Annihilation & Liberation in Warsaw & Paris: August – October 1944 (II, including the Battle for Budapest).   Leave a comment

Transatlantic Diplomatic Adventures:

While Operation Garden suffered 1,500 casualties, Operation Market lost five times that number of Britons and Poles at Arnhem, massacred on the Lower Rhine by tank, mortar and artillery fire. On the night of 25 September, 3,910 of the 11,920 men of the 1st Airborne Division and Polish Independent Brigade Group managed to withdraw to the south side of the river, the rest having been killed, wounded or captured. It was, however, the British Army’s last defeat. What became known as Operation Market Garden used up scarce resources and manpower at precisely the moment that Patton was nearing the Rhine without opposition, but short of supplies. The Allied forces were unable to cross the borders of the Reich for another six months. The Germans, on the other hand, were able to use the breathing space bought by their victory in Holland to rush defenders to the Siegfried Line, previously undefended. From late September, Allied forces founded themselves fighting determined German counter-attacks in the Vosges, Moselle and the Scheldt, as well as at Metz and Aachen.

With mixed military fortunes on both western and eastern fronts in mid-September, Churchill and Roosevelt met for the second time in Quebec. It is not now recognised today as one of the iconic meetings of the war, unlike Tehran, Yalta or the Newfoundland conference which inaugurated the Atlantic Charter. Nonetheless, it was a highly significant moment in the development of the relationship between the two leaders, one that helps us to debunk the rose-tinted wartime mythology which became part of the contemporary consciousness of a ‘special relationship’ based on personal ‘chemistry’. Significantly, Poland was not discussed in any detail, neither in connection with the current crisis nor the country’s future. Roosevelt dealt with this unpleasant political reality by ignoring it, emphasising the importance of the bigger picture.

What was prominently discussed in Quebec was the post-war future of Germany. The question had proved divisive at Tehran, as evidenced by the infamous dinner at which Stalin had called for fifty thousand Germans to be shot in the immediate aftermath of the war. The dinner in Quebec on 13 September rivalled the one in Tehran for contentiousness and emotion. Roosevelt asked his Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, to outline for Churchill just what the Americans had in mind for Germany. Normally, this would have been a matter for the State Department. Morgenthau proceeded to describe one of the most radical and destructive proposals ever formulated by any democratic state in the twentieth century. Not only was Germany to be split into two countries, but all its industrial capacity was to be destroyed. Churchill, trusting his emotions on this occasion, was outraged. Even before Morgenthau could finish his piece, Churchill turned the full flood of his rhetoric, sarcasm and violence on the man from the Treasury, telling him that his proposal was unnatural, unchristian and unnecessary. The Prime Minister’s protest was as clear and rational as it was emotional, however:

I’m all for disarming Germany, but we ought not to prevent her living decently. There are bonds between the working classes of all countries, and the English people will not stand for the policy you are advocating.

Yet two days later, Churchill withdrew his strident objections to the plan, endorsing its substance, possibly because he was aware of the chasm in British-American relations which had suddenly opened up at so crucial a stage in the war. He had made his point, and on 15 September, he signed a continuation of the Lend-Lease agreement that guaranteed the British $6.5 billion. This was of vital importance to the British economy, which had been devastated by the war. Remaining emotional, Churchill turned to Roosevelt and told him how grateful he was, thanking him most effusively, according to Morgenthau’s notes. Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, was astonished by Churchill’s ‘volte-face’ and remained adamantly opposed to the Morgenthau Plan, especially its plans for the de-industrialisation of the Ruhr and the Saar Basin, Germany’s twin industrial powerhouses. He wrote:

It was as if one were to take the Black Country and turn it into Devonshire. I did not like the plan, nor was I convinced that it was to our national advantage. I said so…

The Americans, including Roosevelt, looked on as Churchill and Eden had a public row about the plan in front of them in which the former tried to convince the latter of the advantages to British exports if the plan was implemented and Germany would no longer be an industrial competitor. However, it is scarcely credible that he changed his mind because of a sudden realisation of the plan’s benefits to British industry; much more likely is the straightforward explanation that Churchill went along with what the Americans wanted in order to ensure their signing of the Lend-Lease agreement.

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While the Allied leaders squabbled among themselves over the fate of a still undefeated Germany, the Nazi’s argument that they had to fight on to prevent Soviet barbarity being unleashed on their wives and daughters was true as far as it went, but this was mainly in the consciousness of the German troops fighting to hold back the Red Army’s advance in the east.

In attempting to explain why the High Command nonetheless kept on fighting so hard on both fronts after Overlord, Max Hastings argues that whether they were SS officers, Prussian aristocrats, career soldiers or mere functionaries, the German generals …

… abandoned coherent thought about the future and merely performed the immediate military functions that were so familiar to them.

The failed July Bomb Plot had brought suspicion on them all and had also seemed to seal the Führer’s indestructibility. They also knew how heavily they were implicated in the crimes of the Third Reich. The files of the British Secret Intelligence Service explode the post-war claim of senior Wehrmacht officers that they did not know what was happening to the Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, mentally disabled and other so-called Untermenschen, crimes which they exclusively blamed on the SS.

‘Fake’ Forces & ‘False’ Hopes:

On 14 September, Stalin had reluctantly allowed several patrols from the 1st Polish Army, serving with the Red Army and commanded by General Zygmunt Berling, to land on the western bank of the Vistula in the suburbs of Warsaw, making contact with Home Army soldiers. Several more landings were attempted on successive nights until around three thousand ‘Polish’ soldiers were in contact with their compatriots fighting in the capital. However, fewer than one in three of them were to make it back across the river. In reality, a number of the officers of this ‘Polish’ Army were, in fact, Russian. They were dressed up as Polish officers but didn’t even speak Polish. More importantly, perhaps, they were ill-disciplined and were unable to hold the bridgehead, and by the last week of September, those who were still able to do so retreated across the river. This was the only attempt ‘staged’ on the ground to help those fighting the Germans in the Warsaw Uprising, and it was a costly failure. It made clear that only a massive and coordinated assault by the Red Army could shake the Germans, something that Stalin would clearly not sanction. That autumn Marshal Rokossovsky, commanding the Red Army outside Warsaw, didn’t even bother to reply to the increasingly desperate requests for help from the Polish insurgents inside the capital.

The troops of the 1st Polish Army, fighting with the advancing Red Army, were themselves devastated by the fate of Warsaw. They watched all autumn as the Germans bombed and set fire to buildings. Jan Karniewicz, a young soldier in Berling’s army, later recalled how there was…

… an aura over Warsaw in the evening – a red aura, a pink aura… I felt like like the capital is burning. If the capital is not liberated, it will be burnt down any minute. … Warsaw is dying. National culture – Polish culture – is dying. You feel all this will be lost and destroyed and won’t be regained.

Yet when, in early September, the Red Cross had arranged an evacuation, only ten per cent of the remaining population of one million elected to leave the city. Although they had had only seven days’ supply of ammunition, to begin with, the Home Army fought for more than nine weeks. On 2 October, General Tadeusz Bór, commander of the Home Army, signed an instrument of surrender with General von dem Bach-Zelewski, and the Warsaw Uprising was over. In order to end the bloody house-to-house fighting, the Germans had been forced to concede that any Home Army prisoners they took would be regarded as captured combatants, rather than simply ‘bandits’, and that they would treat civilians with humanity, a promise which was ‘honoured’ more by its breach than its observance. In all 15,200 insurgents were killed and seven thousand wounded before Bór-Komorowski was forced to surrender. In all, the decision to try to take the Polish capital had had immense human consequences, involving the death of 220,000 Poles, 200,000 of whom were civilians. German military losses were also high: some claimed that as many as seventeen thousand soldiers died. Himmler’s revenge was to send 153,610 Polish men, women and children to the concentration camps, from where only a handful emerged alive.

The Germans then proceeded to destroy Warsaw, brick by brick, until in January 1945, on entering the city, Jan Karniewicz found that it was no more than a heap of rubble. By then, 83% of the city’s buildings had been destroyed by the Waffen-SS. Only after the Uprising had been completely crushed in early October did the SS withdraw from Warsaw, and it was not until mid-January that the Red Army finally crossed the Vistula and took over the smoking ruins of the city. It had been an epic struggle, sometimes skated over in Anglo-American histories of the Second World War. As a historian of Poland, Norman Davies, has pointed out, however, the Warsaw Uprising involved…

twice as many soldiers as did the attack on Arnhem; it lasted ten times longer; and it caused five times as many casualties. What is more, the fate of an Allied capital was at stake. And three times as many civilians were killed as in the entire London Blitz.

‘Doomed’ Diplomacy:

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above: Lieutenant General Wladyslaw Anders, commander of the Polish II Corps in the British Army. He had successfully negotiated the release of thousands of his fellow Polish soldiers from the Soviet Union.

Without the support of the Red Army, the Warsaw Uprising was always doomed. Yet, despite all his equivocation for the purposes of propaganda, it was clear that Stalin had decided by mid-August that he would stand back and let the Home Army be destroyed by the Nazis. Churchill described the Soviet behaviour at the time as ‘strange and sinister’, but it was purely pragmatic. Stalin simply seized the opportunity to have one enemy, the Nazis, eliminate the other, the powerful and independent Polish partisan force. This cynical political decision was confirmed when, towards the end of August, the Red Army under Marshal Tolbukhin was directed to attack Romania rather than Warsaw. Militarily, it was obvious that the Soviets had decided to leave the Polish capital for another day when both the Germans and the Poles inside it had fought each other to a standstill. The decision to launch the uprising without first obtaining a commitment from the Soviet Union to coordinate an attack had turned out to be a terrible, if understandable, mistake. But even had the uprising not occurred, the Home Army would almost certainly have been subsequently eliminated by the NKVD. In a letter written in the autumn of 1944, General Anders concluded:

It didn’t have the slightest chance of success, and exposed all parts of the country still under German occupation to new and appalling repressions. No one who is not dishonest or blind could have had the least illusion that everything which had happened was always going to happen: i.e. not only that the Soviets will refuse to help our beloved heroic Warsaw but also that they will watch with the greatest pleasure as our nation’s blood is drained to the last drop.

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The Liberation of Europe, January 1944 – March 1945.

In mid-September 1944 Malinovski’s 2nd Ukrainian and Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front regrouped, swinging north for an offensive into Hungary and north-eastern Yugoslavia respectively. Marshal Tito had already conferred with Stalin, who for once found himself almost nonplussed at encountering a truly independent resistance movement:
the relationship between the two was far from easy, with Tito insisting on a role for his own men in operations to complete the liberation of Yugoslavia. Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front marched on Belgrade, aided by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav partisans, taking it on 20 October to be greeted as liberators by a populace which had also been subjected to Nazi barbarity. Hitler had insisted on Army Group F remaining in Greece for as long as possible, which meant that it could not help much in the defence of Yugoslavia where, in order to avoid being cut off, Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, the German Supreme Commander in south-east Europe, was forced westwards via Sarajevo. Malinovskii meanwhile was bent on clearing northern Transylvania and eastern Hungary. The threat of imminent Soviet invasion threw the Hungarian leaders into a turmoil, but the Germans had learned from both the Romanian defection and the
Bulgarian debacle, moving to install their own puppet in Hungary and stiffen the occupation. This did not prevent the Hungarians from sending out peace feelers, hoping against hope for an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ protectorate to Hungary, but the western Allies told them that only road led to Moscow.

Within days of the Quebec meeting, there had been a storm of protest about the Morgenthau Plan. The American Secretary of State, Cordell Hunt, was appalled that not only had Morgenthau been able to trespass so blatantly on an area of policy that did not belong to him, but that a plan had been proposed which, in his judgement,  so clearly result in Germany resisting more fiercely. By early October, the plan had been quietly dropped in the radical form that had originally been proposed at the Quebec meeting, although the punitive philosophy it was based on later found expression  in the Joint Chief of Staff directive 1067, which stated that  occupation forces should take no steps looking the economic rehabilitation of Germany (or) designed to maintain or strengthen the German economy. Meanwhile, and in the face of all these difficulties, Churchill resorted to the tactic he had first used in August 1942 during the row over the ‘Second Front’ – he got on a plane and went to Moscow. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Churchill showed no signs of anger with Stalin over his failure to come to the aid of Warsaw and his shunning of the Polish government in exile. In these talks, it was as if the row over the Warsaw Uprising had never happened.

In the Kremlin, at ten o’clock in the evening of 9 October, the two leaders met once again. The British PM suggested beginning with the most tiresome question – Poland. Churchill then claimed that the question of the post-war frontier of Poland was ‘settled’, despite the fact that the Polish government in exile in London still vehemently disagreed with the Soviet claim over eastern Poland. Churchill added that if at some future peace conference there were to be Polish objections, it ‘would not matter’ because the Americans and British thought the new border ‘right and fair’. He asked Stalin if he thought it was ‘worthwhile’ to get the London Poles to fly to Moscow, saying that ‘with British and Russian agreement’ they would be ‘forced to settle’. Stalin stuck to the line he had used with the Poles a few weeks before, adding that Mikolajczyk would have to make contact with the Lublin Poles who now had an army at their disposal and therefore ‘represented a force’ to be dealt with.

However, Stalin did not mention the nature of this armed forces, because at the same time as Churchill was meeting with the Soviet leader, a forward unit in the Soviet 6th air force in eastern Poland was being transformed overnight into a squadron in a new Polish air force. However, none of this new force’s pilots spoke Polish, so they could not be allowed to fly in case they were shot down until they had learnt enough to pass themselves off as Poles. This, along with Berling’s units within the Red Army (see above) comprised the ‘force’ that would be at the ‘disposal’ of the Soviet-backed government of ‘liberated’ Poland. Churchill was swift to point out that the London Poles had an army as well, part of which had ‘held out in Warsaw’, but…

… they also had a brave army corps in Italy where they lost seven or eight thousand men. Then there was the armoured division, one brigade of which was in France. … They were good and brave men. The difficulty about the Poles was that they had unwise political leaders. Where there were two Poles there was one quarrel!

Stalin retorted with a quip of his own, that where there was one Pole he would begin to quarrel with himself through sheer boredom! The two leaders then moved on to discuss the future shape of much of the rest of Europe. It was during this discussion that Churchill produced what he referred to as a ‘naughty’ document. This has become an infamous moment in the history of the war. As he took the paper out, Churchill said to Stalin that the Americans would be shocked if they saw how crudely he had put it. The handwritten document contained a series of percentages, outlining how much influence ‘Russia’ and other countries should have over specific European territory. The list was as follows:

Romania: Russia, 90%, the others 10%

Greece: Britain (in accord with USA), 90%, Russia 10%.

Yugoslavia: 50/50%

Hungary: 50/50%

Bulgaria: Russia 75%, the others 25%.

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Stalin made one change to the document. He crossed out the percentages for Bulgaria and changed them to Russia 90 per cent; ‘the others’ 10 per cent. This was an extraordinary moment, in which one of the leading statesmen of the democratic world was effectively ‘carving up’ eastern Europe with a man who was recognised, the world over, as a tyrant. This apparently callous way of trading other people’s destinies continued in discussions between Eden and Molotov the next day. The two foreign ministers swapped percentage figures as if they could not now agree to Bulgaria, Hungary and Yugoslavia, 75/25% each. Eden replied that such figures would be worse than the previous day. Molotov later bargained that if Hungary was 75/25%, then Bulgaria should be 75/25 and Yugoslavia 60/40. This, he said, was the limit to which he would go. Of course, Churchill and Eden could not be sure how matters would turn out over the next forty-five years.

As Churchill talked with Stalin in the Kremlin, and Eden talked with Molotov, we now know that Molotov was also meeting a Hungarian Delegation in a room nearby to agree on the terms of an Armistice. In September 1944, with the Red Army reaching the edge of the ‘Carpathian Basin’, the Hungarian Regent, Miklós Horthy, kept on by Hitler as nominal head of state after the occupation in March, tried once again to broker a new peace deal with the western powers. They told him that they could not reach an agreement which excluded the Soviet Union, so that Horthy finally agreed to swallow his anti-Bolshevik pride and ask Stalin for an armistice, sending Géza Teleki, the son of former PM Pál Teleki, to Moscow, to negotiate the terms. On 28 September, the Hungarian Armistice Delegation under General Faragho (pictured below) left Budapest for Moscow.

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The terms of the armistice were agreed quite rapidly and successfully, but the other part of the final ’breakaway’ plan, to launch a showdown with Germany ahead of the advancing Red Army, was thwarted by Horthy’s stubborn refusal to leave the capital for the Hungarian military headquarters at Huszt in sub-Carpathia. Domokos Szent-Iványi, acting as State Minister to the Hungarian Delegation, later recorded their ‘close encounter’ with the British PM and Foreign Secretary during a break in the negotiations to allow the delegation to contact the Regency in Budapest:

Molotov seemed to mull over the problem. Then all of a sudden, he turned to me and, in a very warm voice asked me: ‘Would you be able to conduct negotiations in English as well as in French, Mr Minister? It might happen that the negotiations would be continued in English.’ I answered with a short ‘Yes’, upon which Molotov rose and declared the conference suspended for about ten minutes. He went into the adjoining room, and while he was passing the door, we could glimpse the people in that room. Due to my poor eyesight I could not make out the faces, but Faragho later insisted on his having seen Churchill and Eden there. 

Molotov returned after ten minutes, at around 4.00 a.m. on the 11th,  having consulted Churchill, and apparently gained approval to finalise the terms of the Armistice with the Hungarian Delegation and to prepare the Treaty for signing. The draft treaty simply proposed that Hungary should immediately…

… withdraw from all the territories of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania occupied by her behind the frontiers that existed before 31 December 1937, including all Hungarian troops and functionaries. 

Coup d’état in Budapest:

Of course, these terms did not include any reference to the notion that the USSR would hold a ‘majority stake’ in what would happen to Hungary after the war, though it did set out the requirement for an ‘Allied United Mission’ to supervise Hungary’s implementation of its withdrawal, with representatives from all three governments, under the chairmanship of the Soviet representative. It also provided for ‘armed assistance’ from the Soviet Union. Given the ‘hard reality’ that Soviet forces were about to ‘liberate’ and then occupy Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, Churchill and Eden must have thought that they had to try to salvage something from the Red Army’s rush into Europe. As the meetings in Moscow progressed, Russian forces were at a distance of just over a hundred kilometres from the Hungarian capital, and Szent-Iványi reported that this had a ‘positive’ effect on the atmosphere of their negotiations with Molotov. In this context, Churchill’s gaining an immediate recognition of Western influence over these countries at least represented an advance in the current situation. Just before 8 p.m. in the evening of 11 October, the three Hungarian delegates signed the Armistice Treaty in the Kremlin, but later that night, the news arriving in Moscow from Budapest was wholly negative, as the Regent was refusing to leave Budapest to join the Hungarian forces at the front. Szent-Iványi wrote:

This was a great blow; such a decision would would place the success of the our mission in great jeopardy … In the meantime, our Delegation increased in number with the addition of Major Nemes and Secretary of Legation István Tarnay, the former bringing the Regent’s authorisation for signing both the preliminary and final armistice treaties.

The next day, the 12th, however, matters in the Hungarian capital deteriorated dramatically when the SS launched a coup d’état to replace Horthy with Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Hungarian fascist party, the Arrow Cross. On 15 October, in a radio broadcast, Horthy declared a ceasefire for which he was unprepared militarily. It was also frustrated by the officer corps, a considerable number of whom were secret members or sympathisers of the Arrow Cross Party who, rather than turning against the Nazis, joined the fascist ‘putsch’. The ‘pull-out’ collapsed within hours. The Nazis had already captured some of the generals involved and were lying in wait. Young Miklós Horthy was taken hostage. In the picture below,, pictured below entering Buda Castle on 16 October, is shown surrounded by Hungarian officers who had joined the Arrow Cross insurgents, in the foreground, together with German Storm Troopers observing from the tank in the background.

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The Regent and his family left Hungary on 17 October for internment in Berlin and later exile in Lisbon, where Horthy died in 1957. Discussing the dramatically changed situation with the Russians in Moscow, Szent-Iványi argued at first that the Regent’s disappearance should not stop their cooperation since the Regent had appointed General L Veress, the Commander of the 2nd Hungarian Army, to replace him should he be killed or arrested by the Germans. Unfortunately, as the Soviets discovered, General Veress had also been arrested by the SS and so all their plans were frustrated and the Armistice could not be implemented. The Nazi coup effectively annulled it and Szálasi, confirmed by Horthy as his successor as President and Head of State as almost the last ‘act’ of his regency, was installed as a puppet leader of a fascist government in Budapest.

Meanwhile, from 10 October, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were liberated from Hitler’s yoke only to fall beneath that of the USSR for the next forty-five years. Guderian attempted to get the twenty veteran divisions of Army Group North, a powerful and manoeuvrable striking force, out of western Latvia so that it could reinforce the hard-pressed units defending East Prussia, but he was prevented from doing so by Hitler. So when the Russian 1st Baltic Front reached the Baltic Sea and took Memel, Army Group North was trapped, with no route back to East Prussia. Hitler had effectively created a ‘fortified locality’ out of the whole western part of Latvia. Between September and November 1944 the German Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies were forced to retreat into Baltic enclaves at Memel and Kurland, but Hitler refused to evacuate them because he needed the Baltic coastline to continue to import Swedish iron ore and to develop a new generation of U-boats to outrun the Atlantic convoys. This was part of his final strategy to win the war by marooning the Anglo-American armies on the continent without supplies.

Carving up Poland:

Against this military backdrop, at five o’clock in the afternoon of 13 October, the Polish Prime Minister in exile, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, walked into the Spridonovka Palace in the Kremlin to begin discussions with Stalin and Churchill, a meeting instigated following pressure from the British PM. It isn’t hard to imagine Mikolajczyk’s emotions as he sat down with Stalin once again, especially as any assurances he had received from the Soviet leader little more than two months before about the Warsaw Uprising had come to nothing. But however bad he felt at the start of the meeting, worse was yet to come. To begin with, Stalin reiterated his demands made in August, stating that… one could not shut one’s eyes to the facts. The Lublin Poles were overseeing ‘much work’ in Poland and had ‘a large army’ and therefore had to be involved in any discussions about the future of Poland. In addition, the London Poles must recognise the ‘Curzon Line’ and relinquish eastern Poland; otherwise, ‘there could be no good relations’. Mikolajczyk made the understandable point that Polish soldiers abroad who were fighting against the Germans thought that they were fighting in the hope of returning to that territory. Stalin retorted that Ukrainians and White Russians were also fighting for this land but Mr Mikolajczyk perhaps did not know of it. They had suffered much more than all the Poles put together. 

Churchill did his best to mediate between the two men, saying that they all knew of Poland’s sufferings. He then made a long, emotional statement in which he argued that all of them, including Marshal Stalin, wanted Poland to be a free, sovereign and independent state, with the power to lead its own life provided that it remained ‘friendly’ to the Soviet Union. On the crucial question of the eastern borders, Britain supported the Soviet proposal, because they felt it their duty. Not because Russia was strong but because Russia was right in the matter. Mikolajczyk retorted that he did not know that they now had to divide Poland before dealing with other questions. Then came a devastating moment for the Polish Prime Minister. After Churchill had appealed to him once again to make a grand gesture and give up eastern Poland, Molotov intervened, clearly having had enough of Churchill’s emotive speeches and wanting to return to hard realities. He reminded everyone of what had been said in Tehran on the Polish Question when Roosevelt had agreed to the Curzon Line but did not wish it published at the moment. From this, he argued, they could all conclude that the points of view of the Soviet Union, Britain and America were the same. Although Mikolajczyk had known that Churchill wanted him to agree to the Curzon Line, he had not known that the matter had been discussed, and seemingly agreed, at the Tehran Conference, without the Poles present: Nor had he realised that Roosevelt had also been a party to this agreement. When Churchill tried to appease him over this, Mikolajczyk kept his cool, simply saying:

I have already heard so many unpleasant things in the course of this war that one more will not let me lose my balance.

But the next day, at the dacha where the British were based, Churchill returned to the issue at stake with the Polish PM, telling him angrily that:

Unless you accept the frontier you are out of business for ever. The Russians will sweep through your country and you people will be liquidated. You are on the verge of annihilation.

Mikolajczyk still would not accept the loss of eastern Poland and the meeting ended with the Poles withdrawing in order to consider what they should do. But this was a foregone conclusion since they were being asked to give up eastern Poland to the Soviets at a time when Polish soldiers in the Allied armies were fighting to liberate Europe from the tyranny of fascism. Yet Churchill’s comment sits oddly with the view he had expressed at Tehran that Stalin should be allowed various territorial gains because the ‘character’ of the Soviet government had ‘changed’.  The Poles returned to the British dacha at three in the afternoon to give their verdict. Not surprisingly, Mikolajczyk said that they could not consent to the Curzon Line. Churchill exploded with an outburst of invective, threatening the London Poles with derecognition and suggesting that they might like to withdraw their divisions from the Allied armies. Mikolajczyk was shaken by his visit to Moscow, both by the vehemence of Churchill’s attack and the news that all the Allied leaders, including Roosevelt, had agreed on the borders of his country behind his back at Tehran.

The US President had expressed his concern at that conference that the several million American visitors of Polish descent would be upset if the Soviets gained eastern Poland and might express their displeasure directly at the election in November 1944. He also considered the European border questions so impossible to resolve that he wanted to stay out of them as far and as long as he could, except perhaps for the problems of Germany. At a final dinner on 18 October, Churchill and Stalin chatted like old friends. Despite his failure to force through an agreement on Poland, Churchill ended his visit to Moscow in an optimistic mood. Although by his own admission, Stalin seemed willing to ‘liquidate’ Poland in the near future, he remained convinced that the Soviet leader was someone he could work with as an ally. He returned to London in an optimistic and upbeat mood, as revealed in his letter to his wife, Clementine:

I have had very nice talks with the Old Bear, … I like him the more I see him. Now they respect us and I am sure they wish to work with us.

Political Necessities & ‘Spheres of Influence’:

The Nazis, having prevented Hungary from leaving the Axis, soon strengthened their grip on the country, and Stalin ordered an immediate attack on Budapest, insisting to his commander on the Ukrainian Front that the Hungarian capital must be taken ‘in the next few days’. When Malinovsky replied that he needed five days for the task, Stalin countered:

There is no point in being so stubborn. You obviously don’t understand the political necessity of an immediate strike against Budapest.

That ‘political necessity’ was probably the forthcoming summit of the ‘Big Three’ at Yalta, which eventually took place in January 1945, at which the post-war future of much of Europe would be discussed and agreed. Before the end of 1944, Stalin needed the Red Army to advance as rapidly and as far as it could into central Europe in order to secure the ‘spheres of influence’ he had tentatively agreed with Churchill in Moscow, ahead of the Conference. But the Red Army did not take Budapest even within five days in mid-October and, given the fierceness of German and Hungarian resistance, it was ludicrous of Stalin even to expect this of them. In reality, it took until Christmas Eve before the Soviets could launch what they hoped would be their final assault on the city. The Hungarian capital held out bravely, though in vain, through terrible privations. There was very strong resistance on the outskirts of Pest and very powerful counter-attacks. As head of the reconnaissance department of his tank corps, Boris Likhachev was in the heat of the action, and he still remembers the intensity of the battle for Budapest:

The sound of artillery fire! When a shell explodes you smell burning, and it irritates your eyes. And it affects your breathing. What is even worse is when a bomb explodes – your breathing system is affected. It’s smothering you. There is no fresh air to breathe and all this smoke fills your lungs … Several times I experienced this. To be inside the tank with the hatches closed – even though the tanks have a ventilation system, it doesn’t help; it’s poor and ineffective – a person cannot be inside a tank for long when there are explosions around … With the tanks, especially tanks with heavy armour, on the one hand you feel safe, on the other … you suffocate.

Just as he had done with Stalingrad, Hitler ordered a fight to the last. Budapest was declared a Festung – a fortified place that must not be surrendered. A total of seventy thousand soldiers – roughly equal numbers of German and Hungarian soldiers – prepared to defend the capital. The Battle for/ of Budapest is much less well-known in popular history than other iconic events of the war, like Stalingrad or the battle for Berlin; yet it was of real significance in terms of both scale and timing, besides illustrating how Soviet forces were capable of behaving as they advanced into central Europe. The frustrations of the Red Army besiegers were taken out on the women of Budapest, with mass rapine in scenes that were to be repeated across central-eastern Europe, especially in Germany. With the Red Army close, the citizens of Budapest were in a state of fear. A medical student who had just been conscripted into a Hungarian military unit later spoke of how refugees who had fled from the northern area of Hungary already occupied by the Soviets…

… were telling terrible things. Watches were taken away from everybody, and women – they did not care if they were young or old – they were taking them and they were raping them. So this was the news that was spreading around. 

Many of the capital’s citizens thought that this was ‘fake news’, however, just one more piece of anti-Soviet propaganda put about by the Germans and the Hungarian fascists. While they were prepared to believe that the Soviet soldiers did not respect women at all, they did not believe that the Red Army was so ill-disciplined that it would commit mass rape. The Hungarian capital now became the new focal point in what was to become a ferocious defence of southern-central Europe by the Germans, together with the remaining Hungarian troops. Efforts were made to have regular Hungarian troops take part against the forces of the Third Reich, with the formation of a Hungarian Legion, but they were not given the opportunity to enact their plan. Neither did the new democratically-controlled Hungarian Army recruited in the liberated part of the country by the Provisional Government in Debrecen become battle-ready in time. Only one rallied outfit, the Buda Voluntary Regiment could be observed fighting the Germans in the forthcoming battles.

But before the Red Army could ‘liberate’ the capital, Ferenc Szálasi and his followers were enabled to enact a genocide against the Jews of Budapest which was unparalleled in the course of the war. Szalási had come to power on 15 October not through their own efforts, but through the armed intervention of the German military. The remnant of the Hungarian state had been wrested from Miklós Horthy and put into the hands of the Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian fascists for whom terror became their instrument of dictatorship.  On 27th the National Council united the functions of the head of state and of government, which was then endorsed by Parliament on 4 November. Szálasi became head of the ‘Hungarista’ Workers’ State. A former officer of the general staff, he was even more muddle-headed than Horthy and soon created an idiotic reign of terror in the capital. He had promised Hitler to throw the nation into total war, but the resulting turmoil merely caused a breakdown in the army, the police and public administration. This left the Arrow Cross Party and its paramilitaries free to operate at will, proclaiming itself as the will of the nation. Many joined it as the only legal party, offering its members armed authority and protection. Its ranks were swollen by elements of the criminal underworld who recognised the chance for unrestrained daylight robbery and gangsterism. In the early morning of 28 October, Archdeacon Ferenc Kálló was one of the first prominent church leaders to be murdered in the streets by the Arrow Cross. The Lutheran minister Mátyás Varsányi of Buda, who gave much help to evicted Jews and occupants of starred houses, was also shot in the street. These murders signalled the beginning of the reign of terror which formed the second chapter of the ‘Shoah’ in Hungary.

Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

István Lázár (1989), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina Books.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Atlas of the Third Reich. London: Penguin Books.

 

 

 

Posted August 25, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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