15 March 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Rezső Kasztner. The following post is based on Anna Porter’s 2007 book, Kasztner’s Train, and includes extensive extracts from it.
“The affair of the Judenrat (and perhaps also the Kasztner case) should, in my view, be left to the tribunal of history in the coming generation. The Jews who were safe and secure during the Hitler era ought not presume to judge their brethren who were burned and slaughtered, nor the few who survived.”
David Ben-Gurion, quoted in Weitz, The Man Who Was Murdered Twice.
Five years ago, Zsolt Zágoni published a translation of a handwritten notebook of Rózsa Stern, written in Switzerland following her escape on the train via Bergen-Belsen (1,684 people were deported on the train to the camp and from there in two groups to Switzerland – I have summarised her account of the transit elsewhere). Rózsa’s father, Samu Stern, was the President of the Hungarian Jewish Community in Budapest at the time of the Nazi occupation on 19 March, obliged to negotiate with Eichmann about the fate of the Jewish community, not just in Budapest, but throughout Hungary and the Hungarian-occupied territories. Rózsa’s notebook confirms that Rezső Kasztner encouraged Samu to leave with his daughter and her husband, György Bamberger, because if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either (if there are no Jews left in the city, there is no need for a President of the Jewish Council).
Above: The memoir written by Samu Stern in 1945 (he died on 9 June, 1946).
Stern’s photo is seen on the cover
In the accompanying historical essay, written by Krisztián Ungváry, the historian also confirms Porter’s account that in the early Summer of 1944 the Kolozsvár-born Kasztner had made a deal with the SS Commander in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann, the man sent to Hungary that Spring to complete the Final Solution. It was as a Hungarian lawyer and journalist, a leading Zionist and member of the Rescue Committee that he had been given the approval of the Jewish Council to meet with Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, in Budapest. Following the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March that year, Eichmann had been charged with the deportation of all six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz within a matter of months. By the end of June, more than 440,000 had been deported from the countryside, first placed in ghettos, and then transported in cattle wagons on trains to the death camp. Yet Kasztner and his colleague Joel Brand secured Eichmann’s agreement to allow 1,684 Jews to leave for Switzerland by train. These negotiations and the deals they struck with the devil continued to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his life, and help to explain why he has never been fully honoured for his role in saving so many lives.
Dealing with the Devil:
In exchange for getting the Jews to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport military trucks through Switzerland to Germany. The wealthy Jews of Budapest and Kasztner’s native Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (now and previously Cluj in Romania) paid an average of $1,500 for each family member to be included on the lists of those who would eventually leave for Switzerland by train and emigrate to Palestine. The poor families included were to pay nothing. Kasztner also negotiated to keep twenty thousand more Hungarian Jews alive in Budapest – Eichmann called them Kasztner’s Jews or his Jews on Ice – in exchange for a deposit of approximately $100 per head. It was the right and duty of Kasztner’s Rescue Committee to decide who would get on the train that would mean survival. In order to include some of the poorest, who paid nothing, they had to select mainly wealthier, educated people and, controversially, relatives and acquaintances from Kolozsvár. Had he told even these people what would probably happen to those left behind, he would certainly have risked the success of the entire rescue mission, including the futures of the twenty thousand Jews on ice, as Eichmann called them, who would not be deported, in exchange for $100 per head. Rózsa Stern’s journal confirms that of those interned at the Aréna Street (now Dózsa György Street) Synagogue on 30 June, awaiting the departure of the Aliyah train most… were families from the countryside who were saved from the brick factories. Only about a dozen people died on the way to Switzerland, so that the survivors on the Kasztner train could consider themselves the ‘lucky’ ones.
After the war Kasztner was a witness at the trial of major war criminals and was a defence witness six times in the case of Kurt Becher in Nuremberg, the SS officer with whom Kasztner was negotiating in 1944 and who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he had ambitions for a political career in Israel, he was told that it was essential for him to clear his name, and he therefore filed a lawsuit. However, this backfired on him and although he won his libel case, the evidence presented led to the widespread public conclusion that he had sold his soul to the devil. In Israel, Kasztner’s case turned into a political scandal. The survivors whose lives were not saved by the train and whose families died in Auschwitz or on the trains and forced marches there, saw in Kasztner a mean, calculating collaborator. His alleged favouritism for family, friends and acquaintances in the selection of the ‘survivors’, together with the fact that , knowing the whole truth about the death-camp, from the so-called Auschwitz Protocols, he chose not to reveal this to the wider public, strengthened the subsequent hatred against him. In fact, those who really wanted to know what was happening to those deported had had many channels from which they could get information from as early as 1942, and had access to these since well before the Auschwitz Protocols arrived in Budapest via Bratislava. Porter’s book gives evidence that many of the Jewish leaders, including Samu Stern, did not want to give credence to what the Eichmann and the Nazis repeatedly dismissed as malicious rumours aimed at starting an uprising, which would be met with severe repression should they be repeated or publicised in any way. Certainly, it was made plain to Kasztner that any rumour-mongering would lead to the breakdown of his plans for an exodus of remaining Jews.
In Israel – Accusations of Collaboration:
In Israel, after the war, the exiled Kasztner was vilified in an infamous libel trial for ‘collaborating’ with the Nazis. As a result of the libel case, the Israeli government was forced to resign. The Israeli political right labelled their opponents as Gestapo agents and Kasztner became an obvious scapegoat. It was the first time that the general public, in Israel and elsewhere, became aware of the contacts between Zionist organisations and the Nazis and, not having experienced the terror of 1944 in the Hungary, they failed to understand the pressures which the Budapest Rescue Committee and the Jewish Council in Budapest were under, pressure which led to almost continual friction between the two organisations over tactics in dealing with the Nazis, whether at home or abroad.
In Tel Aviv, Kasztner and his whole family were subjected to appalling hate crimes. His young daughter, Zsuzsi, was stoned on the streets and his wife Bogyó became severely depressed. While awaiting the Supreme Court verdict that would eventually vindicate him, he was assassinated outside his apartment block in Tel Aviv. Kasztner did not think of himself as a hero, but as a proud Zionist who believed that promises, even those made to the Nazis, had to be kept. Anna Porter, born in Budapest and educated there after the war, has written a compelling account of him, subtitled The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, based both on written sources in Hungarian and English, and on eyewitness accounts, collected at a time when there were few recorded references to the victims of what she (properly in my view) calls the Hungarian Holocaust. There were even fewer references to Rezső Kasztner, although the better-known Oskar Schindler, who had met Kasztner in Budapest in 1942, had written of his actions that they remained unsurpassed. Soon after the war, Schindler was recognized as a Righteous Gentile, supported by grateful survivors, celebrated and lionized. Kasztner, by contrast, became a symbol of collaboration with the enemy. Porter acknowledges that:
… the deals Kasztner made with the SS… raise questions about moral choices, courage in dangerous circumstances, the nature of compromise and collaboration, and how far an individual should go to save other people. These questions are as valid now as they were in the 1940s. They continue to haunt the world today.
Yet moral questions must be set alongside historical ones and Porter’s book, though a work of popular history, is meticulous in its use of diaries, notes, taped interviews, courtroom testimonies, and memoirs – both written and oral, including those written in German and Hebrew. Since Kasztner’s only goal was that of saving human lives, she concludes that Kasztner achieved more in this way than any other individual in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Consequences of the Libel Trial, 1956-57; Extracts from Porter:
In March 1956, the chief magistrate in Jerusalem dismissed the charge of perjury against Kasztner… but the year presented greater trials than the re-trial of the perjury case… On October 29… the Israeli army invaded Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula. It was a pre-emptive strike at the heart of Egypt’s occupation of the Suez Canal. The invasion’s chief achievement, as far as the Israelis were concerned, was that it signaled to the surrounding Arab states that Israel could preserve its security against its enemies. Headlines in Israeli papers were occupied with news of the victory and the ensuing peace negotiations. Kasztner was no longer in the headlines. The government cancelled his protection.
He continued to work for ‘Új Kelet’ (‘New East’) and co-produced some radio programmes. He took on some freelance work as a translator… Tomy Lapid (a colleague) said that Kasztner seemed aware of his life being in danger. “He became a hunted man,” Lapid said… Kasztner now looked along the street carefully before he stepped out of a doorway; he hesitated when he turned corners; once, when a car backfired he ducked into a store; he stayed close to walls; he had seemed nervous even when government-appointed guards followed him. There were so many abusive, threatening calls that he stopped answering the phone at the office. At home, too, he disconnected the telephone. He didn’t want his wife or daughter listening to the deranged ravings about how his life was to end.
On March 3, 1957, Kasztner was working the night-shift at the editorial offices of ‘Új Kelet’. He drove a colleague… home. A few minutes after midnight, Kasztner parked his car in front of his apartment building at 6 Sderot Emanuel Street. While he was still in the driver’s seat, he was approached by two young men. A third, he saw, was standing in the shadows of the building. One of the men asked if he was “Doctor Kasztner.” When he replied that, yes, he was, the man drew a gun, but it misfired. Kasztner opened the car door, pushing his assailant aside, then ran toward the entrance of the building. The man fired, twice in quick succession. This time the bullets found their target. Kasztner ran a few more steps, then collapsed. He shouted for help as the three assailants fled. He saw the gunman run to a jeep and speed off.
He was still conscious when the first person from the building arrived at the scene and tried to administer first aid. A woman who had gone to her balcony when the shots rang out ran to wake Bogyó (Kasztner’s wife). Another man heard Kasztner say that the assailant had gone in a jeep; that neighbour jumped on his bike and gave chase. Two men emerged from the jeep near the city zoo, where their pursuer, a former army man, found a phone booth and called the police.
A crowd gathered around Kasztner. Someone had called an ambulance. Bogyó, a neighbor reported later, seemed strangely calm when she saw that Rezső had been shot. Perhaps she, too, had been expecting something like this to happen. She knelt next to her bleeding husband, put a pillow under his head, covered him with a blanket, stroked his forehead and whispered to him…
Friends and a few passengers from the Kasztner train went to the hospital with flowers. There were hundreds of telegrams with good wishes for a speedy convalescence… Newspapers that had denounced Kasztner now shouted in headlines that the attackers had aimed at the heart of the nation of Israel.
Kasztner’s room was guarded by two policemen. He was conscious but spoke little. He wished to see no visitors except his immediate family and Hansi (his Zionist colleague Joel Brand’s wife and Rezső’s long-term lover). Bogyó had intended to bar Hansi from the room, but she managed to plead her way in. At one point he asked her, “Why did they do this to me?” Hansi was with him on March 12 as his condition began to deteriorate.
On March 15, at 7:20 a.m., Rezső Kasztner died.
The Aftermath of the Assassination:
On Sunday, March 17, 1957, Rezső Kasztner’s coffin was set up in front of the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv to provide his many admirers with an opportunity to pay their respects in public and to show their solidarity with the family. His mother, his two brothers, Bogyó, and Zsuzsi (his daughter), stood next to the coffin. Though neither David Ben-Gurion nor Mohse Sharett came, the Mapai (the ruling party) were represented by Attorney General Chaim Cohen and State Secretary Teddy Kollek. Some of his old colleagues from Budapest and Kolozsvár, and the halutzim who had worked with him paid their respects. Hansi stood near the coffin but out of Bogyó’s immediate circle. Yoel Palgi was there, as were many of the passengers from the Kasztner train. At the Bilu Synagogue, Rezső’s brother Gyula, his voice breaking as he read the words, recited the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead…
Kasztner was interred at the Nachlat Yitzhak Cemetery in Givataim, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, amid numerous declarations of friendship and tears. Most of the speakers vowed to continue the struggle not only to clear his name, but also to enshrine it among the heroes of the Holocaust. Those he had helped to survive promised to take promised to take care of his family.
‘Új Kelet’ published a moving obituary written by Ernő Márton. He praised Kasztner’s capacity for wit and erudition and his obsession with saving Jewish lives, his death-defying courage, his self-sacrifice, and his ambition to do something great, something “eternally significant for his people.”
Within days of the murder, the police arrested a twenty-four-year-old man, Zeev Eckstein, and his evidence led to the arrest of two other men, John Menkes, a former member of the Stern Gang, and Yaakov Cheruti, a lawyer. The three were tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment the following January. A week later, on 15 January 1958, the Supreme Court exonerated Kasztner in a four-to-one decision. In the key matter of the original libel of his collaboration with the Nazis, the majority of the judges accepted the appeal of the attorney general and convicted Malchiel Grünwald. In the midst of the joy of vindication that followed the Supreme Court ruling, notes of doubt remained.
The Supreme Court of Israel had acquitted Kasztner of all the charges brought against him, except for the one of helping Becher escape prosecution at Nuremberg. This led to remaining doubts concerning his affidavit written on Becher’s behalf at that time, and his subsequent confused evidence in the libel case about this. In his statement about this following the initial Grünwald trial, Kastner had written:
I cannot refrain from expressing again my sorrow over the impression which may have been made in some people regarding the phrasing of my testimony about Becher, and the result of it. Neither I nor my friends have anything to hide in this whole affair, and we do not regret that we acted in accordance with our conscience, despite all that was done to us in this trial.
Several journalists continued to criticise Kasztner as having sold his soul in his deal with the Nazis. Nevertheless, the promise made by Alexander Rosenfeld at his funeral; We shall not rest, nor shall we remain silent until your name is cleared had been fulfilled by the Supreme Court’s verdict. His widow and daughter expressed their sadness that the new verdict had come too late to save his life. He had died aged just 51.
Despite the justifications of Kasztner’s role in Budapest, his fate of making friends with the devil, still divides the shrinking number of survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust of 1944-5. In 2006, István Bubryák made a three-part documentary about his life and several academic works, including Anna Porter’s book, have been published about his life. By way of postscript, an Italian book by Andrea Schiavon has also been published about one of the subsequently famous survivors on the train, Shaul Ladany. He was a member of the ill-fated Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972. When the book was published (2012), he was in his seventies and still taking part in various walking competitions (see picture below).
These accounts lend support to the evidence presented by Anna Porter, that, while human beings always have choices to make, even in the most difficult of times, there was no doubt that Kasztner acted with integrity during those months between March and December 1944, and that his actions saved many thousands of Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, not just the 1,684 who went on his train, but those who might have died on the subsequent death marches, or at the hands of the Arrow Cross. It is this very fact of survival which enables the ultimate vindication of Kasztner and the Budapest Rescue Committee.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.
Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest.
Aftermath: Autumn into Winter…
1-3 December: To flee or not to flee?…
For the recently extended family of Tom Leimdörfer, the first few days of December were totally surreal. Fourteen-year-old Tom, his mother Edit, Gyuri Schustek and his two children, Ferkó (16) and Marika (12) had already taken the decision to leave their homes in Budapest and to flee Hungary, following the onset of the Soviet repression. They were in a state of suspended animation in which the various experiences of excitement, planning, doubt and fear abounded. Were they too late to escape? News of the first waves of arrests at the border reached them as the border guard units were reconstituted. There was plenty of news of arrests as well as rumours of executions, as the Kádár regime asserted its authority, but the dominant feeling was one of uncertainty: Were the phones being tapped again? Had the secret police been re-established to a degree that they could be under surveillance?
Tom had been the only one of the family of five to take part in the revolutionary demonstrations of 23 October, and it was unlikely that anyone had noticed his spontaneous action in leaving their city centre flat that afternoon to join the mass crowds in the square outside Parliament. The police forces seemed only to be after known prominent figures. Getting caught while trying to flee, however, would certainly put them under suspicion, especially since Gyuri Schustek already had a prison record. In addition, many fourteen-year-olds had already been detained and questioned about their roles in the street demonstrations and fighting which had taken place from the 23rd to mid-November.
Both the contemporary and potential intellectual leaders and other icons were over-represented among those fleeing the country, and included the poet György Faludy, a distant relative of the Leimdörfers, who had spent time in the Rákosi era working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book My Happy Days in Hell, and the pianist György Cziffra. Among the figures who stayed and received sentences were the writers István Bibó, Tibór Déry, Zoltán Zelk, Gyula Háy and the writer, translator (of Tolkien) and post-1989 Head of State Árpád Göncz, as well as the historian Domokos Kosáry. Of course, it is impossible to enumerate those who were removed from their jobs as punishment or in order to narrow their sphere of intercourse and influence.
With all its horror, however, Kádár’s ‘terror’ was not of the Stalinist kind in which Rákosi indulged. While it was an act of arbitrary power, its victims were not selected in any arbitrary manner and it did not collectively punish whole social groups in the name of some general political strategy, but aimed, on the basis of very specific political calculation and selectivity, at individuals who had proved to be, or were considered to be, dangerous to the Kádár régime. Almost from the beginning, the usurper’s isolation of this active minority through administrative and police measures were not pursued with any great consistency.
Naturally, those choosing to flee the country in the winter of 1956-7 were not in a position to make this judgement or take the risk. Domokos Szent-Iványi, Horthy’s cabinet secretary and envoy to Moscow, had faced a similar dilemma in 1946, when the Rákósi dictatorship began, and had chosen to stay, only to be arrested, remaining in prison for a decade before his release on 18 September 1956. He later wrote :
The first question I was confronted with after my release was whether I should flee from Hungary or not? This question became particularly acute at the time of the mass emigration from Hungary after the collapse of Hungarian resistance on or about 7 November 1956. For many reasons I decided to stay and so… until… September 1968, I dropped all ideas of leaving Hungary… several of our friends, like András, Sándor Kiss, Jatzkó, Szent-Miklósy, Veress and others, left the country…
He must have feared re-arrest at any moment. Reflecting on his decision in 1977, he was able to put it in the broader context of Hungarian history and, in particular, its experience with the fake promises of freedom held out by ‘the Western democracies’, contrasted with their real imperial priorities in the Middle East:
As in the past, in 1241, in 1526, in 1711, in 1849 and in 1920, Hungary was once more abandoned in 1956 by the Western Powers which believed that their interests had more to be defended around the borders of Suez and Israel and not on the Eastern bulwark of European Civilisation… As Hungary could not and cannot expect any effective help from the Western democracies, Hungary must renounce her centuries old idea of protecting European peace, prosperity and civilisation, and must try to arrive at some peaceful settlement and cooperation with her most powerful eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union.
3-12 December: The Diplomatic Crisis in Bucharest, New York & Washington…
On 23 November, the day after the abduction of the Nagy group from the Yugoslav Embassy (the occupants of the bus had refused to leave it when they arrived at the Soviet HQ and had to be pulled off by force, the women screaming and the children shrieking in fear), the Kádár government had issued a statement which was published in the press to the effect that Imre Nagy and his friends have left at their request for the Popular Republic of Romania. Of course, the truth soon became public knowledge, but it had taken until 26 November for Kádár to reply to a request for an explanation from the National Workers’ Council. He had broadcast on Radio Budapest:
We promised that the behaviour of Imre Nagy and his friends would not be subject to legal proceedings. We will keep that promise. We do not consider their departure as permanent. But, in our opinion, it is to the advantage of Imre Nagy and his associates and their families to leave Hungary for a certain period of time.
Several days later, at the plenary session of the United Nations on 3 December, the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs declared:
The Romanian government assures that Prime Minister Imre Nagy and his group will enjoy the full benefit of the right of political exile. The Romanian government will observe the international rules regarding this right.
The US government also kept up its diplomatic pressure on the USSR, verbally protesting the unwarranted use of Soviet force against Hungarian citizens to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. The US diplomats specifically noted the Soviet tanks that had parked on the sidewalk outside their Legation in Budapest. The Department of State also protested twice when the Soviets interfered with Americans who were trying to leave Hungary. It also protested to the Hungarian Legation in Washington concerning the interruption of telegraphic communications with the US Legation in Budapest. The UN General Assembly also adopted a resolution calling on the Soviet Union and Hungary to comply with earlier resolutions on the Hungarian question and to allow UN observers to visit Hungary. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld offered to visit personally, but the Kádár government refused to receive either him or admit observers. On 12 December, the GA adopted a resolution calling on the USSR to end its illegal intervention in Hungarian affairs and to make arrangements for a UN-supervised withdrawal from the country.
The same day, President Eisenhower announced the organisation of the President’s Committee for Hungarian Refugee Relief. He also announced that Vice President Richard Nixon would visit Austria between 18 and 23 December to discuss assistance to the Hungarian refugees there. In total, up to May 1957, the United States resettled 32,075 Hungarian refugees, most of whom were processed at Camp Kilmer, a former army base in New Jersey. This was over ten thousand more than Eisenhower had promised to resettle on 1 December, with the utmost practical speed. It also provided an additional $4 million to the UN to aid Hungarian refugees, popularly known as freedom fighters, besides the funds committed by private organisations in the US.
The Women’s Demonstration in Heroes’ Square, 4 December…
No major demonstrations or events had taken place in Heroes’ Square during the Uprising, but on 4 December, exactly one month after the second Soviet intervention, there was a silent protest of women in the square. This has not received the attention it deserves in the histories of the events of 1956. The demonstration was promoted by the underground newspaper Élünk (We Live) and was not only against the continued occupation by Soviet forces, but also a vigil for those killed in the Uprising and its suppression. The focal point was the memorial at the foot of the column in the centre of the square, originally inscribed in memory of those who had fought in World War I. It had recently been officially rededicated in memory of those who had given their lives for the freedom of the Hungarian people.
Above: Heroes’ Square
Zsuzsanna Pajzs, a 25-year-old doctor at the time, was one of those present at the demonstration . She later recalled a line of women entering the square, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front, a candle in the other. She remembered the presence of Soviet tanks, but they made no move on the silent demonstration, and both the soldiers and the Hungarian security troops looked on in silence, according to thirteen-year-old schoolgirl, Márta Boga. She recalled how:
We believed, with the minds of children, that everything was starting again. There were lots of women. Those who had lost someone were dressed in black from head to toe. There were candles burning in many windows. There were some with pushchairs. No one shouted out. This was a silent demonstration.
A report in the Yugoslav publication Borba spoke of columns of demonstrators arriving from fifteen different directions at around 10.30 am. There were two or three women in each line carrying either the Hungarian tricolour or black flags. . The report quotes from leaflets protesting against the slanders calling our dead ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and our Hungarian revolutionaries ‘fascists’. There were old and young, and all had flowers in their hands.
Borba also reported that Soviet armoured cars arrived and blocked Andrassy út (as it was named before 1950 and has been since 1990). Shots were fired in the air. Some women were pushed back and told to disperse, though there was some dialogue between the women and the Soviets. The AP reporter Endre Marton also witnessed these scenes, estimating that the demonstrators numbered twenty thousand. It constituted a cross-section of society,
the famous actress with the streetcar conductor… the lovely straight avenue… teeming with women and only women.
Tanks appeared and stopped the silent demonstration two blocks from Heroes’ Square, Marton reported. A Soviet colonel got up on one of the tanks, shouting at the women in Russian. According to Marton, the women’s lines…
…opened up and then closed again behind the monsters, leaving them hopelessly engulfed by the oncoming thousands.
When the lines reached the square, in seconds the tomb was bedecked with flowers… The colonel now turned his eyes to the few journalists observing the events in the square, whom he began to harangue and harass:
He could not stop this mass demonstration, but wanted to prevent the world from learning what had happened.
The women then hived off and went to demonstrate in front of the US and British embassies. A Soviet tank arrived at the latter Legation. József Molnár, employed as an interpreter there, remembered an amusing exchange which occurred as Sir Leslie Fry, the British ambassador telephoned Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador, for an explanation:
The Soviet ambassador said that the tank had been sent to protect the Legation from the demonstrators. To this Sir Leslie Fry responded that if the Soviet armed forces had nothing better to do in Hungary than to protect the British Legation from Hungarians, then they could peacefully go home since the Legation had no need for it.
The following day several hundred women attempted to demonstrate and lay flowers at the Petőfi statue in Március 15 tér, but were prevented from doing so by Soviet and Hungarian security forces. In the course of the next five days there were further women’s protests in the provincial towns of Gyula, Székesfehérvár, Esztergom, Pécs, Miskolc and Eger.
6-27 December: The Workers’ Councils of Budapest and Csepel…
Throughout the early weeks of December, the Budapest Central Workers’ Council continued to offer the last bastion of opposition still operative in Hungary. Since it was an elected body, with representatives from each major workplace, it had great credibility, and both the Kádár régime and the Soviets had to take it seriously. Despite the revival of the strike following the abduction of the Nagy ‘rump’, Kádár still hoped to use the council to control the workers. Its members were given travel passes, whereas most workers were restricted to travel between home and work, and were also authorised to carry arms. The security forces also appointed their own delegate, a colonel, to the council, and even Kádár and senior Soviet officials sometimes attended its meetings. Sándor Rácz, president of the council, was only twenty-three and had little public education, but as he was a remarkable speaker he had been elected to head the council. However, by the beginning of December, it seems that the Soviets, if not Kádár himself, were beginning to run out of patience with the council. By the 2-3 December, although there was still a chance that there might be some agreement between the KMT (the Central Workers’ Council) and the Kádár government, the negotiations were in their final phase. The end game was approaching and, as things turned out, it could be argued that the KMT should have been much bolder. In the event, Rácz was summoned to their general HQ where the Soviet envoy and commander, General Serov was waiting for him, and abruptly informed him:
It’s finished. We don’t want to hear any more phony demands from you and you are not going to continue the strike. Consider yourself fortunate that I allow you to walk out of this room.
On 6 December, the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council issued a memorandum which had a rather fatalistic tone, admitting its failure to reach a compromise in its negotiations with the Kádár government:
…Our wish is the same as all workers, indeed the whole Hungarian people: decent standards of living, peace, a life without fear, independence and a strong government controlled by the workers and peasants of this country. We know that the working class is the greatest force in creating and safeguarding these aims… We drew a sharp line between ourselves and those who are bent on mischief, armed forays, or acts of terror. We must state here and now that our efforts have not brought the desired results. While we have done our best to restart productive work in all workplaces throughout the countryside, we have suffered provocations from many sides, sometimes leading to strike action… We accept that Prime Minister János Kádár is doing his level best to bring the country back to normal conditions. But it seems that he is not strong enough to remove certain persons in his entourage who have earned the undying hatred of Hungarian workers.
The memorandum went on to complain about the numerous arrests of workers’ councils’ members throughout the country and the disruption of meetings, concluding that these seemed to be part of an organised attack. These abuses had been brought to the attention of the government, it stated, in the hope that an impending catastrophe might be avoided. It’s conclusion, however, was that our efforts have been fruitless. After that, its demand that the government should disclose its plans on the radio the following day (7 December) seem, in retrospect, rather weak. There was not even a hint of a threat of action by the KMT to force this. On 8 December, in what seems now like an act of desperation, the KMT addressed, in very diplomatic language, an address to Nikolai Bulganin, the USSR’s Prime Minister:
We should be deeply obliged to Your Excellency, and you would render a great service to the cause of Hungarian political consolidation, if you could give an opportunity to the democratically elected delegates of the Hungarian working class to submit to you their views on Hungarian economic-political reality.
On the same day, the KMT held a meeting with workers’ councils’ delegates from the provinces in Budapest. One of the major items on the agenda was the continuing arrest of workers’ councils’ members. As the meeting got underway, news came through of the fatal shooting of a number of workers during a protest demonstration in Salgótarján, an industrial town to the northeast of the capital. The result was an immediate call for a forty-eight-hour, nationwide general strike for 11-12 December, with the exemption of medical and energy supplies.
Meanwhile, communiques were published among the public, assuring them that Imre Nagy and his group were enjoying the hospitality of the Romanian government in an excellent atmosphere marked by mutual understanding. Despite these attempts at placating the public, On 11 December, the forty-eight-hour strike began. As Sándor Rácz recalled in 1983:
… the strike of December 11-12 and the appeal were the last things we did. We didn’t have anything left to say to Kádár’s lot who, in place of negotiating with us, had fired on us. You know, it’s my feeling that the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest put its stamp on the whole revolution, showing that this wasn’t an uprising of hooligans, but of workers.
As the strike was getting underway, the government issued a strongly worded pronouncement declaring a state of emergency, introducing measures such as summary jurisdiction. At the same time it declared:
…the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest, the district workers’ councils of the capital, and the county and town workers’ councils to be illegal… sober working men have been unable to gain ground against a counter-revolutionary majority. These… elements are working for nothing less than to turn the workers’ councils of Budapest into bastions of the counter-revolution. Their armoury consists of spreading rumours, acts of terror, calls for strikes and renewed armed provocations.
In the government’s view the deaths and injuries at Salgótarján had been caused by counter-revolutionary provocateurs who had opened fire on the demonstrators, though it gave no evidence to support this claim in its pronouncement.
Sándor Rácz was called before parliament on 11 December, supposedly for more talks. Reluctantly, he made his way there despite the beginning of arrests of other leaders of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council. Arriving at the door of the Parliament House, he was also arrested and bundled off to the Fő utca prison in Buda. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment. The repression continued across the city, with further arrests and the occupation of factories by Soviet troops. The general strike of mid-December was the high point for the KMT, but it also marked the beginning of its speedy decline.
This left the Csepel Workers’ Council as the only remaining organised force capable of offering resistance to Soviet control. The Council decided to take over the responsibility of negotiating with the government, in order to stop the arrests, free those who had been arrested, and preserve what elements it could of workers’ control and self-management. The Csepel workers had refused to support the general strike call and János Kádár assured them that their councils, as factory-based organisations, were not regarded as outside the law. In the end, however, negotiation with his government proved just as difficult and frustrating a task as it had done for the KMT.
The Csepel Works, on the Danube, south of Budapest, photographed in the 1990s, following privatisation.
The leader of the Csepel Workers’ Council, Elek Nagy, had an interesting confrontation at a weekly press conference with a New York Times reporter who asked why the Csepel workers were so unprincipled and opportunistic, why they had returned to work rather than sticking to the call for the removal of Soviet troops. Nagy lost his temper and responded that he was well aware that America was anti-Soviet, and pointed out that the degree of Soviet friendship in Budapest could be judged from the widespread ruins. He asked the reporter if he would prefer not to see any building standing in the city, and to see thousands of orphans and widows, so that the critics could censure the Soviets all the more:
You would only have the moral right to raise your question if the Russian army had killed proportionately as many Americans as it has here, and was ruining your country. Until then you have no right to talk about principles and opportunism.
A correspondent for Pravda, who asked about the fulfilment of the production plan got off no more lightly. Nagy ranted in response:
Hungary isn’t working under a plan. What do you want? To tell more lies? You’ve told enough already. Rather write about how the Great Boulevard and Andrássy út are in ruins; write about how your liberating troops behaved when faced with a small nation fighting for national independence; write this rather than how we have already fulfilled the socialist norm by 150 per cent!
Negotiations with the Kádár government continued in parliament, but in an increasingly antagonistic atmosphere, the two sides failing to see eye to eye over their respective roles. József recalled one of the last meetings, on 27 December, when Kádár reiterated strongly that the Party must have the leading role, and when his fellow minister György Marosán angrily jumped up, shouting…
…Take note! Here power is in the hands of the Party, and there can be no counting on any solution which puts a question mark over the Party’s political monopoly. Meanwhile you continually talk about revolution. You should understand that it was a counter-revolution here.
By the end of the year, whatever contemporary or historical perspective was applied to the events of the previous ten weeks, the Revolution had come full circle, and remained in the same position for the next thirty years, at least.
Reflections and Projections on the fate of the Revolution and Communism
Above: Painting by Krisztina Rényi, The János Kádár Era (1956-89). Rényi was born in 1956, at the beginning of the era, and her son was born in 1989, at its end.
Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution in her renowned The Origins of Totalitarianism is often quoted and referred to as a positive appreciation of the 1956 events from a Marxist perspective, but those quoting her rarely reflect deeply on her comments about the direct democracy of the workers’ councils which emerged as being at the core of what was positive about these events. She has pointed out that whenever and wherever such councils have emerged they were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies from Right to Left, and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists. Certainly, the role of the workers’ councils in 1956 has been (conveniently) neglected in much of both historical and commemorative writing since the tag counter-revolution was officially abandoned in October 1988.
Apart from Arendt’s writing, that of Milovan Djilas, once the friend and later the persecuted critic of Tito, reflects a positive, contemporary appraisal of the role of the Hungarian Revolution in the context of a prophetic view of the long-term, terminal decline of Communism in Eastern Europe. In The New Leader, written at the end of 1956, he drew the following lessons from that year’s events:
The Communist régimes of the East European countries must either begin to break away from Moscow or else they will become even more dependent. None of the countries – not even Yugoslavia – will be able to avert this choice. In no case can the mass movement be halted, whether it follows the Yugoslav-Polish pattern, that of Hungary, or some new pattern which combines the two.
Despite the Soviet repression in Hungary, Moscow can only slow down the processes of change; it cannot stop them in the long run. The crisis is not only between the USSR and its neighbours, but within the Communist system as such. National Communism is itself a product of the crisis but it is only a phase in the evolution and withering-away of contemporary Communism… the revolution in Hungary means the beginning of the end in Communism.
… The Hungarian Revolution blazed a path which sooner or later other Communist countries must follow. The wound which the Hungarian Revolution inflicted on Communism can never be completely healed. All its evils and weaknesses, both as Soviet imperialists and as a definite system of suppression, had collected on the body of Hungary and there, like festering sores, were cut out by the Hungarian people.
I do not think that the fate of the Hungarian Revolution is at all decisive for the fate of Communism in the world. World communism now faces stormy days and insurmountable difficulties, and the people of Eastern Europe face heroic new struggles for freedom and independence.
Those heroic new struggles for freedom and independence began on 23 October 1988, when it was announcement on the radio that the struggle in 1956 would no longer be viewed by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party as a counter-revolution and that the Soviet Union had agreed to star withdrawing its troops from the country the following spring. The wheel of revolution was beginning to turn again, but this time it would bring about the final fall of Communism by accelerating the development of privatisation and free-market economies throughout the Eastern states, together with a switching of military alliances.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa
Turning the World Upside Down
In her interview for September’s BBC History Magazine, Alex von Tunzelmann was asked why she thought the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt was so badly bungled. She pointed out that the military plans from the time show that they were full of gaps, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were clearly opposed to the whole operation. Indeed, they themselves had advised the British Prime Minister that consequences of the action could be terrible, but he had chosen to ignore their advice. They were proved right, but partly because of the weight of world opinion was so heavily against them that, by the time the British and French forces got a third of the way down the canal, they had to stop. Israel achieved its objective of taking Sinai, but soon lost it again. Neither Britain nor France achieved their objectives, and all that they succeeded in doing was strengthening Nasser’s control in the Middle East while his ally, the Soviet Union, reasserted its control over its satellite states. In addition, people no longer talked about Britain as a major world power. From this point on, there were just two ‘superpowers’, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the following years and decades, Britain was reduced to playing the junior partner in its ‘special relationship’ with the USA.
Eisenhower was not in favour of an immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops until the US ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. pushed for it. Eden’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill commented on 22 November, “I cannot understand why our troops were halted. To go so far and not go on was madness.” Churchill further added that while he might not have dared to begin the military operation, nevertheless once having ordered it he would certainly not have dared to stop it before it had achieved its objective. Without further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by 22 December 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of the UNEF. Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt within a week; Israel did not. A rare example of support for the Anglo-French actions against Egypt came from West Germany; though the Cabinet was divided, the Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was furious with the United States for its “chumminess with the Russians” as Adenauer called the U.S. refusal to intervene in Hungary and voting with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, and the traditionally Francophile Adenauer drew closer to Paris as a result.
Still from a 1957 newsreel on the aftermath of the crisis
Reading the newspaper accounts of the Autumn of 1956, von Tunzelmann was struck by the speed of the events both in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the way in which both sets seemed simultaneously to be upsetting the existing order of the world. In the climate of world opinion against Britain and France, the Soviet Union was able to avoid large-scale diplomatic repercussions from its violent suppression of the rebellion in Hungary, and even to present an image at the United Nations as a defender of small nations against imperialism. In addition, the Soviet Union made major gains with regards to influence in the Middle East. The American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote about the aftermath of the crisis:
When the British-French-Israeli invasion forced them to choose, Eisenhower and Dulles came down, with instant decisiveness, on the side of the Egyptians. They preferred alignment with Arab nationalism, even if it meant alienating pro-Israeli constituencies on the eve of a presidential election in the United States, even if it meant throwing the NATO alliance into its most divisive crisis yet, even if it meant risking whatever was left of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, even if it meant voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council at a time when the Russians, themselves, were invading Hungary and crushing—far more brutally than anything that happened in Egypt—a rebellion against their own authority there. The fact that the Eisenhower administration itself applied crushing economic pressure to the British and French to disengage from Suez, and that it subsequently forced an Israeli pull-back from the Sinai as well—all of this, one might thought, would won the United States the lasting gratitude of Nasser, the Egyptians and the Arab world. Instead, the Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.
In Hungary, by the middle of November, the rebellion had been completely crushed. The Soviet invasion had rolled back its small, nascent reforms and life became much more unpleasant for many people living in the Soviet bloc. Yet, initially, Kádár had no real idea as to how to cope with the situation he faced, no clear set of policies to implement. The government programme which he had drafted in Moscow at the beginning of November, included promises of welfare measures, amnesty, workers’ self-management, indulgent policies towards the peasantry and small-scale private enterprise in general, and even a transition to a multi-party system and a re-negotiation of the presence of Soviet troops (once order was restored).
Last days in Budapest
Tom recalls continuing to listen to the radio in their shared flat during the second fortnight in November:
One bizarre event was the holding of the International Liszt Piano Competition. Of course, it was boycotted by everyone outside the Warsaw pact countries. Still we listened to it on the radio as the two top prizes were awarded to Russian pianists playing Liszt’s piano concertos. The third prize went to a Hungarian who played the less known ’Mephisto Waltz’ in the final round. The dance of the devil – a touch of artistic resistance rewarded by the jury? We could hope so. Then the Olympic Games started in Melbourne towards the end of November, so we started to take an interest in the exploits of the Hungarian team. How were they feeling competing against Soviet athletes? Every medal still gave us a sense of national pride.
On 16 November, one of the major centres of underground resistance, Péterfy utca Hospital, was raided and a number of leaders arrested. Since 23 October, this had been one of the main hospitals in the capital where those injured in the fighting, including some ÁVH and Soviet soldiers, were brought for emergency treatment. It was not far from the Eastern Railway Station, where a number of armed groups had their base, and close to Köztársaság Square, so that it received those injured on 30 October. On 4 November, the day of the Soviet reoccupation of the city, more people had turned to the hospital for shelter from the storm of tank fire raging outside, including the armed insurgents. An illegal press had been established under the hospital, with groups of young people delivering leaflets around the city encouraging resistance. This work was inspired and led by István Angyal, who set up a base in the same basement. On the 16th, armed security forces surrounded the hospital complex and entered the grounds. The whole building, including its underground passageways was combed and the publishing equipment seized. There was no armed resistance from inside, and Angyal was arrested and taken away, to be executed later for his part in the uprising. Others among the resistance spent years in prison.
On the same day, Sándor Rácz, the outspoken twenty-three-year-old toolmaker from the Beloiannisz (Standard Electric) factory in Buda, was elected President of the KMT (Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest). Following his delegation’s meeting with the Kádár government the previous day, his first act was to go on the radio to appeal for a return to work. The appeal was printed in the following day’s Népszabadság:
Fellow workers! Regardless of any outside call, we feel that the immediate resumption of productive work has now become essential. We are saying this in full awareness of our profound responsibility towards the national economy and the people of our country. We have all suffered enough; in the present critical situation sober judgement, conscience and solidarity dictate us to call upon you, while maintaining the right to strike, to return to work on 17 November… Negotiations are continuing. We are convinced that all questions left open can and will be satisfactorily resolved by our joint effort.
Rácz, interviewed in 1983, recalled further reasons why the call for the return to work was made:
We couldn’t allow Kádár’s lot to be the ones who gave work and bread to the workers. , because then they would manipulate them. If the Central Workers’ Council could bring the men back to work, back into the factories, then it would be strengthening its own position as well – that was the idea. The workers’ councils also had to be re-elected. Kádár’s lot were always going on about the workers’ councils not being valid, because the workers weren’t there in the factories – as if they, on the other hand, had been elected by public acclaim.
Despite these justifications, the Associated Press correspondent, Endre Marton, remembered the KMT as a haphazard organisation, whose leaders were manual workers, and not professional trade union men. They had no written statutes and did not care about parliamentary procedures. Nevertheless, he added, they knew their strength and knew that Kádár desperately needed their help to reopen the country’s idle industrial plants. Before the revolution, Kádár had been a popular and respected figure among the workers. Even after 4 November, Marton recalled, while remaining loyal to Imre Nagy, several council members grudgingly acknowledged that they still trusted Kádár despite his betrayal of the revolution.
In addition to the strike issue, the KMT was determined that the workers’ councils should cooperate on both a regional and national basis. While Kádár was willing to accept the idea of councils at a factory level, concerned with questions of production, and had issued a decree to this effect on 13 November, he was firmly opposed to them establishing networks which might pursue demands of a more political nature. If these were to materialise into a national body, this might constitute a situation of dual power. Although there was no such intention on the part of the KMT, its leaders certainly wanted to establish a National Workers’ Council to represent workers across the country. They issued a call for a conference to establish this, to be held on Wednesday 21 November at the National Sports Hall in Budapest. However, when the delegates arrived they were confronted by Soviet tanks blocking the streets around the hall, and had to make their way back to the KMT’s headquarters at Akácfa utca. There, an angry meeting passed a resolution calling on the government to recognise a democratically elected national workers’ council as the sole body empowered to carry out negotiations in the name of the working class. They also agreed to the call for a forty-eight hour general strike throughout the capital, excepting food workers, in protest against the banning of the proposed earlier meeting.
While Kádár negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, he also ordered hundreds of arrests. While the uncertainty as to his real goals remained, he had busied himself in organising special police squads for the purposes of retaliation and maintaining order. This was also the day which saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates, who left the Yugoslav Embassy on assurances of safe passages home given by Kádár himself, but found themselves being taken by Soviet forces to Romania, where they were placed under house arrest. The developments at the Yugoslav Embassy had, as their international background, a speech by Tito to a group of Communist Party activists on the Istrian peninsula on 11 November, the contents of which did not become known in Budapest and Moscow until a week later. In it, he argued that while the Hungarian uprising had been a justified response to the failure of the Soviets to make a clean break with Stalinism, it had been taken over by counter-revolutionaries. Therefore, in his view, the second Soviet intervention was also justified, as was the setting up of, and his support for, Kádár’s government. The Yugoslav deputy foreign minister was sent to Budapest to negotiate a written agreement between Kádár and himself to the effect that the Hungarian ministers, their families and fellows, would be free to go home without fear of prosecution.
So it happened that, late in the day on Thursday 22 November, a bus arrived at the embassy allegedly to take the Hungarians home. The ‘refugees’ were already nervous, as Mária Haraszti recalled:
At the time I was very pessimistic, but I can’t explain why… I turned to ‘Uncle Imre’ and asked ‘Is it definite we are going home?’ He said, ‘Of course, Marika, it’s definite’.
As they got on the bus, the first members of the group soon realised that their driver was Russian and some returned to the embassy building to warn the others. Eye-witnesses report that this was followed by a lively exchange between Nagy and the Yugoslav ambassador, who stressed that if they had any doubts about the situation, they should not leave. The belief that there was a formal written agreement seems to have decided the issue, so that the whole group boarded the bus. They had little alternative, since they could not go home on their own due to the curfew. As they pulled away, the Yugoslav embassy cars were prevented from following the bus by two Soviet armoured vehicles. When the bus failed to turn to stop at the first address, the general alarm of its occupants was echoed by one of their children, six-year-old Juli, who cried out, “Oh, no! The Russians are taking us away!” The remaining Yugoslavs on the bus were then ordered off. They were then taken to the Rácóczi Barracks, then used as the KGB base, on the perimeter of Pest. From there they were flown to Romania and placed under house arrest in a villa in Snagov, thirty kilometres north of Bucharest.
While the revolutionary committees were also being dissolved, almost simultaneously, the ideological justification for the ‘retaliation’ campaign was being drawn up at a Party conference which blamed the October events on:
- the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction;
- the formation of a circle around Nagy which undermined the party;
- a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of the Horthyite fascists;
- the intervention of international imperialists.
Despite its obvious absurdity to post-communist readers, at the time this was a clever ‘two-front’ strategy of struggle by a virtuous centre against Stalinism on the one hand and revisionism on the other, emphasising both the enemies within and outside the country. The Suez Crisis served its purpose in respect of reminding people of the latter, and Kádár’s other, internal justifications served as the basis for bans, arrests and prosecutions which began under the introduction of summary justice. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months afterwards. Eventually 35,000 people were brought before the Hungarian courts; 22,000 were sentenced and 13,000 imprisoned. Around 350 people were executed (229 were sentenced to death). Thirteen thousand were sent to internment camps without trial, many of these eventually being deported to the Soviet Union without any evidence being brought against them. Some sources have estimated the deportations to have been as high as twenty thousand. The UN General Assembly, meeting in plenary session, adopted a series of resolutions urging the Soviet Union to stop deporting Hungarian citizens from their homes and calling on the Hungarian Government to admit UN observers to assess the situation, also urging member states to assist refugees. Some two hundred thousand Hungarians fled their country as refugees, including the current and future intelligentsia, among them Tom Leimdorfer and his family, as well as many famous writers, poets, artists musicians and athletes. President Eisenhower announced that the United States would offer asylum to 21,500 Hungarian refugees, and that these would be brought to the US with the utmost practicable speed.
When the news of the abduction of Nagy and his ministers began to trickle through to the ordinary citizens of Budapest, no doubt it added to the anger and determination which resulted in the silent ‘shut down’ of the city in the afternoon of 23 November. Exactly a month after the uprising began, the streets of the capital fell silent as a planned protest against the continued Soviet occupation. Word had spread that between 2 pm and 3 pm there would be a silent protest, that the city centre would be deserted and that no-one would set foot on the streets. Endre Marton, the AP correspondent drove his Volkswagen towards Blaha Lujza tér, one of the busiest squares in the capital and parked it near the National Theatre. Then minutes before two o’ clock the normally crowded square rapidly emptied, people in doorways motioning to those still on the streets to join them. When the church clocks chimed two, the whole city centre came to a standstill. Marton commented that there was more life… on those streets during the hours of air raids in 1945 than there was during that hour. The only vehicle he saw moving was an armoured car packed with Soviet soldiers shouldering rifles, wearing combat fatigues and steel helmets, and when they slowly passed our car I could see the tension on the young faces looking around in disbelief. After comparing notes with other journalists, Marton reported that the situation had been the same everywhere, even in the residential districts and industrial suburbs – deserted streets and complete silence.
Though there were few other acts or events to follow that Friday in the capital during the last week of November, passive resistance throughout the country continued to take place over the following early weeks of December, with strikes and marches being met by police rounds, killing hundreds of demonstrating workers in northern towns of Salgótarján, Miskolc and Eger.
Preparing to leave
For Tom Leimdorfer, that last week of November brought the dawning yet still dismal realisation that his prospects would now, indeed, involve leaving his beloved Budapest:
As that sad, depressing November drew to its close, we started to talk about the future. Somehow, those four weeks created a break with everything we had regarded as our normal pattern of life. We heard that the border was still open and tens of thousands had already fled. Some were escaping from certain retribution, having played a prominent part in the revolution. Most others were leaving because they could not face a return to repression after hopes for freedom were crushed. Mami started to talk about London again, but this time it was not just for me or the two of us. Gyuri seemed to take to idea and gradually Ferkó and Marika warmed to the thought of a new life in England. Yet it must have been a frightening prospect for them. They had a really lovely flat, their childhood home, which they would leave for an uncertain future. None them spoke even the little English I had. Ferkó spoke quite good German and schoolboy Russian and his father was fluent in German and French but knew no English. Sári néni must have been devastated at the prospect of being left alone by her family, having only lost her daughter two years before. Yet she was supportive of the idea that we should try to leave.
Once the decision was made, my mother swung into action. She went back to her workplace and sought an interview with a senior manager. Somehow, she persuaded him to write an official document entitling her and her family (including her new partner’s two children!) to a week’s holiday at one of the hostels at the disposal of the worker’s union – which just happened to be close to the Austrian border. This was in case we were challenged on the train journey. Then she went to see her friend and colleague who desperately needed a small flat, having lived with her parents all her life. She told her in confidence what our plans were, gave her our duplicate keys and instructions about what to do and say to the authorities if we were successful and also if we were arrested. Some money for our furniture was to go to our family, which eventually was turned into a single lens reflex Praktica camera I was to use for over 25 years.
The next episodes in Tom’s tale, mirroring those of the bitter winter which followed for many of his compatriots, is one of exodus and exile, which I aim to tell in my next series of posts. They are more concerned with the personal and familial experiences of fleeing the homeland, arriving as a refugee in England, and the struggles associated with settling into the host country. That is why they need to be told separately from the events of the autumn of 1956 in Budapest and elsewhere, though they are no less a seminal part of modern European history, especially given the more recent troubles and turmoil to affect both the continent, and the ‘Middle East’.
Main Secondary Sources:
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of Drama. Budapest: Europa Könyvkiadó.
Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: US Department of State.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz kiadó.
Primary Sources as given in the texts.
Sykes-Picot, Balfour, Imperialism & Zionism, 1916-36.
The row about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party rumbles on, with ‘Labour’ forums reduced to open censorship of criticism online in order to uphold its leaders’ line that this is mainly a problem of envy among long-established MPs and party members who do not like the amount of power and influence wielded by the ‘new’ members he has attracted to the party. Yet we know from the nature of the comments made that many of these new members are simply aping the discourse of anti-Zionists among the ‘Fabian Left’, dating back to Labour’s rise to power, which coincided with the emergence of serious tensions between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. I have already written about this elsewhere, so I don’t want to risk repeating myself here.
However, given that this week sees the hundredth anniversary of that ‘infamous’ agreement between two civil servants, Mr Sykes of Britain and Mnsr. Picot of France, I thought I would add a ‘tailpiece’ about the role of imperialism in the middle east in this era, having previously focused on the development of Zionism in Europe. Much of this context is drawn from Bernard Porter’s seminal 1984 work on British Imperialism, 1850- 1983, The Lion’s Share. This work should be on a bibliography given to new Labour members who may not have had the opportunity, as I did, to study this historical context to contemporary controversial issues. Before I read this, I was as keen as them to take sides in the Arab-Israeli Conflict and in other post-imperial conflicts, such as the Irish Question. Having grown up in a home where casual anti-Semitism was not rare, stemming from my father’s belief in ‘replacement theology’ (the doctrine that the Jews had foregone the right to be ‘God’s chosen people’ by their rejection of Christ), I remember (now with some sense of shame) my act of vandalism in the sixth form when, during the 1974 War I changed the word order of a sticker which one of the Jewish students had stuck on the board. It said Stand by Israel, but a strategic cut soon changed it into Israel, Stand by. I was young, and many of my ideas were inherited from my father. So, however, was my name (or at least my initials), since he was named after Arthur James Balfour, in 1914. This had always intrigued me, until I came to realise that Balfour’s protestant ‘restoration’ theology which fuelled his pro-Zionist stance could, ironically, be distinctly anti-Semitic in its view of European Jewry. This only goes to show that anti-Semitism can take many different forms and heresies, often quite deliberately passed on from one generation to another through somewhat subliminal ‘troping’, applying varying stereotypes to ‘the Jew’. Young people rarely become anti-Semites through reading and discussion with diverse people and viewpoints. It isn’t a logical, educational process, though its antidote may be. It is a poison spread from one generation to the next through the dominant cultures and ideologies, whether on the Right or the Left. I will attempt to apply the antidote again here.
The Sykes-Picot Treaty is usually referred to simply as ‘an agreement’ because it was a secret arrangement, first drafted in April 1916 and signed in mid-May. It was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. The French were to rule directly or indirectly the area of a line running from Acre to a point on the Tigris some seventy miles south of Mosul, while the British were to have the same rights in the area south of that line extending as far as Aqaba and along the Saudi Arabian border. Palestine, defined in the agreement as the area bordered by the Jordan river in the east, the sea in the west, and from Acre in the north to a line from El Arish to Be’ersheva in the south would be governed by an international regime. However, most of Palestine was effectively earmarked for British control, as part of a ‘sphere of influence’ stretching from Jordan to the Gulf. In this territory was land which the Arabs understood to have been pledged to them in October 1915 by the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon when he promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to get the Arab Revolt going, which it did in June 1916, helping to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east.
On the face of it, Sykes-Picot was a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperial plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it both to the Arabs and to the Americans, who had to be told of it when they entered the war in April 1917. It was then revealed to the world by the new Bolshevik government in Moscow towards the end of 1917. The USA preferred to believe that it was fighting for democracy and self-determination, while the Arabs believed that they were fighting for their own liberation and independence. To reassure both, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arabs in a series of ‘declarations’, which, though increasingly ardent in tone were no more specific than MacMahon’s statement.
At the same time, it had committed itself just as firmly to the Zionists, who wanted to found a middle eastern nation based on the biblical lands of Israel, Samaria and Judea. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 gave the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Like the MacMahon promise to the Arabs, it was a promise which could only have been made in wartime, when political geography was so fluid that so artificial a creation could be considered; when the government was so pressed and distracted as to be able to ignore or neglect its obvious drawbacks and pitfalls. For British ministers there were a number of substantial arguments in favour of such a declaration, including a genuine Zionism on the part of some, and a devious but ingenious imperialism on the part of others. Leopold Amery, who claimed to have drafted the Declaration, acknowledged that his main motive was…
… largely strategical. I was keen on an advance into Palestine and Syria on military grounds, and the idea of consolidating that advance by establishing in Palestine a prosperous community bound to Britain by ties of gratitude and interest naturally appealed to me. I already had doubts as to the permanence of our protectorate in Egypt.
The chief reason was, however, probably less grandiose, and more immediate: the need to gain the support of American Jews for the war effort, and perhaps to turn the German Jews against their government, a move which sadly backfired on them in the 1920s. Balfour himself remarked that…
… the vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be in favour of Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.
Lloyd George also saw it as useful propaganda, and at that point in the war his coalition was desperate for some victories of any kind. Nevertheless, they knew that it was a big long-term risk to take for a short-term propaganda point. In the autumn of 1917, the young diplomat Harold Nicolson, later a Labour Party MP, was seconded to work with Sir Mark Sykes, the co-author of the infamous agreement, one of the two political secretaries to the Cabinet, the other being Leopold Amery. Sykes acted as the main channel of communication between the Cabinet and the Zionist movement. He had been negotiating with both Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov, the two leading Zionists in Britain, since the beginning of the year, as they worked together to produce a pro-Zionist pledge. Sykes saw no contradiction between this and his staunchly pro-Arab outlook. Indeed, he told himself, one would complement the other. Both the Arab and the Zionist Palestinians, indebted to Britain, would serve British imperial interests. Later developments proved these presumptions wildly optimistic, but at this time most British policy-makers, not to mention both Arab and Zionist leaders, shared them. Harold Nicolson was among them, his pro-Zionism did not stem from anti-Semitism. He once said…
Although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews.
It’s interesting that Beatrice Webb made exactly the reverse of this remark, yet today the Labour Party seeks to draw a line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that few would have understood a hundred years ago. Nicolson, unlike Sykes, had no great knowledge of recent Jewish history, nor was he on intimate terms with any Jews. He certainly disliked the Hungarian Jews accompanying Béla Kun’s short-lived delegation, as a Paris Peace Conference envoy to Budapest two years later, and wrote to that effect in his diary. Although he did not acknowledge his dislike as anti-Semitism, it certainly fuelled his support for Zionism, as it did with many others who thought of themselves as ‘Gentile Zionists’, including some later Nazi leaders like Adolf Eichmann, (as I have mentioned elsewhere):
Zionism, they claimed, would repair perceived defects in the Jewish character. It would restore to the Jews their dignity, that corporate national confidence and self-respect they so clearly lacked: it would, so to speak, stiffen the backbone of the Jewish people. Once given a national home, they would no longer misuse their considerable gifts for mischievous ends. It ‘would be a nice place,’ Harold reflected, ‘in which to collect all the Jews of the world, as Butlin’s collects the noisy holidaymakers’.
There were other aspects of Gentile Zionism, more historical and theological, that appealed to people like Nicholson. Balfour himself expressed these aspects clearly in a speech to the House of Lords in June 1922 on the position of the Jews:
Their position and their history, their connection with world religion and with world politics is absolutely unique. There is no parallel to it… in any other branch of world history… deported, then scattered, then driven out… altogether into every part of the world, and yet maintaining continuity of religion and racial tradition of which we have no parallel elsewhere… Consider how they have been subject to tyranny, consider whether… our whole religious organisation of Europe has not from time to time proved itself guilty of great crimes against this race… do not forget what part they have played in the intellectual, the artistic, the philosophic and scientific development of the world… Christendom is not oblivious to their faith, is not unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world.
Having supported Balfour, Sykes and Amery, Harold Nicholson was at pains to point out that the Balfour Declaration was not an ‘impulsive and ill-considered’ statement; nor could its authors be accused of ‘ignorance or cynicism’. It took months to negotiate, went through five drafts, and was debated at three sessions of the War Cabinet before it was finally approved on 31 October 1917. Writing in 1947, after almost thirty years of bitter experience, he admitted that it would now be drafted in different terms, but he continued to vehemently to defend Balfour against accusations of cynicism, of opportunism, of imperialism. In 1939, as a National Labour MP, Nicholson spoke out over the May White Paper affair. The government declaration of policy limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to a maximum of 75,000 over the next five years, afterwards any further immigration to be subject to Arab consent, or veto, as the Zionists saw it. Nicholson and other Zionist supporters naturally saw this as flatly contradicting the Balfour Declaration. Apart from his great admiration for Chaim Weizmann, he considered this to be the Chamberlain government’s reneging on its contractual obligations as part of its appeasement of the Nazi dictatorship. Having sacrificed the Czechs, it was now prepared to sacrifice the Jews by giving into Arab demands and leaving them to their fate in Europe. On the eve of the debate he and Leo Amery dined with Weizmann, who appeared ‘calm, dignified and wretched’ as, a master lobbyist, he put his case with his customary persuasive skill. Harold, however, felt ‘helpless and ashamed’, so much so that he did not speak in the two-day debate on the May White Paper, though he did call it a terrible act of treachery. In the Commons, the National Government suffered a massive cut in its majority, to just 89. It survived for another year until Chamberlain’s majority was cut again, this time to 81, forcing him to and his government to resign.
Returning to the end of the First World War, the middle east had become a tangle of promises which the British government had made to the Jews, the Arabs, the French and themselves. Despite Sykes’ early view, they were already becoming contradictory by the time of the Paris Peace Conference, though not perhaps irrevocably so. There was also a great deal of room for confusion in them, since words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation. British diplomats, as we have noted, were able to believe that ‘independence’ for the Arabs was not inconsistent with them maintaining a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon, Balfour’s successor as Foreign Secretary (1919-24) said, just after the war, that he was quite happy to accept the term ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the people would determine in our favour. In one of the ‘reservations’ in the MacMahon letter there was a genuine ambiguity in one of the arabic words used, which could be taken to mean either ‘district’ or a ‘province’, and on this interpretation depended whether the Arabs had been promised Palestine or not as part of their independent territory. The later declarations promised greater degrees of ‘independence’, still not defining these degrees either in terms of powers or territory. The most ambiguous statement of all was Balfour’s ‘national home in Palestine’, which he clearly meant to refer to a Jewish state of Palestine, but could be, and was, taken to mean that Jews would have to settle for federated territory within an Arab-controlled Palestine. As the differing interpretations of previous texts came under the pressures and frictions of settlement ‘on the ground’, they became widening contradictions, leading on to accusations of betrayal on both sides.
All the promises had the mark of expediency about them, being designed to reap some short-term advantage or respite, or to win favours from one side or the other. T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) claimed that it was obvious to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would become ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he had played a role in deliberately misleading them:
I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.
To those higher up who made the promises, the ‘fraud’ or ‘conspiracy’ might not have been so clear, simply because little thought was given as to whether the cheques so freely given out could actually be redeemed by the recipients. Things changed very rapidly in time of war, so that October 1915 was a long way away from November 1917. For the British government, every present moment might determine whether there would be a future for the Empire, so that it became vital to put every effort into seizing and controlling that moment. It could not be surrendered on consideration of a hypothetical future. The contradictions which were already emerging during the war itself would have broken a peace-time coalition, but in wartime dissidents felt obliged to give way under more pressing necessities. No doubt, however, the result was that irresponsible, inconsistent declarations were made.
The result of the war for Britain was a considerable augmentation of her empire. The middle east was divided up literally along the lines of Sykes-Picot. The Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf States and Iraq, adding to her existing protectorates of Cyprus, Egypt and Aden. Of course, the newly acquired territories were not considered ‘annexations’ or ‘colonies’. They were ‘mandated’ territories, entrusted to Britain by the newly established League of Nations, to be administered in the interests of their inhabitants with a view to their eventual independence. The irritation felt at this by more traditional imperialists had already been inflamed by the first serious Arab-Zionist clash in Palestine in April 1919.
As we have seen, Zionism was always a popular cause among British imperialists, though it was not supported by all of them, especially, like Curzon, by those more associated with India. Nor was it only an imperialist cause. It had many virtues, but two which endeared it especially to imperialists. Firstly, it was seen as a means of safeguarding British imperial interests in the middle east, especially as Egypt had been granted what effectively amounted to ‘home rule’. Secondly, Zionism, taking away its religious aspect, seemed to be a typically imperialist way of running and developing ‘primitive’ countries: by a European settler population with the energy and expertise to make more of them than the indigenous peoples. In many ways, the history of Palestine in the inter-war period closely resembled that of Kenya, where Labour’s Lord Passfield (the Fabian, Sydney Webb) successfully resisted the claims of the European settlers: the differences being that settler minority was always much larger in Palestine, that it had greater support from outside, and that the relations between settlers’ claims and natives’ rights became confused with the rights of Jewish refugees. Despite the obvious sympathy which the Jews earned so tragically during the Nazi persecutions which preceded the holocaust, there was considerable resistance to their immigration from the Palestinian Arabs. In addition to this, the British had the subsidiary duty under the mandate to safeguard the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. This presented an immediate handover to the settlers of the country, even had there been enough of them to hand it over to. So the first years of Britain’s mandatory rule in Palestine were devoted to trying to reconcile Zionist and Arab claims, with neither urgency nor success. In fact, this was partly because between 1921 and 1929 there was very little trouble there. In 1929 there was an Arab rising against Jewish immigration, which led the new Labour government to appear to repudiate the Balfour Declaration. Although this was largely an illusion, the Passfield White Paper (1930) did threaten to restrict Jewish immigration and the sale of Palestinian Arab lands to Jews. This was provocative enough and was greeted with a furore of protest from Zionists worldwide, and Conservative imperialists and pro-Zionists Labour in Britain. With MacDonald’s tacit approval, the MPs were able to sweep away Passfield’s anti-Zionist White Paper.
As the events of the 1930s unfurled, this proved to be a crucial decision because, although pro-Zionist feeling was never again so strong, matters were taken increasingly out of the British government’s hands. The Jewish population of Palestine, which had increased from 150,000 in 1926 to 172,000 in 1931, more than doubled by 1936, reaching 384,000. Most of these new immigrants were fleeing from Nazi persecution, and with their entry to countries like the USA and the UK being restricted, it seemed heartless to successive governments in Britain to deny them refuge in Palestine. Had they tried to do so, the international outcry would have been as deafening as it had been in 1930. The greater the number of refugees, the better they were able to assert their claims to settle the land, which they did, sometimes forcibly. Britain’s role was reduced to policing an already intractable situation, now with ever decreasing enthusiasm. Throughout the 1930s repeated attempts were made to find new ‘settlements’, but they failed. What determined the outcome in Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel on the left bank of the Jordan in 1948, and its subsequent expansion into Arab territory, was the balance of strength on the ground between the two populations, which had changed in favour of the Zionist settlers by 1936. Between the wars, however, Palestine had to remain a British mandated territory. The British were unable to delegate their responsibilities to the Zionist organisation, as many wanted them to do. It remained in the same state as the ‘dependent’ territories within the British empire, a colony ruled directly from London, like Kenya.
What emerges from these further portraits and documents concerning Zionism, imperialism and Palestine in the period 1916-36 is that there was no imperialist conspiracy to create the state of Israel as it existed after 1948. Certainly, there were good relations between leading Zionists and imperialist politicians in Britain, but it was the confusion of competing claims and rights in Palestine itself, together with the inability to control the flow of migrants and refugees under the terms of the British mandate which led to the development of the country through settlement into the self-governing state of Israel following the handover of the mandate to the United Nations in 1948. It is difficult to imagine how the outcome of these events could have been any different, especially given the refugee crisis created by the war. The idea that the state of Israel was an artificial creation, a ‘mistake’ as Ken Livingstone has called it in his recent interview on arabic TV, does not match the reality of the emerging patterns of population on the ground in inter-war Palestine. There was no rational alternative to the decisions that were made, and no other alternative humanitarian solution.
We need to accept the burden that history has given us to bear from the past hundred years. Either we support the creation of the state of Israel, whether we think it happened by accidental evolution or deliberate design, as Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee finally did in 1949, or call for its dismantling and destruction, by one means or another, which is what the current leadership of the Labour Party, in the Fabian tradition of the Webbs, would like us to do. Of course, criticism of the government of Israel in its home and international relations is essential to it continuing to thrive as a modern democracy, but this should be given in the spirit of critical friendship. Otherwise, it can legitimately be taken as providing succour to Israel’s enemies, who would destroy it by violent means, given the chance, as they have tried to by warfare in 1948, 1967 and 1974 and, more recently by terrorist acts directed by Hezbollah and Hamas. The Labour leadership must make it clear that these organisations are not ‘our friends’ but our enemies who are sworn to commit acts of genocide against our true friends, the Semitic peoples of Israel, both Jew and Arab. To do otherwise would not eradicate the cancer of anti-Semitism which is multiplying in our midst every day.
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico
Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.