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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

E L Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester (West Sussex): Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

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British Foreign Policy, NATO & the Shape of the World to Come, 1994-1999.   Leave a comment

Back to Attacking Iraq – Operation Desert Fox:

The Iraq War will no doubt remain the most important and controversial part of Tony Blair’s legacy. But long before it, during the first Clinton administration, two events had taken place which help to explain something of what followed. The first was the bombing of Iraq by the RAF and US air force as punishment for Saddam Hussein’s dodging of UN inspections. The second was the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis and the threat of a ground force invasion. These crises made Blair believe he had to be involved personally and directly involved in overseas wars. They emphasised the limitations of air power and the importance to him of media management. Without them, Blair’s reaction to the changing of world politics on 11 September 2001 would undoubtedly have been less resolute and well-primed. Evidence of Saddam Hussein’s interest in weapons of mass destruction had been shown to Blair soon after he took office. He raised it in speeches and privately with other leaders. Most countries in NATO and at the UN security council were angry about the dictator’s expulsion of UN inspectors when they tried to probe his huge palace compounds for biological and chemical weapons.  Initially, however, diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on him to allow the inspectors back. The Iraqi people were already suffering badly from the international sanctions on them. He readmitted the inspectors, but then began a game of cat-and-mouse with them.

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A Tomahawk cruise missile is fired from an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998

In October 1998, the United States and Britain finally lost patience and decided to smash Baghdad’s military establishment with missiles and bombing raids. In a foretaste of things to come, Blair presented MPs with a dossier about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. At the last minute, the Iraqi leader backed down again and the raids were postponed. The US soon concluded that this was just another ruse, however, and in December, British and American planes attacked, hitting 250 targets over four days. Operation Desert Fox, as it was called, probably only delayed Iraq’s weapons programme by a year or so though it was sold as a huge success. As was the case later, Britain and the United States were operating without a fresh UN resolution. But Blair faced little opposition either in Parliament or outside it, other than a from a handful of protesters chanting ‘don’t attack Iraq’ with accompanying placards. Nonetheless, there was a widespread suspicion around the world that Clinton had ordered the attacks to distract from his troubles at home. The raids were thus nicknamed ‘the war of Clinton’s trousers’ and during them, Congress was indeed debating impeachment proceedings, actually formally impeaching the President on their final day.

Rebuilding the Peace in Bosnia:  Dayton to Mostar, 1995-1999.

The break-up of Yugoslavia in the later stages of the long Balkan tragedy had haunted John Major’s time in office as UK Prime Minister. Finally, the three years of bitter warfare in Bosnia in which more than two million people had been displaced and over a hundred thousand had been killed, was brought to an end. In March 1994 the Bosnian Muslims and Croats formed a fragile federation, and in 1995 Bosnian Serbs successes against the Muslim enclaves of Yepa, Srebrenica and Gorazde provoked NATO to intervene. In November 1995, facing military defeat, the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic bowed to international pressure to accept a settlement. A peace conference between the three sides involved in the conflict, the Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, ended in their joining into an uneasy federation with the initialling of an agreement in Dayton, Ohio, USA (shown below).

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Seated from left to right: Slobodan Milošević, Alija Izetbegović, Franjo Tuđman initialling the Dayton Peace Accords at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on 21 November 1995.

After the initialling in Dayton, Ohio, the full and formal agreement was signed in Paris on 14 December 1995 (right) and witnessed by Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, French President Jacques Chirac, U.S. President Bill Clinton, UK Prime Minister John Major, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

At the time, I was in my fourth academic year in southern Hungary, running a teachers’ exchange programme for Devon County Council and its ‘twin’ council in Hungary, Baranya County Assembly, based in Pécs. Even before the Dayton Accords, NATO was beginning to enlarge and expand itself into Central Europe. Participants at a Summit Meeting in January 1994 formally announced the Partnership for Peace programme, which provided for closer political and military cooperation with Central European countries looking to join NATO. Then, President Clinton, accompanied by  Secretary of State Christopher, met with leaders of the ‘Visegrád’ states (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) in Prague. In December 1994, Clinton and Christopher attended a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) summit in Budapest. During this, the Presidents of the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine signed the START 1 nuclear arms reduction treaty. A decision was also made to change the name of the CSCE to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and to expand its responsibilities.

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In particular, the Republic of Hungary, long before it joined NATO officially in 1999, had taken a number of steps to aid the mission of the Western Alliance. On 28 November 1995, following the initialling of the Dayton Accords, the Hungarian Government of Gyula Horn announced that Kaposvár would be the principal ground logistics and supply base for the US contingents of the international peace-keeping force in Bosnia, the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR). The Hungarian Parliament then voted almost unanimously to allow NATO air forces to use its bases, including the airfield at Taszár. The Kaposvár bases became operational in early December and the first American soldiers assigned to IFOR arrived at Taszár on 9 December. Most of the three thousand soldiers were charged with logistical tasks. The forces stationed at Kaposvár, units of the US First Armored Division regularly passed through our home city of Pécs ‘en route’ to Bosnia, in convoys of white military vehicles, trucks and troop-carriers. In mid-January 1996, President Clinton paid a snapshot visit to Taszár and met some of the US soldiers there, together with Hungarian State and government ministers. The Hungarian National Assembly also approved the participation of a Hungarian engineering unit in the operation of IFOR which left for Okucani in Croatia at the end of January. The following December the Hungarian Engineering Battalion was merged into the newly established Stabilization Forces (SFOR) in former Yugoslavia.

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By the end of 1996, therefore, Hungary – one of the former Warsaw Pact countries applying to join NATO – had already been supporting the peace operation in Bosnia for over a year as a host and transit country for British and American troops, providing infrastructural support, placing both military and civilian facilities at their disposal and ensuring the necessary conditions for ground, water and air transport and the use of frequencies. In addition, the Hungarian Defence Forces had been contributing to the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords with an engineering contingent at the battalion level of up to 416 troops during the IFOR/SFOR operation. It had carried out two hundred tasks, constructed twenty-two bridges and a total of sixty-five kilometres of railroads and taken part in the resurfacing of main roads. It had also carried out mine-clearing, searching over a hundred thousand square metres for explosives.

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In February 1998, the Hungarian National Assembly voted unanimously to continue to take part in the SFOR operation in Bosnia. One event of major significance was the Hungarian forces’ participation in the restoration of the iconic ‘Old Bridge’ in Mostar, famously painted by the Hungarian artist Csontváry (his painting, shown below, is exhibited in the museum which bears his name in Pécs), which had been blown up in the Bosnian War in early 1990s.

(Photos above below: The Old Bridge and Old Town area of Mostar today)

Mostar Old Town Panorama

A monumental project to rebuild the Old Bridge to the original design, and restore surrounding structures and historic neighbourhoods was initiated in 1999 and mostly completed by Spring 2004, begun by the sizeable contingent of peacekeeping troops stationed in the surrounding area during the conflict. A grand re-opening was finally held on 23 July 2004 under heavy security.

 

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Crisis & Civil War in Kosovo, 1997-98:

The Dayton peace agreement had calmed things down in former Yugoslavia, and by 1997 international peace-keeping forces such as IFOR and SFOR were able to successfully monitor the cease-fire and separate both the regular and irregular forces on the ground in Bosnia leading to relative stability. However, in 1997-98, events showed that much remained to be done to bring the military conflicts to an end. Bosnian Serbs and Croats sought closer ties for their respective areas with Serbia and Croatia proper. Then, the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) triggered a vicious new conflict. Kosovo, a province of Serbia, was dominated by Albanian-speaking Muslims but was considered almost a holy site in the heritage of the Serbs, who had fought a famous medieval battle there against the invading Ottoman forces. When Albania had won its independence from the Ottoman empire in 1912, over half the Albanian community was left outside its borders, largely in the Yugoslav-controlled regions of Kosovo and Macedonia. In 1998, the KLA stepped up its guerrilla campaign to win independence for Kosovo. The ex-communist Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, having been forced to retreat from Bosnia, had now made himself the hero of the minority Kosovar Serbs. Serb forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Albanians. Outright armed conflict in Kosovo started in late February 1998 and lasted until 11 June 1999. By the beginning of May 1998, the situation in the former Yugoslavia was back on the agenda of the Meeting of the NATO Military Committee. For the first time, this was attended by the Chiefs of Staff of the three ‘accession’ countries – Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Map 1: The Break-up of Yugoslavia, 1994-97

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The map shows the areas still in conflict, 1994-1997, in Eastern Bosnia and Southern Central Serbia. The area in grey shows the area secured as the ‘independent’ Serbian Republic of Bosnia by Serb forces as of February 1994,  The blue areas are those with where ethnic minorities form the overall majority, while the purple areas show Serb majority areas with significant minorities. The green line shows the border between the Serb Republic component and the Croat-Muslim Federation component of Bosnia-Herzegovina according to the Dayton Peace Agreement, November 1995.

In a poll taken in August 1998, the Hungarian public expressed a positive view of NATO’s role in preventing and managing conflicts in the region. With respect to the situation in Kosovo, fifty-five per cent of those asked had expressed the view that the involvement of NATO would reduce the probability of a border conflict between Albania and Serbia and could prevent the outbreak of a full-scale civil war in Kosovo. At the same time, support for direct Hungarian participation in such peace-keeping actions was substantially smaller. While an overwhelming majority of those asked accepted the principle of making airspace available, as many as forty-six per cent were against even the continued participation of the engineering contingent in Bosnia and only twenty-eight per cent agreed with the involvement of Hungarian troops in a NATO operation in Kosovo. Other European countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic and the existing members of NATO were no more keen to become involved in a ground war in Kosovo. In Chicago, Tony Blair declared a new doctrine of the international community which allowed a just war, based on… values. President Clinton, however, was not eager to involve US troops in another ground war so soon after Bosnia, so he would only consider the use of air power at this stage.

Map 2: Position of Kosovo in Former Yugoslavia, 1995-99

Image result for kosovoOn 13 October 1998, the North Atlantic Council issued activation orders (ACTORDs) for the execution of both limited air strikes and a phased air campaign in Yugoslavia which would begin in approximately ninety-six hours. On 15 October 1998, the Hungarian Parliament gave its consent to the use of its airspace by reconnaissance, combat and transport aircraft taking part in the NATO actions aimed at the enforcement of the UN resolutions on the settlement of the crisis in Kosovo.

At this time, however, the United States and Britain were already involved in the stand-off with Saddam Hussein leading up to Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in December 1998, and so couldn’t afford to be involved in two bombing campaigns simultaneously. Also on the 15 October, the NATO Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) Agreement for a ceasefire was signed, and the deadline for withdrawal was extended to 27 October. The Serbian withdrawal had, in fact, commenced on or around 25 October and the KVM began what was known as Operation Eagle Eye on 30 October. But, despite the use of international monitors, the KVM ceasefire broke down almost immediately. It was a large contingent of unarmed Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) peace monitors (officially known as ‘verifiers’) that had moved into Kosovo, but their inadequacy was evident from the start. They were nicknamed the “clockwork oranges” in reference to their brightly coloured vehicles.

NATO’s Intervention & All Out War in Kosovo, 1998-99:

Map 3: Albanians in the Balkans, 1998-2001.

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Milosevic used the break-down of the OSCE Mission and the world’s preoccupation with the bombing of Iraq to escalate his ethnic cleansing programme in Kosovo. The death squads went back to work and forced thousands of people to become refugees on wintry mountain tracks, producing uproar around the world.  As the winter of 1998-99 set in, the civil war was marked by increasingly savage Serb reprisals. Outright fighting resumed in December 1998 after both sides broke the ceasefire, and this surge in violence culminated in the killing of Zvonko Bojanić, the Serb mayor of the town of Kosovo Polje. Yugoslav authorities responded by launching a crackdown against KLA ‘militants’. On the ground in Kosovo, the January to March 1999 phase of the war brought increasing insecurity in urban areas, including bombings and murders. Such attacks took place during the Rambouillet talks in February and as the Kosovo Verification Agreement unravelled completely in March. Killings on the roads continued and increased and there were major military confrontations. Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, had been subjected to heavy firefights and segregation according to OSCE reports.

The worst incident had occurred on 15 January 1999, known as the Račak massacre. The slaughter of forty-five civilians in the town provoked international outrage and comparisons with Nazi crimes. The Kosovar Albanian farmers were rounded up, led up a hill and massacred. The bodies had been discovered later by OSCE monitors, including Head of Mission William Walker, and foreign news correspondents. This massacre was the turning point of the war, though Belgrade denied that a massacre had taken place. The Račak massacre was the culmination of the KLA attacks and Yugoslav reprisals that had continued throughout the winter of 1998–1999. The incident was immediately condemned as a massacre by the Western countries and the United Nations Security Council, and later became the basis of one of the charges of war crimes levelled against Milošević and his top officials in the Hague. Hundreds of thousands of people were on the move – eventually, roughly a million ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo and an estimated ten to twelve thousand were killed. According to Downing Street staff,  Tony Blair began to think he might not survive as Prime Minister unless something was done. The real problem, though, was that, after the Bosnian War, only the genuine threat of an invasion by ground troops would convince Milosevic to pull back; air power by itself was not enough. Blair tried desperately to convince Bill Clinton of this. He visited a refugee camp and declared angrily:

“This is obscene. It’s criminal … How can anyone think we shouldn’t intervene?”

Yet it would be the Americans whose troops would be once again in the line of fire since the European Union was far away from any coherent military structure and lacked the basic tools for carrying armies into other theatres. On 23 March 1999, Richard Holbrooke, US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, returned to Brussels and announced that peace talks had failed and formally handed the matter to NATO for military action. Hours before the announcement, Yugoslavia announced on national television it had declared a state of emergency citing an imminent threat of war and began a huge mobilisation of troops and resources. Later that night, the Secretary-General of NATO, Javier Solana, announced he had directed the Supreme Allied Command to initiate air operations in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On 24 March NATO started its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The BBC correspondent John Simpson was in Belgrade when the bombs started to fall. In the capital, he recalled, dangerous forces had been released. A battle was underway between the more civilised figures in Slobodan Milosevic’s administration and the savage nationalist faction headed by Vojislav Seselj, vice-premier of the Serbian government, whose supporters had carried out appalling atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia some years earlier. Earlier in the day, the large international press corps, three hundred strong, had attended a press conference held by the former opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, now a member of Milosevic’s government:

“You are all welcome to stay,” he told us grandly, looking more like Tsar Nicholas II than ever, his cheeks flushed with the first ‘slivovica’ of the day. Directly we arrived back at the Hyatt Hotel, where most of the foreign journalists were staying, we were told that the communications minister, a sinister and bloodless young acolyte of Seselj’s, had ordered everyone working for news organisations from the NATO countries to leave Belgrade at once. It was clear who had the real power, and it wasn’t Draskovic.

That morning Christiane Amanpour, the CNN correspondent, white-faced with nervousness, had been marched out of the hotel by a group of security men from a neutral embassy, put in a car and driven straight to the Hungarian border for her own safety. Arkan, the paramilitary leader who was charged with war-crimes as the war began, had established himself in the Hyatt’s coffee-shop in order to keep an eye on the Western journalists. His thugs, men and women dressed entirely in black, hung around the lobby. Reuters Television and the European Broadcasting Union had been closed down around noon by units of the secret police. They slapped some people around, and robbed a BBC cameraman and producer… of a camera.

Simpson was in two minds. He wanted to stay in Belgrade but yet wanted to get out with all the others. The eight of them in the BBC team had a meeting during which it quickly became clear that everyone else wanted to leave. He argued briefly for staying, but he didn’t want to be left entirely on his own in Belgrade with such lawlessness all around him. It felt like a re-run of the bombing of Baghdad in 1991, but then he had been hustled out of Iraq with the other Western journalists after the first five days of the bombing; now he was leaving Belgrade after only twenty-four hours, which didn’t feel right. At that point, he heard that an Australian correspondent whom he knew from Baghdad and other places was staying. Since Australia was not part of NATO, he couldn’t simply be ordered to leave. So, with someone else to share the risk, he decided he would try to stay too:

… I settled back on the bed, poured myself a generous slug of ‘Laphroaig’ and lit an Upmann’s Number 2. I had selected a CD with some care, and it was playing now:

‘There may be trouble ahead; But while there’s moonlight, and music, and love and romance; Let’s face the music and dance’.

Outside, a familiar wailing began: the air-raid siren. I took my Laphroaig and my cigar over to the window and looked out at the anti-aircraft fire which was already arcing up, red and white, into the night sky.

The bombing campaign lasted from 24 March to 11 June 1999, involving up to 1,000 aircraft operating mainly from bases in Italy and aircraft carriers stationed in the Adriatic. With the exception of Greece, all NATO members were involved to some degree. Over the ten weeks of the conflict, NATO aircraft flew over thirty-eight thousand combat missions. The proclaimed goal of the NATO operation was summed up by its spokesman as “Serbs out, peacekeepers in, refugees back”. That is, Yugoslav troops would have to leave Kosovo and be replaced by international peacekeepers to ensure that the Albanian refugees could return to their homes. The campaign was initially designed to destroy Yugoslav air defences and high-value military targets. But it did not go very well at first, with bad weather hindering many sorties early on.

Three days after John Simpson had decided to remain behind in Belgrade, still alone and having slept a total of seven hours since the war began, and with every programme of the BBC demanding reports from him, he had to write his weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph. At five-thirty in the morning, he described the situation as best as he could, then paused to look at the television screens across the room. BBC World, Sky and CNN were all showing an immense flood of refugees crossing the Macedonian border from Kosovo. Yet protecting these people from was surely the main purpose of the NATO bombing – that, and encouraging people in Serbia itself to turn against their President, Slobodan Milosevic. But NATO had seriously underestimated Milošević’s will to resist. Most of the people in Belgrade who had once been against him now seemed to have rallied to his support. Some of them had already been shouting at the journalist. And then the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo certainly weren’t exactly being protected. He went back to his word-processor and wrote:

If that was the purpose of the bombing, then it isn’t working yet.

He added a few more paragraphs, and then hurriedly faxed the article to London before the next wave of demands from BBC programmes could break over him. The Sunday Telegraph ran the article ‘rather big’ the next day, under the imposing but embarrassing headline, I’m sorry, but this war isn’t working. Tony Blair read the headline and was reported to be furious, yet he must have realised that it was true. His aim and that of Bill Clinton had been to carry out a swift series of air attacks that would force Milosevic to surrender. But the NATO onslaught had been much too feeble and much too circumscribed. Besides the attacks on Belgrade itself, British and American jets had attacked targets only in Kosovo and not in the rest of Serbia, so that other towns and cities had not been touched. Neither had the centre of the Serbian capital itself. President Clinton, as worried as ever about domestic public opinion, had promised that there would be no ground war. Significantly, for the future of the war, an American stealth bomber had crashed, or just possibly been shot down, outside Belgrade. After four days of the war, it began to look as if it might not be such a walkover for NATO after all.

Milosevic couldn’t make a quick climb-down in the face of NATO’s overwhelming force now; his own public opinion, intoxicated by its unexpected success, wouldn’t accept it. In any case, the force didn’t seem quite so overwhelming, and Serbia didn’t seem quite so feeble as had been predicted in Western ‘propaganda’. NATO was clearly in for a far longer campaign than it had anticipated, and there was a clear possibility that the alliance might fall apart over the next few weeks. So the machinery of the British government swung into action to deal with the problem, or rather the little local difficulty that a BBC journalist, also ‘freelancing’ for the Daily Telegraph had had the audacity to suggest that things were not quite going to plan. Backbench Labour MPs began complaining publicly about Simpson’s reporting. So Simpson decided to go out onto the streets of Belgrade to sample opinion directly, for himself. Other foreign camera crews had already had a difficult time trying to do this, and Simpson admitted to being distinctly nervous, as were his cameraman and the Serbian producers he had hired.

People crowded around them and jostled them in order to scream their anger against NATO. These were not stereotypical supporters of the Belgrade régime; many of them had taken part in the big anti-Milosevic two years earlier. But since they felt that, in the face of the bombing, they had no alternative but to regard themselves first and foremost as Serbian patriots, and therefore to support him as their leader. There was little doubt about the intensity of feeling: The men and women who gathered around the BBC team were on the very edge of violence. Before they started their interviews they asked a couple of pressing policemen if they would provide them with some protection. They walked off laughing. After their report was broadcast on that night’s Nine O’Clock News, the British government suggested, off the record, that the people interviewed were obviously afraid of Milosevic’s secret police, and that they had said only what they had been instructed to tell the BBC, or that they had been planted by the authorities for the team to interview. It was strange, the anonymous voices suggested, that someone as experienced as John Simpson, should have failed to realise this.

But the criticism of the bombing campaign was beginning to hit home. The bombers began hitting factories, television stations, bridges, power stations, railway lines, hospitals and many government buildings. This was, however, no more successful. Many innocent civilians were killed and daily life was disrupted across much of Serbia and Kosovo.

The worst incident was when sixty people were killed by an American cluster bomb in a market.

(Pictured above: Smoke in Novi Sad (Újvidék) after NATO bombardment. The aerial photo (below) on the right shows post-strike damage assessment of the Sremska Mitrovica ordnance storage depot, Serbia).

NATO military operations switched increasingly to attacking Yugoslav units on the ground, hitting targets as small as individual tanks and artillery pieces, as well as continuing with the strategic bombardment.

This activity was, however, heavily constrained by politics, as each target needed to be approved by all nineteen member states. By the start of April, the conflict appeared little closer to a resolution and NATO countries began to seriously consider conducting ground operations in Kosovo. At the start of May, a NATO aircraft attacked an Albanian refugee convoy ‘by mistake’, believing it was a Yugoslav military convoy (they may have mistaken the ‘Raba’ farm trucks for troop carriers of a similar make and shape), killing around fifty people. NATO admitted its mistake five days later, but only after the Yugoslavs had accused NATO of deliberately attacking the border-bound refugees; however, a later report conducted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) gave its verdict that…

… civilians were not deliberately attacked in this incident … neither the aircrew nor their commanders displayed the degree of recklessness in failing to take precautionary measures which would sustain criminal charges.

Reporting the War: Blair & the BBC.

At the time, in reply to these charges, NATO put forward all sorts of suggestions as to why what had happened, insisting that the convoy had been escorted by the Serbian military: thus making it a legitimate target. An American general suggested that after the NATO jets attacked that the Serbian soldiers travelling with the convoy had leapt out of the vehicles and in a fit of rage had massacred the civilians. It wasn’t all that far-fetched as a possible narrative; both before and after the incident, Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries carried out the most disgusting reprisals against innocent ethnic Albanian civilians. But it wasn’t true in this case. It later transpired that British pilots had recognised the convoy as a refugee one, and had warned the Americans not to attack. In a studio interview for the Nine O’Clock News on the night of the incidentJohn Simpson was asked who might have been responsible for the deaths of the refugees. He replied that if it had been done by the Serb forces, they would try to hush it up quickly. But if it had been NATO, then the Serbian authorities would probably take the journalists and TV crews to the site of the disaster and show them, as had happened on several occasions already when the evidence seemed to bear out the Serbian narratives.

The following day, the military press centre in Belgrade duly provided a coach, and the foreign journalists were taken down to see the site. The Serbs had left the bodies where they lay so that the cameramen could get good pictures of them; such pictures made excellent propaganda for them, of course. It was perfectly clear that NATO bombs had been responsible for the deaths, and eventually, NATO was obliged to give an unequivocal acceptance of culpability and to issue a full apology. But Downing Street was worried that disasters like this would turn public opinion against the war. As the person who had suggested that the Serbian version of events might actually be true, John Simpson became the direct target of the Blair government’s public relations machine. Tony Blair had staked everything on the success of NATO’s war against Milosevic, and it wasn’t going well. So he did precisely what the Thatcher government had done in the Falklands War in 1982, and during the Libyan bombing campaign of 1986, when the US planes used British bases, and what the Major administration did in 1991 when civilian casualties began to mount in the Gulf War: he attacked the BBC’s reporting as being biased. As an experienced war correspondent, Simpson had been expecting this knee-jerk reaction from the government:

Things always go wrong in war, and it’s important that people should know about it when it happens, just as they should know when things are going well. … No doubt arrogantly … I reckoned that over the years I had built up some credibility with the BBC’s audiences, so that people wouldn’t automatically believe it if they were told that I was swallowing the official Serbian line or deliberately trying to undermine NATO’s war effort. I did my utmost to report fairly and openly; and then I sat back and waited for the sky to fall in.

On 14 April, twenty-two days into the war, it did. Simpson started to get calls from friends at Westminster that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press spokesman, had criticised his reporting in the Westminster press lobby, briefing about the BBC correspondent’s lack of objectivity. Anonymous officials at the Ministry of Defence were also ‘whispering’ that he was blatantly pro-Serbian. The British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called on him to leave Belgrade and Claire Short, the overseas development secretary, suggested that his reporting was akin to helping Hitler in the Second World War. Soon, Tony Blair himself was complaining to the House of Commons that I was reporting under the instruction and guidelines of the Serbian authorities. If he had made this statement outside Parliament, it would have been actionable. Simpson later asserted that:

It was absolutely and categorically untrue: I was neither instructed nor guided by the Serbs in what I said, and in fact my reports were more frequently censored by the Serbian authorities than those of any correspondent working in Belgrade throughout this period. Not only that, but our cameraman was given twenty-four hours to leave the country at the very time these accusations were being made, in order to punish the BBC for its ‘anti-Serbian reporting’.

The political editor of The Times, Philip Webster, then wrote a story which appeared on its front page on 15 April, reporting that the British government was accusing Simpson of pro-Serbian bias. This resulted in each of the mainstream broadsheet newspapers criticising the government for its attacks on the BBC, and several of the tabloids also made it clear that they didn’t approve either, including the Sun and the Daily Mail, neither of which was particularly friendly to the BBC. MPs from all sides of the House of Commons and various members of the Lords spoke up on behalf of Simpson and the BBC. Martin Bell, the war reporter turned MP also came to his defence, as did John Humphrys, the BBC radio presenter.

The BBC itself, which had not always rallied around its staff when they came under fire from politicians, gave Simpson unequivocal backing of a type he had not experienced before. Downing Street immediately backed away; when he wrote a letter of complaint to Alistair Campbell, he did not get an apology in reply, but an assurance that his professional abilities had not been called into question. As far as Whitehall was concerned, that was the end of it. Still, the predictable suggestion that there was some sort of similarity between the bombing of Serbia and the Second World War clearly struck a chord with some people. Simpson started to get shoals of angry and often insulting letters. The following example, in a ‘spidery hand’ from Anglesey, was typical:

Dear Mr Simpson,

When your country is at war and when our young men are putting their lives at risk on a daily basis, it is only a fool that would say or write anything to undermine their bravery. … in Hitler’s day you would be put in a safe place … where you probably belong.

Of course, the air campaign against Serbia was nothing like the Second World War. There was no conceivable threat to British democracy, nor to its continued existence as a nation. In this case, the only danger was to NATO’s cohesion, and to the reputation of Tony Blair’s government. The only problem was, as we had seen under Thatcher, that politicians had their own way of identifying their own fate with that of the country as a whole. The attacks on John Simpson attracted a great deal of attention from around the world as the international media saw them as an attempt by the British government to censor the BBC. In Belgrade, where the story was given huge attention, as the Serbian press and television seemed to think that it put the BBC on the same basis as themselves, totally controlled by the state. Simpson refused on principle to be interviewed by any Serbian journalist, especially from state television and pointed out to any of them who asked…

the difference between a free press and the kind of pro-government reporting that President Milosevic liked. None was quick-witted enough to reply that Tony Blair might have liked it too.

The Posturing PM & A Peculiar Way to Make a Living:

On 7 May, an allegedly ‘stealthy’ US bomber blew down half the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, causing a huge international row. The NATO bombs killed three Chinese journalists and outraged Chinese public opinion.

Pictured left: Yugoslav anti-aircraft fire over Belgrade at night.

The United States and NATO later apologised for the bombing, saying that it occurred because of an outdated map provided by the CIA although this was challenged by a joint report from The Observer (UK) and Politiken (Denmark) newspapers which claimed that NATO intentionally bombed the embassy because it was being used as a relay station for Yugoslav army radio signals. Meanwhile, low cloud and the use of decoys by Milosevic’s generals limited the military damage in general.

Pictured right: Post-strike bomb damage assessment photo of Zastava car plant.

In another incident at the Dubrava prison in Kosovo in May 1999, the Yugoslav government attributed as many as 85 civilian deaths to NATO bombing of the facility after NATO sighted Serbian and Yugoslav military activity in the area. However, a Human Rights Watch report later concluded that at least nineteen ethnic Albanian prisoners had been killed by the bombing, but that an uncertain number – probably more than seventy – were killed by Serbian Government forces in the days immediately following the bombing.

But Washington was alarmed by the British PM’s moral posturing and it was only after many weeks of shuttle diplomacy that things began to move. Blair ordered fifty thousand British soldiers, most of the available army should be made available to invade Kosovo. This would mean a huge call-up of reserves and if it was designed to call Milosevic’s bluff, it was gambling on a massive scale, as other European nations had no intention of taking part in a ground campaign. But he did have the backing of NATO, which had decided that the conflict could only be settled by introducing a military peacekeeping force under its auspices in order to forcibly restrain the two sides. The Americans, therefore, began to toughen their language and worked together with the Russians to apply pressure on Milosevic. Finally, at the last minute of this brinkmanship, the Serb Parliament and President buckled and agreed to withdraw their forces from Kosovo, accepting its virtual independence, under an international mandate. Milošević finally recognised that Russia would not intervene to defend Yugoslavia despite Moscow’s strong anti-NATO rhetoric. He thus accepted the conditions offered by a Finnish–Russian mediation team and agreed to a military presence within Kosovo headed by the UN, but incorporating NATO troops.

From June 1999, therefore, Kosovo found itself administered by the international community. Many Kosovar Serbs migrated into Serbia proper, and in 2001 there was further Albanian guerilla activity in ‘northern Macedonia’, where a further ethnic Albanian insurgent group, the NLA, threatened to destabilize that new country, where over a third of the population is ethnic Albanian. Blair had won a kind of victory. Eight months later, Milosevic was toppled from power and ended up in the Hague, charged with war crimes. John Simpson managed to hang on in Belgrade for fourteen weeks altogether, and would have stayed there longer had he not been thrown out by the security police for ‘non-objective’ reporting; that is, reporting that was too objective for their taste. By that stage, the war was effectively all but over. By that stage, also, his wife Dee had been with him for almost a month, braving NATO bombs and the sometimes angry crowds in order to make some of their Simpson’s World programmes there (she is pictured below with John, back at their home near Dublin). He found himself in hospital following a pool-side accident in the Hyatt Hotel. The hospital was surrounded by potential NATO targets, and part of it had been hit. Power-cuts happened every day, and operations were affected as a result. After his, he lay in a large ward listening to the NATO planes flying overhead:

Most of my war had been spent in the Hyatt hotel, which even NATO seemed unlikely to regard as a target. The hospital was different. Every now and then there would be the sound of a heavy explosion, not far away. The patients up and down the corridor groaned or yelled out in their sleep. It was completely dark, because the power had been cut again… Sometimes one of the fifty or so people would call urgently for a nurse… No one would come. The hospital tried to minimise the danger to its staff by keeping as few people as possible on at night as possible. There were only two nurses in our part of the hospital… What would happen, I wondered, if the ward were hit by NATO? … How would I get out, given that I couldn’t even move?…

… I drifted into a kind of sleep, … the sound of bombers overhead and the shudder of explosions. In many ways, I suppose, it was unpleasant and frightening. Yet even then I saw it as something slightly different, as though I were standing outside myself observing. It was an extraordinary experience, what journalists would call a story, and for once I was the participant as well as the onlooker. … This is really why I do the work I do, and live the strange, rootless, insecure life I do; and even when it goes wrong I can turn it into a story. Lying in my hospital bed I fished a torch out of my bag, reached for my notebook, and started writing a despatch for ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ about being in a Serbian hospital during the bombing.

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As far as the British Prime Minister’s Foreign policy was concerned, first Operation Desert Fox and then Kosovo were vital to the ‘learning curve’ which determined his decision-making over his response to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, and in particular in relation to his backing for the full-scale invasion of Iraq. They taught him that bombing, by itself, rarely worked. They suggested that threatened by the ground invasion of superior forces, dictators will back down. They confirmed him in his view of himself as a moral war leader, combating dictators. After working well with Clinton over Desert Fox, however, he was concerned that he had tried to bounce him too obviously over Kosovo. He learned that US Presidents needed careful handling, but that he could not rely on Britain’s European allies very much in military matters. Nevertheless, he pressed the case later for the establishment of a European ‘rapid reaction force’ to shoulder more of the burden in future regional wars. He learned to ignore criticism from both left and right at home, which became deafening during the bombing of Belgrade and Kosovo. He learned to cope with giving orders which would result in much loss of life. He learned an abiding hostility to the media, and in particular to the BBC, whose reporting of the Kosovo bombing campaign, especially that of John Simpson, had infuriated him.

The Beginnings of Euro-Atlantic Reintegration, 1998-99:

Map 4:

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(Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya and Tatarstan asserted their independence after 1990)

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The close working relationship between the United States, the United Kingdom and Hungary, and their cooperation at all levels throughout the period 1989-99, had helped to pave the way for a smooth transition to full NATO membership for the Republic at the end of those years. During the NATO summit in Madrid, Secretary-General Javier Solana had invited Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland to consider joining NATO. A national referendum in Hungary had approved NATO membership on 16 November 1997. At the end of January 1999, Foreign Affairs, János Martonyi had received a letter from NATO General Secretary Javier Solano formally inviting Hungary to join NATO. The same letter was sent to the Foreign Ministries of the Czech Republic and Poland, following the completion of the ratification process in the existing member states, including the UK (in August 1998). The National Assembly in Hungary voted overwhelmingly (96%) for accession on 9 February, and on 12 March the solemn ceremony of the accession of the three countries was held in Independence, Missouri, the birthplace of the former US President, Harry S Truman, in the library named after him. In her speech praising the three countries, US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright emphasised the significance of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution for world history and welcomed the country of King Stephen and Cardinal Mindszenty into the Atlantic Alliance.

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Later that year, Martonyi wrote in the that…

The tragic events that have been taking place in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, most lately in Kosovo, has made us realise in a dramatic way that security means much more than just in its military definition and that the security of Europe is indivisible. Crisis situations have also warned us that one single organisation, however efficient, is not able to solve the economic, environmental or security problems as a region, let alone of the whole continent, on its own. … Another important lesson of the crisis in the former Yugoslavia has been that no durable peace can be achieved in the region in the absence of genuine democracy and functioning democratic institutions in the countries concerned.  

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When Hungary acceded to NATO and its flag was raised outside the Alliance’s HQ in Brussels on 16 March, along with those of Poland and the Czech Republic, it finally became a formal ally of the United States and the United Kingdom. By 2001 many of the former eastern bloc countries had submitted applications for membership of the EU, eventually joining in 2004. The European Community had formally become the European Union on 1 January 1994 following the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty the previous year and later that year Hungary was the first of the newly liberated Central European countries to apply for membership. Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria followed soon after. The European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which had been set up by Britain in 1959, as an alternative to the EEC (when De Gaulle said “Non!”), gradually lost members to the EC/EU. Most of the remaining EFTA countries – Finland, Sweden and Austria – joined the EU in 1995, although Norway rejected membership in a referendum.

Map 5:

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Despite all the bullets and bombs which had been flying in the course of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and, to some extent, because of them, Europe emerged from the nineties as a more politically and economically integrated continent than it had been both at the end of the eighties, and possibly since before the Balkan Wars of the early twentieth century. Through the expansion of NATO, and despite the posturing of the Blair government, the Atlantic Alliance was also at its strongest ‘shape’ since the end of the Cold War, able to adapt to the re-shaping of the world which was to follow the millennarian events of the early years of the twenty-first century.

Sources:

Mark Almond, András Bereznay, et. al. (2001), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books/ Harper Collins Publishers.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

John Simpson (1999), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Rudolf Joó (ed.)(1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.

 

Posted October 27, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Baghdad, Balkan Crises, BBC, Britain, British history, Britons, Bulgaria, Cold War, Communism, Conservative Party, democracy, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Falklands, Genocide, guerilla warfare, Gulf War, History, Hungary, Iraq, John Major, Labour Party, liberal democracy, Margaret Thatcher, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, New Labour, Ottoman Empire, Population, Refugees, Russia, Seasons, Security, Serbia, Statehood, terror, terrorism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Yugoslavia

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These Weeks in the Twentieth Century   Leave a comment

1916: The Battle of Verdun

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

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

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

Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes comrades.

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

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

Introduction of Conscription in Britain

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

1941: A Transylvanian Jew in Budapest

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

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

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

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

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1946: Revival of the Hungarian Independence Movement

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

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

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

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

1991: Return to Cold War & Operation Desert Storm

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

The Bombing of Baghdad, January 1991   1 comment

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In January 1991, John Simpson, BBC correspondent, found himself living and working from the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, just a hundred feet over Saddam Hussein’s bunker. Both he and the Coalition forces knew this: the European company which had built much of his bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The American embassy, before it had closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed by the bombing. Of the big American news corporations who had been present in Iraq’s capital, only CNN remained.

Simpson admitted that his reasons for remaining were complex. Certainly, there was a sense of duty and a commitment to the BBC’s role as a world-wide public service broadcaster. As its ‘Foreign Affairs’ editor, he wanted the Corporation to have proper news coverage of what was about to happen. He had not been ‘sent’ to Baghdad, but had chosen to go, and therefore didn’t feel it right to leave the city and leave the job to someone else. In addition, he was too interested to turn his back on what would be the greatest bombardment in human history. He had also undertaken to write a book on the crisis, and couldn’t therefore simply walk away from the final chapter. Although he enjoyed the sense of danger and excitement, he knew he would have to survive to be able to write the chapter. When he returned to London later the same year, he was interviewed on the popular radio programme, Desert Island Discs, admitting to its host Sue Lawley that he didn’t risk his life just to write the book, but because he was, indeed, a bit of a chancer. He thought he would probably survive, and then the benefits of seeing the war at first hand would be considerable in every way. Whatever his mix of motives for staying, the fact that he did has provided historians with a series of important eye-witness accounts of the Bombing of Baghdad, on radio, TV and in print.

Even on the eve of the day the bombing began, 16 January, ordinary Iraqis were sure that there would be no war. Nobody wants it, he was told. That night, Simpson produced what he considered to be the best report he had ever done. Despite what he had been told, it showed people taping up their windows and finished with the first air-raid sirens of the war. It was sent to London by satellite. The satellite revolution which had occurred over the previous decade had not simply speeded up the delivery of film reports for almost immediate broadcast, it had also meant that government control of what was shown on TV was almost impossible. Mrs Thatcher was unable, even had she wanted to, to control the images coming out of Baghdad as she had controlled those coming out of the South Atlantic in 1982.

That same evening, the French and American broadcasting organisations with teams in the Al-Rashid Hotel got in touch with them to tell them that the bombing would start that night. The BBC crew, which included two other hardened reporters, Eamonn Matthews and Bob Simpson, heard nothing from their bosses. They had apparently changed their minds and decided that the crew should leave Baghdad. Simpson’s orders came from one of the most senior figures in the Corporation, whom the journalist told that he would then need to get a new foreign affairs editor. They finally agreed that if Simpson chose to ignore the BBC instructions, he would not face disciplinary action on his return. However, the other members of the crew were told that if they stayed on in defiance of the instruction, they would be regarded as having resigned from the Corporation. The severance would be immediate, without payment to themselves or, should they be killed, to their widows. Four of the team, including the whole technical crew, decided they had to obey. Simpson, Matthews and Simpson were faced the prospect of staying on without a camera team and a picture mixer.

in the event, they soon found two cameramen, both of whom had been sacked for questioning their offices’ instructions to return home immediately. Anthony Wood had been working for TV-AM in the UK, and Nick Della Cassa for CBS. In addition to a hand-held video camera and Nick’s American NTSC equipment, the ‘new’ crew also had a satellite phone. It soon became obvious that CNN had done a separate deal with the Iraqis, who had agreed to let them have use of a government communications system, a two-way telephone line called a ‘four-wire’, which ran in a protected culvert to the Jordanian border. It was immune to the general telecommunications jamming which the Americans carried out. In return, anything Saddam Hussein wanted the world to know or see could be said or shown via CNN. Later, ex-President George Bush was deeply critical of CNN, the BBC and other broadcasters who worked in Baghdad during the war. As John Simpson himself pointed out, however…

even in wartime, broadcasters in a free society are not a co-opted branch of the military; their function is not and shouldn’t be to keep up morale at home, nor to spread deliberate propaganda abroad. In the Second World War the BBC, with Churchill’s full agreement, broadcast as much of the truth as the proper demands of national security would allow; so that often the first news of  British reverses was broadcast, not by Germans or Japanese or Italian radio, but by ourselves.

‘We always listened to the BBC,’ said one of the tens of thousands of letters the BBC received from its European well-wishers after the War was over, ‘because we knew that if you were honest about the bad things that happened to you, we could trust you to tell us about your victories.’

If you are fighting in a good cause against those who wish to suppress truth and honesty,  – whether they are Nazis or the Iraqi government – it is the worst thing possible to suppress truth and honesty yourself. The results of the BBC’s approach in the Second World War were of course remarkable. Not only did the civil population of Germany and the occupied countries listen to the BBC in preference to their own broadcasters, but the BBC’s international reputation for honesty and unbiased reporting was established for the rest of the twentieth century.

I doubt if CNN’s behaviour during the Gulf War will win it that kind of praise. Yet the Gulf War was the making of CNN… CNN denies strongly that it persuaded the Iraqis to throw everyone else out soon after the war began, and that it tried to stop them being invited back some time later… though CNN has also denied, rather unconvincingly, that it used the Iraqi four-wire communication system. What we do know is that by establishing its pre-eminence in Baghdad, CNN became the television news leader in America.   

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In the early hours of 17 January, soon after the BBC technical crew had told Simpson, Matthews and Simpson that they were leaving and the three ‘stayers’ had hired Antony Wood and Nick Della Casa, the bombing of the Iraqi capital began. The Americans started by jamming telecommunications. Remembering Saddam Hussein’s warning that there would be two enormously destructive waves of bombing, John Simpson felt distinctly nervous, but only the nervousness you feel before an important match, or a stage appearance. At 2.32 q.m, following his suggestion, he, Wood and Matthews headed out into the streets to film the start of the bombing. They ran across the lobby of the hotel into the silence of the cold night outside. Most of the city lights had been switched off. They had hired a driver for the night and they ran to his car, jumped in and slammed the doors:

‘Drive! Drive! Drive!’

But drive where? We hadn’t had time to work it out. Each of us shouted suggestions. I wanted to be in the heavily populated areas on the other side of the river, but I was afraid of crossing a bridge. All the bridges, we knew, would be bombed, and if we were stuck on the wrong side without any shelter we might well be lynched as spies.

We were still shouting when the darkness and silence exploded around us. There was an extraordinary racket, as the hidden guns and missile batteries started blasting off excitedly into the air. I remembered to look at my watch: 2.37. Red tracer flashed up in patterns beside us, lighting up the frightened, sweating face of our driver, and Eamonn peering through the window trying to see where we should go, and Anthony’s face screwed into the side of the camera. Sirens started up everywhere. Our ears were besieged with with waves of disorienting noise.

‘I’m getting this, I’m getting this,’ Anthony yelled.

The car took a sharp turn into an underpass, its wheels squealing, and came out on the other side just as a battery of rockets exploded beside us.

I’m glad you are, I thought. I could see what was happening: the driver was so frightened, he was heading straight back to the hotel. We were going on a mile-long circle, with nothing to show for it but a few flashing lights in the sky and some spectacular noise. As for the bombing, it hadn’t even started. This was just a display of nervousness by the Iraqi gunners… 

They tried to set up their camera in front of the main door of the hotel, just as the first rumblings of aircraft became audible over the anti-aircraft guns. However, the big security guards hauled them inside. They could hear that outside, the first bombs and missiles had begun falling. The whole building shook as they landed nearby, though nothing, as yet, had hit it. They were forced down into one of the vast underground rooms which were being used as shelters:

It smelled of fear. People were gathered all round the walls in little groups, lying or sitting, terrified or weeping or trying to come to terms with what had happened to them. The old rules that applied on the surface seemed not to work down here. I saw a young woman undressing in front of everyone, and neither she nor anyone else seemed to pay any attention. Children wept or defecated; old men and women sat looking at the floor, too frightened to do anything. And all the time, it seemed, the structure of hotel, fifty feet above our heads, shook and shivered with the bombing.

The crew couldn’t stand to be in this living tomb. They fought their way past a guard armed with a Kalashnikov in the dark and ran up five flights of stairs to the BBC office, catching glimpses on every landing of the extraordinary battle which was going on outside. They were unable to stop, since the guards were chasing them. In the office they found the other members of the crew, and John Simpson managed to record a piece to camera by torchlight, fearing that Iraqi soldiers outside might think they were signalling to the planes and put a heavy round through the window. Dodging past a security man on the corridor outside, and into an empty room, he locked the door and then found his way through several interconnecting doors until, in the light of the blasts outside, he found a bed. Beside it was a short-wave radio which he turned on and found it was tuned to the BBC. As if he didn’t know, the calm voice of the BBC announcer told him that the war had started, and President Bush told him why so much high explosive was being dropped on his head. As he was falling asleep, his watch told him it was 5.45.

He woke up three hours later and went out into the grounds of the hotel, where little groups of journalists were gathered around the white umbrella-like dishes of satellite phones. The skies were blue and empty except for the occasional puffs of smoke from ground-to-air missiles, and there was sporadic gunfire. The BBC journalist did a first telephone report about the night’s bombing, but couldn’t answer questions about what state Baghdad was in that morning. So he and Wood went out again, again dodging the exhausted guards. They found a driver and crossed a still undamaged bridge into the centre of the city which was eerily quiet and empty:

Our car was one of the very few on the streets, and there were scarcely any people to be seen: a woman trailing a weeping child, a few old men and women selling oranges. Here and there entire buildings had been snuffed out of existence – important government buildings, ‘Mukhabarat’ (security guard) centres or Ba’ath Party headquarters – and yet those on either side of them were mostly undamaged, and sometimes still had all their glass in the windows. A local telephone exchange, a smallish building opposite an hotel, was nothing more than a heap of rubble; the hotel was still completely usable.

A couple of hours later, a friend of mine who had been caught out in the darkness told me that she had seen strange red lights playing on the target buildings. British and perhaps American special forces had penetrated the city and were guiding the missiles with infra-red lamps; hence the extraordinary precision.

As we drove round, the driver spotted a ‘Mukhabarat’ car.

‘Allah! He see you take picture.’

The unmarked white car picked up speed, overtook us and forced us to stop. I got out.

 ‘Morning’, I said, ‘Just looking around. I’m sure you don’t mind.’

He did mind. He ordered us to follow him… We crossed the bridge as though we were going back to our hotel, but the police car signalled that it was going to take the right fork, to ‘Mukhabarat’ headquarters: not at all a good destination.

Now, though, the sirens were wailing again, and the Defence Ministry a quarter of a mile away along the river bank vanished in a pillar of brown smoke. You couldn’t hear the cruise missiles coming: you could only see the results.

‘Go straight on, Ali,’ I hissed at the driver. ‘Don’t turn. Go there.’

I tried to look ferocious: Ali had to be more frightened of me at that moment than he was of the secret police. It did the trick. The ‘Mukhabarat’ car turned right, and we sped straight ahead, the hotel only a few hundred yards away now. The missiles were falling again and the futile sound of anti-aircraft fire was everywhere. It must have taken the secret policeman a minute or so to realize what had happened and another minute to turn; but as we raced into the car park the white car was already entering the hotel gates. Ali was safe enough: he told the police I had threatened to cut his throat. Technically it was a lie: but he had interpreted me right.

Later that morning, John Simpson saw a cruise or ‘Tomahawk’ missile pass along the line of the road outside the hotel. It actually turned left at the traffic lights and followed the road which the white police car had wanted them to take. He thought it may have hit the ‘Mukhabarat’ headquarters itself, in which case he was even more relieved that they hadn’t gone there. Soon afterwards, he went down to the hotel gardens, where the satellite phone had been set up. It was around nine in the morning, London time, when he was interviewed by David Dimbleby on a special live programme, and reported the passing by of the missile, adding:

This is the first time anyone’s seen a war like this.  It wasn’t what we expected, to be honest. I’ve covered quite a lot of wars in my time, but I thought this was going to be horrendous: or at least I thought it was going to be last night. It’s turned out not to be so horrendous, and it’s the accuracy of the missiles which makes it less threatening than one thought.

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He didn’t want to become an apologist for any kind of war, but his words were taken as making the case for a new kind of warfare by many back home in the UK, myself included. Somehow, it was evident that war could now be more neat and tidy, without much bloodshed. Until the terrible bombing of the Amriyah shelter, in which hundreds of women and children died, ‘co-lateral’ civilian casualties were indeed minimal. Of course, had it not been for the greed and blinkered mentality of a number of countries, including Britain, in allowing Saddam Hussein to build up so large an arsenal of weapons during and after his war with Iran, it might not have been necessary for them to fight the Gulf War at all.

However, what he felt was incontrovertible was that, for the first time since 1918, this was a war in which killing ordinary people was not a main objective. Of course, those who were against the war didn’t want to hear this. When he went back to Baghdad after the war, he counted only twenty-nine buildings which had been completely destroyed, though those which had been targeted had been hit repeatedly.

Following the initial bombardments of 17 January, there were fewer than forty of the meia people left, including eleven British, eight French, three Italians, a Spaniard, an Australian, a New Zealander, a team of Canadians, five Americans, a Turk and a couple of Jordanians. On the second night, the Americans told the CNN team that they were going to hit the Al-Rashid Hotel, but that didn’t happen. After Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel, there was a real fear that the Israelis might retaliate with nuclear weapons, but that didn’t happen either. The Al-Rashid had ceased to function as a hotel: there was no power, no water and no food. The raids went on day and night, but the missiles continued to loop around high buildings like the Al-Rashid.

The television crews rushed outside every time the sirens went off, meeting the embarrassed security men running for cover inside. On one occasion John Simpson collided with a desk in the hallway in the dark, cracking two of his ribs. Desperate to get on air, he struggled downstairs. Overhead a sensational battle was being fought between the Coalition planes and the Iraqi ground-to-air missiles. There were explosions all across the sky, but the BBC scheduling in London meant that he could only report on the battle after it was over and the skies had cleared. A wonderful broadcasting opportunity had been lost.

The Iraqi security men were only occasionally aggressive towards the camera crews. Besides being reluctant to be out in the open with them, most of them seemed to be praying that Saddam would be killed or overthrown. Certainly, if his army had fought in the way he had intended, there could have been large-scale losses for the Coalition forces. As it was, they only put up a token fight because they didn’t want to support him. On the afternoon the Information told them they would have to leave Iraq, their chief minder assured them that CNN would also be leaving. As it turned out, that was a lie. Before they left, the area around the hotel was attacked by cruise missiles:

Two of the missiles went round the hotel and hit the conference centre opposite, which was one of the entrances to Saddam Hussein’s bunker. Another was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and plunged into the hotel grounds. At the height of the action I recorded a quick piece to camera, with my back to the window. There was a terrible racket outside, but the people in the room were sitting there completely immobile and silent. Then Bob Simpson spoke.

‘It went right behind you while you were talking. It was a cruise.’

But there was no time to talk about it. Anthony and I went charging downstairs to film the damage done by the missile which had crashed. It had ploughed into the staff quarters, which were well ablaze by the time we got there. Fortunately no one had been in the huts at the time, and there were no casualties. As we were filming, we were jumped on by four security men. We fought them for a while, but in the end one of them got hold of the camera and took the cassette out… It didn’t just contain the pictures of the crashed missile; it also had my piece to camera with the cruise passing behind my head. I felt as though I had lost a picture of the Loch Ness Monster.

When they arrived at the Marriott Hotel in Amman, they were greeted, much to their surprise, by a reception committee from the BBC and various other television organisations. The BBC crew who had left Baghdad had managed to smuggle their pictures through, while ITN’s had been confiscated at the border. In addition, the satellite telephone broadcasts John Simpson had managed to make had been heard by immense audiences. After a quarter of a century in the trade, he could now feel that he had truly arrived as a reporter.

Source: John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke & Oxford: Pan Books.

This Month in the Cold War: January 1991.   Leave a comment

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On Sunday 13 January, in Vilnius, Lithuania, “Bloody Sunday,” Soviet troops stormed the television tower and other public buildings. Fourteen Lithuanians, men and women, were killed. On 20 January in Riga, Latvia, “Black Beret”Soviet troops stormed the Interior Ministry, killing five Latvians. The United States and world opinion were outraged: if these methods – the tactics of Tianamen Square – were used against every republic seeking independence, bloodbath would succeed bloodbath.

The orders for the crackdown in Vilnius were said to come “from the very top,” but Gorbachev, after the first killings, got cold feet and ordered a stop to the operation. Urged to go to Vilnius, Gorbachev was told his security there could not be guaranteed. He stayed in Moscow, speaking to the Supreme Soviet, defending what had been done and refusing to condemn the use of force. On 21 January, Gorbachev did condemn brutality, and promised to punish those responsible. He was walking a tightrope between hard-liners who wanted a Union-wide crackdown on all forces opposed to the centre and reformists who were for change at whatever cost to the Soviet state. Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin, as parliamentary leader of Russia signed a mutual security pact with the Baltic states.

A summit meeting between Gorbachev and Bush, planned for February, was abandoned as East-West relations deteriorated. Even though the Soviet Union had voted with the United Nations to support the use of force against Iraq, Gorbachev was conscious of Soviet ties to the country and of hard-line opposition to US gunboat diplomacy. He tried to persuade the United States to stay its hand and allow him time to work on the Iraq issue.

Source: Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press.

From Berlin to Baghdad: Autumn 1990   Leave a comment

3 October 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany…

In the early summer of 1990, the conditions to be attached to German reunification were hammered out. The Soviet Union failed to secure a transitional period in which the military forces in East Germany retained “associated membership” in the Warsaw Pact, an obvious nonsense, or an agreement on a hard-line plan whereby for three to five years the other powers would oversee Germany’s conduct. In London in early July, a NATO summit made a declaration of non-aggression with the Warsaw Pact nations. That helped the cause of German reunification, and Germany, meanwhile, helped itself by confirming its borders with Poland, promising to limit the future size of a German army, agreeing not to station nuclear weapons in East Germany and offering to pay the costs of removing half a million Soviet troops from the former DDR and resettling them in Russia. Kohl and Genscher went to Moscow together, and at a press conference on 16 July, Gorbachev declared, “whether we like it or not, the time will come when a united Germany will be in NATO if that is its choice. Then, if that is its choice, to some degree and in some form, Germany can work together with the Soviet Union.”

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West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (second from right), with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.

This extraordinary statement was, as Chancellor Kohl put it, “a breakthrough, a fantastic result.” A fortnight earlier, at the Twenty-eighth Party Congress, Gorbachev had been ferociously attacked by party hard-liners for letting the Baltics go, for weakening the Warsaw Pact, and for undermining the ideological foundations of the Soviet Union and its ruling Communist Party. He was, nevertheless, re-elected its general secretary, and continued to commit the Soviet Union to uproot the cornerstone of its security policy since the end of the Second World War. On 3 October, East and West Germany were joined; Germany was reunited.  The crowds and flags in the pictures below show that this was a popular political reunification, at first, within the European Union. The security and economic issues would be addressed later.

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Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, 3 October 1990. Crowds celebrate as Germany is reunited.

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Some historians say the Cold War ended when the Berlin Wall came down in October 1989: others say it was when the Soviet Union publicly reconciled itself to seeing a reunited Germany, whose invasion and defeat in 1941-45  had cost the Union more than twenty million dead, in a military alliance with the West. Since Germany had always been at the epicentre of the Cold War in Europe, Gorbachev’s statement in Moscow on 16 July has a strong claim to be considered the decisive moment of the Cold War’s ending. However, there was still a great deal of unfinished business, both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 marked the beginning of what has become known by historians as the ‘Second Cold War’, so too the summer of 1990 also marked the beginning of two conflicts which still remain to be resolved, one in the Persian Gulf and the other in what, then, was still part of the USSR, in the Ukraine.

Gorbachev had, almost immediately, to cope with two desperately difficult tasks at home, in what was still, just, the USSR. He was trying, as fast as he could, to reform an economy and system of government that had become a way of life. Just the prospect of radical economic restructuring threatened social chaos and caused immediate fear and distress. To go from a command economy, where everyone did as they were told by the centre, to one that operated without central planning and control, leaving prices to market forces, was to travel a pathless route into unknown territory. Not many wanted to go that way, and the few who did had no route map by which to arrive at a clear destination.

On 20 July a “five hundred day” economic programme to move the USSR towards a market economy was published. It proposed the sale of large numbers of state enterprises, the dissolution of state collective farms, currency reform and a new banking system. But Gorbachev’s nerve failed him, and the reforms were not introduced. Uncertainty was only making matters worse, and the Bush administration steadfastly refused to provide aid to fund the programme up front, saying that it would only give it as a reward for implementing reform, not as an inducement. Moreover, concerned that Gorbachev might be deposed, the US continued to maintain a state of full military preparedness.

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Above: Ukrainians protest at continued Soviet domination.

At the same time, Gorbachev was also trying, against all the odds, to hold the Union together, when it seemed that every single member state, in turn, was seeking independence. On the very same day that he was declaring German reunification and NATO membership a foregone conclusion, Ukraine declared its sovereignty, followed by Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Tadzhikistan in August, and Kazakhstan and Kirghizia in October. In October, too, both Russia and Ukraine declared their state laws sovereign over Union laws.  The Supreme Soviet declared this invalid in November. Gorbachev proposed to set up a new central government that would have in it representatives from the fifteen Soviet republics. By the end of November, he proposed a new Union Treaty: a Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics, with loosened ties between each republic and the central Soviet government. In other crucial matters the Supreme Soviet had taken giant strides; on 1 October it passed a law guaranteeing freedom of worship and on 9 October legislation was brought in to set up a multiparty system.  The media too were freed from state control.

While Gorbachev was dealing with these ‘domestic’ issues, the superpowers’ commitment to peaceful collaboration was severely tested by events in the Persian Gulf region. On 2 August the army of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s brutal Baathist dictator had overrun neighbouring Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Several thousand Russians worked in the country. The invasion and annexation of Kuwait had taken the Kremlin, the White House and the world by surprise. On 2 August, BBC journalist John Simpson, who had been an eye-witness to most of the tumultuous events of 1989-90, was on holiday in southern France. Within three hours of hearing on the radio that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, he was on a plane back to London. Not for another six months was he able to take another day off.

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Above: August 1990. The Iraqi army invades and annexes Kuwait.

James Baker and Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been meeting in Irkutsk, had flown to Moscow. Baker had been anxious to ensure that the Soviet Union would stand with the United States in its condemnation of the invasion and support whatever action it eventually would take against it. Although Iraq had long been an ally of the Soviet Union, and the initial reactions of Gorbachev and some of his colleagues against an alliance, Shevardnadze stood with Baker at Vnukovo Airport the next day. Together they told the press that the two great powers were “jointly calling upon the rest of the international community to join with us in an international cut-off of all arms supplies to Iraq.” Superpower confrontation had become co-operation. For James Baker, this was the Cold War’s ending: for others, it was the first joint act of security policy in the post-Cold War world.

By the end of August, the United States had begun to despatch land, sea, and air forces to Saudi Arabia in Operation Desert Shield, to discourage Iraq from a further invasion. The UN Security Council voted the first of a dozen resolutions demanding Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. However, by the end of the year, Shevardnadze had personally paid the price for the USSR’s concessions in Eastern Europe and on Germany, and support for the United States in the Persian Gulf. He had been offered up as a scapegoat by Gorbachev to the conservatives. Knowing that he was about to be kicked upstairs as vice president, he resigned and returned to his native Georgia.

In September 1990, John Simpson returned to Britain from Baghdad for a short break, if not a holiday. The first poster he saw was Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam. He commented that some of us have been writing and broadcasting about the unpleasantness of Saddam Hussein’s regime for years, while the British government regarded Iraq as a good customer for weaponry of all kinds. He went back to Baghdad after about a week and was there until November 1990. He commented:

Iraq seemed to me like a hijacked plane, being flown to an unknown destination. A man whom scarcely anyone wanted as their president was holding a gun to the pilot’s head, and the passengers and the rest of the crew were terrified to say a word or stop him. The fact that British industry, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the British government, had supplied the hijacker with his gun and the bullets for it made it all the worse. 

In November (19-21), NATO and Warsaw Pact leaders met in Paris to sign a historic treaty setting reduced levels of conventional forces in the whole of Europe (CFE) from the Atlantic to the Urals. Disarmament was no longer simply about the ‘superpowers’ controlling the numbers of nuclear warheads. Negotiations had become multi-lateral and multi-faceted.

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Following a visit to Brussels by Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky at the end of June (see picture above), on 16 July, József Antall had become the first Prime Minister of a Warsaw Pact country, Hungary, to meet with the Secretary-General of NATO. He met Manfred Wörner at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. From that point on, the Hungarian Ambassador in Brussels maintained permanent contact with NATO’s relevant authorities. As democratic reform began to take hold in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe, the United States and other Western Countries agreed to help with the tremendous financial burden of restructuring the former ‘satellite’ countries and preparing them for global integration. In October 1990, Prime Minister Antall made an official working visit to Washington, during which President Bush noted the resumption of American business investment in Hungary. He asked Congress for 300 million dollars in economic aid for Eastern Europe. He also asked the IMF to extend five billion dollars in loans to Eastern European countries to compensate them for increased oil prices following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush also announced the end of travel restrictions on Hungarian diplomats in the US, and that a Hungarian Consulate General would be opened in Los Angeles.

It was against this background that, in Paris, the sixteen member states of NATO and the six member states of the Warsaw Pact countries published a Joint Declaration on non-aggression in which they stated that they no longer considered themselves as enemies. This was immediately followed by a visit by the Secretary-General to Hungary where he held talks with President Árpád Gönz, PM József Antall and members of the government. Wörner also gave a presentation to the Foreign Relations Committee and the Defence Committee of the Hungarian National Assembly. By the end of November, Hungary had been accorded the status of associate delegation by the North Atlantic Assembly (NATO’s ‘Parliament’, meeting in London), together with other Central European countries.

On the same day, 29 November, the United Nations passed Security Resolution 678, authorising the use of force in the Gulf if Iraq was not out of Kuwait by 15 January 1991. As the Cold War ended with the former ‘satellite’ states freely placing themselves under the NATO umbrella, the conflict in the Middle East was about to go up in flames, quite literally. Together with the break-up of the Russian sphere of influence and the Balkan wars, this was to dominate the next generation of international relations.

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War.  London: Transworld Publishers.

Rudolf Joó (ed.) (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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