, the Jews of Kolozsvár were relieved to be outside the reach of the Romanian mob rule.

In preparation for friendly overtures towards the British (see my writings elsewhere on this site on Magyar-British relations during this period, based on the testimony of Domokos Szent-Iványi and others),  Prime Minister Pál Teleki signed a treaty of peace and eternal friendship with Yugoslavia in February. Many Hungarians saw this as a hopeful sign amid the bellicose sabre-rattling of the Hungarian military, which was fixated on the reacquisition of Croatia in order to fulfill the dream of restoring the former Greater Hungary. Count Teleki was of Transylvanian aristocratic stock, a professor of geography at the University of Budapest, and the joke about him in Kolozsvár was that he was that the cartographer was too busy redrawing the political map of Hungary to remember to look at the physical map showing all the rivers flowing into the Carpathian basin either from German or Russian lands. There was little hope of Hungary remaining neutral and even less hope that Great Britain, standing alone in the west, would concern itself with central-eastern European affairs. In fact, Teleki himself was a mild-mannered but vocal anti-Semite, though he claimed to be relatively friendly towards the ‘assimilated’, patriotic Jews of the big cities.

Nevertheless, it was under his premiership that the anti-Jewish laws were strengthened and in early 1941 the Hungarian government closed all Jewish newspapers, including Új Kelet (‘New East’), the paper Kasztner was writing for in Kolozsvár. Having lost his voice among the people in Transylvania, he was worried that he would also lose his status and influence. He needed a job, and certainly did not want to accept the patronage of his affluent father-in-law. It was agreed that once he was established in the capital, his wife, ‘Bógyo’, would join him. So it was that in the early spring of 1941 Rezső Kasztner arrived in Budapest, from where he was to secure the release and survival of tens of thousands of fellow wealthy Jews in his dealings with Adolf Eichmann three years later.

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1946: Revival of the Hungarian Independence Movement

In February 1946, Zoltán Tildy became the President of the Republic, while Ferenc Nagy became Prime Minister of a government in which the Smallholders retained half the portfolios. Besides the Minister of the Interior, Rajk, the Communists supplied the Deputy Premier, Rákosi, and the transport and welfare ministers. They exploited these positions with tactical skill and ruthlessness against the Smallholder majority, which hesitated to take a tough line against the Soviet-supported left-wing grouping. The group consolidated their advocacy of class warfare and the need to proceed with social revolution through the creation of a Left Wing Bloc on 5 March.

This was the same day on which Winston Churchill made his famous speech referring to the iron curtain separating the Soviet occupied regions from the rest of Europe. Although it was a full year before the Truman Doctrine marked the beginning of the USA’s entry into the Cold War, it was clearly imminent in 1946 and induced Stalin to accelerate the Sovietisation of the occupied territories. This was the background against which the Communists in Hungary prepared to eliminate their rivals through ‘salami slicing’ tactics, as Rákosi called them. It began as soon as the Nagy government took office.

In response, during February and March, three men attempted to revive the MFM, the Hungarian Independence Movement, which had been dormant since the Nazi Occupation of Hungary two years earlier. One or two days after 19 March 1944, according to Domokos Szent-Iványi,  the directors of the MTK (The Hungarian Fraternal Community), the secret society within the Regency and Government of Hungary, allied to the MFM, with an overlapping membership, decided to suspend its operations due to the presence of the Gestapo and the advance of the Red Army. At that time, the MTK had been mainly a social society rather than a political organisation. In 1946, however, a trio led by György Donáth wanted the MTK to become more politically active. Donáth began to promote the idea of an Underground Army, advocated by Major Szent-Miklósy, who had been impressed by the success of the Polish Underground Army. The third man, Károly Kiss, had spent his life organising the administration of the MTK, since it had come into being in the early 1920s. He was an engineer, and had become an influential leader of the MTK by 1939. All three men were arrested and put on show trials before ‘the People’s Tribunal’ later in 1946 and in 1947.

The men were motivated by the belief that the Soviets would soon be forced by the western powers to evacuate central-Eastern Europe, including Hungary, but that before leaving, they would take steps to establish Communist rule by force of arms. This was what lay behind the idea of an ‘Underground Army’ which would keep order and democracy in the country. Papers outlining these plans and ambitions were later ‘discovered’ by the ÁVO (secret police) and formed the basis for the show trials.

1991: Return to Cold War & Operation Desert Storm

Following the escalation of conflict between Moscow and the Baltic States in January, Boris Yeltsin, the parliamentary leader of the Russian State, signed a mutual security pact with his Baltic counterparts. A summit meeting between Gorbachev and Bush, planned for February, was abandoned as East-West relations again deteriorated. Conscious of Soviet ties to Iraq and hard-line Kremlin opposition to US gunboat diplomacy, Gorbachev realised that even though the Soviet Union had initially voted at the UN to support the use of force against Iraq, he would need time to work on the government in Baghdad. On 18 February, he met with Iraq’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, in Moscow in a last-ditch attempt at mediation. However, the timetable for the ground war against the Iraqi regime was already set. Operation Desert Storm began on 24 February. On 27 February, President Bush announced that Kuwait had been ‘liberated’.

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Anti-Gorbachev demonstration. The President of the USSR faces opposition from both sides, from reformers and hard-liners. The latter were planning to oust him from the Kremlin.

In Moscow, Gorbachev fought on, winning a referendum in support of his proposed new Union Treaty; the Soviet Union was to be preserved as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the freedoms of all nationalities would be guaranteed. Several republics boycotted the vote, Yeltsin supporting them. In March, a coal miners’ strike began in the Donbass, Ukraine, and there were mass demonstrations in Moscow supporting Yeltsin against Gorbachev. These came to a head on 28 March when a planned protest proceeded in spite of a ban and the presence of fifty thousand police and soldiers on the streets of the capital. The marches went off peacefully, but the ban and the massing of armed forces caused great offence, with Gorbachev suffering a further loss of respect among reformers.

Sources:

Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013) (Kodolányi & Szeklér (eds.)), The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable & Robinson.

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantham Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War. Chichester: Somersdale.

Lászlo Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

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