Dancing with the Devil Himself:
Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.
Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.
Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue
As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:
From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann.
Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.
On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.
On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.
On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help. It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:
The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age
This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.
Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.
The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.
The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.
A significant birthday:
While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.
Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.
There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.
By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.
Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.
On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews. The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…
…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..
But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:
The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.
Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957
Tom continues the family’s story:
By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives
Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.
My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.
One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.
My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.
For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence. Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.
Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’
Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.
Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.
By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:
Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.
Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).
9-31 December 1936 – Abdication, Accession & Aftermath:
While the King was making and announcing his decision to his brothers and the prime minister, Wallis had remained in the relative safety of Cannes, from where she issued a statement that she would be willing, if such action would resolve the problem, to withdraw forthwith from a situation that has been rendered unhappy and untenable. Wallis knew that Edward would never give her up, however, and was adamant in his intention to marry her. Everybody who knew the couple knew that Edward was so besotted with her that he would follow her, not just to Cannes, but to the ends of the earth. She may have tried to persuade him during the several hours each day they spent in telephone conversations while the King remained besieged at Fort Belvedere. Clearly she did not succeed, despite the Daily Mail trumpeting her announcement as marking the End of the Crisis.
Although Baldwin sent Theodore Goddard to Cannes and he returned with a signed statement confirming that she was indeed willing to renounce her hold on Edward, few believed her to be sincere. Baldwin sent a telegram to the governments of the Dominions dismissing it as no more than an attempt to swing public opinion in her favour and thereby give her less reason to be uneasy as to her personal safety. While the King had received many letters of support, she had received just as many hate messages, some containing threats, and a brick had been thrown through her window. In any event, when Wallis telephoned Edward on Wednesday 9th December to tell him of her decision herself, he replied:
‘it’s too late…the Abdication documents are being drawn up – You can go where you want – to China, Labrador, or the South Seas. But wherever you go, I will follow you.’
The King sat up late at Fort Belvedere, thinking over his decision. He could keep the throne – and give up Mrs Simpson; he could ignore Baldwin’s advice, ask for the Premier’s resignation, and rule with a new Cabinet, or he could abdicate.
The following morning, 10th December, at ten o’clock, King Edward VIII signed the Instrument of Abdication, renouncing for ever all claim to the throne for himself and for his descendants. His three brothers were witnesses, the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Kent, the eldest of which, Albert, then succeeded him as George VI. The established fact, however, that he lied about his personal wealth to exact a huge pay-off, making him one of the richest men in Europe, led to a bitter family split which was never healed in his lifetime, as well as a damaging quarrel with his great ally, Winston Churchill. Queen Mary, although sympathetic to her son’s emotional state, was horrified by his action. She told him later that she could not understand how, when more than a million men of the British Empire had done their duty and given their lives in the Great War, he could not have made a lesser sacrifice and given up a woman so unsuited to be the King’s wife. She felt even greater sympathy for ‘poor Bertie’, the nervous, shy, retiring brother who burst into tears when his fate was confirmed. The Queen told Baldwin that her eldest son had brought disgrace on the family in not carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the Sovereign of our great Empire.
That afternoon, Baldwin stood up in the Commons, nervously holding some papers, a message from His Majesty the King, signed by His Majesty’s own hand he told the packed House. He then handed the papers to Capt. Fitzroy, Speaker of the House, who read out the Instrument of Abdication in a quavering voice. When he had finished, Baldwin again rose, this time to be greeted by cheers, and now told his fellow MPs the whole story, speaking for a whole hour, referring only briefly to his notes. He was heard in dead silence, the silence of Gettysburg as Harold Nicolson described it. Baldwin told him afterwards that Edward…
could see nothing but that woman… He lacks religion… I told his mother so… I love that man. But he must go.
The ‘King’s Abdication Bill’ was passed the next morning because the King wishes it and so, Nicholson recorded in his diary, thus ends the reign of King Edward VIII, after just 327 days, and without a coronation. His reign was the shortest in the history of England and Wales since the disputed reign of Lady Jane Grey four centuries earlier, and the shortest in the history of the United Kingdom. After a goodbye lunch with Winston Churchill at the Fort and a farewell dinner with his family at the Royal Lodge, Edward went to the Castle. Here, introduced by Sir John Reith as His Royal Highness the Prince Edward, he finally got to deliver his broadcast to the nation in the voice of an angry man at the end of his tether, declaring:
I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.
His last words were ‘God save the King!’ In Merthyr Tydfil, the effect of his abdication speech was shattering. The people had lost someone who they thought was going to do something for them at last, so the mood was slightly different from the national response, as John Meredith commented.
After the broadcast and a final, warm farewell to his family at the Royal Lodge, Edward left Windsor just after midnight and was driven to Portsmouth, from where he left Britain as the Duke of Windsor in the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Fury. From France he was to make his way to Austria, where he would stay with Baron Eugene de Rothschild until Wallis’ divorce was made absolute at the end of April. After Fury slipped its moorings and headed out to sea in the early hours of 12 December, he spent the rest of the night drinking heavily, pacing up and down the officers’ mess in a state of high agitation as the enormity of what he had done began to dawn on him.
It was now the reign of ‘Albert the Good’, George VI, earnest, dignified, embodying sound family values. Later that same morning, George was proclaimed King by the Heralds, and at his Accession Council, the new King declared his adherence to the strict principles of constitutional government and… resolve to work before all else for the welfare of the British Commonwealth of Nations. His voice was low and clear, though punctuated with hesitations. His accession showed that cherished family values had been placed once more on their pedestal. Together with his charming wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters, the little Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, they became the first happy family to have its home in Buckingham Palace since it was built. The Victorian sage of the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, had written:
We have come to believe that it is natural to have a virtuous sovereign.
Edward’s belief that the public role of the monarch should be separated from his private life had been rejected. The monarch and the man were once more fused together, if not identical. This has remained the case for the last eighty years of the Windsor dynasty, beginning with the fifteen-year reign of George VI under the steady guidance of Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, and continuing with the reign of HM Elizabeth II. Edward’s experiments with modernity were at an end and, in future, the monarchy would be more concerned to provide continuity of tradition, with only incremental, evolutionary change.
This wholesale return to Victorian virtues, if not values, was part of a deliberate attempt of Baldwin and Chamberlain to reverse what they saw as a decline in moral standards that was afflicting the nation as a whole. It was part of a cultural counter-revolution in which a ‘very British coup’ had become an absolute necessity. How else could their steely determination to see Edward depart be explained? Baldwin had twice sacrificed veracity to what he saw as ‘the greater good’. He had deliberately misled the King both about the need for an act of Parliament to achieve a morganatic marriage, and about the position of the governments of the Dominions over the matter. Looked at with the perspective of the time, however, Baldwin’s handling of the whole transition between monarchs appeared, and still appears, masterful, and it certainly preserved him in office for a time of his own choosing, after the coronation, now to be that of George VI. Other key ‘establishment’ figures did not reveal the same statesmanlike abilities.
On Sunday 13th December, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, broadcast a sanctimonious homily in which he compared Edward to James II, fleeing into exile in darkness, and attacking him for putting his craving for personal happiness before duty and condemning his morals. He went on to state that it was…
…even more strange that he should have sought his happiness in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage, and within a social circle whose standards and ways of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of his people. Let those who belong to this circle know that today they stand rebuked by the judgement of the nation which had loved King Edward.
The directness of the Archbishop’s comments distressed the Duke of Windsor, listening to it from the Rothschild’s castle in Austria, and produced an angry response from several people who wrote to the newspapers. Letters were published in the Daily Telegraph condemning Lang’s words as unnecessary and needlessly unkind. The broadcast was criticised by the Bishop of Durham and caused a perfect storm of protest. Lang had offended the British sense of fair play by kicking a man when he was down. H. G. Wells called the sermon a libellous outburst and the primate was lampooned in a memorable verse:
My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are!
And when your man is down, how bold you are!
Of Christian duty how scant you are!
And, auld Lang swine, how full of cant you are!
Lang had revealed his hatred for Edward and the modernity he stood for. He had done nothing to reassure doubters that he had not abused his high office to force his Supreme Governor to abandon his role on the grounds of his outdated morality. He had also tactlessly referred to King George VI’s long battle to overcome his speech defect. For years Prince Albert had indeed struggled to overcome his speech defect, with the help of his therapist Lionel Logue, as recently depicted in the film The King’s Speech. Logue was among the first to send his congratulations to ‘Albert’ on 14 December:
May I be permitted to offer my very humble but most heartfelt good wishes on your accession to the throne. It is another of my dreams come true and a very pleasant one. May I be permitted to write to your Majesty in the New Year and offer my services.
As Logue complained, to draw attention to the King’s speech impediment at this stage could only make matters worse. Rather than leaving his comment on the new King by referring to the obvious fact that in manner and speech he is more quiet and reserved than his brother, Lang chose a parenthesis which he hoped would not be unhelpful. He reminded the nation, unnecessarily, of the Duke’s stammering which had been so much worse in the previous decade, and which he and Logue had succeeded in controlling, where many others had failed:
When his people listen to him they will note an occasional and momentary hesitation in his speech. But he has brought it into full control and to those who hear, it need cause no embarrassment, for it causes none to him who speaks.
Lang’s comments were picked up by the American press and Time magazine asked all three hundred Privy Councillors if the king still stuttered. On 21 December it reported that none could be found willing to be quoted as saying that His Majesty does not still stutter. Moreover, as one prominent ‘courtier’, Henson observed about Lang’s broadcast ‘homily’, there was an assumption of patronising familiarity with the new King and his family which was also offensive. On Christmas Eve, Lang sent out an urgent clerical circular imposing a period of silence. I think enough has been said on this painful matter and the time has come for reticence, he told his colleagues, fearing that they might use their Christmas sermons for further attacks. He had received a telephone call from the Palace the previous night in which Lord Wigram had told him that the King was ‘put out’ and urged ‘reticence’ on the ‘leaders of religion’.
For their part, the British newspapers certainly played their role in ensuring a smooth transition, and did not comment on the matter of the king’s speech. Instead, they greeted the resolution of the crisis with enthusiasm. Bertie may not have had the charm or charisma of his elder brother, but he was solid and reliable. He also had the benefit of a popular and beautiful wife and two young daughters, whose every move had been followed by the press since their birth. The Daily Mirror, which the week before had been doggedly supporting Edward VIII, now doted on the great little sisters whom, it said, the whole world worships. However, as Lloyd George commented from his isolated rest in Jamaica, this second king was…
…just the sort of King which suits them, (one who) will not pry into any inconvenient questions: he will always sign on the dotted line and he will always do exactly what he is told’.
Completely foreign observers were even more cynical. In the same edition in which it drew attention to the king’s continuing impediment, Time magazine commented, rather unkindly:
Neither King George nor Queen Elizabeth has lived a life in which any event could be called of public interest in the United Kingdom press and this last week was exactly as most of their subjects wished. In effect a Calvin Coolidge entered Buckingham Palace with Shirley Temple for his daughter.
Inadvertently, Lang’s comments helped fuel a whispering campaign of gossip against the new king and his fitness to rule. Several among the Duke of Windsor’s dwindling band of allies suggested ‘Bertie’ might be to weak and frail to survive the ordeal of the coronation, let alone the strains of being king. They also made sure that the idea took hold that there had been an establishment plot to remove King Edward. Certainly, all the evidence we now have, suggests that, just because Edward himself may have believed it to the point of paranoia, that did not mean that there were not those in the establishment who were ‘out to get him’, Baldwin, Chamberlain and Lang among them. Vera Brittain expressed the view of many liberal intellectuals that the whole Simpson affair had been…
…a convenient excuse for removing a monarch whose informality, dislike of ancient tradition, and determination to see things for himself had affronted the “old gang” from the beginning.
Certainly, whatever tributes Baldwin may have paid the retiring monarch from the floor of the Commons, he showed in private how relieved he was that Edward had been persuaded to depart. There was little, if any, sign of regret. Both Nicolson and Bernays recorded similar gleeful reactions from him in their exchanges with him on the corridors of the House. No quiet reflection, certainly no remorse or guilt. Most tellingly, Baldwin told Bernays that a crisis was bound to come and that it might have come on a more difficult issue. In this remark, at the time it was made, he can only be referring to one issue – that of unemployment and the distressed areas. The timing of ‘the crisis’ and the nervousness of ministers and civil servants before, during and after his visit to south Wales, is a clear sign that his intervention in social policy was what precipitated his downfall.
Though there was undoubtedly a sizeable body of opinion supporting Edward when they eventually heard of the crisis, which was unable to find its own voice, free from the machinations of politicians, there was also a strong feeling of disappointment in Edward, even a sense that he himself had betrayed them, or at least let them down at a time of great need. Nevertheless, the sense of exclusion from the process leading to the Abdication, of ‘democratic deficit’, led one young man in Lancashire to set up an organisation to gauge public opinion. Tom Harrison set up Mass Observation in December 1936, to find out and publish the views of ordinary people on the issues of social and foreign policy.
George V had started Christmas Day broadcasts from Sandringham four years earlier, and as the festive season approached, there was some speculation as to whether George VI would keep up the tradition. In the event, Alec Hardinge, acting on the advice of Lionel Logue, decided against it. The King was in a nervous state about it, due partly to the Archbishop’s recent tactless remarks, which had made him even more self-conscious and the public even more aware of his impediment. There was also a feeling at court that a period of silence from a monarchy still in disgrace would be appropriate. The royal family continued to enjoy a quiet family holiday together.
Mark Logue & Peter Conradi (2010), The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy. London: Quercus
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico
Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance. London: Murray
Andrew J Chandler (1989), ‘The Re-Making of a Working Class’ (PhD thesis, UCW Cardiff).
Andrew J Chandler (1982), ‘The Black Death on Wheels’ in Papers in Modern Welsh History. Cardiff: Modern Wales Unit.
Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Cardiff: Poetry of Wales Press.
René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles
30 November – 9 December 1936:
End of the Exhibition, but the Royal Show goes public:
London’s one-and-a-half million pound amusement centre and landmark, the Crystal Palace, was destroyed by fire on November 30th. Within half an hour of the first alarm, the building, covering twenty-five acres, was wholly ablaze, and the blood-orange glow from the fifty foot flames could be seen from another great landmark of pleasure, the Grand Pier in Brighton, eighty miles away. The Investigation failed to find the cause of the fire, which started around 6.30 p.m., during an orchestral rehearsal in the lobby. At first it was dismissed as a minor fire, and the band played on, but the flames were fanned by a strong wind so that the musicians had to be evacuated. The central transept collapsed only minutes after they got outside. The whole structure was now ablaze and melting, made as it was of wood, iron and glass. The noise of the crashing glass roof could be heard five miles away. Thousands of Londoners came out to see the spectacle of streams of molten iron and glass, looking like a volcano, so many that they had to be held back by a cordon of police to allow the ninety fire-tenders to tackle the blaze through the intense heat, which could be felt on faces half a mile away. The Duke of Kent arrived on the scene, boosting the morale of the firefighters by donning a helmet and staying until 2.30 a.m. The next morning all that was left of the structure were the two 300 ft, stone-built water towers.
The destruction of the immense glass palace, built to Joseph Paxton’s design to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, symbolised a breach in continuity with the Victorian Age and the commencement of a new, frightening age in which fires, whether started accidentally or by bombing, were becoming commonplace. The only relics of this bygone era were plaster of Paris effigies of the kings of England on their tombs and the concrete sculptures of dinosaurs, which can still be seen in the gardens to this day. The glass exhibition hall had first stood in Hyde Park, before being moved, at great cost, to Sydenham in 1854, where it was reconstructed, enlarged and made the centre of a large pleasure park. By the thirties it had gone into decline as an exhibition centre, being used mainly for choral singing and orchestral competitions. It still housed waxworks, which had, of course, all melted away. John Logie Baird’s new television laboratory was also destroyed, but this did not affect the BBC’s new TV broadcasts.
Some saw the fire almost as a divine judgement on the King’s rejection of traditional values. Queen Mary was deeply affected by the sudden fall of the People’s Palace she had re-opened with George V as the first home of the Imperial War Museum in 1924, before it moved to Lambeth. She watched the smoke rising in the distance from the windows of Marlborough House, visiting the burnt-out site three days later, still dressed in black, surveying the mass of bent and twisted metal. The sense of melancholy which the scene conveyed must have matched her mood at the end of an annus horribilis, with the monarchy on the verge of collapse, just as her late husband had predicted at its beginning. Abroad the warlike turn of events had destroyed Chamberlain’s hopes of economic recovery and social reform on the home front. Resources were needed for Rearmament, the fire-fighting appliances needed priming, and the prospects for peace had been shattered. The public mood, like that of Queen Mary herself, was deeply pessimistic, symbolised in the tangle of steel and glass she stood before. It looked like a bomb site and reminded some journalists of the bombing of Madrid. In recent weeks, the newspapers and newsreels had been full of images from Spain of huddled men and terrified women and children taking shelter from the German bombers.
On 2nd December Baldwin went again to the Palace and informed the King that he thought that the lady he married should automatically become the Queen, and that, although inquiries in the Commonwealth were not yet complete, neither Britain nor its Dominions would tolerate a morganatic marriage. In fact, this was not true. We now know that only the Australian Prime Minister’s response was entirely against the morganatic marriage. Both the New Zealand and Canadian responses were far more sympathetic to the idea, but they were either changed or not put formally to the Cabinet, and were withheld from the King.
However unbelievable it may seem from the perspective of the multi-media society of the twenty-first century, most of the country had still not heard of Wallis Simpson until December 2nd, when the Yorkshire Post reported a fairly innocent comment made by the Bishop of Bradford, the aptly named Dr Blunt, who also had never heard of Mrs Simpson, at a Diocesan Conference the previous day:
The King’s personal views are his own but it is still an essential part of the idea of kingship…that the King needs the grace of God for his office.
Above: Alfred Blunt, Bishop of Bradford.
The Bishop said that he wished, therefore, that the King would show more positive evidence of the need for Divine Guidance. All he meant was that the King ought to go to Church more often, but a local journalist in the audience wrongly took the Bishop’s remark as a none-too veiled reference to the King’s affair. When his report was carried by the Press Association, the national news agency, the newspapers interpreted Blunt’s words as the signal they had all been waiting for: an official breaking of the silence by the Church, and therefore the Establishment, over the Simpson affair. The national press soon circulated the story, breaking their self-imposed silence about the monarch’s love-life. The whole story of the King’s affair was now filling the pages of the newspapers. Over the previous few months, only a relatively small number of Britons had known what was going on. Now the newspapers quickly made up for lost time, filling their pages with stories of crisis meetings at the Palace, pictures of Mrs Simpson and interviews with men and women in the street, asking their opinions. Feature articles included biographies of Wallis Simpson, photographs of her previous husbands, reports of the Nahlin cruise, pictures of the couple together and columns of comment. While Dawson of The Times attacked the King, with Baldwin’s collusion, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Daily Mirror backed him, reflecting their owners’ views. They have much in common, began a profile of the royal couple in the Daily Mirror on 4 December. They both love the sea. They both love swimming. They both love golf and gardening. And soon they discovered that each loved the other. The Liberal-nonconformist Daily Chronicle also came out in favour of a morganatic marriage. While only eighty thousand read the broadsheets, the combined circulation of those supporting the marriage was nine million.
The same day, 3rd December, Baldwin addressed the House, simply reporting that no constitutional crisis had yet arisen. Harold Nicolson MP went to Islington, where he gave a public lecture, a long-standing engagement. Out of an audience of four hundred only ten joined in the singing of ‘God Save the King’ at the beginning of the meeting. He wrote that evening that he didn’t find people to be angry with Mrs Simpson, but that there was a deep and enraged fury at the King himself. In eight months, Edward had destroyed the great structure of popularity which he himself had raised. Apparently, for Nicolson, not even his popularity with the armed forces, the ex-servicemen and the unemployed miners, so recently demonstrated, would be enough to break this fall from grace.
The King retreated to Fort Belvedere, clinging to his morganatic dream, which Baldwin demolished it in a public statement:
There is no such thing as what is called a morganatic marriage known to our law…the lady whom he marries, by the fact of her marriage to the King, necessarily becomes Queen…The only way in which this result could be avoided would be by legislation dealing with a particular case. His Majesty’s Government are not prepared to introduce such legislation.
The Duke of York, Albert, and his family, had been in Scotland during the previous days. Alighting from the night train at Euston on the morning of 3 December, they were confronted with newspaper placards with the words, The King’s Marriage. Albert and Elizabeth were both deeply shocked by what it might mean for them. When the Duke spoke to his younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, he found him in a great state of excitement. The King himself had not yet decided what to do, saying he would ask the people what they wanted him to do and then go abroad for a while. In the meantime, he sent Wallis away to Cannes for her own protection. She was already receiving poison pen letters and bricks had been thrown through the window of the house she was renting in Regent’s Park. The couple feared that worse was to come. The same day the Duke of York telephoned the King, who was at his retreat at Windsor Great Park, Fort Belvedere. ‘Bertie’ wanted to make an appointment to see his brother ‘David’ in person, but this was declined. He kept trying over the next few days, without success, the King refusing to see him on the grounds that he had still not made up his mind as to his course of action. Despite the huge impact that his decision would have on his brother’s life, Edward refused to confide in him. He must have known that Bertie had no desire to become King. The Duke’s sense of foreboding was growing and, according to Princess Olga (sister of the Duchess of Kent), he became mute and broken… in an awful state of worry as David won’t see him or telephone.
Wallis Simpson had not been not entirely as disinterested as she later made out, even if she was more capable than Edward of being dispassionate in public. She had encouraged him to take up Churchill’s morganatic marriage idea and now urged him to appeal to his people over the heads of the politicians by means of a radio broadcast. Her plan for him was that he should then fly to Switzerland and wait to see what the impact of public opinion on the government would be. Edward went along with this and again summoned Baldwin to the Palace on the evening of 3rd December. The PM told the Cabinet that he had driven to the Palace and had been taken in by a back entrance to avoid the photographers camped out at the front. The King had read a proposed draft of his radio broadcast to Baldwin, who had responded by saying that, although he was willing to put the idea to the Cabinet, he thought they would regard it as thoroughly unconstitutional. At this, the King had lost his temper with Baldwin, demanding to know what more the PM would have him do. Baldwin had replied, so he said, that what he wanted was what the King had told him he had wanted: to go with dignity, not dividing the country, and making things as smooth as possible for your successor. Trying to calm the situation and step back from the abyss that he must have sensed opening between them as they sat together on the sofa, Baldwin is then said to have raised his whisky-and-soda and said: Well, Sir, whatever happens, my Mrs and I wish you happiness from the depths of our souls, at which the King burst into tears, and Baldwin followed suit. What a strange conversation piece, observed Harold Nicolson when he heard of this from Liberal MP Robert Bernays, those two blubbering together on a sofa!
As Baldwin predicted, the entire Cabinet was once more united behind him the next morning and against the whole idea of a royal broadcast. Chamberlain again urged the PM to bring the King sharply up to the point and get him to abdicate the same day. The politicians now began to panic because they feared that if he were to broadcast, public opinion would move irrevocably in his favour, especially as Chamberlain confirmed, from the whips, that Churchill and Beaverbrook were working on the King’s speech together. The terrible consequences of Churchill being asked to form a government, then demanding a General Election were too dreadful to contemplate, apparently. Baldwin calmed the situation, agreeing to make a statement in the House ruling out any possibility of the King making his broadcast.
Wallis told Edward, ‘You must speak!’, perhaps confusing his powers with those of an American President. As she was now nearing a nervous breakdown herself, she had agreed to go to France, to stay at the villa of friends in Cannes. When Churchill went to meet the King the next morning, 4 December, he found him ill and isolated. He persuaded Baldwin to delay the Cabinet’s ultimatum, and the following day accused the King’s ministers of acting unconstitutionally in demanding his abdication and in reaching secret deals with His Majesty’s ‘Loyal Opposition’ to confront him with the ultimatum. In his press release, he also made an implicit appeal to the Dominions, perhaps sensing that Baldwin had not been entirely truthful in his representation of their views. Forty Conservative MPs were ready back Churchill, who had already selected much of his Cabinet, and was planning his first actions on replacing Baldwin as PM. Crowds formed outside Buckingham Palace and Downing Street cheering for the King, holding placards which read Cheer Your King at the Palace: After South Wales, You Can’t Let Him Down.
Liberal opinion was also behind the King: John Maynard Keynes wanted to know, on simple utilitarian grounds, why the King could not have his morganatic marriage. However, many liberals were nervous about joining forces with the reactionary Beaverbrook and Rothermere press to support the monarchy. There were demonstrations against Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but as the MPs toured their constituencies that weekend, they also found a widespread sense of betrayal felt by many who, like the Jarrow marchers, had seen the royal family as a model of family life, symbolising the most important values of their subjects. Perhaps this helps to explain why there was no great spontaneous uprising in support of a previously immensely popular member of that family. Apart from the welcome support from Churchill and Duff Cooper in parliament and government, most of the vocal and visible support was unwelcome, coming from the pro-fascist Right and, more sinisterly, Mosley’s blackshirts who, not yet proscribed from wearing their uniforms, marched up and down Whitehall with a picture of the King, shouting: One, two, three, four, five, we want Baldwin dead or alive! But, in any case, it was largely uncoordinated, useless and simply too late.
By the end of the following weekend of 5th-6th December, if not at its beginning, Edward had decided to give up his fight and hand the Crown to his brother. Yet Albert had none of his brother’s charisma and was ill-prepared for the role he was being handed by him. He also had come close to a nervous breakdown during the four days since his return from Scotland, during which his brother had declined to see him. On Sunday 6th, the Duke again rang the Fort to be told that the King was in a conference and would call him back later. The call never came. Edward had summoned his lawyer, Sir Walter Monckton, to his room at Fort Belvedere and told him of his decision. The next day, Churchill, unaware that the decision had been made, was shouted down when he tried to argue that no pistol should be held at the King’s head. Edward finally made contact with his brother, inviting him to the Fort after dinner. The Duke wrote his own account of this meeting:
The awful and ghastly suspense of waiting was over… I found him pacing up and down the room, and he told me his decision that he would go.
When he got home that evening, he found his wife had been struck down with flu. She took to her bed, where she remained for the next few days as the dramatic events unfolded around her. She wrote to her sister:
Bertie & I are feeling very despairing, and the strain is terrific. Every day last a week & the only hope we have is in the affection & support of our family & friends.
Meanwhile, events moved swiftly. At a dinner at Fort Belvedere on Tuesday 8th, attended by several men, including the Duke and the prime minister, Edward made it clear he had already made up his mind. Baldwin had arrived with a suitcase, ready for lengthy negotiations. For a moment, the King was horrified at the prospect of his PM staying the night. The King’s brothers, Princes Albert and George were also at the dinner. According to Baldwin’s account, before they sat down the King merely walked up and down the room saying, “This is the most wonderful woman in the world.” The Duke of York’s account reported his astonishment as his brother, the life and soul of the party, told Baldwin things I am sure he had never heard before about unemployment in south Wales. Edward may have felt that this was, at least, some small way in which he could honour his Dowlais declaration before departing. Apparently, the Duke turned to Walter Monckton and whispered, and this is the man we are going to lose. Monckton later wrote that it was his lawyer’s acumen that probably prevented him from retorting, and this is exactly why we are going to lose him, because he makes the politicians feel uncomfortable. The Duke was in sombre mood and wrote that it was a dinner that I am never likely to forget. On each of the following days, crowds gathered in Whitehall, waiting for news (see below).
The contemporary journalist and commentator René Cutforth, wrote forty years later that his remark, Something must be done (as it was wrongly reported) to an unemployed miner in Dowlais had indeed been made to the umbrage of the politicians, who wanted none of that sort of talk. To that one sentence he owed most of his reputation among them as ‘irresponsible’. But while the remark may have sealed his fate as far as Chamberlain and others in the cabinet were concerned, the King had left Baldwin in no doubt about his determination to marry Wallis Simpson. Cutforth made an interesting comment on this:
Millions of words have been written in explanation of this world shaking affair, and American friends of mine cling to this day to the theory that only some shared sexual deviation could explain Edward’s insistence on a world well lost for love. In the Thirties we thought Freud could explain everything… It was, in fact, a simple case of delayed adolescent romantic love… Ernest Simpson… knew this well enough: he used to refer to the Prince of Wales as ‘Peter Pan’. Years later Wallis wrote of Edward: “Over and above the charm of his personality and the warmth of his manner, he was the open sesame to a new and glittering world that excited me as nothing in my life had done before… All I can say that it was like being Wallis in Wonderland.”
16-27 November, 1936: The Crown in Crisis;
Something will be done
Although Wallis Simpson had been granted her decree nisi at Ipswich Assizes following a twenty-minute appearance in court on the 27 October, she and the King were not yet free to marry. Under the divorce law of the time, the decree could not be made absolute for six months, which meant that Wallis would be under the ‘surveillance’ of an official known as the King’s Proctor until 27 April 1937. If, during that period, she was found in compromising circumstances with any man she could be hauled back into court and, the decision went against her, she would be forever unable to divorce her husband in an English court. Although there had seemed little doubt that it was Wallis’ adultery with Edward that precipitated the breakup of her second marriage, her husband Ernest had agreed to save her ‘blushes’ by being caught in flagrante by staff at the Hotel de Paris near Maidenhead in July, with a Miss ‘Buttercup’ Kennedy. In reality, obtaining the decree absolute was a mere formality, and the couple showed no reserve in the conduct of their relationship over the next six months.
On 16 November Edward invited Baldwin to Buckingham Palace and told him he intended to marry Mrs Simpson. If he could do so and remain King, then ‘well and good’ he said, but if the governments of Britain and the Dominions were opposed, then he was ‘prepared to go’. He did have some prominent supporters in taking this stance, among them Winston Churchill, who was shouted down by the House of Commons when he spoke out in favour of Edward. What crime has the King committed? Churchill later demanded, Have we not sworn allegiance to him? Are we not bound by that oath? At the time of the King’s meeting with Baldwin, however, Churchill may have thought, with some justification, that Edward’s relationship with Mrs Simpson would fizzle out, just as his earlier liaisons had done, and before either the coronation or the wedding could take place in the spring.
Travelling overnight, the King’s train pulled into Llantwit Major before dawn on 18th November. After breakfast, the King set off by car on his tour of the Vale of Glamorgan and the valleys. On the first day, he visited training centres in the Vale where young men and women from the valleys were being trained before being transferred into domestic service and other trades in England. Then he toured some of the valleys and pit villages where the collieries stood idle and so did their miners, in front of him. Almost every conversation ended with the polite request for him to tell Whitehall to do something to bring jobs back to the valleys. His black bowler hat made him look like a mines’ inspector, a point picked up by The South Wales Echo in one of its cartoons lampooning the inaction of Baldwin, Chamberlain and Brown, the Minister for Labour, hated for his role in the introduction of the Means Test and Transitional Benefits.
It was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks, shut down six years earlier, that he made his remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this! This was also how the newsreels reported it at the time, showing the marvellous reception of his long-suffering subjects in the depressed area. The King had brought hope to replace despair. Nine thousand men had worked making steel; now there was nothing but the wreckage of the old works, and no other industry to take them on. In 1936, 75% of the Dowlais men were unemployed. The demonstration that met him was largely spontaneous and supportive and, as he looked over the derelict site, some of the men began singing Crugybar, the Welsh Hymn. It was then that he made his impromptu speech, often misquoted, as ‘something must be done’. As in the Jarrow Crusade, these four words were frequently on the lips of advocates of the distressed areas, and had been used elsewhere on this visit by the King, responding to pleas from the people. However, this time what he said was different markedly different in tense and tone, context and subtext.
It may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism that Ellis had suggested might accompany his visit, rather than an attempt to embarrass the government. His use of will rather than must, the manner in which he directed the remarks to the politicians alongside him, and his insistence that the steelworkers must stay here, working reflected his determination to see to it that his government would change its policy from one of sole reliance on transferring the unemployed to other areas to that of attracting new industries, as advocated by Malcolm Stewart and many others. This was a direct challenge not only to Brown, but also, through him, to Chamberlain and Baldwin.It was fighting talk, not the resigned remark of a monarch who was about to give up the throne. Whatever the case, the King’s visit did indeed acquire a political significance, though opposite in nature to that which Ellis was expecting. It certainly did not endear him to a Cabinet that was now beginning to discuss the constitutional crisis and the distinct possibility that he would be forced to abdicate. The coalfield communities turned the whole event into another mass demonstration. The publicity given to it and to Edward VIII’s remarks also, certainly, had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. Something was, eventually, done, but not at the dicta of the King and only after his abdication. For the time being, though, his visit re-energised him, and he began to think that he might put up a fight for the throne, the woman he loved, and his people, against the politicians who seemed to wish that all of them would simply go away, rather than trying to find unorthodox solutions for unusual circumstances. Even those who knew that he didn’t have the power to change the hard hearts of politicians were nonetheless grateful that he had taken the trouble to survey the depressed valleys with his own eyes.
Playing the Good King
On his return from South Wales on November 20th, the King felt buoyed up by his popularity and his ability to demonstrate empathy with the sufferings of his people. Ramsay MacDonald, Lord President, who knew South Wales well as Labour MP for Aberavon from 1922 to 1929, commented that these escapades should be limited… They are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally. Geoffrey Dawson called his comments at Dowlais monstrous…a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics.
The Beaverbrook press, by contrast, allying itself with Churchill, was keen to make political capital out of the visit, contrasting his care for the plight of the unemployed with the indifference of the government under the headline, “The King Edward Touch”. It continued to trumpet its praise:
Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south Wales. As few ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from them the tale of their trouble.
He himself later called his words the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen, though he also added that the monarch should be able to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects, and speak what is in his mind.
On the evening of his return from South Wales, Edward telephoned his brother, the Duke of Kent, and told him of his intention to marry Wallis, and make her Queen, Empress of India, “the whole bag of tricks!” This renewed self-confidence also sprang from his finding a new ally behind the scenes in the ample shape of Winston Churchill, whose motives for supporting the King were a mixture of personal ambition and political acumen. Churchill felt that Baldwin was slow to rearm because he was putting the interests of his party before those of the country. This was also why the PM would rather have the King abdicate than risk losing his popular mandate in an early election. On the other hand, Churchill realised that he needed a more popular cause than rearmament to revive his flagging fortunes. Backing the King would add to Baldwin’s discomfort and might lead to a new Conservative administration with Churchill at the heart of it. He was also a romantic, half-American himself, and held the monarchy in great reverence. In addition, he respected the King for his twenty-five years of service as Prince of Wales, before becoming monarch, almost as long as the time since Winston himself had first become a minister. The civil law allowed re-marriage. Why should the King, never married himself, not be able to marry the woman he loved, even if she had been married twice before? The answer to this, of course, lay in the attitude of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was not keen on anointing an adulterer in any case. He would far rather crown his far more virtuous brother. Churchill had little time for such stuffiness.
Above: Archbishop Lange
While Edward was in South Wales, Churchill put the case for a morganatic marriage. This would deny Wallis the title of Queen and preclude Edward’s heirs from taking the throne, the crown eventually passing to the Princess Elizabeth. Rather than putting the proposal directly to the King, he used Lord Rothermere’s son, Esmond Harmsworth. Lord Harmsworth took Wallis to lunch at Claridge’s and told her that if, on marriage, she became the King’s consort, but not his Queen, she might become ‘the Duchess of Cornwall’. She liked the idea, and telephoned the King on his special train in South Wales. On the following day, November 20th, Edward briefly discussed by telephone with Baldwin the possibility of Parliament passing a special Bill that would allow him to marry Mrs. Simpson without her becoming Queen. He told the PM that this was Wallis’ own idea, following Winston Churchill’s advice not to credit him with it. He also told Baldwin to submit the proposal, as his Prime Minister, to the British Cabinet as well as to all the Cabinets in the Dominions. Up until this point, the matter of the King’s relationship with Mrs Simpson had not been discussed even in the British Cabinet, though the politicians in the Dominions were already far more aware of the details of the ‘affair’ through their press, which was not fettered in its reporting. Baldwin had kept everything he could from most of his Cabinet colleagues, but had already used the freedom of North American press to his advantage in the Hardinge letter, which the King had received just a week beforehand, and which contained the confected reference to the negative reaction of Canadians. In fact, North American reaction was, by all the accounts of the time, quite positive towards the marriage, with many people looking forward to an American becoming Queen. Wallis must have been aware of this, even if she accepted that there was also some adverse reaction among a minority of fellow (North) Americans. The Hardinge letter should at least have alerted the King to the danger of trusting Baldwin to consider the morganatic proposal fairly and honestly, but apparently it did not. For his part, Edward had discussed the plan over the course of his weekend with Wallis at the Fort. On the Monday, he sent Harmsworth to Downing Street to discuss the details of the plan with Baldwin. This was a major tactical error.
Baldwin was ready for the proposal, having had the weekend to find a legitimate reason to oppose it and force the abdication. Baldwin had discussed it with Chamberlain over the weekend and both men knew of (and were suspicious of) Churchill’s motives in proposing the scheme. Perhaps most significantly, both men were from strong, middle-class Victorian church-going traditions in a country where church attendance had declined dramatically since the Great War. Baldwin rejected the plan at once and told Harmsworth that MPs would never pass the required act of Parliament. The young Lord, the epitome of aristocratic decadence to Baldwin, impetuously retorted that he thought they would, apparently failing to challenge Baldwin’s basic assumption that a special Bill was necessary.
Seventy years on, no such act of Parliament was deemed necessary for the current heir to the throne to marry the divorced Mrs Parker-Bowles with the proviso that she would become and remain the Duchess of Cornwall. In his brief discussion with Harmsworth, Baldwin also added what he believed to be ‘the truth’, for good measure; that the British people would never accept Wallis Simpson as the King’s wife, whatever her constitutional position. Drawing another lesson from more recent royal relationships, we now know that despite the strength of public feeling at the time of the Prince of Wales’ separation from Princess Diana, the outpouring of sympathy at her death, and the suffering of her two children as a result of these two events, the public seem to have accepted Charles’ marriage to his former mistress on the basis that she will not be made ‘Queen Camilla’. A morganatic marriage is now deemed both permissible and acceptable to the establishment, including the monarchy itself, as well as to the people: could it have been in 1936, especially given Edward’s popularity? Of course, the so-called sixties sexual revolution and the change in moral values over those seventy years needs to be accounted for, but the constitutional position of the monarch as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith has remained unchanged. So has that of the Church itself in respect of Divorce in general, although re-married couples can now receive a blessing in church, as Charles and Camilla did in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, following the registration of the marriage.
Above: Fort Belvedere, Edward VIII’s private quarters at Windsor Castle.
The truth was, as Edward himself said in his final broadcast, there was never any constitutional difference between himself and Parliament. Perhaps referring to his exchange with Baldwin on the 13th, he added that he should never have allowed any such issue to arise by accepting that he might have to confront the Hobson’s choice which Baldwin was offering him. Churchill himself never proposed that either Parliament or the Cabinet needed to be involved in agreeing to the morganatic marriage. On the contrary, he repeatedly argued that the King should be accorded the same basic human right to marry as any of his subjects.
It was the prospect of Churchill forming a ‘King’s Party’ to push for ‘the Cornwall Plan’ which forced Baldwin’s arm. He himself would rather be forced to resign in favour of Chamberlain than allow Churchill to become PM with an entirely new cabinet. He therefore decided to confront ‘the big beast’ in person, at the same time securing broader support in Parliament with which to scotch the morganatic plan. On 24 November, he summoned Churchill, together with Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, and Sinclair, the Liberal leader, telling them the government would resign if Edward pressed on with his plans to marry. He demanded a pledge that they would not try to form an alternative government. Both Attlee and Sinclair agreed, but Churchill reserved his position. In reality, Baldwin and Chamberlain had already decided upon the smooth transition from one monarch to another which the King had reluctantly, and conditionally, agreed upon, in his audience with Baldwin on 16 November. The King’s ‘remarks’ in south Wales, coupled with Churchill’s intervention, had made Baldwin and Chamberlain even more determined that Edward should abdicate in favour of his brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York. There was, for them, no going back. ‘Chips’ Channon, however, wrote of the Conservative Party divided, the country divided and schism in the Royal Family. If Churchill had been trumped by Baldwin, he still had cards to play.
On 25 November, Baldwin was commanded by the King to attend an audience at Buckingham Palace. Edward put the proposal of a morganatic marriage to him directly and in person. Baldwin told him that he didn’t think Parliament would support this, but that he would consult the Cabinet and the Prime Ministers of the Dominions. The King’s only other options were to invite Churchill to form a new government or to rule alone by royal prerogative (in effect, as a dictator). Both were unrealistic: the only realistic option was to abdicate in favour of the Duke of York. Baldwin at last called a Cabinet meeting to discuss the issue, and dispatched telegrams to the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland. On 27th, the King’s proposed marriage was discussed in full, open Cabinet for the first time. There was no support for the morganatic proposal, with Duff Cooper the only minister suggesting a delay in a decision about the marriage until after the coronation, a view which Churchill also put forward in Parliament.
When Lord Beaverbrook’s ship Bremen docked in Southampton the next day, the King’s biggest supporter drove straight to the Fort. On hearing first-hand the account of his second, fateful meeting with Baldwin, the newspaper magnate realised that the game was already up because the King had already placed his head on the block. All that remained was for the PM to swing the axe. He concluded that while Edward had friends among the miners, he did not have them where it now mattered, in the Cabinet. The King was well out of his depth as far as politics were concerned and in danger of drowning.
Turning the World Upside Down
In her interview for September’s BBC History Magazine, Alex von Tunzelmann was asked why she thought the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt was so badly bungled. She pointed out that the military plans from the time show that they were full of gaps, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were clearly opposed to the whole operation. Indeed, they themselves had advised the British Prime Minister that consequences of the action could be terrible, but he had chosen to ignore their advice. They were proved right, but partly because of the weight of world opinion was so heavily against them that, by the time the British and French forces got a third of the way down the canal, they had to stop. Israel achieved its objective of taking Sinai, but soon lost it again. Neither Britain nor France achieved their objectives, and all that they succeeded in doing was strengthening Nasser’s control in the Middle East while his ally, the Soviet Union, reasserted its control over its satellite states. In addition, people no longer talked about Britain as a major world power. From this point on, there were just two ‘superpowers’, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the following years and decades, Britain was reduced to playing the junior partner in its ‘special relationship’ with the USA.
Eisenhower was not in favour of an immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops until the US ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. pushed for it. Eden’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill commented on 22 November, “I cannot understand why our troops were halted. To go so far and not go on was madness.” Churchill further added that while he might not have dared to begin the military operation, nevertheless once having ordered it he would certainly not have dared to stop it before it had achieved its objective. Without further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by 22 December 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of the UNEF. Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt within a week; Israel did not. A rare example of support for the Anglo-French actions against Egypt came from West Germany; though the Cabinet was divided, the Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was furious with the United States for its “chumminess with the Russians” as Adenauer called the U.S. refusal to intervene in Hungary and voting with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, and the traditionally Francophile Adenauer drew closer to Paris as a result.
Still from a 1957 newsreel on the aftermath of the crisis
Reading the newspaper accounts of the Autumn of 1956, von Tunzelmann was struck by the speed of the events both in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the way in which both sets seemed simultaneously to be upsetting the existing order of the world. In the climate of world opinion against Britain and France, the Soviet Union was able to avoid large-scale diplomatic repercussions from its violent suppression of the rebellion in Hungary, and even to present an image at the United Nations as a defender of small nations against imperialism. In addition, the Soviet Union made major gains with regards to influence in the Middle East. The American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote about the aftermath of the crisis:
When the British-French-Israeli invasion forced them to choose, Eisenhower and Dulles came down, with instant decisiveness, on the side of the Egyptians. They preferred alignment with Arab nationalism, even if it meant alienating pro-Israeli constituencies on the eve of a presidential election in the United States, even if it meant throwing the NATO alliance into its most divisive crisis yet, even if it meant risking whatever was left of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, even if it meant voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council at a time when the Russians, themselves, were invading Hungary and crushing—far more brutally than anything that happened in Egypt—a rebellion against their own authority there. The fact that the Eisenhower administration itself applied crushing economic pressure to the British and French to disengage from Suez, and that it subsequently forced an Israeli pull-back from the Sinai as well—all of this, one might thought, would won the United States the lasting gratitude of Nasser, the Egyptians and the Arab world. Instead, the Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.
In Hungary, by the middle of November, the rebellion had been completely crushed. The Soviet invasion had rolled back its small, nascent reforms and life became much more unpleasant for many people living in the Soviet bloc. Yet, initially, Kádár had no real idea as to how to cope with the situation he faced, no clear set of policies to implement. The government programme which he had drafted in Moscow at the beginning of November, included promises of welfare measures, amnesty, workers’ self-management, indulgent policies towards the peasantry and small-scale private enterprise in general, and even a transition to a multi-party system and a re-negotiation of the presence of Soviet troops (once order was restored).
Last days in Budapest
Tom recalls continuing to listen to the radio in their shared flat during the second fortnight in November:
One bizarre event was the holding of the International Liszt Piano Competition. Of course, it was boycotted by everyone outside the Warsaw pact countries. Still we listened to it on the radio as the two top prizes were awarded to Russian pianists playing Liszt’s piano concertos. The third prize went to a Hungarian who played the less known ’Mephisto Waltz’ in the final round. The dance of the devil – a touch of artistic resistance rewarded by the jury? We could hope so. Then the Olympic Games started in Melbourne towards the end of November, so we started to take an interest in the exploits of the Hungarian team. How were they feeling competing against Soviet athletes? Every medal still gave us a sense of national pride.
On 16 November, one of the major centres of underground resistance, Péterfy utca Hospital, was raided and a number of leaders arrested. Since 23 October, this had been one of the main hospitals in the capital where those injured in the fighting, including some ÁVH and Soviet soldiers, were brought for emergency treatment. It was not far from the Eastern Railway Station, where a number of armed groups had their base, and close to Köztársaság Square, so that it received those injured on 30 October. On 4 November, the day of the Soviet reoccupation of the city, more people had turned to the hospital for shelter from the storm of tank fire raging outside, including the armed insurgents. An illegal press had been established under the hospital, with groups of young people delivering leaflets around the city encouraging resistance. This work was inspired and led by István Angyal, who set up a base in the same basement. On the 16th, armed security forces surrounded the hospital complex and entered the grounds. The whole building, including its underground passageways was combed and the publishing equipment seized. There was no armed resistance from inside, and Angyal was arrested and taken away, to be executed later for his part in the uprising. Others among the resistance spent years in prison.
On the same day, Sándor Rácz, the outspoken twenty-three-year-old toolmaker from the Beloiannisz (Standard Electric) factory in Buda, was elected President of the KMT (Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest). Following his delegation’s meeting with the Kádár government the previous day, his first act was to go on the radio to appeal for a return to work. The appeal was printed in the following day’s Népszabadság:
Fellow workers! Regardless of any outside call, we feel that the immediate resumption of productive work has now become essential. We are saying this in full awareness of our profound responsibility towards the national economy and the people of our country. We have all suffered enough; in the present critical situation sober judgement, conscience and solidarity dictate us to call upon you, while maintaining the right to strike, to return to work on 17 November… Negotiations are continuing. We are convinced that all questions left open can and will be satisfactorily resolved by our joint effort.
Rácz, interviewed in 1983, recalled further reasons why the call for the return to work was made:
We couldn’t allow Kádár’s lot to be the ones who gave work and bread to the workers. , because then they would manipulate them. If the Central Workers’ Council could bring the men back to work, back into the factories, then it would be strengthening its own position as well – that was the idea. The workers’ councils also had to be re-elected. Kádár’s lot were always going on about the workers’ councils not being valid, because the workers weren’t there in the factories – as if they, on the other hand, had been elected by public acclaim.
Despite these justifications, the Associated Press correspondent, Endre Marton, remembered the KMT as a haphazard organisation, whose leaders were manual workers, and not professional trade union men. They had no written statutes and did not care about parliamentary procedures. Nevertheless, he added, they knew their strength and knew that Kádár desperately needed their help to reopen the country’s idle industrial plants. Before the revolution, Kádár had been a popular and respected figure among the workers. Even after 4 November, Marton recalled, while remaining loyal to Imre Nagy, several council members grudgingly acknowledged that they still trusted Kádár despite his betrayal of the revolution.
In addition to the strike issue, the KMT was determined that the workers’ councils should cooperate on both a regional and national basis. While Kádár was willing to accept the idea of councils at a factory level, concerned with questions of production, and had issued a decree to this effect on 13 November, he was firmly opposed to them establishing networks which might pursue demands of a more political nature. If these were to materialise into a national body, this might constitute a situation of dual power. Although there was no such intention on the part of the KMT, its leaders certainly wanted to establish a National Workers’ Council to represent workers across the country. They issued a call for a conference to establish this, to be held on Wednesday 21 November at the National Sports Hall in Budapest. However, when the delegates arrived they were confronted by Soviet tanks blocking the streets around the hall, and had to make their way back to the KMT’s headquarters at Akácfa utca. There, an angry meeting passed a resolution calling on the government to recognise a democratically elected national workers’ council as the sole body empowered to carry out negotiations in the name of the working class. They also agreed to the call for a forty-eight hour general strike throughout the capital, excepting food workers, in protest against the banning of the proposed earlier meeting.
While Kádár negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, he also ordered hundreds of arrests. While the uncertainty as to his real goals remained, he had busied himself in organising special police squads for the purposes of retaliation and maintaining order. This was also the day which saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates, who left the Yugoslav Embassy on assurances of safe passages home given by Kádár himself, but found themselves being taken by Soviet forces to Romania, where they were placed under house arrest. The developments at the Yugoslav Embassy had, as their international background, a speech by Tito to a group of Communist Party activists on the Istrian peninsula on 11 November, the contents of which did not become known in Budapest and Moscow until a week later. In it, he argued that while the Hungarian uprising had been a justified response to the failure of the Soviets to make a clean break with Stalinism, it had been taken over by counter-revolutionaries. Therefore, in his view, the second Soviet intervention was also justified, as was the setting up of, and his support for, Kádár’s government. The Yugoslav deputy foreign minister was sent to Budapest to negotiate a written agreement between Kádár and himself to the effect that the Hungarian ministers, their families and fellows, would be free to go home without fear of prosecution.
So it happened that, late in the day on Thursday 22 November, a bus arrived at the embassy allegedly to take the Hungarians home. The ‘refugees’ were already nervous, as Mária Haraszti recalled:
At the time I was very pessimistic, but I can’t explain why… I turned to ‘Uncle Imre’ and asked ‘Is it definite we are going home?’ He said, ‘Of course, Marika, it’s definite’.
As they got on the bus, the first members of the group soon realised that their driver was Russian and some returned to the embassy building to warn the others. Eye-witnesses report that this was followed by a lively exchange between Nagy and the Yugoslav ambassador, who stressed that if they had any doubts about the situation, they should not leave. The belief that there was a formal written agreement seems to have decided the issue, so that the whole group boarded the bus. They had little alternative, since they could not go home on their own due to the curfew. As they pulled away, the Yugoslav embassy cars were prevented from following the bus by two Soviet armoured vehicles. When the bus failed to turn to stop at the first address, the general alarm of its occupants was echoed by one of their children, six-year-old Juli, who cried out, “Oh, no! The Russians are taking us away!” The remaining Yugoslavs on the bus were then ordered off. They were then taken to the Rácóczi Barracks, then used as the KGB base, on the perimeter of Pest. From there they were flown to Romania and placed under house arrest in a villa in Snagov, thirty kilometres north of Bucharest.
While the revolutionary committees were also being dissolved, almost simultaneously, the ideological justification for the ‘retaliation’ campaign was being drawn up at a Party conference which blamed the October events on:
- the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction;
- the formation of a circle around Nagy which undermined the party;
- a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of the Horthyite fascists;
- the intervention of international imperialists.
Despite its obvious absurdity to post-communist readers, at the time this was a clever ‘two-front’ strategy of struggle by a virtuous centre against Stalinism on the one hand and revisionism on the other, emphasising both the enemies within and outside the country. The Suez Crisis served its purpose in respect of reminding people of the latter, and Kádár’s other, internal justifications served as the basis for bans, arrests and prosecutions which began under the introduction of summary justice. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months afterwards. Eventually 35,000 people were brought before the Hungarian courts; 22,000 were sentenced and 13,000 imprisoned. Around 350 people were executed (229 were sentenced to death). Thirteen thousand were sent to internment camps without trial, many of these eventually being deported to the Soviet Union without any evidence being brought against them. Some sources have estimated the deportations to have been as high as twenty thousand. The UN General Assembly, meeting in plenary session, adopted a series of resolutions urging the Soviet Union to stop deporting Hungarian citizens from their homes and calling on the Hungarian Government to admit UN observers to assess the situation, also urging member states to assist refugees. Some two hundred thousand Hungarians fled their country as refugees, including the current and future intelligentsia, among them Tom Leimdorfer and his family, as well as many famous writers, poets, artists musicians and athletes. President Eisenhower announced that the United States would offer asylum to 21,500 Hungarian refugees, and that these would be brought to the US with the utmost practicable speed.
When the news of the abduction of Nagy and his ministers began to trickle through to the ordinary citizens of Budapest, no doubt it added to the anger and determination which resulted in the silent ‘shut down’ of the city in the afternoon of 23 November. Exactly a month after the uprising began, the streets of the capital fell silent as a planned protest against the continued Soviet occupation. Word had spread that between 2 pm and 3 pm there would be a silent protest, that the city centre would be deserted and that no-one would set foot on the streets. Endre Marton, the AP correspondent drove his Volkswagen towards Blaha Lujza tér, one of the busiest squares in the capital and parked it near the National Theatre. Then minutes before two o’ clock the normally crowded square rapidly emptied, people in doorways motioning to those still on the streets to join them. When the church clocks chimed two, the whole city centre came to a standstill. Marton commented that there was more life… on those streets during the hours of air raids in 1945 than there was during that hour. The only vehicle he saw moving was an armoured car packed with Soviet soldiers shouldering rifles, wearing combat fatigues and steel helmets, and when they slowly passed our car I could see the tension on the young faces looking around in disbelief. After comparing notes with other journalists, Marton reported that the situation had been the same everywhere, even in the residential districts and industrial suburbs – deserted streets and complete silence.
Though there were few other acts or events to follow that Friday in the capital during the last week of November, passive resistance throughout the country continued to take place over the following early weeks of December, with strikes and marches being met by police rounds, killing hundreds of demonstrating workers in northern towns of Salgótarján, Miskolc and Eger.
Preparing to leave
For Tom Leimdorfer, that last week of November brought the dawning yet still dismal realisation that his prospects would now, indeed, involve leaving his beloved Budapest:
As that sad, depressing November drew to its close, we started to talk about the future. Somehow, those four weeks created a break with everything we had regarded as our normal pattern of life. We heard that the border was still open and tens of thousands had already fled. Some were escaping from certain retribution, having played a prominent part in the revolution. Most others were leaving because they could not face a return to repression after hopes for freedom were crushed. Mami started to talk about London again, but this time it was not just for me or the two of us. Gyuri seemed to take to idea and gradually Ferkó and Marika warmed to the thought of a new life in England. Yet it must have been a frightening prospect for them. They had a really lovely flat, their childhood home, which they would leave for an uncertain future. None them spoke even the little English I had. Ferkó spoke quite good German and schoolboy Russian and his father was fluent in German and French but knew no English. Sári néni must have been devastated at the prospect of being left alone by her family, having only lost her daughter two years before. Yet she was supportive of the idea that we should try to leave.
Once the decision was made, my mother swung into action. She went back to her workplace and sought an interview with a senior manager. Somehow, she persuaded him to write an official document entitling her and her family (including her new partner’s two children!) to a week’s holiday at one of the hostels at the disposal of the worker’s union – which just happened to be close to the Austrian border. This was in case we were challenged on the train journey. Then she went to see her friend and colleague who desperately needed a small flat, having lived with her parents all her life. She told her in confidence what our plans were, gave her our duplicate keys and instructions about what to do and say to the authorities if we were successful and also if we were arrested. Some money for our furniture was to go to our family, which eventually was turned into a single lens reflex Praktica camera I was to use for over 25 years.
The next episodes in Tom’s tale, mirroring those of the bitter winter which followed for many of his compatriots, is one of exodus and exile, which I aim to tell in my next series of posts. They are more concerned with the personal and familial experiences of fleeing the homeland, arriving as a refugee in England, and the struggles associated with settling into the host country. That is why they need to be told separately from the events of the autumn of 1956 in Budapest and elsewhere, though they are no less a seminal part of modern European history, especially given the more recent troubles and turmoil to affect both the continent, and the ‘Middle East’.
Main Secondary Sources:
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of Drama. Budapest: Europa Könyvkiadó.
Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: US Department of State.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz kiadó.
Primary Sources as given in the texts.
Churchill’s Vision of an Integrated Continent:
We do not covet anything from any nation except their respect.
Broadcast to the French People, Oct. 1940
The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.
Harvard speech, Sept 1943
Beware, for the time may be short. A shadow has fallen across the scenes so lately lighted by Allied victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organisation intend to do in the immediate future.
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.
Speech given at Fulton, Missouri (pictured above), 1946
Below: Visiting Battersea in south London during ‘the Blitz’ – a little touch of ‘Harry in the night’, emulating Shakespeare’s Henry V, visiting his weary troops before the Battle of Agincourt.
September 19, 1946. University of Zurich:
I wish to speak about the tragedy of Europe, this noble continent, the home of all the great parent races of the Western world, the foundation of Christian faith and ethics, the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy and science both of ancient and modern times. If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy. Yet it is from Europe that has sprung that series of frightful nationalistic quarrels, originated by the Teutonic nations in their rise to power, which we have seen in this 20th century and in our own lifetime wreck the peace and mar the prospects of all mankind.
What is this plight to which Europe has been reduced? Some of the smaller states have indeed made a good recovery, but over wide areas are a vast, quivering mass of tormented, hungry, careworn and bewildered human beings, who wait in the ruins of their cities and homes and scan the dark horizons for the approach of some new form of tyranny or terror. Among the victors there is a Babel of voices, among the vanquished the sullen silence of despair. That is all that Europeans, grouped in so many ancient states and nations, and that is all that the Germanic races have got by tearing each other to pieces and spreading havoc far and wide. Indeed, but for the fact that the great republic across the Atlantic realised that the ruin or enslavement of Europe would involve her own fate as well, and stretched out hands of succour and guidance, the Dark Ages would have returned in all their cruelty and squalor. They may still return.
Yet all the while there is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted by the great majority of people in many lands, would as by a miracle transform the whole scene and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and happy as Switzerland is today. What is this sovereign remedy? It is to recreate the European fabric, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom. We must build a kind of united states of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. The process is simple. All that is needed is the resolve of hundreds of millions of men and women to do right instead of wrong and to gain as their reward blessing instead of cursing.
Much work has been done upon this task by the exertions of the Pan-European Union, which owes so much to the famous French patriot and statesman Aristide Briand. There is also that immense body which was brought into being amidst high hopes after the First World War — the League of Nations. The League did not fail because of its principles or conceptions. It failed because those principles were deserted by those states which brought it into being, because the governments of those states feared to face the facts and act while time remained. This disaster must not be repeated. There is, therefore, much knowledge and material with which to build and also bitter, dearly bought experience to spur.
There is no reason why a regional organisation of Europe should in any way conflict with the world organisation of the United Nations. On the contrary, I believe that the larger synthesis can only survive if it is founded upon broad natural groupings. There is already a natural grouping in the Western Hemisphere. We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations. These do not weaken, on the contrary they strengthen, the world organisation. They are in fact its main support. And why should there not be a European group which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this mighty continent? And why should it not take its rightful place with other great groupings and help to shape the honourable destiny of man? In order that this may be accomplished there must be an act of faith in which the millions of families speaking many languages must consciously take part.
We all know that the two World Wars through which we have passed arose out of the vain passion of Germany to play a dominating part in the world. In this last struggle crimes and massacres have been committed for which there is no parallel since the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, no equal at any time in human history. The guilty must be punished. Germany must be deprived of the power to rearm and make another aggressive war. But when all this has been done, as it will be done, as it is being done, there must be an end to retribution. There must be what Mr Gladstone many years ago called a “blessed act of oblivion”. We must all turn our backs upon the horrors of the past and look to the future. We cannot afford to drag forward across the years to come hatreds and revenges which have sprung from the injuries of the past. If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be this act of faith in the European family, this act of oblivion against all crimes and follies of the past. Can the peoples of Europe rise to the heights of the soul and of the instinct and spirit of man? If they could, the wrongs and injuries which have been inflicted would have been washed away on all sides by the miseries which have been endured. Is there any need for further floods of agony? Is the only lesson of history to be that mankind is unteachable? Let there be justice, mercy and freedom. The peoples have only to will it and all will achieve their heart’s desire.
I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany. In this way only can France recover the moral and cultural leadership of Europe. There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany. The structure of the United States of Europe will be such as to make the material strength of a single State less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by a contribution to the common cause. The ancient States and principalities of Germany, freely joined for mutual convenience in a federal system, might take their individual places among the united states of Europe.
But I must give you warning, time may be short. At present there is a breathing space. The cannons have ceased firing. The fighting has stopped. But the dangers have not stopped. If we are to form a united states of Europe, or whatever name it may take, we must begin now. In these present days we dwell strangely and precariously under the shield, and I even say protection, of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb is still only in the hands of a nation which, we know, will never use it except in the cause of right and freedom, but it may well be that in a few years this awful agency of destruction will be widespread and that the catastrophe following from its use by several warring nations will not only bring to an end all that we call civilisation but may possibly disintegrate the globe itself.
I now sum up the propositions which are before you. Our constant aim must be to build and fortify the United Nations Organisation. Under and within that world concept we must re-create the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe, and the first practical step will be to form a Council of Europe. If at first all the States of Europe are not willing or able to join a union we must nevertheless proceed to assemble and combine those who will and who can. The salvation of the common people of every race and every land from war and servitude must be established on solid foundations, and must be created by the readiness of all men and women to die rather than to submit to tyranny. In this urgent work France and Germany must take the lead together. Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America — and, I trust, Soviet Russia, for then indeed all would be well — must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live.
Therefore I say to you “Let Europe arise!”
The European Commission (recent pamphlet), The Founding Fathers of the EU.
The Churchill Centre web-site.