Links and Exchanges
In the late autumn/ fall of 1991, with the Cold War coming to an end, Americans, Hungarians and other Europeans became urgently and actively engaged in redefining their relationships in this new era. As a British teacher from Coventry living and working in its twin town of Kecskemét in Hungary, married to its citizens, I continued to re-establish links which had lain dormant since the Hungary’s involvement in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, especially through educational exchanges, organised through the Hungarian Ministry of Education and the (then) European Community ‘s Tempus Programme. Besides the Peace Corps volunteers who continued to arrive to all parts of the country, the United States and Hungary had established a joint commission for educational exchange, which included a Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission. Again, Fulbright scholars began arriving in a variety of Hungarian towns that autumn, placed in schools and colleges, and Hungarian teachers were able to travel to the USA in exchange.
In October 1991, Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall made a ‘private’ visit to Washington. Just over a year earlier, Antall had been sworn in as PM of the first freely elected Hungarian Parliament since that of 1945. In his first address, he had pointed out that…
… the new government will be a European government, and not only in the geographical sense of the word. We stand for the tradition of democracy, pluralism and openness. We want to return to the European heritage but, at the same time , also to those values that Europe has created in the course of the past forty years, in the wake of the terrible lessons and experience of World War II.
At the Washington ‘summit’, President George Bush reiterated the US commitment to the economic and political transformation of Hungary, particularly in view of the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union. Antall also expressed concern about the civil war in Yugoslavia which was just beginning at that time. At their meeting in Krakow on 6 October, the Foreign Ministers of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, issued a joint statement on their wish to become involved in NATO activities. On 1 July, the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded by the Protocol of Prague, which had annulled the 1955 Treaty (Hungary’s Parliament passed the Act ratifying this on 18 July) and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary had been completed in June. COMECON, the economic organisation of what was now a collapsing empire was also being disbanded. Parallel to that, Hungary had started the process of catching up with the community of developed Western democracies. Already, by the end of 1991, the country had concluded an Association Agreement with the European Community.
Along with the Czech Republic and Poland, Hungary was among the first countries of Central and Eastern Europe invited to start talks on NATO accession. The invitation showed that Hungary was taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by the social and political changes of 1989-91 and that, having regained the sovereignty it had last lost in November 1956, it had made the right decision on its security policy goals and how to achieve them. Neutrality was no longer an option. A consensus was emerging among the parties represented in the new Parliament on the well-known triple set of goals… Euro-Atlantic integration, development of good-neighbourly relations and support for the interests of Hungarian communities living abroad. These remained valid throughout the following decade and into the twenty-first century.
In another sign of its growing international integration, on 20-21 October, at the plenary meeting of North Atlantic Assembly in Madrid, Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Wörner announced that it would hold its 1995 session in Budapest. Hungary was represented by Foreign Minister, Géza Jeszenszky and Tamás Wachsler, a FIDESZ Member of Parliament, both of whom gave presentations. The Madrid summit constituted a historic moment in the redefinition of the security roles of European institutions at a time when global and regional changes, and the democratic developments in the central-eastern European states reached a point which coincided with the interests of both the major Western powers and the southern European states. Through its (then) comparatively advanced democratic development and previous historical experience, Hungary was seen as well-suited to figure among the states to be included in the first wave of NATO enlargement. Such experience stemmed, most importantly, from the Revolution of 1956 and its struggle for sovereignty and neutrality, as well as from the initiatives it had taken from within the Warsaw Pact and the UN in the 1980s. A week after Madrid (see picture above), PM Antall visited NATO Headquarters in Brussels, where he addressed the North Atlantic Council, expressing the wish of the Hungarian Government to establish closer cooperation with NATO, including the creation of an institutionalised consultation and information system.
On 30 October, at the invitation of the Minister of Defence, Lajos Für, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General John Galvin, visited Hungary and met József Antall. A week later (7-8 November), a summit meeting of the North Atlantic Council was held in Rome at which the Heads of State/ Government approved the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept which supported the efforts of the central-eastern European countries towards reforms and offered participation in the relevant forums of the Alliance. On this, they issued the Rome Declaration on Peace and Cooperation:
We have consistently encouraged the development of democracy in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We therefore applaud the commitment of these countries to political and economic reform following the rejection of totalitarian communist rule by their peoples. We salute the newly recovered independence of the Baltic States. We will support all steps in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe towards reform and will give practical assistance to help them succeed in this difficult transition. This is based on our own conviction that our own security is inseparably linked to that of all other states in Europe…
Wishing to enhance its contribution to the emergence of a Europe whole and free, our Alliance at its London summit extended to the Central and Eastern European countries the hand of friendship and established regular diplomatic liaison. Together we signed the Paris Joint Declaration… Our extensive programme of high level visits, exchanges of views on security and other related issues, intensified military contacts, and exchanges of expertise in various fields has demonstrated its value and contributed greatly towards building a new relationship between NATO and these countries. This is a dynamic process: the growth of democratic institutions throughout central and eastern Europe and encouraging cooperative experiences, as well as the desire of these countries for closer ties, now call for our relations to be broadened, intensified and raised to a qualitatively new level…
Therefore, as the next step, we intend to develop a more institutional relationship of consultation and cooperation on political and security issues.
The NATO summit in Rome was one of the most significant international consultations to take place as to how to deal with these new security threats. The heads of state identified the goals and tasks to be achieved and to be realistically achievable by the Western European organisations over the following four to five years, as well as the mechanisms which would be required to fulfill them.
Hungary & The End of a Bipolar World
While this summit meeting was taking place, the de facto collapse of the so-called socialist word order was proceeding apace. These new processes within NATO were manifested mainly by the young democracies of central-eastern Europe that had just regained their independence from the USSR and its now defunct Warsaw Pact. However, they were also informed by global developments, such as the impact of the Gulf War and its lessons and conclusions. The dissolution of the bipolar world order was not simply related to the collapse of the USSR, but to threats to security originating in ethnicity-based conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans.
The renewed Republic of Hungary found itself in a unique situation, since with the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the east of it, and the break-up of both the Yugoslav Socialist Republic and Czechoslovakia on its southern and northern borders, it suddenly found itself with seven neighbours rather than five. From the spring of 1991, along a borderline of 600 kilometres, the crisis in the former Yugoslavia had a considerable impact on Hungary’s legislators and executive authorities at a time when it had just embarked on the path of civilian democratic development. The armed clashes, which became more violent and intense from July onwards, were taking place were predominantly along the Hungarian border and there were incidents across the border of lesser or greater scale, the most serious of which was the bomb which fell (accidentally and without exploding) on the large village of Barcs on Hungarian territory. Trade also became affected by border closures which were necessary to prevent gun-running to the militias, and thousands of refugees escaped the violence into Hungary. There was an emerging consensus among the Hungarian political élite that the only possibility of breaking away from the nightmare scenario of a disintegrating central-eastern European region was through accession to the integrating West. The reunification of Germany, although it could not serve as a model, proved that the institutional anchoring of a former COMECON and Warsaw Pact country was possible.
The Republic of Hungary concluded that its geopolitical situation had changed completely, and a process took place within NATO to realise Euro-Atlantic integration in the region through NATO enlargement. In this process, the Hungarian defence forces earned worldwide recognition and the government of the Republic succeeded in fulfilling its strategic foreign policy objectives while in domestic policy, it established the conditions for stable and democratic development. Naturally, this took a full term of government to achieve, but the fact that the process began in the crucible which was the end of the Cold War, when states were collapsing on almost every border, is a truly remarkable tribute to the transition government in Hungary.
Demise of Gorbachev & the Soviet Union
In the aftermath of the failed coup in August, the Soviet republics voted to reject Gorbachev’s Union Treaty; the new state would be a confederation. On 30 November, Yeltsin’s Russia, the leading power in the new association, took control of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and of all its embassies abroad. In Minsk on 8 December, Yeltsin for Russia, Leonid Kravchuk for Ukraine, and Stanislaw Shushkevich for Belarus, the three Slav states, without bothering to take the other republics with them, signed a pact ending the USSR and creating instead the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). By telephone they told first George Bush, then Mikhail Gorbachev, what they had done. Gorbachev, humiliated, next day denied their right to have done it; but the Russian parliament ratified the commonwealth agreement, and within days all but one of the other republics joined.
In Moscow a week later, James Baker saw both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, and had it brought to his attention that the Soviet military was now backing Yeltsin and the CIS. Gorbachev accepted this as a fait accompli, announcing that all central structures of the Soviet Union would cease to exist at the end of the year. The four republics in possession of nuclear weapons – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – announced that they would abide by and implement the cuts in arms and nuclear weapons agreed to by Bush and Gorbachev.
Meanwhile, both the CIS and the Russian government proved incapable of coping with the crisis in southern Russia. The United Nations, the European Community, the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe were, to begin with, equally ineffective in dealing with the conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, it became obvious that the UN was unable to create the mechanisms needed to handle these conflicts and to bring the political and military conflicts to a solution. This led on to the question as to what NATO’s responsibilities could be in response to the new risk factors of regional character that were emerging in the early 1990s.
On 19 December, the Foreign Ministers of the newly independent Central and Eastern European states met in Brussels, together with those of the full member states of NATO. Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky again represented Hungary. The Soviet Union was also invited, and its name appears on the final communiqué issued by the North Atlantic Council. The purpose of the meeting, as decided at the Rome summit, was to issue a joint political declaration to launch this new era of partnership and to define further the modalities and content of this process. The following day, 20 December, the inaugural meeting of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) was attended by representatives of the sixteen full NATO members and the nine central-eastern European nations. It was established to integrate them into the Alliance:
Our consultations and cooperation will focus on security and related issues where Allies can offer their experience and expertise. They are designed to aid in fostering a sense of security and confidence among these countries and to help them transform their societies and economies, making democratic change irreversible.
… We welcome the continuing progress towards democratic pluralism, respect for human rights and market economies. We encourage these nations to continue their reforms and contribute to… arms control agreements.
Just five days later, On 25 December 1991, Christmas Day in central-western Europe, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist. The Red Flag, with its golden hammer and sickle, prophesying a worldwide workers’ revolution that never came, was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. For Gorbachev this was an unintended consequence of the reform process, perestroika, that he had started. He retired from public life, since he no longer had an office from which to resign. He telephoned his farewells to Bush at Camp David. He wished George and Barbara Bush a merry Christmas. He was, he said, still convinced that keeping the independent republics within the Soviet Union would have been the better way forward, but hoped that the US would co-operate instead with the CIS and would help Russia economically. The “little suitcase” carrying the nuclear button had been transferred, constitutionally, to the Russian president. He concluded by saying, you may therefore feel at ease as you celebrate Christmas, and sleep quietly tonight. How long the West could sleep easily with Boris Yeltsin in charge of the red button turned out to be a moot point, of course.
Two hours later Gorbachev delivered a long, self-justifying television address to the citizens of the fifteen former Soviet republics. He insisted that the USSR could not have gone on as it was when he took office in 1985. We had to change everything, he said. Bush left Camp David for Washington to make his Christmas broadcast. He praised Gorbachev, announced formal diplomatic recognition of the new republics, and called on God to bless their peoples. For over forty years, he said, the United States had led the West…
… in the struggle against communism and the threat it posed to our most precious values. That confrontation is over.
The Fate of the Unions
On 28 January 1992, in his State of the Union address for what was to be an election year (above), George Bush proclaimed that the United States had won the Cold War. Other contemporaries have now been joined by some historians in claiming the same. Speaking the same month, Gorbachev preferred to hail it in the following terms:
I do not regard the end of the Cold War as a victory for one side… The end of the Cold War is our common victory.
Certainly, at the end of this forty-five-year period of East-West tensions that we continue to refer to as The Cold War, the United States remained the one great power and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Reagan, and then Bush, had cautiously and skilfully avoided giving the reactionaries in Moscow a good reason to reverse perestroika, but it was Gorbachev who made the more dramatic moves to end the arms race and the Soviet control of its satellite states in central-Eastern Europe. He surrendered Communist rule in those states and introduced a multi-party system in the USSR itself. He failed to achieve significant economic reform and could not prevent the breakup of the Union, but he played a major role in the manner of the ending of the great power conflict. As the former State Department analyst commented,
He may not have done so alone, but what happened would not have happened without him; that cannot be said of anyone else.
The Cost of the Conflict
At the end of 1991, The United States stood alone as the only remaining superpower, with a booming economy. The poor of the US, however, could certainly have used some of the resources committed to armaments over the previous forty years. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment that Lyndon Johnson’s promise of a Great Society was lost on the battlefield of Vietnam was not short of the mark, and might well be extended to explain the overall failure of successive US administrations to redirect resources to dispossessed and alienated Americans in the decades that have followed President Bush’s triumphalist declaration. Perestroika never made it to the USA, where Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex remained more firmly entrenched at the end of the Cold War than it had been during his presidency.
Above all, the cost of the Cold War must be measured in human lives, however. Though a nuclear catastrophe was averted by a combination of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the watchfulness of those operating surveillance systems on both sides, the ‘proxy’ wars and conflicts did take their toll in military and ‘collateral’ civilian casualties: millions in Korea and Vietnam; hundreds of thousands in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia; tens of thousands in Nicaragua and El Salvador; thousands in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe. Some of the post-colonial regional conflicts might well have happened anyway, but superpower involvement, direct or indirect, made each conflict more deadly. We also need to add to the victims of open hostilities the numbers and names of those who fell foul of the state security and intelligence forces. As well as those, the cost to their home countries of those forced to flee in terror for their lives can never be outweighed by the significant contributions they made their host countries as refugees.
The Cold War also stifled thought: for decades the peoples of Eastern Europe, living under tyranny, were effectively “buried alive” – cut off from and abandoned by the West. Given the choice and the chance, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Slovenes, Croatians, Albanians and Serbs all rejected the various forms of communism which had been imposed on them. After the fall of Allende in Chile, only Fidel Castro in Cuba, until today (26 November 2016) the great Cold warrior and survivor, kept the Red flag flying and the cause of the socialist revolution alive with some remaining semblance of popular support. I heard of his death, aged ninety, after I began to write this piece, so I’ll just make this one comment, in this context, on our right to make judgements on him, based on the text of one of his earliest speeches after coming to power in the popular Marxist revolution forty-seven years ago: History and historians may absolve him: His subsequent victims surely will not. Surely, however, his passing will mark the end of communism in the western hemisphere, and especially in ‘Latin’ America.
Legacies, leaders and losers
Then there is the great question mark left hanging over the twenty-first century: China? The world’s most populous nation is still ruled over by a Communist autocracy, and one which has often played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Cold War, not least in Hungary, where it helped to change Khrushchev’s mind as to what to do about the October 1956 Uprising and then insisted on severe retribution against Imre Nagy and his ministers following the Kádár ‘coup’. It may no longer follow the classical Marxist-Leninist lines of Mao’s Little Red Book, now more revered on the opposition front benches in the UK Parliament than it is in the corridors of power in Beijing, but it may yet succeed in reconciling Communist Party dictatorship with free market economics. Or will the party’s monopoly of power ultimately be broken by the logic of a free market in ideas and communication? That would leave a dangerously isolated North Korea as the only remaining communist dictatorship with nuclear weapons, surely a ‘leftover’ issue on the Cold War plate which the global community will have to attend to at some point soon.
It is hard now to realize or even to recall it, but whole generations in the last century lived with the fear that one crisis or another – Korea, Vietnam, Berlin, Cuba, Suez, Hungary – might trigger a nuclear apocalypse, as the two superpowers were too often prepared to go to the brink. There was also, more omnipresent than we ever realized, the chance of a Dr Strangelove scenario, a nuclear accident, which we now know had much to do with the shift in President Reagan’s policy at the beginning of his second administration in 1984. Fear was endemic, routine, affecting every aspect of every human relationship on much of the globe. The advice to every household in the UK government’s 1970s Protect and Survive was famously lampooned as finally, put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye! Sex was about making love while you still could, and with whoever you could. It wasn’t about bringing more children into the world to live with the fear of fear itself. Parents in many countries remember looking at their children when the world news grew grimmer, hoping that they would all live to see another day, let alone another generation growing up. As teachers, it became our duty to terrify our teenagers into understanding the reality of nuclear war by ‘reeling’ into schools The War Game. The happiest people on the planet were the poorest, those who lived without newspapers, radios, televisions and satellite dishes, blissful in their ignorance and therefore fearless of the world outside their villages and neighbourhoods. Except in some corners of the globe, that fear has been lifted from us, essentially because the world’s leaders recognised and responded to these basic human instincts and emotions, not for any grand ideological, geopolitical goals and policies. But the ignorance, or innocence, had gone too, so the potential for fear of global events to return was only a turn or a click away.
In the end, those in command, on both sides, put humanity’s interests higher than short-term national advantages. Watching The War Game had also worked for Ronald Reagan. Teachers could now stop showing scenes of terrible mutual destruction and start to build bridges, to bring together speakers from Peace through NATO with those from CND, to forge links, to educate and empower across continents. Even then, during the more hopeful final five years of 1986-91, we had to trust our ‘leaders’ in crisis after crisis. Even after glasnost, we could not be sure what exactly they were doing, why and how they were doing it, and what the outcomes would be.
and survived… so wrote Jeremy Isaacs for his ground-breaking television series on The Cold War. As we celebrate twenty-five years since its ending, still lurching from one regional and international crisis to another, are we in danger of celebrating prematurely? Do we need a more serious commemoration of all those who were sacrificed for our collective security, to help us remember our sense of foreboding and genuine fear? With a seemingly less skilful generation of evermore populist, nationalist and autocratic leaders in ‘charge’ across the continents, are we about to re-enter a new age of fear, if not another period of ‘cold war’? How will the seek to protect us from this? How will they ensure our survival? After all, there’s only one race, the human race, and we all have to win it, otherwise we will all be losers, and our oikoumene, the entire created order, will be lost for eternity.
Rudolf Joó (ed), (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.
Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers/ Bantam Press
Marc J Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.
The Brusilov Offensive, 4 June – 20 September 1916:
General Alexei Brusilov was a brilliant general, commander of the Russian forces in the south-west of the Eastern Front. He formulated tactics that combined rapid movement with concentrated support fire allowing soldiers to advance quickly while avoiding heavily defended positions.
In the east, where there were fewer troops per mile of front than in the west, and their abilities were more variable, a war of movement was still possible. The Germans could always break through the Russian line if they wanted to and the Russians could punch a hole in the Austro-Hungarian front. On 4 June, Brusilov did just that.
Under pressure from Austro-Hungarian forces on the Italian Front, Italy asked for assistance from its allies, and in addition to the French and British offensives on the Western Front, the Russians advanced across a 300-mile-wide front, quickly pushing back Austrian and German divisions. Brusilov was rewarded with a progressive collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in his sector, producing one of the most spectacular victories of the war.
Czech and Slovene units had always performed erratically on the Russian front; now they simply threw away their weapons and ran. The Russians took a quarter of a million of them prisoner in the course of an advance that carried on across the eastern half of Galicia. He captured 350,000 men in total during the offensive, and relieved the pressure in the west and in Italy. Brusilov’s drive then petered out, but before doing so it had had important political consequences. Romania was induced by the advance into Galicia to throw in its lot with the entente powers. Like the Italians, the Romanians hoped to gain territory from Austria-Hungary, but also like the Italians, they proved so incompetent militarily that they proved to be as much a burden as a boon to their new allies.
The Germans moved troops from Verdun to bolster their allies and then fought back to regain lost territory. The failure at Verdun weakened Falkenhayn’s position as commander of the Triple Alliance forces, and after the Brusilov offensive he was forced to resign. The Austro-Hungarian armies were thereafter unable to launch their own offensives. Ludendorff became the new chief commander, with Hindenburg as his number two. Ludendorff quickly restored the Central Powers’ position in the east, stiffening the Austro-Hungarian units with German officers and NCOs. He then sent enough reinforcements to Hungary and Bulgaria to spearhead a counter-offensive against Romania. They had optimistically invaded Hungary, but a German-Bulgarian army entering the Dobruja took them in the rear, and a German-Austrian army threw them back over the Carpathians. Given Romania’s geography, it was easy to arrange for converging attacks to cut off the southern two-thirds of the country. Caught between ‘two fires’ the Romanians had to abandon their capital, Bucharest, and the greater part of their country. The Romanian army hid behind the Russian relief force in Moldavia, while the Germans methodically drained the conquered part of Romania of its invaluable supplies of cattle, wheat and oil.
Welcome as this new source of supply was, however, it wasn’t enough. The British blockade naval blockade of the Central Powers was beginning to hurt by mid-1916, particularly when the German navy failed to break out at the Battle of Jutland just before the Brusilov Offensive began. The queues for food in Germany were getting longer and their behaviour less orderly. There had been serious riots in the major industrial centres in the Spring. The situation was even worse in Austria-Hungary.
While the Brusilov Offensive was initially one of the war’s most successful campaigns, it came at a huge cost: the Central Powers lost 1.5 million men and the Russians 0.5 million. Altogether, Russia had lost a million troops by the autumn of 1916. This was her last major effort in support of her allies. Those who remained were utterly exhausted and sick of the sacrifice. These heavy casualties led to further discontent in Russia.
Other major events in the course of the war in the east in 1916 included a Russian advance in the Caucasus and Germany’s creation of a Polish kingdom out of territory conquered from the Russians, though this did not include any part of German Poland, nor did the Poles get a king. Also in the summer of 1916, the Greek government was forced to accept allied direction.
The Olympic Games Cancelled:
The 1916 Olympic Games were due to be held in Berlin but were cancelled. The 1920 games took place in Antwerp in honour of the suffering of the people of Belgium in the war. It was there that the flag featuring the five rings was raised for the first time. Berlin next hosted the Games in 1936.
Colin McEvedy (1982): The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Richards, Goodson & Morris (1938): A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.
Norman Ferguson (2014): The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.
Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.
Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.
Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:
Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.
Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War
Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.
Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.
Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:
We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.
Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.
To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.
Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.
Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.
In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames?
Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.
The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:
Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.
Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.
In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.
However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.
In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:
In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.
Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:
The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.
At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:
It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.
The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…
…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.
Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.
It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:
A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”
Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.
In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.
The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.