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A Hundred Years Ago: The British Empire in 1917.   Leave a comment

Jan Smuts 1947.jpg

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), pictured above, was a South African statesman and member of the British Imperial War Cabinet from 1917 to 1919. In June 1917, as a colonial prime minister, he joined the ‘new imperialists’ – Curzon, Milner and Balfour – in the cabinet, giving his view of the development of the British Empire and Commonwealth as he saw it:

The British Empire is much more than a State. I think the very expression ‘Empire’ is misleading, because it makes people think as if we are one single entity, one unity, to which the term ‘Empire’ can be applied. We are not an Empire. Germany is an Empire, so was Rome, and so is India, but we are a system of nations far greater than any empire which has ever existed; and by using this ancient expression we really obscure the real fact that we are larger and that our whole position is different, and that we are not one nation, or state, or empire, but we are a whole world by ourselves, consisting of many nations and states, and all sorts of communities under one flag…

I think that this is the fundamental fact which we have to bear in mind – that the British Empire, or this British Commonwealth of Nations, does not stand for unity, standardisation, or assimilation, or denationalisation; but it stands for a fuller, a richer, and more various a life among all the nations that compose it. And even nations who have fought against you, like my own, must feel that they and their interests are as safe and as secure under the British flag as those of the children of your household and your own blood. It is only in proportion as that is realised that you will fulfil the true mission that you have undertaken. Therefore, it seems, speaking my own individual opinion, that there is only one solution, that is the solution supplied by our past traditions of freedom, self-government and the fullest development. We are not going to force common Governments, federal or otherwise, but we are going to extend liberty, freedom and nationhood more and more in every part of the Empire.

T E Lawrence was one of those who took Smuts’ vision of Empire at face value. He became closely identified with this new strategy of ‘extending liberty’ by inciting an Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, under the leadership of the Sharif of Mecca, Husain Ibn Ali. Lawrence was an Oxford historian turned undercover agent, an archaeologist, a linguist, a skilled cartographer and an intuitive guerrilla fighter, as well as a masochist who yearned for fame, only to spurn it when it came. He was the illegitimate son of an Irish baronet and his nanny; a flamboyant Orientalist who delighted in wearing Arab dress. His affinity with the Arabs was to prove invaluable. His aim was to break the Ottoman Empire from within, by stirring up Arab nationalism into a new and potent force that he believed could trump the German-sponsored jihad against the British Empire. Turkish rule over the deserts of Arabia had been resented for centuries and sporadically challenged by the nomadic tribes of the region. By adopting their language and dress, Lawrence set out to turn their discontent to British advantage. As liaison officer to Husain’s son Faisal from July 1916, he argued strongly against deploying British troops in the Hejaz. The Arabs had to feel they were fighting for their own freedom, Lawrence argued, not for the privilege of being ruled by the British instead of the Turks. His ambition, he wrote, was…

…that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony. Arabs react against you if you try to drive them, and they are as tenacious as Jews, but you can lead them without force anywhere, if nominally arm-in-arm. The future of Mesopotamia is so immense that if it is cordially ours we can swing the whole Middle East with it.

It worked. With Lawrence’s support, the Arabs waged a highly effective guerrilla war against Turkish communications along the Hejaz railway from Medina to Aqaba. By the autumn of 1917 they were probing Turkish defences in Syria as General Edmond Allenby’s army marched from Sinai towards Jerusalem. The Arab revolt helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields for the duration of the war. But this did not solve Britain’s long-term problem of how to safeguard her middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem connected with it, of how to avoid quarrelling with her friends over it. To settle these problems she had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. When it was revealed to the world after April 1917, following the entry of the USA into the war, Sykes-Picot was on the face of it a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperialistic plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it to the Arabs, who got to know of it from the Russian Bolsheviks later that year. T E Lawrence claimed that it was evident to him that Britain’s promises would amount to nothing, and confessed that he himself had been party to deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that the Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.

Writing in 1954, Lord Vansittart claimed that Lawrence’s Arab army was overrated, and that it had raced rather than fought its way to Damascus. He had believed that the Arabs occupied the city first, but later found out that it was the Australians who bore the brunt of the siege.  Of Lawrence himself, he wrote that…

He felt too big for the pumps in which he entered my office, boasting of having torn off his British decorations… Lawrence was one of the people I was glad to have known and not to have known better. He was an acquaintance, not a friend, a relative so distant that we never mentioned the subject… He wanted to go far with him, seeming to think that I could ‘do something about’ the kingdom terrestrial yet not of this world, on which he had set his public heart.

In June 1917, there were six ‘young imperialists’ in the wartime cabinet, including Leopold Amery and Mark Sykes, who were there to advise on eastern and middle eastern affairs. Harold Nicolson was seconded to work with Sykes. John Buchan was deputy director of a new Information Ministry created to brief ministers. It was a remarkable resurrection of a school of imperialism which had been thought to be dead and buried for years, spurned by successive electorates since 1906. In ordinary times it would have remained mouldering under the ground, but the extraordinary circumstances of war had acted like an earthquake, throwing up the coffin and breaking it open. As Bernard Porter has put it, Joseph Chamberlain walked the earth again. Leopold Amery’s first and foremost war aim was the immediate security and, still more, freedom for the development and expansion of the British Commonwealth in the world outside Europe. A Cabinet Committee on Territorial Desiderata chaired by Curzon in 1917 recommended that this expansion be concentrated in east Africa and the lands between Egypt and India. It was clear what these new imperialists had in mind, if they were still in control of government when the war was over.

The Great War was a total war, and, for its duration, it stretched the Empire’s resources to the limit. When peace eventually came, she would be much less able to hold the empire by force: even now she could ill afford to keep tied up in the colonies troops which were badly needed in Europe, or to count on reinforcing them in an emergency. In India, for example, the number of British troops numbered only 15,000, which was 23,000 fewer than on the eve of the mutiny, sixty years earlier. The perils of the situation were clear, and could only be met by compromising with any insurgency or emergency which might arise. Given the somewhat feigned antipathy of the USA for being harnessed to imperialists after April 1917, concession was a means by which the British could retain control of their empire, but it was also a way in which that control was diluted as well. The war forced it into all kinds of actions which were unwise in the long-term, but the sort of war it was made these almost inevitable. In wartime there could be no long-term coherent policy for the empire. Everything was overshadowed by the war on the Western Front. Consequently colonial policy decisions could not be other than pragmatic, unplanned, short-term, often inconsistent. Quite often they came to be regretted afterwards, especially those made to curry favour from various quarters, to nationalists in India and the middle east.

In India the promises came very slowly, because until 1917 it looked as if they might be done without. India was relatively tranquil when war broke out, and Indians refrained from exploiting the difficulties of their British ‘masters’. It seemed that Britain would not need more than 15,000 troops to control them. Nevertheless, some of the members of the government, including Edwin Montagu, were keen to announce reforms from the beginning. India’s representation at Imperial Conferences of the ‘white’ self-governing dominions, were met with considerable opposition from those dominions who protested that India was neither ‘white’ nor ‘self-governing’. Despite this, India was admitted at the beginning of 1917, and promises of political reforms followed in August. Both concessions were late enough to suggest that they were born out of fear rather than persuasion, for in the year before the nationalists had healed both of the main breaches: between Congress and the Muslim League by the Lucknow Pact of December 1916, and between moderates and extremists when Tilak, released from gaol in 1914, was readmitted to Congress in the same month, capturing it soon afterwards. In 1916 the nationalists had gone on the offensive under him and, ironically, the Englishwoman Annie Besant. Montagu wrote later that it was her activity which really stirred the country up. By June 1917, they were threatening enough to persuade the Indian government to intern Mrs Besant, which provoked further agitation. In July the viceroy wrote home that the situation was urgent, and any further prevarication over the reforms would be fatal. It was at this moment that Montagu, who had returned to the India Office as Secretary of State in July, was allowed to make a declaration of intent for India to provide…

…the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.

Montagu was able to use the words ‘responsible government’ in 1917, even though it provoked a storm in the House of Lords and a flurry of resignations in India, because the situation was then more desperate: nationalist opposition more widespread, the need to arrest the further defection of moderate opinion, according to Chelmsford, more urgent, the country, according to Montagu, rolling to certain destruction. This was the result of the war, but the war had also made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would be enough to stem the nationalist tide.Indian nationalism was fired enormously by the war: its grievances compounded, its following augmented, its organisation greatly improved, its expectations increased; a seething, boiling, political flood, as Montagu described it in November 1917, raging across the country. Yet the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if nothing else, as Montagu wrote in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.  Whether they were big enough to keep pace with them was yet to be seen when the war finally ended.

                 

Sources:

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism. London: Longman.

Niall Ferguson (2005), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

            

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What a year that was: Britain & the World in 1947: Part I.   Leave a comment

The deep nostalgic vision of Empire was dented in 1947. The King ceased to be Emperor. The jewel in the imperial crown, India, was moving towards independence long before the war. Gandhi’s brilliant insight that through non-violence the British could be embarrassed out of India more effectively than they could be shot out, had paid off handsomely during the war years.

London was dragged to the negotiating table despite the attempts by Churchill and others to scupper every deal from the thirties to the late forties. The war delayed independence but showed how much goodwill there was on the subcontinent, if Britain was wise enough to withdraw gracefully.  During the conflict some two million Indians fought on Britain’s side or served in her forces directly, their contributions being particularly strong in the campaigns in North Africa, against the Italians and the Germans. Gandhi himself was sentimentally fond of Britain and kept a photo of his old school, Harrow, in his cell.

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As soon as Attlee’s government took power, it organised talks on British withdrawal from India. Anti-imperialism had been a genuine strand in Labour thinking since the party’s formation, but there were now other motives behind the determination to pull out of the sub-continent. There was gratitude for Indian support throughout the war, especially in North Africa and in Iraq. Attlee thought that a rapid handover to ensure a united, independent India with both Muslims and Hindus sharing power in one vast state connected by trade and military alliance with Britain. This would also act as a major anti-Communist bulwark in Asia, to stem both Russian and Chinese expansionism. He passed the job of overseeing the transition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been supreme commander in south-east Asia, and as such had organised the reconquest of Burma.

The partitioning of the sub-continent had become almost inevitable by 1947. Muslims would not accept overall Hindu domination, and yet across most of India the Hindus or Sikhs were in the majority. British India was duly split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The border line was drawn up by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and kept secret until after the handover of power. Mountbatten then announced, to widespread shock, that independence would take place ten months earlier than planned, on 15 August 1947. Churchill was so appalled by this that his former Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had to keep him away from the chamber of the Commons. While the speed of the British was a political necessity, the consequences were appalling. According to some counts, a million people died as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Sikhs rose up against Muslims in the Punjab, Muslims drove out Hindus, as it became apparent that central authority had simply held older religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. Some 55,000 British civilians returned home, as their political masters’ scheme to hand over to a united state as a strong military ally, fell apart in chaos and killing.

The demarcation between India and Pakistan continued to be deeply  unsatisfactory, as it could not have been otherwise after two centuries during which the ‘natural’ divisions between India’s peoples had been obscured and cushioned and allowed in some places to run into each other under the vast, protective and essentially artificial blanket of the old raj. For months after the devolution of power there were massive, panic-stricken and bloody adjustments to the new gravity: wholesale exchanges of population east and west between the borders of the new states, running into millions, rioting in Delhi and elsewhere which killed more than half a million; almost immediately a war broke out between India and Pakistan which the United Nations had to step in and settle; and running disputes over contentious territories to the present day. Pakistan in the awkward bisected shape which 1947 had put it in survived for only twenty-five years. It was all something of a shambles.

Labour ministers were far less enthusiastic about dismantling the Empire in Africa. Herbert Morrison, deputy leader, agreed: He said that to give the African colonies their freedom would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank-account and a shotgun. Attlee himself speculated about creating a British African army, and the Colonial Office described Africa as the core of Britain’s new world position, from where she could draw economic and military strength. For a while it seemed like the Raj would be transplanted, in fragmented form, in Africa.

Back in the mother country, in the summer of 1947 work began in deepest secret of to build a plutonium-producing plant at Windscale, a little on the coast of Cumbria. At the same time, the government sought to rescue Britain’s position as a major world power by having a nuclear bomb designed under the guidance of one of the British scientists who had been at Los Alamos, William Penney.

In the years immediately after the war Britain contained about ten million fewer inhabitants than it has today. The thirties had seen a fall in the birthrate and there was much official worry about another natural shrinkage. In William Beveridge’s war-time report launching the modern welfare state, he had suggested that a bit of fast breeding was needed, or with its present rate of reproduction, the British race cannot continue. To his generation, the British race meant the white natives of the British Isles. Before the war, 95 per cent of the population had been born in Britain, and the other five per cent was made up of the white British whose parents had been serving in the Empire in India, Africa or the Middle East when they were born. There were black and Asian people in Britain, but very few. In the thirties the Indian community numbered about eight thousand, and there were a few Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the biggest cities.

During the war, Irish people came over to Britain to fill the labour shortage left by mobilization. Immigration continued at a rate of thirty to sixty thousand per year through the forties. The cabinet committees excluded them from debates about immigration as they were considered to be effectively indigenous. There were more ‘exotic’ groups by the end of the war, like the 120,000 Poles who had fled both the Soviets and the Nazis, many of them serving in the British forces, most famously as pilots. Most chose to stay and 65,000 found work in coal-mining and factory work.

It would be wrong to portray Britain in the forties as relaxed about race. Despite the refugees who had come to Britain in large numbers since 1938 and the widespread revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still evident throughout British society. It was no longer the ‘property’ of the aristocratic establishment of the 1930s who had promoted the policy of appeasement, or of Mosley’s Blackshirts who had eventually been disbanded and interred by the wartime government.  in the five years before the war, sixty thousand  Jews from Germany and central-eastern Europe arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. In their invasion plans for 1940, the German SS reckoned the Jewish population to be above 300,000, and hugely influential. After the war, the assumption that ‘they’ dodged queues or somehow got the best of scarce and rationed goods, erupts from diaries and letters as well as anecdotes from the time. After Jewish attacks on British servicemen in Palestine in 1947, there were anti-Jewish demonstrations in several British cities, including attacks on shops and even the burning of a synagogue, mimicking the actions of the Nazis in the late 1930s. More widely, trade unions were quick to express hostility to outsiders coming to take British jobs – whether European Jews or Gentiles; Poles, Czechs, Irish or Maltese. Belief that people belonged to different genetic ‘races’ was underpinned by the government continually referring to the central importance of the British race and, by implication, to a largely unquestioned belief in its superiority to all other ‘races’. Today’s post-modern multicultural Britain would leave a visitor from immediate post-war, post-medieval Britain totally bewildered.

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Yet in the 1930s some parts of England, especially its cities and industrial conurbations, had already become quite mixed in terms of their white populations. In Coventry, for example, the proportion of migrants rose to 40% of the local population in 1935, the majority of newcomers coming from other UK regions than the Midlands. This continued during and after the war, so that immigrants from outside the UK made up just under two per cent of the local population. Of these, 1,046 were Poles, 953 were Ukrainian, and the third significant workers were the 1,100 unskilled textile workers recruited during the war who had stayed on and settled.

The small wartime Indian community expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954. They soon ‘colonised’ some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry the Indians were anxious to protect their own identity and cultures. However, the ‘coloured’ minority represented less than 1.5 per cent of the city’s population and coloured workers were never a threat to the jobs of those employed in local engineering factories. Nevertheless, by the late 1940s Coventry had become predominantly a city of newcomers. Estimates were given that only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of 258,000 had been born in the city, though it needs to be borne in mind that some ‘new’ areas like Walsgrave-on-Sowe were, in fact, as in Oxford, which had been incorporated from rural areas, still retaining something of their village characteristics. Nevertheless, they were incorporated because they had also outgrown their status as villages, also having their share of British ‘foreigners’. The birthplace information for the 1951 Census reveals that over 97,000 of the population were born outside the West Midlands and that, of these, 32,000 were from the industrial areas of south Wales, the North West of England and Northern England.

These ‘newcomers’ were divided roughly equally between the three ‘depressed districts’, each one contributing more than the 10,034 from London and the South East and the 9,993 from Ireland. There had been only 2,057 Irish in Coventry in 1931, but this number expanded rapidly during the building boom of the 1930s and the post-war reconstruction of the blitzed city centre. The streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s churches had a distinctively Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, whilst their proximity to Roman Catholic churches, increasing to six in number by 1939, made them an ideal port of call for itinerant building workers or those ‘after a start’ in local factories. The Irish also began to settle more permanently in the post-war period, forming a more permanent community. The expansion of Catholicism illustrates both the Irish determination to retain their religious identity and the establishment of Ukrainian and Polish congregations at separate churches. Three already large chapels in the city centre developed a distinctive Welsh identity, attracting large numbers of migrants who first arrived in the city during and following the miners’ lock-out of 1926, now forming the largest ethnic minority.

Although the Ministry of Labour insurance book exchanges highlighted a dearth of migrants from the coalfields to Coventry other than from Wales before 1940, the war had apparently increased the Geordie’s willingness to move while Coventry’s high engineering wages helped to keep him in the city once he had arrived. Early studies also suggest that, in this period, almost as many people were leaving the city as were moving in. Reports suggest that this was not simply due to failures to find suitable accommodation or work, but due to a more general failure of integration. Besides overt racial prejudice, Coventrians were reputed to be anything but welcoming to newcomers generally. Friendship and social networks typically followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and religious institutions often catered for particular migrant groups. The reputation of Coventry as an immigrant city since the early twentieth century mitigated against some of the standoffishness of the indigenous population. New immigrants therefore felt encouraged to socialize inside their own regional or ethnic networks, rather than establishing neighbourhood friendships.

At the same time, there were many among the migrants became overtly involved in public life. It is apparent that the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were conditioned, in part at least, by their mythologized memories of the depression years elsewhere, especially as they were predominantly from older industrial areas such as the coalfields, iron and steel-producing areas, or desolate shipbuilding towns of south Wales and the north-east of England, being joined now by tens of thousands more relocating from Lancashire’s declining textile towns. It is therefore not insignificant that when the government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Tredegar-born Aneurin Bevan should choose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of Coventry’s own distinct brand of municipal socialism from 1937 onwards can be seen, like Bevan’s own work, as a practical expression of an ideological impetus to reform, progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to obtain better living conditions to those which many had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.

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Above: On the line in Cowley, in 1946

Coventry was not the only new industry town where immigrants from the south Wales valleys made a political impact and rose to positions of public prominence as councillors through their determination to improve conditions for their fellow workers in their new environments. A string of former Welsh miners turned car-workers, militants who became moderates, won seats on councils in Oxford, for the Cowley and Headington wards in the east of the city. Frank Pakenham, Patrick Gordon-Walker, Philip Noel-Baker, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman were among those of this first generation of Labour leaders to come to power as a result of rubbing shoulders with those whom one Coventry Conservative councillor had referred to, in 1938, as the sweepings of Great Britain. In Birmingham, William Tegfryn Bowen, born in the Rhondda in 1902, became a real ‘Dick Whittington’ in the making. After working as a collier from the age of fourteen until the General Strike of 1926, he moved to Birmingham and studied economics, social services and philosophy for a year before entering employment with the Austin Motor Company. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He was victimized for doing so and endured various spells of unemployment and odd jobs. He became a city councilor in 1941, an alderman in 1945 and in 1946 became both the Chairman of the Health Committee, Bevan’s right hand man in the second city. Later, on becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on city which, under the Chamberlain dynasty,  had been considered a conservative ‘fiefdom’. His answer referred to the large influx from other areas, with a different political outlook.

One of the former Welsh miners who became a car worker and foreman at the Pressed Steel Works in Cowley also claimed, we changed their attitude. This role in municipal affairs in England attracted the early attention of leading politicians in London too. As early as November 1935 Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in support of Labour’s successful parliamentary candidate for Coventry, Philip Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the failures of government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working class politicians, remarking that the Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet… better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party. 

Interviewed for a post-war social survey, Coventrian women often repeated a stereotype of Welsh women, as well as Scots and ‘Geordie’ women, that they were unemancipated compared with themselves. The related charge that Welsh women were ‘highly sexed’ was one which was first made in a 1942 book by an American writer, Eli Ginzberg. Statistical studies found no correlation between migrant women and rates of fertility, though there is some anecdotal evidence relating to the ‘moral’ consequences of overcrowding among immigrants in Coventry. The Employment Exchange officer, Philip Handley, gave anecdotes to the Civic Aid Society in 1937 of three recent cases in which the husband had gone on night shifts and the lodger had run away with his wife. Social Service agencies in both Oxford and Coventry were continuously sensitive to charges that migration led to greater immorality.

In Coventry, the marked tendency of Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey conducted at this time. So, too, were the continuing stereotypical ‘mirror’ attitudes towards the immigrants. Interestingly, as well as being accused of being ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves’ and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying always to get on committees and councils and to ‘run the town’, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians. By this time, however, it was very difficult to tell who the latter were anyway. In Oxford, more so than in Coventry, the paradoxes of the stereotyping led to the Welsh becoming even more ‘clannish’ in their attempts to re-establish themselves in a hostile environment; the more they relied upon familial and institutional networks as a means of mutual support and encouragement, the greater the was their contribution to the social and cultural life of the cities and the greater their integration into full citizenship. In finding their inner strengths in collective action and solidarity, they found the means to overcome a plethora of prejudice. They were able to define, develop, articulate and promote a self-image of ‘respectability’ which could counter the one of ‘rawness’ which was so often reflected on them. For example, a Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, originally founded in May 1939, became the cradle for the City of Coventry Rugby Club after the war, with many of the latter’s post-war players being nurtured by the Welsh Club. In Oxford, Cowley FC nurtured various Welsh players who went on to play for Oxford City and then West Bromwich Albion. One of them was Eddie Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family who had moved, like many other families, to Oxford from the Garw Valley. He became ‘wing half’ for ‘the Baggies’ at the age of twenty-one. J M Mogey’s post-war study of Oxford reveals that the tendency for the immigrants to be more actively involved in autonomous and collective forms of working class culture than their Oxford fellows was a major feature of the social and institutional life of the city in this era. The origins of the active leaders in the establishment of the community centre were in Scotland, Wales, or London, rather than in Oxford itself or its surrounding villages. Whilst Oxford people might continue to resent this domination by ‘foreigners’, they themselves did little to redress the imbalance. In both cities, Welsh Male Voice Choirs had been established early in the interwar period and, alongside the chapels, continued to maintain a distinctive contribution to cultural life in the post-war years. I have written more extensively about these in other articles.

Over the previous century, India had been regarded as the keystone of the British empire; the raison d’être of much of the rest of it, including Egypt, east Africa and the Transvaal, which were supposed to secure Britain’s sea-lanes to the sub-continent. With India gone the rationale for the rest of the Empire might seem to have gone: but some did not see it that way. Traumatic though it may have been, the transfer of power to India and Pakistan was not necessarily the beginning of the end, for the empire’s rationale in recent decades had changed quite considerably from what it had been in the nineteenth century, and could now accommodate what earlier might have seemed like the removal of its heart. In addition, the ‘inevitability’ of general decolonisation did not seem as inevitable then as it seems in retrospect. Of course, in 1947 the imperialists saw the ‘danger signs’, but not necessarily the death-knell of Empire.

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The Bevin Boys leaving St Pancras in 1944 for training as miners – mixed messages?

At ‘home’, patriotic pride cemented  a sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and fate. But, besides the divisions between ‘natives’, immigrants and internal, long-distance migrants, there were also profound barriers between classes. Estimates suggest that about sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class – factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. War aside, most would spend all their lives in their home cities, towns or villages, unless they were long-distance migrants from industrial Wales, Scotland, and the north and north-west of England to the Midlands and Home Counties of England. The war had softened class distinctions a little and produced the first rumblings of a coming cultural revolution, as men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds found themselves jumbled together in the services, and lower middle-class or even upper working-class officers found themselves ordering well-spoken ‘toffs’ around. The ‘Blimps’ – the older, more pompous upper-class senior officers of World War One ‘infamy’ became the butt of popular humour in the forces, a symbol of a Britain which was dying, if not already dead. On the ‘Home Front’, middle-class women worked in factories, public schoolboys went down the mines as ‘Bevin boys’ (supervised in Coventry by my collier-grandfather), and many working-class women had their first experiences of life away from the sink and the street.

With severe skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war, especially in the engineering factories in and around Coventry. The trades unions became powerful and self-confident, organising production in gangs almost independently from management. In other European countries, however, trade unions became fiercely political, but not so in Britain, where they remained more focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. This didn’t mean they were quiet, however, as many younger shop stewards had taken control from the older organisers who had crossed the line into management, especially in the newly nationalised coal industry, which came into being on 1 January 1947.

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For Labour MPs, nationalising the coal industry was what they were in parliament for, as well as sweet revenge for 1926 and all that. The job was given to one of the government’s older and more ideological members: Manny Shinwell  had been a tailor’s boy in London’s East End before moving to Glasgow and emerging as a moving force on ‘Red Clydeside’.He was a stirring speaker and veteran MP but when handed the task of nationalising coal and electricity, he found there were almost no plans or blueprint to help him, except for a single Labour pamphlet written in Welsh. Shinwell managed the job by the day, but this timing was catastrophic, since the freezing weather stopped the coal being moved and the power stations began to fail. Added to this, many mines operated under Victorian conditions by families which had owned them for decades, simply needed to be closed. In other parts of the coalfields, new mines needed to be sunk for, by 1947, Britain was producing a lot less coal than before the war. Modern cutting and winding gear was desperately needed everywhere. So was a better relationship between managers and miners to end the history of strikes and lock-outs, bred of mistrust. The miners got new contracts and a five-day week but the first major strikes spread within months of nationalisation. Over time, however, relations between the miners and the managers improved as former colliers became overseers and inspectors, and investment did occur. But the naive idea that simply taking an industry into public ownership would improve it was punctured early.  Yet there was still a broad assumption by government and workers alike that the future of industry in general would be like the past, only more so – more cars and ships, more coal, more foundries and factories.

The classes which would do better were the middle classes, a fast growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown rapidly during the war, and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State required, in addition to more professionals, hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs  administering national insurance, teaching, and running the new National Health Service, about to be born.

The problem for the old ruling classes was whether the arrival of a socialist government was a brief and unwelcome interruption, which could be st out, or whether it was the beginning of a calm but implacable revolution. The immediate post-war period with its high taxation was a final blow for many landowners. Great country houses had to be passed over to the National Trust. It was hardly a revolutionary seizure of estates, yet to some it felt that way. Tradition was being nationalised. In 1947 the magazine Country Life protested bitterly that the aristocratic families had been responsible for civilisation in Britain:

It has been one of the services of those currently termed the privileged class, to whom, with strange absence of elementary good manners, it is the fashion not to say so much as a thank you when appropriating that which they have contributed to England.

Evelyn Waugh, an arriviste rather than a proper toff, sitting in his fine house in the Gloucestershire village of Stinchcombe, considered fleeing to Ireland:

The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce increasing poverty… this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive.

A day later, however, he was having second thoughts:

What is there to worry me here in Stinchcombe? I have a beautiful house furnished exactly to my taste; servants enough, wine in the cellar. The villagers are friendly and respectful; neighbours leave me alone. I send my children to the schools I please. Apart from taxation and rationing, government interference is negligible.

Yet he smelt the reek of the Displaced Persons’ Camp in the English air, and he was not alone in this. Noel Coward said that, immediately after Labour’s 1945 victory, I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable in the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty. These fears had some substance in reality, but the changes in atmosphere had very little to do with Attlee and Bevan.The old British class system, though it still retained a feudal air, much exploited by novelists and screen-writers, depended in practice on the Empire and a global authority that Britain was about to forfeit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of grievance and abandonment which hung about the political Right in Britain for decades.

Initially, it was unclear how well the monarchy would fare in postwar Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, and there is little sign of it in their private diaries either, though there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped-down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian lines. Difficult negotiations took place over the amounts of money provided by cash-strapped taxpayers. Yet the Windsors triumphed again, with an exuberant display which cheered up many of their tired, drab subjects. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was planned as a public spectacle.   Royal weddings had not been so well organised in the past, and this was an explosion of colour and pageantry in a Britain that had seen little of either for ten years, a nostalgic return to luxury: Presents ranging from racehorses were publicly displayed, grand cakes made and a wedding dress of ivory clinging silk by Norman Hartnell.

There had been interesting arguments before the wedding about patriotism and Philip’s essential Britishness. The nephew of Lord Mountbatten was sold to the public as thoroughly English by upbringing despite his being an exiled Greek prince, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and having many German relatives. In the event, Philip’s three surviving sisters were not invited to the wedding, all of them being married to Germans. The wedding was a radio event, still, rather than a television one, though the newsreel film of it packed out cinemas throughout the world, including in devastated Berlin. In lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out the message that despite everything Britain was back. The wedding reminded the club of European royalty how few of them had survived as rulers into the postwar world. Dusty uniforms and slightly dirty tiaras worn by exiles were much in evidence: the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret remarked that people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.

(to be continued)

The Twin Crises of 1956: Suez and Hungary; part eight.   1 comment

15-30 November:

Turning the World Upside Down

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956 – Suez & Hungary – part seven   1 comment

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5-14 November: Repression, Resistance and Refuge.

By Monday 5th November, the rising had been all but crushed by the sudden invasion and occupation of the country and its capital, but it took several months for the new régime under János Kádár to re-impose the hard-line centralised control the Soviets wanted. For the first week of this, bitter and intense fighting scarred the streets of Budapest. The 200,000-strong Soviet forces easily disarmed most of the Hungarian military. The Molotov cocktail was the street fighters’ only effective weapon against tanks. Nearly seven hundred Soviet soldiers and officers were killed and over 1,500 were wounded. George Mikes, a Hungarian exile in London, reporting for the BBC, joined the street fighters:

We have almost no weapons. People are running up to the tanks, throwing in hand-grenades and closing the windows. The Hungarian people are not afraid of death. We have just heard a rumour that American troops will get here within an hour or two.

Desperate radio appeals continued to be broadcast intermittently from ‘pirate’ radio stations:

Civilised peoples of the world! Our ship is sinking. Light is fading. The shadows grow darker over the soil of Hungary. Extend us your aid.

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But no aid came, only expressions of sympathy. US officials met several times to consider their response. President Eisenhower sent a message to Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, urging the withdrawal of Soviet troops and stating that the Soviet Union should  allow the Hungarian people to enjoy the right to a government of their choice. Bulganin replied that the situation was not a matter which should concern the USA. The US restricted American travel to Hungary, and Radio Free Europe continued to broadcast appeals to the Soviet troops. Despite the appeals for American intervention, US action was primarily limited to speeches, pressure for UN action, public diplomacy (through the issue of a ‘White Book’), radio appeals and distribution of newsreels of the the bloodshed. Aside from their preoccupation with the Suez Crisis and the elections, US officials were unwilling to give up even the small improvements in superpower relations that had occurred since the death of Stalin by pressing the Soviet leadership too hard. Part of the US reaction to the crisis was designed to play down the role it had played in inciting the rebellion, so it looked less like it had abandoned it.

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Tom Leimdorfer recalls the fear and terror engendered by the occupation of Budapest by the Soviet tanks on the third day, 6 November:

On Tuesday there was an eerie quiet on the street outside. Then the shop opened and a few people went down to get bread. I said to Mami that I would get some too and ran down to join the queue. A couple of minutes later a Soviet tank turned into the street from Kossuth Square (outside the Parliament), its turret pointing straight towards us. It then raised the turret and fired a shell right above our heads at the building behind us. I rushed inside as fast as my legs could carry me to meet Mami rushing down the stairs towards me, embracing me. This was enough for her. After a phone call to Gyuri Schustek, we packed a couple of suitcases and waited till all was quiet at dusk. Then we went downstairs and surveyed the road anxiously from the Parliament Square end to Margit (Margaret) Bridge, walked slowly towards the bridge, rushed across the main boulevard and then kept close to the walls of houses till we got to the safety of our friends’ flat in Szent István (Saint Stephen) Park. There we stayed till the 7th  December, the day before we took the train to the border. 

On the following day, 7th, János Kádár entered Budapest in a Soviet armoured car with an entourage of tanks. Meanwhile, Tom and his mother settled into their new abode, which was to provide them with relative safety for the next month:

The Schustek family’s flat on the top floor of a tenement in Szent István Park was a relative haven of calm. It was only one kilometer away from our home and the shelling could be clearly heard, but it was as safe as anywhere in Budapest. It was tucked away from the main road leading to the bridge and the boulevard, in the corner of the five storey tenements bordering a small square leading to the bank of the Danube. No tanks would go down there, no freedom fighters. The flat was on the top floor; a dangerous location in places where the fighting was intense.

Our friends welcomed us with open arms and immediately re-arranged the flat to make us comfortable. Six of us lived there for the next five weeks: Gyuri Schustek, his two children Ferkó and Marika, their grandmother Sári, my mother and I. Ferkó was 16 at the time, two years older than me, and we shared a room, which was also the main living room. Marika was three months short of her twelfth birthday and she slept in the small room with her grandmother, but spent the day with Ferkó and me. Mami went to share the main bedroom with Gyuri bácsi and somehow it seemed just natural. Their room opened to the large balcony which looked across the park and the Danube to the central section of Margaret Island (Margitsziget).

We were all totally traumatised for the first few days. Fresh from the euphoria of what briefly seemed like a victorious revolution, we knew the country was facing the horrors of repression and dictatorship again. We were desperate for news. The state radio station soon reverted to the old propaganda phrases, referring to a ‘counter-revolution’ instigated by fascist elements. What first confused us, was that the newly proclaimed head of the government was János Kádár, who few days before had been a loyal member of the revolutionary government formed by Imre Nagy. He had also been a victim of Rákosi’s worst years as a dictator, spending years in prison. We could not make out how he could have betrayed Nagy and the country by forming a new government backed by a brutal Soviet invasion… There were news and rumours of summary executions of some revolutionary leaders.

We could hear sound of shelling for some days, distant sound of gunfire on the Buda side for a few days more. As these died out, an eerie calm descended on the city. No traffic, no buses or trams, few people venturing out anywhere. We heard from the Hungarian service of the BBC that there was a general strike. The state radio was urging people to return to work, but this was largely ignored. The phones were working and friends and family were pleased to know that we were safe. We heard that my grandparents had to evacuate their flat in a hurry when freedom fighters placed themselves on the roof of their block. Soon after, a shell demolished the top floor and they found refuge with their daughter’s (my aunt Juci’s) family, who lived in a quiet street. My second cousins Kati, Marika and their parents lived near the Buda Castle where there had been intense fighting, but they were alright. Nobody knew what the future would bring.

As fighting between the Soviet troops and the Hungarian resistance continued, President Eisenhower announced that the United States would take up to nine thousand refugees. On 9 November, the UN General Assembly, which had continued to meet in special session since the 4th, adopted an additional series of resolutions on the situation in Hungary. The first, sponsored by Cuba, Ireland, Italy, Pakistan and Peru, called for the Soviet withdrawal from the country, for free elections there and a UN investigation of the situation. The second, sponsored by the United States, focused on the short-term needs of the Hungarians, including the refugees. It called on the Soviet and Hungarian authorities to cooperate with agencies providing humanitarian aid, and requested that the Secretary-General direct the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to consult with governments and international agencies on emergency aid. On 10 November, the General Assembly agreed to place the Hungarian question on the agenda of its eleventh regular session. The US provided a million dollars to the UNHCR.

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Nevertheless, news of the Suez Crisis, coinciding with American elections, helped bring home the hopelessness of Hungary’s situation to the citizens of Budapest. The West continued to be preoccupied; Hungary did not matter so much. Moreover, Britain and France had given the Soviets the perfect excuse for re-occupying the country in order to ensure that it stayed within the Soviet sphere of influence. Eventually, UN peacekeepers arrived in Suez, but no UN peacekeepers came to the streets of Budapest. The city became one vast prison camp in which the internees spent long hours listening to the radio and playing cards:

In order to get relief from the news, or often the lack of it, we started to play endless card games. Ferkó and I played a good deal of chess too, but most of the time we had family games of rummy or canasta. The latter was a favourite of Sári néni and she taught it to us with all the patience of a grandmother.  Even young Marika soon played her own hand, but then she was a very bright and lively eleven year old. Mami and Gyuri bácsi went about getting us food from the shops when they opened and making contact with their friends and colleagues to try to gauge what was really happening. Although the mood was often sombre, we did notice that they also started to joke and smile more. It was partly to lift our spirits, but something else was happening too. They were finding happiness in each other’s arms at this time of crisis.

Of course, the two families were always close. My father and Gyuri were students together, the two couples kept going out together while courting, they got married within weeks of each other (both going to Venice for honeymoon) in 1938. Gyuri and Lonci lived in Romania (Transylvania) during the early years of the war and Ferkó was born there, but Marika was born in Budapest after the war. Then Gyuri was in prison for eighteen months during the dark years of communism and soon after he was released, his wife Lonci (Ilona) néni died of cancer in 1954. So there we were, two war torn, residual families sheltering from the latest storm and gradually beginning to feel like one family.

When the curfew was lifted and eventually we ventured out, we saw a drab eerie almost dead city. People walking the streets kept eyes down, did not look at each other. The contrast with the euphoria of those few days of apparent freedom could not have been be greater. There were wrecked vehicles, bombed out buildings everywhere. Many workers (including the steel works of ‘Red’ Csepel) were still on strike in spite of government instructions of return to work.

 

Fighting continued until around 12th November in Budapest. On 4 November, a delegation from the district’s Revolutionary Committee had made an unusual agreement with the invading Soviet forces whereby the Committee and the National Guard would be responsible for maintaining order. The agreement held for three days, during which time the Soviets didn’t advance into the district. On the 8th, however, the Soviets took control after heavy fighting. But although the insurgents had lost control of the streets, the factories were still in the hands of workers’ councils. In addition, the Revolutionary  Committee continued to exist, and on 12th November there was a meeting between some of its members and the re-emerging Stalinist district authority apparatus, at which the conditions for resuming normal life were discussed. The uneasy ‘partnership’ did not last long, however, as on the same day the Committee members were arrested. Two years later, their leader, Pál Kósa, and six others were condemned to death and executed.

Armed resistance in Hungary outside Budapest ended on the 14th when Soviet forces recaptured Csepel Island. Also on that day, The Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest was formed at the United Electric Factory in the Újpest district of Budapest.  It was founded as a body which aimed to represent all the workers’ councils across the city. This endeavour reveals that, for a time, not only was there continued nonviolent resistance in the form of the ‘general strike’, but also that a state of dual power continued to exist for some time after the Soviet reoccupation of the city. The meeting called to set up the Council could not, however, take place at the Town Hall as planned, due to the arrest of the members of the Újpest Revolutionary Committee, which had continued to meet there. The Town Hall was surrounded by Soviet tanks when the workers’ delegates arrived, so it had to be transferred to  United Electric, where it took place on 14 November. It decided to set up a Council and to send a delegation to negotiate with Kádár, though it withheld formal recognition of his legitimacy and that of his government.

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Sándor Bali, a tool fitter and thirteenth child of a peasant family, became a leading figure in the discussions. He had had six years of schooling before working in a Telecommunications factory after the war, becoming Chairman of its Trade Union Committee. Since the end of October he had chaired the XIth District Workers’ Council. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1946. At the meeting, Bali argued that, while not accepting the legitimacy of the Kádár government in principle, they must build an organisation, backed by the general strike, capable of confronting Kádár’s government. This plan was backed by the other delegates, and so a Central Workers’ Council was established. The main aim was to make the factories truly collective, under workers’ control. It sent negotiators to talk with Kádár, but abandoned the idea of continuing the strike, which had, in effect, been general and continuing since 4 November. Bali argued that, in order to consolidate the factory councils, the workers needed to return to the shop floors. The founding resolution of the Council proclaimed:

We declare our firm commitment to the principles of socialism. We consider the means of production to be social property and we are ready at any time to fight to defend them.

The delegates also demanded the reinstatement of Imre Nagy as Premier; that the newly formed security services should be recruited from young revolutionaries and members of the army and police, rather than from ÁVH members; that detained freedom fighters be released; that Soviet troops be withdrawn from the country as soon as possible; that all political parties withdraw from the factories and that those arrested over the past ten days would be released.

Kádár’s response over several issues was conciliatory, though he was intransigent about the continuation of the work stoppage. Bali and the other members of the envisaged three sorts of workers’ organisations: councils, controlling the country’s economic life, trade unions defending workers’ interests; and political parties, which would be socialist. Bali commented:

We don’t want to commit the same mistake as the Party made in the past, when it was at one and the same time master of the country and of the factories, and the only organisation representing the interests of the workers. If we make the same mistake then we’ll be back where we started.

Of course, if the Council attempted to seize power from the Kádár government and the Soviet forces behind it, it could quickly find itself in serious conflict, but it did not call for ‘all power to the workers’ councils’, echoing the call in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. However, neither Kádár nor the Soviet officials attempted to destroy the Council, nor the factory councils in the way they had the Revolutionary Committee of the street fighters. From 15 November onwards the Central Workers’ Council had regular contact both with the Soviet officials on the ground and negotiated with the Kádár government in parliament. It moved from United Electric in Újpest to the city-centre building of the the Municipal Tramway Authority.

The hope of the Workers’ Council leaders was that the strength of the workers’ councils in the factories would be enough to get certain demands accepted. In the end that turned out to be an illusion, but at the start there appeared to be positive signs. One was the fact that Kádár was willing to negotiate, or at least discuss matters, with the KMT (Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council). He appeared to be prepared to consider any and all of the Council’s demands, and an upbeat report of the first meeting appeared in Népszabadság the following day, 15 November, though the bulk of the article was given over to Kádár’s views, with little or no attention paid to those of the delegates. The sticking point was the continuation of the work stoppage, which Kádár insisted must stop before progress could be made on the other issues. It was clearly the top priority of the government to get the workers back to work. For the workers themselves, the ‘strike’ represented a dilemma since it was seriously harming the economy which they were in favour of keeping it in public hands, albeit under a more democratic form of socialism. It was therefore in danger of destroying what they called ‘the public good’. Workers ‘on strike’ could still pick up their wages at the factories, a paradoxical situation which could clearly not continue. There was also a belief that if they could demonstrate that normal production was resuming, the government and the Soviets would be less inclined to resist certain demands.

By 14 November, the fighting was over. The picture below was taken towards the end of the Battle for Budapest. It shows the ruined streets near to the Kilián barracks, and the remains of a tank, just before the rising was finally crushed.

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Time Magazine reported:

The steel-shod Russian jackboot heeled down on Hungary this week, stamping and grinding out the young democracy.

Approximately 2,500 Hungarians had been killed in the conflict in Budapest, with a further nineteen thousand wounded, and at least three thousand had been killed across the country as a whole. On the 15th, the Austrian Government was reporting that, already, more than twenty-five thousand refugees had entered Austria in the course of the previous week, and asked for help in relocating these people to third countries, as well as for financial and practical assistance.

By this time, as the historian László Kontler has recently written, János Kádár had become the most hated man in Hungary. His betrayal might well have been grounded upon a realistic appraisal of the international situation and the options they held for Hungary, deciding to intervene in order to spare it from still worse to come. Yet no-one, not even the members of the Workers’ Council, saw this as a legitimate argument at the time, though they recognised his authority de facto in order to negotiate with him. Otherwise, the new government was completely isolated in a hostile country conquered by foreign arms. Although the pockets of armed resistance had been mopped up by 10-11 November, the workers’ councils started to make an impact only after 4 November, and their success in organising in the capital was swiftly followed by an attempt to set up a nationwide network. Added to this, the intellectuals completely rejected the Kádár government, angrily demanding the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and representative government. The Pope, acting on the initiative of Cardinal Mindszenty, who had taken refuge in the American embassy, forbade the clergy to have any contact with the puppet government. After all, the true government, in the form of Imre Nagy and some of his ministers, was still taking refuge in the Yugoslav embassy, while mass arrests and deportations to the Soviet Union were well underway.

(to be continued…)

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The Twin Crises of 1956: Suez & Hungary, part six   1 comment

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Invasion & Miserable Isolation: 2-4 November

By Friday 2 November, Hungary’s five days of freedom, from 28 October to 1 November were effectively over. All Saints’ Day was followed by All Souls’ Day, the Day of the Dead, a day for visiting the graves of departed relatives. The streets in Budapest and elsewhere in the country became appropriately more calm and more sombre, but not just in remembrance of the dead, but also out of fear for the living. Despite the ominous signs of a Soviet return, however, the positive atmosphere of ‘victory’ continued in the capital and negotiations were underway for a return to work and a resumption of services on the following Monday, 5 November. Continuing to hope for the best, on 2 November, Imre Nagy began to construct a new government including three Smallholder, three Social Democratic, two National Peasant and two Communist Party ministers. It resembled the results of the last free election of November 1945. Maléter was named Minister of Defence and János Kádár was also included. By the 3rd, there was an open nationalist rebellion within the newly formed HSWP.  The following radio announcement about the Cabinet ‘reshuffle’ was also made on 3 November:

The composition of the National Government is as follows: Imre Nagy – President of the Council of Ministers and Minister of Foreign Affairs… János Kádár – Minister of State.

There may have been some significance in Nagy taking over the Foreign Ministry from Kádár, but the latter was still in a very powerful position both in internal and external affairs. There was no indication at that time that he had already sided with the Soviet invaders, yet by that same evening he was already assembling his own Temporary Revolutionary Government of Hungary on Soviet soil just across the Hungarian border with Ukraine. Nagy also made a further complaint to the UN about more Russian tanks entering Hungary.

Having informed other members of the Warsaw Pact of the impending invasion in Brest the previous day, on 2 November Khrushchev entered into negotiations with Tito to secure Yugoslavia’s support in crushing the revolution. In the changing atmosphere of these days, the Soviet Ambassador in Budapest, Yuri Andropov, obviously more aware of the scale of the invasion being planned by Khrushchev, briefly thought that there might be a siege of his embassy. Béla Király, Military Commander of Budapest, wrote (in 1989) of how he received a phone call from Imre Nagy saying that Andropov had called him with the news that a mob was besieging the embassy. Nagy pressed Király to deal with the matter urgently, so the latter organised a group of armed civilians and another one of Hungarian army personnel to go with him. He gave them a briefing about the importance of maintaining diplomatic immunity, pointing out that the Soviets should not be given any excuse to bring their troops back to Budapest. Arriving at the building, Király found no sign of any attacking mob. Andropov made up an improbable story about old ladies seeking accommodation because their flats had been burnt out, but quickly turned the conversation towards the proposed negotiations with the Soviets over their withdrawal of troops. Béla Király suspected that there was some kind of psychological ploy involved in what was, in any case, one of the more bizarre events of these autumn days.

While the talks between Khrushchev and Tito were ongoing, in New York, the Yugoslav Representative to the UN Security Council was sitting between the Hungarian and US Representatives at its meeting on the 2 November to consider the critical situation in Hungary. The US Representative, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, stressed American sympathy for Hungarian independence, dating back to 1848. The next day, he introduced a draft resolution calling on the Soviet Union to desist from any form of intervention, particularly armed intervention, in the internal affairs of Hungary. President Eisenhower announced that the United States would supply Hungary with twenty million dollars worth of emergency food and medical aid through the Red Cross. The Security Council decided to postpone further discussion of the Hungarian Crisis in order to focus on the Suez Crisis.

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On 3 November in Hungary, although reports continued to arrive about the deployment of Soviet troops around the capital, official negotiations began in Parliament about the withdrawal from Hungary of all Soviet forces. They began at mid-day. The Hungarian negotiators, Defence Minister Pál Maléter, Minister of State Ferenc Erdei, and Chief of the General Staff István Kovács awaited their Soviet counterparts, who, according to Tibor Méray, were given full military honours:

The brilliantly bedecked officers, headed by General Malinin who wore a green uniform, his breast covered with decorations, climbed the steps on a thick red carpet.

The talks seemed to be going well. Apart from matters of the transport and provisioning of their withdrawing forces, the Soviet delegation was mainly concerned about ‘technical’ issues such as the repair of Soviet war memorials damaged during the uprising, the future protection of Soviet war graves in Hungary and the type of ceremony to mark the final evacuation of Soviet troops from the country. The Hungarians had no particular objections to any of the proposals. When the session was adjourned, it was agreed that the discussions would continue that night at the Soviet air base at Tököl, on Csepel Island, to the south of the city. A Hungarian convoy arrived just before the agreed time of 10 p.m., with Pál Maléter, Erdei and Kovács, and a fourth member of the team, Colonel Miklós Szücs, Head of Military Operations. They were led to a room where they found only the Soviet interpreter. General Malinin then arrived and sat down in a frosty manner. Hardly had Maléter begun to speak when he was interrupted by Malinin, who said that he hadn’t been able to establish contact with the Soviet government. At that point, the head of the KGB, Ivan Serov, entered the room with several others, pointing pistols at the Hungarians, who were then disarmed and escorted into separate military detention rooms.

Kovács was visited by László Piros, the former interior minister, who had been brought there in anticipation of a Soviet attack and the installation of a new government under János Kádar. Piros informed him of this and told him that he should give orders to the Hungarian Army not to resist the Soviet troops. Kovács refused to give a direct order under duress, but wrote a letter calling for the avoidance of bloodshed between the two armies. The following morning the prisoners were being returned to Budapest, accompanied by Soviet and ÁVH officers, when they were fired upon by Hungarian soldiers and National Guard civilians, killing seven Soviets and four ÁVH men. The Hungarian Army was acting on Maléter’s own orders, given on 1 November. After being returned to the air base near Tököl, the Hungarian negotiators were flown by helicopter to the Soviet base at Mátyásföld, to the east of Pest. From there, they were transferred to a prison in Buda.

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The other major events in Hungary on that day related to Cardinal Mindszenty, who had returned to his Buda residence three days earlier after being released from house arrest. He had issued a short statement on 1 November, lending his support to the struggle for freedom which was unparalleled in world history. On 3 November, he addressed a press conference in the morning in which he withheld his support for the Nagy government until a Christian Democratic Party had been formed and given a voice in the cabinet. Afterwards, in the Kádár era, this was interpreted as clear evidence of Mindszenty’s counter-revolutionary stance. Then he made a live speech on the radio at 8 p.m. in which he called for a revaluation of old-fashioned nationalism. The speech undoubtedly unnerved some members of the Nagy government. What bothered them was the references to the government as the successors to a fallen régime. They suspected that Mindszenty wanted to see their government, or at least the reform communists in it,  fall as well.

On the night of 3 November, while the UN Security Council was in session, a Soviet Army of fifteen divisions and sixty thousand troops, with more than four thousand tanks, was massing along the USSR/ Hungary border. During the night they entered Hungary, surrounded the capital and sealed the country’s borders. An advanced division entered Budapest and occupied the Parliament building.  At dawn the following morning, 4 November, over a thousand Russian tanks entered the city. Shooting began immediately. Tom Leimdorfer takes up the story from the civilian point of view:

In the early hours of Sunday, 4th November, we woke to sounds of explosions and heard the rumbling of tanks. We turned on the radio just in time to hear the unforgettable broadcast words of Imre Nagy:

‘Today at daybreak Soviet forces started an attack against our capital, obviously with the intention to overthrow the legal Hungarian democratic government. Our troops are fighting. The government is in its place. I notify the people of our country and the entire world of this fact.’

Nagy vowed not to surrender, but soon took refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy, where he was to stay for over two weeks. Early the same morning, the new cabinet member István Bibó visited the US Legation with a message asking President Eisenhower to call on the Soviet Union to withdraw, noting the American Liberation Policy which was pursued with so much firmness and wisdom.  Two hours after Nagy’s statement, Radio Budapest broadcast an SOS signal, “Help Hungary! Help! Help!” and then went off the air. Many Hungarians, buoyed up by the promises of Radio Free Europe, were still certain that the West would come to their aid, and Tom recalls listening to the plaintiff voices of intellectuals before the radio building was captured:

This was followed over the next three hours by pleas for help from the West from organisations of writers, academics. Then the radio went dead, then some music was broadcast.

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But no support was forthcoming, except in the form of a strong protest from the White House to the Kremlin. Cardinal Mindszenty and his secretary left Parliament and arrived at the US Legation, which granted them refuge, though the secretary later left and was captured by Hungarian security forces. The Cardinal also asked for American assistance in defence of Hungary. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles were deeply concerned but, distracted by the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression against Egypt and the approaching climax of the national elections, they did nothing except loudly condemn the Soviet action in the final speeches of the campaign. Despite Soviet claims that the West was behind the rising, in reality the Western powers had clearly been caught by surprise by the sequence of events. Britain and France were preoccupied, and the US the stakes of intervention were too high. The National Security Council concluded that there could be no American military or political intervention in the affairs of Soviet satellites, no ventures behind the Iron Curtain. As with Poland, Eisenhower and Dulles realised that they could not risk a nuclear war over the fate of an East European nation. As the citizens of Budapest, like Tom and his mother, crouched in their cellars once more, they most were realistic about their future:    

The shelling came closer. When one shell exploded nearby, we all rushed out of flats and down the stairs to the cellars below our block. Indomitable as ever, Mami was telling me what it was like 12 years before when she was sheltering with me (aged two) during the siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944/45. We listened to the roar of tanks going past the block, presumably towards the Parliament. Everyone was sombre. We all knew this was the end of the revolution. Some talked of help from the West, but most knew it was impossible. The West was busy with Suez and certainly nobody wanted a nuclear war.

The United States, in practice, could not embark on ‘rollback’ and would have to settle for continued ‘containment’. The Hungarian people were abandoned in their hour of need, and left to defend themselves. The Soviet forces met little resistance from the Hungarian Army units, but considerable resistance from armed civilian groups, which was to continue for several days. Most foreign journalists abandoned the Duna Hotel and sought refuge in various embassies before leaving the country. Tom Leimdorfer expresses how isolated and alienated everyone felt:

When the shelling died down, we crept up to our flats again. No lights were switched on, we tried to get a makeshift meal in the dark and stay away from the window.  We spent the next day in miserable isolation, trying to get some news over the phone, rushing down to the cellar again for a brief period when we heard tank shells nearby.

Determined this time to avoid any risk of fraternization with the rebels, the Soviets sent in tanks rather than infantry against the Hungarians, and staffed them with crews from the non-Russian-speaking republics. The Kremlin also realised that they had picked the wrong man in Imre Nagy. Soviet ambassador  Andropov had switched his support to János Kádár as the leader who would restore authority and guarantee loyalty to the cause of international communism. As Nagy went into hiding with some of his supporters in the Yugoslav Embassy, Kádár reappeared inside Soviet-occupied Hungary, announcing on the radio, from Szolnok, the formation of a new government led by him :

… Exploiting mistakes committed during the building of our people’s democratic system, the reactionary elements have misled many honest workers, and in particular the major part of our youth, which joined the movement out of honest and patriotic intentions…

The Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government, acting in the interest of our people, working-class and country, requested the Soviet Army Command to help our nation smash the sinister forces of reaction and restore order and calm in the country…

Returning to Budapest in a Soviet armoured car, Kádár welcomed the Soviet troops; the new government could use their support in fighting the counter-revolutionary threat. He also promised economic and social reforms, as well as new agreements with the other Eastern bloc nations. 

Ambassador Lodge announced news of the invasion at the UN General Assembly, after a session of a session of the Security Council which began at 3 a.m. (US Eastern time). He asked the Security Council to pass the resolution that the United States had introduced the previous day. Although nine nations supported it, the USSR used its veto. The Security Council then called for an emergency session under the 1950 Uniting for Peace Resolution, which allowed the General Assembly to meet to consider issues when the Security Council was unable to maintain international security and peace. The GA met in a special session from 4 November, when it approved a resolution, submitted by the US, which called on the USSR to end military operations in Hungary and to withdraw its forces. The resolution also called on the Secretary-General to investigate the situation and to send observers to Hungary. Member states were asked to send relief supplies. After consulting with the Department of State, Minister Edward Wailes, appointed as Ambassador to Hungary in July, had finally arrived in Budapest on 2 November. He remained at the Legation but, at Washington’s direction, refused to present his credentials to the Kádár government as a protest against the arrest of Hungarian citizens who had visited the Legation on these days. The New York Times accused the Soviet Union of the foulest treachery and basest deceit known to man, and claimed that the invasion of Budapest was a monstrous crime against the Hungarian people that can never be forgiven or forgotten. 

004(to be continued…)

The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956: Suez & Hungary, part five   Leave a comment

‘About Turn’ to Turning Point:

31st October – 1st November

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For five days between 28th and 1st November a sense of normality began to return to Hungary. Following the ‘About Turn’ of the ceasefire and the Soviet withdrawal, The new Hungarian government introduced democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Cardinal Mindszenty, the leader of the Catholic Church was freed and returned to Buda on 31st. Pravda published the statement approved by the Kremlin the previous day implying respect for the independence and sovereignty of Hungary. This, however, was reversed the same day. After announcing a willingness to withdraw its forces completely from Hungarian territory, the Soviet Union changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. The withdrawal of Soviet forces was all but completed on 31st, but almost immediately reports arrived of incursions by new forces across the eastern borders.

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Above: British paratroopers in the Suez Canal Zone, October 1956. The Anglo-French-Israeli invasion divided the West at a critical moment of the Hungarian Uprising.

The turning point for the Soviets came on 31st October with the news that British and French forces had attacked Egypt. The Israelis, in league with the British and French had launched an invasion of Egypt across the Sinai desert, which had been nationalised by General Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President earlier in the year. The Suez crisis proved a disastrous venture for the prestige of Britain and France in the Middle East. The military intervention was universally denounced, seen as the dying act of the imperialist powers. The US government was furious; it had not been consulted on the military operation and was opposed to it. With the presidential elections only a week away, Washington was now presented with two international crises simultaneously. This was, potentially, an even more disastrous situation for Hungary. Tom Leimdorfer remembers the flurry of worried phone conversations:

Everyone agreed that this was the worst possible news. The UN and the West would be preoccupied with Suez and leave Hungary to its fate. Still it seemed that the streets which were not the scenes of the worst battles were returning to some semblance of normality. Some trams and buses started to run, the railways were running, many people walked or cycled to their places of work, but still no school of course. There were food shortages, but some lorry loads arrived from the provinces and shops sold what they could. Over the next two days life started to have a faint semblance of normality. At the same time there were daily political bulletins with mixed news. The most sinister of these were reports of increasing Soviet troop movements.

The Suez affair did indeed distract attention from events in Hungary, just as they entered their most critical phase, with Nagy having restored order and set to consolidate the revolutionary gains of the previous eight days. It split the western camp and offered Moscow, with all eyes temporarily on Suez, a perfect cover for moving back into Budapest. At first, however, it had the opposite effect, delaying Moscow’s intervention in Hungary, for Khrushchev himself did not want to be compared to the “imperialist aggressors” in Egypt. After all, he had withdrawn Soviet troops from Poland when confronted by Gomulka; perhaps now he would rely on the Hungarian Prime Minister to keep Hungary in line.

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Meanwhile, the US found itself in an extraordinarily difficult  position, as Alex von Tunzelmann has recently reiterated in her book, Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis that Shook the World:

… they were trapped between a lot of competing alliances. Britain and France had lied to them, and were continuing to lie, when it was perfectly obvious what was going on. It was also complicated because, although the US and Israel didn’t have quite as solid a relationship as they do now, it was still a pretty solid relationship.

It had therefore been widely expected in Britain, France and Israel that the US would not go against Israel in public, but in fact they did – extremely strongly. This was all happening in the week leading up to Dwight D Eisenhower’s second presidential election, too, and it was assumed that he wouldn’t stamp down on Israel because he would lose the election if he lost Jewish votes in the US. But actually Eisenhower was very clear that he didn’t mind about losing the election, he just wanted to do the right thing.

Back in Budapest, on 1 November, Nagy still felt the initiative was with him. He protested about the Soviet troop movements, declared Hungary’s neutrality, repudiated the Warsaw Pact, and cabled Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to ask that the question of Hungarian neutrality be put on the agenda of the General Assembly. This had no immediate result. The US had already gone against Britain and France at the UN, so the western alliance was under real danger of breaking up, just at the time when Hungary needed it to hold firm against Soviet aggression. The British and French had already been dubbed the obvious aggressors in Egypt, so any case against the Soviets would inevitably look weak and hypocritical. Besides, despite Nagy’s continued reassurances to the Soviet leadership stressing the desire for harmonious relations with the Soviet Union, the Hungarian government was seen to be going much further than the Poles had dared in their revolt: it effectively confronted the Soviets with an ultimatum to withdraw completely from Hungary, as it had from Austria the year before, so that the country would no longer be regarded as falling under its ‘sphere of influence’. To make matters more difficult for Khrushchev, Deng Xiaoping was visiting Moscow at the time as an official delegate of the Chinese Communist Party. He told Khrushchev that the Hungarian rebels were not only anti-Soviet but anti-Communist, and should not be tolerated. Under this competitive pressure, the politburo members urged a change of strategy on Khrushchev.

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Were the freedom fighters anti-Communist? In the early hours of 31 October, yet another, broader body, the Revolutionary Council of National Defence was formed at the defence ministry.  The Köztársaság Square lynchings of the AVH men had taken place on 30 October, and Imre Nagy clearly needed to assert the government’s control over the street-fighters. General Béla Király, aged forty-four, was elected to the Council and designated Military Commander of Budapest, taking over the organisation of a National Guard from the Budapest police chief, Colonel Sándor Kopácsi. His appointment was initially opposed by Gyula Varadi, who had been one of the judges who had passed a death sentence on Király in 1952, when he had been ‘found guilty’ of spying for the Americans, a charge which he continued to vehemently deny to Varadi’s face. Király’s task was to integrate and thereby gain control over the street-level civilian armed fighters.  The first formal, full meeting of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Committee, or new National Guard, took place on the 31 October at the Kilián Barracks, although its operations were based at Deák Square in the city centre. By all accounts, the meeting was a stormy one. Király later wrote that:

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Above all, the freedom fighters were highly suspicious of anyone whom they did not know personally or who had not fought on their side. They feared having the fruits of victory snatched from them by political machinations… The freedom fighters were easy prey to rumours of saboteurs in hiding, Stalinist counter-revolutionary activity, and so forth… (they) didn’t consider the Ministry of Defence entirely trustworthy… they weren’t prepared to put the strategic and military leadership of the freedom-fighting forces into the hands of the Defence Ministry.

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Pál Maleter, famous for his role at the Kilián barracks the week before, was also made Deputy Defence Minister on 31 October, but at the meeting at the barracks that day, some of the rebel leaders had serious criticisms and doubts about both him and Béla Király. On 1 November, Gergely Pongrátz, leader of the ‘Corvin Passage’ group of freedom fighters emerged from the Corvin Cinema building, where mass had been celebrated, to find units of the Hungarian Army taking away the destroyed Soviet tanks, armoured vehicles and other equipment  which the insurgents had been using as barricades. Surprised and angry, he gave the order for this to stop. Around midday Király phoned him, asking why Pongrátz had countermanded his orders, justifying them by arguing that the Soviets would not finally withdraw from the country unless they could take all of their military equipment with them, including that which had been damaged or destroyed. He ordered Pongrátz to permit their removal, but Pongrátz answered that, in view of the reports which were reaching him that the Soviets were re-entering rather than leaving the country, the barricades would have to stay. Apparently, he told Király:

I am not prepared to accept any order from anyone which endangers the success of the revolution in any way.

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Of course, the propagandists and ‘historians’ of the post-’56 Kádár era were at pains to smear the “Corvin gang” as consisting of “riff-raff” and “criminals and prostitutes” who were “under the leadership of Horthyite officers and fascists”. However, Béla Király, himself becoming a noted historian in the USA, continued to assert that the Hungarian Uprising was “not an anti-Communist revolution” well into the current century (he died in 2009, aged 97). As he pointed out in an exchange with an American magazine in 1983,

Imre Nagy was a Communist. Imre Nagy remained a member of the Central Committee of the ‘renewed’ Communist Party (HSWP). They were fighting against ‘men of blood’, against the secret police – but not against the Communist Party. It was for democracy, yes. It was against totalitarianism, yes. 

Nevertheless, there were still elements outside the control of the central government. József Dudás, a freelance revolutionary, formed a private army on 1 November. He had risen to prominence late in the revolution, when he had addressed a crowd of several hundred in Széna Square on 28 October. The following day, Dudás and his supporters took over the Szabad Nép (Free People) newspaper building, headquarters of the main public mouthpiece of the ruling party, the ‘central paper of the Hungarian Workers’ Party’, as it proclaimed on its masthead. The freedom fighters gave themselves the title of Hungarian National Revolutionary Committee and started to issue their own paper, Fuggetlenség (Independence) from the 30th. The party journalists were not, however, prevented from producing its paper, the newly-named Népszabadság (People’s Freedom), from 1 November onwards, another clear sign that the HNRC did not regard itself as anti-Communist.

What disturbed many people was that the first editions of Fuggetlenség carried headlines indicating that there should be no acceptance or recognition of the Nagy coalition government. This came on 30th, two days after the turnaround, when fighting had all but ceased throughout the city and when many people were hopeful that the government had started on a new course.  Despite these differences, splits and tensions, the documentary sources also reveal that the Communist Party leadership remained solid in its support for the revolution. On the 31st, the previously ruling Hungarian Workers’ Party was dissolved and the formation of a new party, The Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party was announced. At the same time, other political parties from the 1945-1946 era were revived, and free trade unions began to be formed.

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Early in the morning on 1 November, the Soviet retrenchment began with the surrounding of Ferihegy airport and other airfields in the country. This came even before Nagy’s declaration of Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and the declaration of neutrality. What soured the general optimism still further was that not only were the Soviet troops not leaving the country, but that more were actually entering the country and heading for Budapest. At first the government wanted to prevent this information from leaking out, presumably to avoid creating panic and to leave time for diplomatic contacts. The Soviet explanation, when it came, was rather strange. Yuri Andropov, Moscow’s Ambassador in Budapest, maintained that whatever Soviet troop movements were taking place in Hungary were to assist in the overall withdrawal of Soviet forces. Andropov was called to Parliament in the late afternoon to receive the news of the country’s new status of neutrality. It was on this occasion that János Kádár, as Foreign Minister, joined Nagy in severely criticising the Soviet troop manoeuvres, threatening Yuri Andropov, that, if they resorted to any further use of arms, he would fight the Russian tanks with his ‘bare hands’ if necessary. The same day, the radio broadcast an announcement by the newly-formed HSWP:

We demand that János Kádár, as temporary chief of the Party, should publicly, immediately and without delay, call upon the leadership of the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and the fraternal People’s Democracies, to make them see that the Hungarian Communist Party is now fighting for its life and survival, that it can only survive in the new situation if it serves solely the interest of the Hungarian people.

Kádár’s response came in a speech, broadcast later that day, praising the glorious uprising of our people in which they have achieved freedom… and independence for the country. He went on:

Without this there can be no socialism. We can safely say that the ideological and organisational leaders who prepared this uprising were recruited from your ranks. Hungarian Communist writers, journalists, university students, the youth of the Petöfi Circle, thousands and thousands of workers and peasants, and veteran fighters who had been imprisoned on false charges, fought in the front line against Rákosite despotism and political hooliganism…

Either the Hungarian democratic parties will have enough strength to stabilise our achievements or we must face an open counter-revolution.

By the time this was broadcast, however, Kádár had disappeared, only to return three days later in the wake of the second Soviet intervention. Perhaps, by this stage, Kádár was already conflicted, not simply over Nagy’s declarations of independence, but also due to the shooting of one of his closest friends, Imre Mező,  by street rebels two days earlier. Historian Tibor Huszár says that the news about Mező certainly affected Kádár:

Mező wasn’t simply a tried and tested comrade-in-arms, he was possibly his only friend. In the evening of the previous day they had met each other at the Köztársaság tér Party Headquarters.

Kádár didn’t reveal this openly at the time, and it wasn’t until one of his last interviews that he affirmed that it was because of the events in that square of 30th that he decided to abandon the Nagy government. More clues as to his thinking on 1 November come from an interview with an Italian journalist, conducted on the same day, in which he gave details of what he described as his Third Line. Asked what kind of Communism he represented, he answered:

The new type, which emerged from the Revolution and which does not want to have anything in common with the Communism of the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerö group.

Asked if this new Communism was of the Yugoslav or Polish type, he answered:

Our Communism is Hungarian. It is a sort of “third line”, with no connection to Titoism nor to Gomulka’s Communism… It is Marxism-Leninism, adapted to the particular requirements of our country, to our difficulties and to our national problem. It is not inspired either by the USSR nor by any other types of Communism… it is Hungarian National Communism. This “third line” originated from our Revolution during the course of which… numerous Communists fought at the side of students, workers and the people.  

Asked whether his Communism would be developed along democratic lines, he answered:

That’s a good question. There will be an opposition and no dictatorship. This opposition will be heard because it will have the national interests of Hungary at heart and not those of international Communism.

Despite the ambivalence of some of his answers, there is still nothing explicit in them about why his ‘third line’ might be considered closer to Moscow’s than that of Warsaw or Belgrade. If anything, the reverse would seem to be the case, unless by national problem he was referring to the difficulties in containing ‘nationalist’ forces and tendencies within the revolution. We do not know exactly when the interview was given, but neither does it contain any implied criticism of Nagy’s declarations of independence. So, what happened to Kádár on the evening of 1 November, when he was last seen approaching the Soviet Embassy? That Kádár changed sides during these days is not in dispute, but exactly how, when and why have never been fully clarified. According to Tibor Huszár’s 2001 biography of him it seems likely that Ferenc Münnich, on the initiative of Yuri Andropov, suggested that they go to the Soviet embassy for talks. Kádár was in parliament, discussing Hungary’s declaration of neutrality with the Chinese ambassador. He then left the building without telling anyone there, including his wife. The two men did not enter the embassy, however, but were taken away to the Soviet air base at Tököl, just south of the city. From there, they were flown to Moscow. What we do not know is whether he had already changed his mind about the way things were going in Budapest, or whether he was persuaded to do so in Moscow. There is no real documentary evidence.

Despite the claims of some that he had already changed his mind after the bloodbath of 30th, others have implied that Kádár’s defection was not perhaps so premeditated, pointing to the fact that he took no winter coat with him when he left the parliament building. Who would go to Moscow at that time of year with just a light jacket? Perhaps he was, after all, only expecting to go for talks at the Soviet Embassy. If he was already set on the course of denouncing the revolution as having become a counter-revolution, his speech in parliament and his radio broadcast would seem to be astounding in their level of deception. Then there is the matter of his support for the move to neutrality and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. According to György Lukács, of the members of the Party central committee, only Zoltán Szántó and himself opposed withdrawal from the Pact. Despite later assertions that Kádár did or did not support withdrawal, it seems that, at the time, few people, if any, suspected that Kádár had changed sides, or was about to do so. Why else would Imre Nagy continue to include him in his government after the cabinet reshuffle of 3 November, two days after his disappearance? That might rather suggest that Nagy knew of Kádár’s secret negotiations in Moscow, perhaps even approved of them, regarding Kádár, his Foreign Minister, as acting on his behalf.

Just before 8 p.m. on 1 November, Nagy himself went on the radio to announce to the public the momentous news of neutrality:

The Hungarian National Government… giving expression to the undivided will of the Hungarian millions declares the neutrality of the Hungarian People’s Republic. The Hungarian people, on the basis of independence and equality and in accordance with the spirit of the UN Charter, wishes to live in true friendship with its neighbours, the Soviet Union, and all the peoples of the world. The Hungarian  people desire the consolidation and further development of its national revolution without joining any power blocs. The century-old dream of the Hungarian people is thus being fulfilled.

At the same time, the government forbade military forces from resisting the Soviet troops at Ferihegy airport and all the other Hungarian airfields.

It has been argued that the 1 November declaration of neutrality was the trigger which set off the Soviet invasion three days later. From the Soviet perspective, this may well have been the case, but the Nagy government saw it as a reaction to Soviet troop movements already underway, a means of undermining their legitimacy, and a form of deterrence by calling on the defensive support of the United Nations for a small, independent nation. As we now know, however, the decision to invade had already been taken in the Kremlin the day before, 31 October, the same day that the ‘liberal’ Soviet declaration of 30th was published in Pravda. Notes taken at the Soviet Party Presidium on 31 October indicate that the about-turn was initiated by Khrushchev himself, on the grounds of international prestige against the back-drop of the Suez Crisis. No doubt under pressure from hard-liners in the politburo, he had exchanged his early view of occupying higher moral ground for a conviction that, as he is quoted as saying:

If we depart from Hungary, it will give a great boost to the Americans, English and French – the imperialists. They will perceive it as weakness on our part…  

There may have been some discussion and debate to bring about such a rapid change of hearts and minds, even given the interests of Soviet Communism in the world. Khrushchev claimed in his memoirs that we changed our minds back and forth. It is highly unlikely, however, that they had, at the forefronts of their minds, the well-being of the Hungarian working class and future of the Hungarian people. More influential were the reports of hooligan elements in the lynchings and shootings of 30 October. Certainly, Nagy’s declaration of neutrality had no deterrent  impact on the planned invasion. On 1 November, the decision taken, Khrushchev travelled to Brest, where he met Polish leaders and told them of the imminent intervention in Hungary.

(to be continued… )

The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956: Suez & Hungary, part four.   Leave a comment

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26-30 October: Days of Victory in Hungary

Half an hour after the radio announced the fall of Gerő on 25 October, ten thousand demonstrators  gathered around Sándor Kopácsi’s police headquarters. In unison, the young people shouted ‘take down the star!’ Kopácsi commented:

The roof of our building, like that of every public building, bore a large, five-pronged star in red metal, studded with a hundred red electric bulbs. Ours was at least five or six metres high. I listened to the crowd and watched it, surrounded by my officers and the two Soviet counsellors… This was a delicate situation: the red star was the symbol that had always guided my path. It was my identity, the distinctive symbol of the ‘great family’. The crowd was getting impatient: ‘Down with the star, down with the star!’

‘Better go up and take it down, guys’.

The secretary of the party organisation at police headquarters, a former Resistance fighter who had fought in Tito’s underground, looked at me unhappily…

My deputy sent a commando up to the roof, equipped with tools. When the crowd saw the policemen taking down the star, they shouted with glee. The hostility they had demonstrated since the massacre to everything and everyone associated with the red star dissipated a bit.  

The ÁVH were a different matter, however. They were so panic-stricken that they even opened fire, mistakenly, on their own comrades sent to relieve them. More than a hundred of those who had not been involved in unjust trials, torture, or in commanding the troops that had committed atrocities over the past three days were given refuge in the police headquarters by Kopácsi, whom they trusted to defend them against the crowd. They included his friends from the Partisans’ Union and Bartos, the AVH’s quartermaster, whom Kopácsi knew had never been involved in anything other than the supply corps. He let them have several offices where they played cards or used the phone to talk to look for a more private hide-out. Several dozen officers and men gave themselves up as prisoners, while others were hauled in to the headquarters by the new National Guard. They were fed as normal and lived in open cells until the day of the second coming of the Soviet Army.

Tom Leimdorfer remembers that on the Friday, 26 October, there were rumours that the revolution had spread to other towns, and that the Hungarian Army (or part of it) had joined the revolution. There was also much speculation about the role of the government and the response of the Soviet leadership. More immediate problems came in the form of privations resulting from the state of emergency:

Family and friends were ringing to check if we were alright. We were running out of food and so were other families in the block. Then we heard that the shop on the ground floor would open as there appeared to be a lull in the fighting. We went to join the queue. To my surprise, a Russian soldier came along the line and entered the shop, asking for bread and milk. There was no animosity towards the individual soldier, but everyone pretended not to understand what he was saying. Then someone asked me to translate, saying that I should know from my school lessons.

The next two days continued for Tom, as for many others forced to stay at home, as a blur of boredom, uncertainty, rumours and counter-rumours of political developments. Meanwhile, Nagy had quietly chosen his course of action. On Saturday 27th, he reshuffled his cabinet to include some relatively credible communists like Lukács, and two former Smallholder Party leaders, Tildy and Béla Kovács. He was siding with the revolutionaries.

Then on Sunday, 28 October, everything changed. ‘Free’ Radio Kossuth stopped referring to the ‘counter-revolution’ and started talking about an uprising against the crimes of the former régime. Indeed, Nagy started to talk about a ‘national democratic movement’, also announcing a cease-fire and even the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest. He acknowledged the revolutionary bodies created during the previous days, promised an amnesty and the disbanding of the AVH. On the economy, he promised agrarian reform. There was also an official announcement by the Central Committee of the Party approving the Government’s declaration promising the end of one-party rule. It added:

In view of the exceptional situation, the Central Committee has passed on its mandate to lead the Party to a new Party Presidium of six members. Its chairman is János Kádár. 

Throughout Hungary the mood of anger following Bloody Thursday had turned to one of expectation on Sunday. Open elections were held in towns and villages. Imre Nagy requested that Khrushchev honour the cease-fire and order the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. He agreed to their withdrawal from the capital, but at the same time deployed more divisions along the Ukrainian border with Hungary. Nevertheless, the population of the city were convinced of victory:

Suddenly, people felt free to leave their homes and joyful crowds filled the streets of the capital. Next morning we saw lines of Soviet tanks crunching their way out of city.

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As Nagy had announced on the radio the previous day, an agreement had been reached over their movement out of the capital. Beginning on 29th, by noon on the 31st there were few tanks and armoured vehicles to be seen on the streets of Budapest. This gave rise to a kind of (as it turned out, false) euphoria, adding to the idea that the revolution was victorious.  On the Monday morning, 29 October, Imre Nagy moved his main office and base from the Party’s headquarters in Akadémia utca, where he had been since being recalled to government, to Parliament. Together with his entourage of associates, and his new government colleagues, Nagy was bombarded with requests and demands presented by visiting delegations from all over the country. One of the earliest delegations to have discussions with Nagy was composed of representatives of armed groups of insurgents from different parts of the city. They offered conditional recognition of his government, demanded the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops by the end of the year and immediate dissolution of the AVH. Nagy was more interested in their laying down of arms, since a general cease-fire had already been ordered, and the Soviet troops were already leaving Budapest. The delegates agreed that they would hand over their arms to Hungarian forces once the Soviet forces had left the country completely. There was also some discussion about the formation of a National Guard, during which Nagy is reported to have asked the delegates, “Lads, do you really believe that I am not as Hungarian as you are?” One of the leaders replied, “Maybe, but there’s a revolution going on, and what counts is who is the greater revolutionary, not what kind of Hungarian you are.”

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There were constant streams of workers’ representatives, sent by the newly formed workers’ councils. New councils were also formed in several government departments, challenging the centralised power of the state. Most importantly, several thousand members of the Hungarian Army defected to the workers’ cause, taking their weapons with them. The Uprising was successful, and the Revolution all but complete. Tom Leimdorfer confirms this atmosphere in a capital which emerged battered but liberated:

On Monday, it seemed that everyone was on the streets. Budapest looked war-torn. There were smouldering fires, some houses in ruins others with gaping shell holes. Our block of flats and the one opposite were both pot-marked with machine gun fire. The overhead cables of the trams were twisted and torn, many roads blocked by the debris of battle including burnt out tanks, cars and buses. Some people were burning publications of communist propaganda and works of writers who supported the regime. We were busy checking how relatives fared and buying provisions from shops which were beginning to open. The next day we were hearing totally different voices on the radio and heard that the leading communist members of staff had been dismissed. The first free newspapers appeared on the streets. They were thin publications, but everyone wanted to read them.

Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe, the CIA-backed station that broadcast into Eastern Europe, was talking up the situation in typically dramatic fashion, to the annoyance of the Soviets and the concern of their Hungarian comrades. It proclaimed the West’s backing for what it called Hungary’s “freedom fighters”. World opinion supported the Hungarian uprising. It seemed that Imre Nagy had the confidence of the people and the Soviet leaders (Khrushchev, Mikoyan, Suslov and their envoy Andropov) were prepared to give the new government a chance, trusting that the moderate communists (Nagy, Kádár and Munnich) would keep Hungary within the Warsaw Pact. Carried along by the momentum of events he could barely control, Nagy made a further radio announcement on 30 October that he was abolishing the one-party system forthwith and forming a new coalition government:

The constantly widening scope of the revolutionary movement in our country, the tremendous force of the democratic movement has brought our country to a cross-road. The National Government, in full agreement with the Presidium of the Hungarian Workers’  Party  (Communist Party), has decided to take a step vital for the future of the whole nation, and of which I want to inform the Hungarian working people…

The Cabinet abolishes the one-party system and places the country’s Government on the basis of democratic co-operation between coalition parties as they existed in 1945…

We wish to inform the people of Hungary that we are going to request the Government of the Soviet Union to withdraw Soviet troops completely from the entire territory of the Hungarian Republic. 

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Nagy’s  ‘National Government’ included several ministers from other parties, prominent among them being the iconic figure of the veteran Social Democrat leader Anna Kétly. Kéthly had opposed the fusion of the Social Democratic Party, which she had led before the war, with the Communist Party, which formed the Hungarian Workers’ Party. She was therefore purged from the political scene in the Rákósi era, spending a number of years in prison on trumped-up spying charges. British journalist Basil Davidson interviewed her in Parliament a few days before her appointment. She told him that her party’s participation in the Nagy government would depend on a number of conditions being met, including the return of its newspaper, Népszava (‘People’s Voice’). In addition,

“she said that there were dangers, even now, of a right-wing putsch. ‘Among the revolutionaries’ she told me, ‘there are right-wing Fascist extremists who would clearly love to capture our national revolution so as to impose another kind of dictatorship’. These were dangers against which Hungarians should remain on their guard, which is very different from saying that Fascists had succeeded in capturing the revolution.”

Immediately following her appointment, several suppressed Hungarian political parties began to reconstitute themselves, including the Social Democrats and the National Peasant Party. Nagy also agreed to recognise the revolutionary councils that had been created, including the one in the army which was established the same day. Its leader was immediately appointed to the new government. As Tom Leimdorfer remarked:

Suddenly, incredibly and briefly, it all seemed possible…  Perhaps that was the high point. That Tuesday, we heard that Cardinal Mindszenty was released from prison. This was also good news and we awaited eagerly what he would say on the radio. This was when I saw a very worried frown come over my mother’s face. This was not a speech to help reconciliation. Then in the afternoon a group of AVO  men were shot at point-blank range and some of their bodies were hung from the lamp posts of one of the main boulevards. There were other reports of violence and revenge killings. The revolution was showing its ugly side and we were beginning to have some doubts and fears. My mother met up with some colleagues who said that the border was open and many people were crossing to the West. She asked me if I thought we should try to get to England. I was horrified that we should even think of leaving at that time and she dropped the idea.  

Despite the speed of the changes carried through by Nagy, and the doubts and fears about the violent excesses being carried out in the name of the Revolution on the streets of Budapest, it looked as though the Soviets would give in to this massive display of people power opposing the apparatus of the state. A declaration was issued outlining the relationship between the Soviet Union and the socialist states. In it the Kremlin acknowledged that Hungarian workers were “justified” in pointing out the “serious mistakes” of the previous régime. The news agency TASS announced that the Soviet Union “deeply regrets” the bloodshed in Hungary, and agreed with the removal of Soviet soldiers from Hungarian soil. The statement was published in Pravda the following day, the 31st, at the same time as it was reported in the Hungarian press. The CIA Director, Allen Dulles, called it “one of the most important statements to come out of the USSR in the past decade”. The notes taken at the Soviet Party Presidium meeting also suggest that the wording of the statement was genuine for the point at which it was issued:

The communiqué represented a genuine initiative by the more ‘liberal’ wing of the Soviet leadership to create a more even balance in relations between the USSR and its satellites, and they managed, at least very briefly, to get their hard-line colleagues to agree. 

What may have played a role in changing the change of mind and heart in the Soviet Politburo was the last report from Budapest of Mikoyan and Suslov, made on 30 October. In it they relate the worsening situation referred to by Tom Leimdorfer, highlighting the strengthening role of what they call “hooligan elements”, the weakening of the HWP’s position and the “wait and see” position of the Hungarian army. The report was “one-sided”, tending “to accentuate the anti-Communist sentiments of the population, and grossly exaggerating the atrocities that were being committed.” An account was kept of all the Soviet war memorials overturned and war graves desecrated, “corroborating this bleak picture with reports of the lynchings at Köztársaság tér”. Nevertheless, it is evident from Tom Leimdorfer’s remarks that these brutal hangings of suspected AVH men did make a profound impact beyond simple numbers on the people of Budapest, as of course, their perpetrators meant them to. Moreover, Khrushchev is reported to have used the phrase “they are murdering communists in Budapest” more than once in the hearing of the Yugoslav Ambassador to Moscow.

It was at this moment that the world went mad, or at least the Israeli-British-French ‘triumvirate’ did. Their dead-of-night intervention to in Egypt to prevent Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal made the outcome of the Hungarian revolution dependent on superpower bargaining. Neither the USSR nor the USA were interested in military confrontation, but both were concerned to defend their strategic interests; the Soviets were willing to remain passive in the Middle East if they received assurances that there would be no Western intervention in Hungary. This was also agreed by the end of Tuesday 30 October. This tacit agreement meant that the promise which had been expressly given by Radio Free Europe on Eisenhower’s behalf, which played no small role in the resolve of the Hungarian insurgents, was thus broken, while the Soviet leaders sought and obtained the agreement of Tito to their planned alternative of intervention.

Alex von Tunzelmann believes that, in return, the situation in Hungary helped to push an already volatile situation between the superpowers closer to the brink. Khrushchev had to think very carefully about Suez when he was dealing with Hungary, just as Eisenhower had to think carefully about Hungary when he was dealing with Suez:

Both crises were referred to the UN, which was awkward because normally Britain would have stood by the US and condemned Soviet aggression – but since it was doing exactly the same thing, the UN was hamstrung. The US went against Britain and France at the UN for the first time, so this was the real danger to that alliance.

However, before either crisis was discussed in New York, it was a decision made by Imre Nagy which may well have sealed the fate of Hungary’s Revolution.

dsc09364(to be continued…)

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