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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Five   Leave a comment

Part Five – The Peasants’ War of 1525: A Puritan Revolution?

The causes of the German Peasants’ War have been a subject of controversy among historians for a considerable time. They generally agree that the background of the rising of 1525 resembled that of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rather than the Puritan revolts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which men and women of lower orders in society were also involved. Neither did the Peasants’ War in Germany resemble previous local revolts among the Jacquerie of France which were usually of a purely local nature, related to abuses of feudal rights by particular lords. For one thing, the German peasant class was not uniformly impoverished; the initiative for the redress of grievances came not from the downtrodden, but rather from the more prosperous and enterprising, possessed themselves of both lands and a respectable competence in farming them. In fact, the well-being of the German peasantry throughout the territories was better than it had ever been, and those who took the initiative in the insurrection, far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class. They were people whose position was improving both socially and economically and who, for that very reason, were impatient for the obstacles which stood in the way of their further advance to be removed.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in their efforts to remove these obstacles for themselves, the peasants showed that they were not at all eschatologically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realizable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government. The first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. This was achieved, not through bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.

Underlying the rising there was, however, a deeper conflict. With the progressive collapse of the royal power, the German state had disintegrated into a welter of discordant and often warring feudal authorities. But by 1525 this condition of near anarchy was approaching its end, for the great territorial princes were busily creating their absolutist principalities. The peasantry saw its traditional way of life disrupted and its inherited rights threatened by the development of new types of states. It resented the additional taxes, the substitution of Roman Law for ‘custom’, the interference of centralised administration in local affairs, and it fought back. The law was being unified by displacing the local codes in favour of Roman Law whereby the peasant again suffered since that Law knew only private property and therefore imperilled the commons – the woods, streams and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition. The Roman Law also only had three categories of peasant – free men, freedmen and slaves. It had no category which quite fitted the medieval serf.

The princes, for their part, realized clearly enough that the peasantry stood in their way of their plans for state-building and that the peasant insurrection offered them a chance to assert and consolidate their authority. It was they, or rather a particular group of them, who saw to it that the rising ended catastrophically, in a series of battles or massacres, in which perhaps as many as a hundred thousand peasants were killed. It was also those princely dynasties which gained most from the reduction alike of the peasantry, the lower nobility and the ecclesiastical foundations to a condition of hopeless dependence which was to last for centuries.

Another change, associated with the revival of commerce in cities after the crusades, was the substitution of exchange in coin for exchange in kind. The increased demand in precious metals enhanced their value; the peasants, who had at first benefited from the payment of a fixed sum of money rather than a percentage in kind, found themselves hurt by deflation. Those who could not meet the imposts sank from freeholders to renters, and from renters to serfs. The solution which at first presented itself to the peasants was simply to resist the changes as they operated in their society and return to ‘the good old ways’. They did not, to begin with, demand the abolition of serfdom but only the prevention of any further extension of peonage. They demanded a return to the free use of the woods, waters and meadows; the reduction of imposts and the reinstatement of ancient Germanic law and local custom. The methods used in the attainment of these ends were at first conservative. On the occasion of a special grievance, the peasants would assemble in thousands in quite spontaneous fashion and would present their petitions to the rulers with a request for arbitration. Not infrequently the petition was received in a patriarchal manner and the burdens were in some measure eased, yet never to the extent of forestalling a future recurrence.

Somewhat inevitably, therefore, the peasants’ demands began to go beyond economic amelioration to political programmes designed to ensure an influence commensurate with and even exceeding their economic importance. The demands also changed as the movement worked north to the region around the big bend of the Rhine where peasants were also townsmen, since artisans were farmers. In this area, urban aspirations were added to agrarian concerns. Further down the Rhine, the struggle became almost wholly urban, and the characteristic programme called for a more democratic complexion in the town councils, a less restrictive membership in the guilds, the subjection of the clergy to civil burdens and uncurtailed rights for citizens to engage in brewing.

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Many of these demands had coalesced in a movement in Alsace which had taken place just prior to the Reformation. This movement had used the symbol which became characteristic of the Peasants’ War of 1525. This was the Bundschuh, deriving its name from the traditional leather shoe of the peasant. The word had a double meaning because Bund was also the word for an ‘association’ or ‘covenant’. Müntzer had already used for his ‘covenant of the elect’ and before that, the peasants had adopted the term for a ‘compact’ of revolution. The aims of this Bundschuh had centred not so much on economics as on politics. Its adherents believed that ‘the axe should be laid to the root of the tree’ and all government abolished save that of the pope and the emperor. These were the two traditional ‘swords of Christendom’, the joint rulers of a universal society. To them, the little men had always turned for protection against overlords, bishops, metropolitans, knights and princes. The Bundschuh proposed to complete the process by wiping out all the intermediate grades and leaving only the two great lords, Caesar and the Apostle.


Prior to the Peasants’ War of 1525, therefore, this movement was often anticlerical, but not anti-Catholic. Bishops and Abbots were resented as great landowners and exploiters, but “Down with the bishop” did not mean “Down with the Church.” The banners of the Bundschuh often carried, besides the shoe, some religious symbol, such as a picture of the Virgin, a crucifix, or a papal tiara. The woodcut shown below shows the crucifix resting on a black shoe. On the right, a group of peasants are tilling the soil, and Abraham is sacrificing Isaac, a sign of the potential cost of being a member of the Bund. A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation. Luther’s Freedom of the Christian Man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ did not mean for him egalitarianism, but it did for Carlstadt. Luther had certainly blasted usury and in 1524 had come out with another tract on the subject, in which he also attacked the subterfuge of annuities, a device whereby capital was loaned in perpetuity for an annual return. His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants, with good reason, felt strongly drawn to Luther. 


The part played by Thomas Müntzer in the Peasants’ War as a whole has often been exaggerated. The main theatres of the struggle were the areas where the development of the new states had gone the furthest. These all lay in southern and western Germany, which had already seen many peasant risings in the years before 1525; there, Müntzer seems to have had no influence at all. In Thuringia however, the situation was a peculiar one, for there had been no previous peasant revolts and there was little sign of an impending revolt even in 1525. The insurrection came very late and took a curiously anarchic form. Whereas in the south and west the peasants had conducted themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, in Thuringia they formed small, unorganised bands which scoured the countryside, looting and burning monasteries and convents. It may well be that these outbreaks were encouraged, if not caused, by the agitation which Müntzer had been conducting.

The hardcore of Müntzer’s following still consisted of the League of the Elect. Some of his congregation from Allstedt joined him at Mühlhausen and no doubt helped him in building up a new organisation. Above all, he continued to rely on the workers from the copper-mines at Mansfeld, who had joined the League in their hundreds. These workers, often recruited from abroad, often migrants, often exposed to unemployment and every kind of insecurity, were notoriously prone to revolutionary excitement, just as were the weavers, and they were correspondingly dreaded by the authorities. That he was able to command such a following naturally gave Müntzer a great reputation as a revolutionary leader; so that, if in Mühlhausen itself he never rivalled Pfeiffer in influence, in the context of the peasant insurrection he loomed far larger. Although, as their written demands clearly show, the Thuringian peasants did not share Müntzer’s millenarian fantasies, they certainly looked up to him as the one famous, learned and pious man who had unreservedly thrown in his lot with theirs. They certainly had no other leader.

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When the ‘great upheaval’ came in 1525, the polemical papalist cartoonists lost no time in portraying Luther as the leader of the Bundschuh, and the Catholic princes never ceased to hold him responsible for the uprising. Some historians have also tried to prove that Luther was actually the author of the movement which he so vehemently repudiated. Such an explanation fails to take account of more than a century of agrarian unrest which preceded the Reformation.

One contributory factor as to why the revolts were so widespread in 1525, which had nothing to do with Luther or his Reformation, was astrology, which had remained an important feature of medieval life alongside the Church. Medicine, in particular, was largely determined by the theory of the four humours, relating the bodily fluids to the movements of the planets and stars. Since ancient times, heavenly signs were taken to be harbingers and forebodings of great events.

Astrological speculation may well explain why so many uprisings were in the constellation of the occurred in 1524-25, as it was in 1524 that all planets were in the constellation of the Fish. This had been foreseen twenty years earlier and a great disturbance had been predicted for that year. As the time approached, the foreboding was so intense that in 1523 no fewer than fifty-one tracts were published on the subject. Woodcuts like the one below displayed the fish in the heavens and upheavals upon earth. The peasants with their banners and flails watch on one side, while on the other the emperor, the pope and the ecclesiastics all gather. Some peasant leaders held back from taking action before 1524 in the hope that the emperor would call an imperial diet to redress their grievances in 1524. The Diet of Nürnberg had taken place in March 1523 and had deferred action on reform until a second diet could be called to issue an Edict on 18 April 1524. This did nothing to deal with peasant grievances, however, and another diet was not due until the summer of 1526. In the meantime, the ‘great fish’ unloosed the waters upon the peasants, princes, prelates and papacy.


All this was foreign superstition to Luther, if not entirely to Melanchthon, but at the same time, he could not claim a complete dissociation with the outbreak of the Peasants’ War. The attempts to enforce the imperial edicts through the arrest of Lutheran pastors were often the immediate cause of assemblies of peasant bands to demand their release. Luther was regarded as a friend by these peasants, and when some of them were asked to name persons whom they would accept as their arbiters, the first name on the list was Martin Luther. No formal court was ever established to try the peasants for rebellion, and no legal judgement was ever given. But Luther himself did pronounce a verdict on their demands as couched in the most popular of their manifestoes, The Twelve Articles, first distributed in March 1525. These opened with conciliatory phrases reminiscent of those used by Luther himself in his Address to the German Nobility and On the Freedom of the Christian Man of 1520:

To the Christian reader, peace and the grace of God through Christ… The gospel is not a cause of rebellion and disturbance… If it be the will of God to hear the peasants, who will resist his Majesty? Did he not hear the children of Israel and deliver them out of the hand of Pharaoh? 

The first articles have to do with the Church. The congregation should have the right to appoint and remove the minister, who is to preach the Holy Gospel without human addition, a phrase which sounds as if Luther could have written it. Ministers were to be supported on a modest stipend by congregations out of the so-called great tithe on produce. The surplus should go to relieve the poor and to obviate emergency taxation in war. The so-called little tithe on cattle should be abolished, for the Lord God created cattle for the free use of man. The main articles embodied the old agrarian programme of common fields, forests and waters. The farmer should be free to hunt, to fish, and to protect his lands against game. Under supervision, he might take wood for fuel and building. Death dues, which impoverish the widow and orphan by requisitioning the best cloak or the best cow, were to be abolished. Rents should be revised in accord with the productivity of the land. New laws should not displace the old, and the community meadows should not pass into private hands.

The only article which exceeded the old demands was the one calling for the total abolition of serfdom. Land should be held on lease with stipulated conditions. If any labour in excess of the agreement was exacted by the lord, he should pay for it on a wage basis. The Twelve Articles conceded that any demand not consonant with the Word of God should be null. The whole programme was a conservative one, in line with the traditional feudal economy. Notably, there was no attack on legitimate government. The evangelical tone of the articles pleased Luther, but in addressing the peasants he disparaged most of their demands. As to the right of the congregation to choose its own pastor, it would depend on whether they would pay his stipend. The abolition of tithes would be highway robbery and the abrogation of serfdom would be turning Christian liberty into a thing of the flesh.


Having thus criticised their programme, Luther then turned to the means envisaged for its realisation. Under no circumstances, Luther declared, must the common man seize the sword on his own behalf. If each man were to take justice into his own hands, there would be neither authority, government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed. But all this was not intended to justify the unspeakable wrongs perpetrated by the rulers. To the princes, Luther addressed an appeal in which he justified many more of the peasant demands than he had done when speaking to them. He told them that the will of the congregation should be respected in the choice of a minister, just as he had told the peasants that they should not rebel against the opinion of the prince. The demands of the peasants for redress of their grievances were fair and just and the princes had no-one but themselves to blame for these disorders. They had done nothing but disport themselves in grandeur while robbing and flaying their subjects. The true solution was by the traditional means of arbitration.

But neither side was disposed to take that course and Luther’s prediction was all too abundantly fulfilled, that nothing would ensue but murder and bloodshed. Luther had long since declared that he would not support the private citizen taking up arms, however just the cause, since such means inevitably entailed wrong to the innocent. He could not envisage an orderly revolution, much less a nonviolent one. Indeed, it is difficult for historians to envisage how there could have been one in the early sixteenth century, or even in the following century, given the amount of bloodshed in wars and rebellions throughout Europe. The Peasants’ War lacked the cohesion of the Puritan Revolution because there was no clear-cut programme and no coherent leadership. Some groups wanted a peasant dictatorship, some a classless society, some a return to feudalism, some the abolition of all rulers except the pope and the emperor.

The separate bands were not coordinated; their chiefs were sometimes peasants, sometimes sectaries, like Müntzer, and sometimes even knights. There was not even unity in religion since there were ‘Papalists’ and ‘Lutherans’ on both sides, though the distinction was not yet a clear one. In Alsace, where the programme called for the elimination of the pope, the struggle took on the complexion of a religious war. The Duke and his brother, the Cardinal, hunted the peasants as unbelieving, divisive, undisciplined Lutherans, ravaging like Huns and Vandals. There can be no question that the hordes were undisciplined, interested mainly in pillaging castles and cloisters, raiding game, and depleting fish ponds. The drawing below of the plundering of a cloister is typical of the Peasants’ War. Observe the group in the upper left with a net in the fish pond. Some are carrying off provisions. The bloodshed does not appear to be considerable, though one man has lost a hand. At various points peasants are guzzling and vomiting, justifying the stricture that the struggle was not so much a peasants’ war as a ‘wine fest’.

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A further glimpse of the peasants’ behaviour is revealed in a letter from an abbess who says that her cloister was raided until not an egg nor a pat of butter was left. Through their windows, the nuns could see the populace being abused and the smoke rising from burning castles. When the war ended, seventy cloisters had been demolished in Thuringia, in Franconia 270 castles and 52 cloisters. When the Palatinate succumbed to the peasants, the disorder was so great that their own leaders had to invite the former authorities to return to assist in the restoration of order. But the authorities preferred to wait until the peasants had first been beaten.

There was no one individual, not even the emperor, who could have carried through an alternative, constructive plan for bringing the peasants into the new economic and political order of the sixteenth century. The only other man who was sufficiently well-known and trusted throughout Germany was Martin Luther, but he refused, not out of cowardice but because he believed that it was the role of the magistrate to keep the peace. The magistrate must also, if necessary, wield the sword. It was certainly not for him to forsake his ministry for the sword and, by leading the peasants, to establish a new theocracy of the saints to replace the papal one he had not yet fully demolished. That would be a betrayal of his territorial Reformation.


Yet Luther would never have condemned the peasants quite so savagely had it not been that there was someone else who aspired to the role he himself rejected. In Saxony there would have been no Peasants’ War  without Thomas Müntzer. After all his wanderings across Germany to Bohemia and the Swiss borders, he had now, at last, found in the peasants the Bund of the Elect who would slaughter the ungodly and erect the kingdom of the saints. The point was not the redress of economic grievance, which in Saxony was not as acute as elsewhere, since serfdom had long since been abolished there. Müntzer was interested in economic amelioration only for the sake of religion, and he did have the insight to see what no one else in his generation observed, that faith itself does not thrive on physical exhaustion. He renewed his attack on Luther on this point, in familiar terms:

Luther says that the poor people have enough in their faith. Doesn’t he see that usury and taxes impede the reception of the faith? He claims that the Word of God is sufficient. Doesn’t he realise that men whose every moment is consumed in the making of a living have no time to learn to read the Word of God? The princes bleed the people with usury and count as their own the fish in the stream, the bird of the air, and the grass of the field, and Dr Liar says  “Amen!” What courage has he, Dr Pussyfoot, the new pope of Wittenberg, Dr Easychair, the basking sycophant? He says there should be no rebellion because the sword has been committed by God to the ruler, but the power of the sword belongs to the whole community. In the good old days the people stood by when the judgement was rendered  lest the ruler pervert justice, and the rulers have perverted justice. They shall be cast down from their seats. The fowls of the heavens are gathering to devour their carcasses.

It was in this sort of temper that Thomas Müntzer came to Mülhausen and began fomenting a local peasants’ war. In April 1525, Müntzer set up, in the church he had been called to in Mühlhausen, a long, white silk banner bearing a rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant and the motto, The Word of the Lord Abideth Forever. Under this, he began to preach:

Now is the time, if you be only three wholly committed unto God , you need not fear one hundred thousand. On! On! On! Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry! Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! On! On!

He announced that he would shortly be marching out under this standard at the head of two thousand ‘strangers’ (real or imaginary members of his league). At the end of the month, he and Pfeiffer did take part in a marauding expedition in the course of which a number of monasteries and convents were destroyed; but this was not yet, by any means, the apocalyptic struggle of which he dreamed. In a letter which he sent to his followers at Allstedt can be recognised the same tone that was once used by John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt of a century and a half previously:

I tell you, if you will not suffer for God’s sake, then you must be the Devil’s martyrs. So take care! Don’t be so disheartened, supine, don’t fawn upon the perverse visionaries, the godless scoundrels! Start and fight the Lord’s fight! It’s high time. Keep all your brethren to it, so that they don’t mock the divine testimony, otherwise they must all be destroyed. All Germany, France and Italy are on the alert. The master wants to have sport, so the scoundrels must go through it. The peasants in Klettgau and Hegau and in the Black Forest have risen, three thousand strong, and the crowd is getting bigger all the time. My only fear is that the foolish fellows will let themselves be taken in by some treacherous agreement, simply because they haven’t yet seen the harm of it…

Stir up the people in villages and towns, and most of all the miners and other good fellows who will be good at the job. We must sleep no more! … Get this letter to the miners! … 

At them, at them, while the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword get cold! Don’t let it go lame! Hammer cling, clang, on Nimrod’s anvil! Throw their tower to the ground! So long as you are alive you will never shake off the fear of men. One can’t speak to you about God so long as they are reigning over you. At them, at them, while you still have daylight! God goes ahead of you, so follow, follow!

This letter shows in what fantasies Müntzer was living, for Nimrod was supposed to have built the Tower of Babel, which in turn was identified with Babylon; and he was popularly regarded not only as the first builder of cities but as the originator of private property and class distinctions, as the destroyer of the primal, egalitarian State of Nature.And to his summons to cast down Nimrod and his tower Müntzer adds a whole series of references to apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible: the prophecy of the messianic kingdom (Ezekiel xxxiv), Christ’s prophecy of his Second Coming (Matthew xxiv), the prophecy of ‘the Day of Wrath’ (Revelation vi), and, of course, ‘Daniel’s dream’. All this shows how completely, even at this late stage in Müntzer’s mission, the assumptions on which he worked and the terms in which he thought were still prescribed by the eschatological tradition. He was assuming the role of the messianic saviour.


At the same time as Müntzer and Storch, the latter recently expelled from Zwickau were preparing their followers for the Millennium, Luther was composing his ferocious pamphlet, Against the thievish, murderous gangs of the peasants. This work did much to arouse the princes of central Germany, who had so far shown far less resolution than those in the south and west. Frederick the Wise was weary, unwilling to act against the peasants, and on the point of death when he wrote to his brother John:

Perhaps the peasants have been given just occasion for their uprising through the impeding of the Word of God. In many ways the poor folk have been wronged by the rulers, and now God is visiting his wrath upon us. If it be his will, the common man will come to rule; and if it be not his will, the end will soon be otherwise. Let us then pray to God to forgive our sins, and commit the case to him. He will work it out according to his good pleasure and glory.

Brother John, for his part, yielded to the peasants in his territory the right of the government to collect tithes. He wrote back to Frederick, declaring,… as princes we are ruined. The old Elector died on 4 May and brother John succeeded him. Luther had tried to dyke the deluge by going down into the midst of the peasants to remonstrate with them, but he was met with derision and violence. It was then that he decided to write his tract in which he claimed that all hell had been let loose and all the devils had gone into the peasants, and the archdevil was in Thomas Müntzer, who does nothing else but stir up robbery, murder and bloodshed. A Christian ruler like Frederick the Wise should, indeed, search his heart and humbly pray for help against the Devil, since our warfare is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual wickedness. The prince should, indeed, exceed his duty in offering terms to the mad peasants, as John had done. If they declined, he must quickly grasp the sword. He had no use for Frederick’s plan to sit still and leave the outcome to the Lord, preferring the more pro-active approach of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who claimed if I hadn’t been quick on my toes, the whole movement in my district would have been out of hand in four days. In his tract, Luther wasted no words in setting out how the princes should deal with those peasants who rejected their terms:

If the peasant is in open rebellion , then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murders and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down like a great disaster. 

Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab , secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you.

Some of the princes were only too ready to smite, stab and slay; and Thomas Müntzer was only too ready to provoke them. Duke George, the new Elector John and other princes called for help from the Landgrave Philip, a young man scarcely twenty years of age, but already with a considerable reputation as a military commander, who had just put down the uprising in his own territories. He marched at once to Thuringia and headed for Mühlhausen, which the princes agreed as being the centre of the whole Thuringian insurrection. Müntzer and the peasants, eight thousand strong, had formed themselves into an army at nearby Frankenhausen. They sent word to the princes that they sought nothing but the righteousness of God and desired to avoid bloodshed. The princes replied that if they delivered up Thomas Müntzer, the rest of them would be spared. But they had already turned to Müntzer as their saviour, who seems to have chosen Frankhausen as a rallying point because it was close to the castle of his old arch-enemy, Ernest of Mansfeld. They now called him to take his place among them, and Müntzer was quick to answer their call. He set out from Mühlhausen with some three hundred of his most fanatical followers. The number was significant because it was with the exact same number that Gideon overthrew the Midianites. He arrived at the peasants’ camp on 11th May. On his arrival he spoke out: Fear not, Gideon with a handful discomfited the Midianites and David slew Goliath.

He then ordered the peasants from the surrounding villages to join the army, threatening that they would otherwise be brought in by force. He also sent an urgent appeal to the town of Erfurt for reinforcements and threatening letters to the enemy. Clearly, he was not going to give himself up. He wrote to Count Ernest of Mansfeld in particularly vitriolic terms:

Say, you wretched, shabby bag of worms, who made you a prince over the people whom God has purchased with his precious blood?… By God’s almighty power you are delivered up to destruction. If you do not humble yourself before the lowly, you will be saddled with everlasting infamy in the eyes of all Christendom and will become the devil’s martyr.

But neither of his missives had much effect. Erfurt either could not or would not respond, and the princes took advantage of the delay to surround the peasant army. By the 15th May, Philip of Hesse’s troops had been joined by those of all the other regional princes and had occupied a strong position on a nearby hill overlooking the peasant army. Although somewhat outnumbered, the princes also had ample artillery, whereas the peasants had very little. They also had about two thousand cavalry, whereas the peasants had none. A battle fought under such circumstances could have only one possible result, but the princes again offered terms, requiring the handing over of Müntzer and his immediate following. The offer was made in good faith, as the princes had already avoided unnecessary bloodshed elsewhere, following Luther’s advice. The offer would probably have been accepted, had it not been for Müntzer’s intervention.

The propheta made a passionate speech in which he declared that God had spoken to him directly and promised him victory; that he himself would catch the enemy’s cannonballs in the sleeves of his cloak; that in the end God would transform heaven and earth rather than allow his people to perish. Just at that moment, a rainbow appeared in the sky, the very symbol on Müntzer’s banner, as if to prove that God would keep his covenant. Müntzer’s fanatical followers were convinced that some tremendous miracle was about to transpire and were somehow able to convince the confused, amorphous and relatively leaderless mass of peasantry of this.

Having received no reply to their terms, the princes grew impatient and the order was given to the artillery to fire the cannon in an opening salvo. The peasants had made no preparations to use their cannon, nor to escape the field. Seemingly in a mass trance and still singing, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, they seemed to be expecting the Second Coming at that very moment. The effect of the salvo was devastating, with the peasants breaking ranks and fleeing in panic while the princes’ cavalry ran them down and slaughtered them. Losing just half a dozen men, the army of the princes dispersed the peasants and captured Frankenhausen, killing some five thousand peasants in the process. Only six hundred were taken prisoner, so perhaps another two thousand somehow escaped. A few days later, Mühlhausen surrendered without a struggle and was made to pay heavily for its part in the general insurrection, also losing its status as a free imperial city. Müntzer himself escaped from the battle-field but was soon found hiding in a cellar in Frankenhausen. He was handed over to Ernest of Mansfeld, tortured, made to sign a confession, after which he was beheaded in the princes’ camp, along with Pfeiffer, on 27 May. Storch died as a fugitive later in the same year. The princes continued to ‘clean up’ the countryside.


Other bands of peasants were also savagely put down. The forces of the Swabian League were led by a general who, when outnumbered, would have recourse to diplomacy, duplicity, strategy and, when necessary, combat. He managed to isolate the bands and destroy them one at a time. The peasants were tricked and finally outnumbered themselves. It was claimed that over a hundred thousand were massacred altogether. Although they were not exterminated as a class, the hopes of the peasants for a share in the political life of Germany were at an end, at least for the following three centuries.

Luther’s savage pamphlet was late in leaving the press and appeared just at the time when the peasants were being butchered. But the tract was noticed by them, and the set of phrases, smite… stab… slay… were never forgotten by them. He tried to counter the effect by another pamphlet in which, though he held to his original conviction over the consequences of rebellion, he criticised the princes for their failure to show mercy to captives and their venting of vengeance on the countryside, in which the bishops also took part. Despite Luther’s stance, hundreds of ‘Lutheran’ ministers throughout Germany took part in the war on the peasants’ side. The rulers of Catholic lands thereafter used this participation as a reason to exclude evangelical preachers from their lands. Luther himself became less tolerant of radical preachers, lest some of them might turn out to be little Müntzers in disguise.  Nevertheless, his support for the princes in the peasants’ war led to others becoming Lutheran and to the repeal of the edicts against him at the Diet of Speyer in 1526.

Though there were elements of a puritan movement on the side of the peasants, a clear divide had opened up among Lutherans whose goal was to establish a territorial church, and the few who were prepared to sign up to a more radical congregationalism more biased towards the poor. The battle lines in both church and society, in both material and spiritual life, had been clearly drawn. The Peasants’ War had been a war in the sense of a series of battles and stand-offs in which the peasants in some areas won some concessions from the princes. Apart from the Twelve Articles, some of which were connected with church reform, there was no agreed manifesto which could be referred to as a revolutionary platform or programme. That was something that some later historians, looking for a legacy, gave to the uprisings. Millenarian movements grew up in parallel and took advantage of the general mood of unrest, rather than directing or leading it in any coordinated way.

(to be continued…)




Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One – ‘The Holy Youth’ of Niklashausen, the Bundschuh and the growth of German Nationalism to 1517:

Below: Europe in 1466: The Age of the New Monarchies


During the second half of the fifteenth century, Central and Eastern Europe experienced a time of particular turmoil, with the ever-present threat of Ottoman forces diverting much-needed resources to the defence of Christendom.  Setbacks experienced by the advancing Ottomans, such as their failure to overcome Albania, defended resolutely by George Castriota (Skandenberg) from 1443 to 1468, meant that it was more difficult for them to tolerate the independence of Byzantine territory to their rear. In 1453, Mehmet II finally captured Constantinople, causing great consternation in the West. His army laid siege to Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in 1456, but the siege was raised by the brilliant Hungarian commander (and regent), János Hunyádi (below). By 1460, the remaining Byzantine strongholds in the Morea had fallen with the capture of Trebizond on the Black Sea in 1461, the last remnant of Byzantium was finally extinguished. In 1457, the Bohemians elected the Hussite George Podebrady as their king. Pope Paul II preached a crusade against him, which led to an unsuccessful Hungarian invasion in 1468.


The prestige of the Holy Roman Emperor sank particularly low, The dignity and authority of the imperial office continued to dwindle as Germany continued to disintegrate into a jumble of principalities. Frederick III had, at first, largely because of his name, been the focus of the wildest millennial expectations; but in the course of a reign which lasted from 1452 to 1493, he proved a singularly ineffective monarch. His deposition was prevented only by the lack of any suitable rival and latterly his very existence was almost forgotten by his subjects. The vacuum at the centre of the state produced a chronic and widespread anxiety, which found its expression in the folklore of the future Frederick but which could also vent itself in sudden waves of eschatological enthusiasm. Amongst its commonest manifestations were mass pilgrimages, reminiscent of the popular crusades and the flagellant processions of earlier times, and no less liable to escape from ecclesiastical control.

The situation was particularly explosive in the territories of the Prince-Bishop of Würzberg. During the early part of the fifteenth century, the bishops had been wildly extravagant and were unable to pay their debts except by levying even heavier taxes. By 1474 the taxes had become so burdensome that one of the Bishop’s officials, comparing the local peasantry to a team of horses drawing a heavy wagon, remarked that if a single egg were added to that wagon, the horses would no longer be able to pull it. To a laity which had learnt from generations of heterodox preachers that the clergy ought to live in total poverty, this heavy burden of taxation was bound to appear particularly monstrous. In the city and diocese of Würzberg, it was no longer acceptable for the bishop, whatever his personal qualities, to be regarded by the laity and especially by the poor as an exploiter.

In 1476, the small of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley, not far from Würzberg, was the backdrop for a movement which could almost be seen as a new People’s Crusade. Much that had occurred during the earlier crusades in France, the Low Countries and the Rhine valley was now repeated in southern Germany, but this time messianic Kingdom was no Heavenly Jerusalem but the State of Nature, as it had been pictured by John Ball in England and the Táborites in Bohemia. The Messiah was a young man called Hans Böhm, a name which suggests that he was either of Bohemian descent or else that in the popular mind he was associated with Hussite teachings. He was a shepherd and, in his spare time, a popular entertainer, drumming and piping in hostelries and in the market-place. Hence the nickname, by which he is still known, of the Drummer (or Piper) of Niklashausen. He had heard the tale of an Italian Franciscan, Giovanni di Capistrano, from a generation earlier, who had through Germany preaching repentance, urging his audience to put away their fine clothes and to burn all dice and playing cards. Shortly afterwards, in the middle of Lent, the shepherd burnt his drum before the parish church of Niklashausen and began to preach to the people.

Exactly like the shepherd lad who is said to have launched the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320, Böhm declared that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him surrounded by a heavenly radiance and had given him a message of prodigious importance. In the parish church of Niklashausen there stood a statue of the Virgin to which miraculous powers were attributed, long attracting pilgrims. Now, he claimed, this spot had become the salvation of the world. God had intended to punish mankind, but the Virgin had interceded and God had agreed to withhold punishment if people came to Niklashausen in their multitudes, otherwise, the punishment would, after all, descend upon the world. From the village alone, the Virgin would bestow her blessings upon all lands, since divine grace was to be found in the Tauber valley alone. Whoever made the pilgrimage would be absolved of all their sins and whoever died there would not suffer purgatory, but go straight to heaven.

This former shepherd was a simple man, but now he was suddenly able to command astonishing eloquence. On Sundays and feast days crowds streamed to hear him. At first, he merely preached repentance: women were to throw away their gold and jewellery, men were to wear less colourful costumes. Before long, however, the shepherd was claiming miraculous powers for himself. That God had not sent a frost to kill off all corn and vines was due to his prayers alone, he proclaimed. He also swore that he could lead any soul out of hell with his own hand.

Although Böhm had begun to preach with the consent of the parish priest, it was to be expected that he would eventually turn against the clergy. He voiced the traditional accusations of ‘Avarice’ and ‘Luxury’. It would be easier, he asserted, to make a Christian out of a Jew than out of a priest. God had been outraged by the behaviour of the clergy; now he would tolerate it no longer. The day of reckoning was at hand when the clergy would be happy to cover up their tonsures to escape from their pursuers, for to kill a cleric would then be seen as a most meritorious act. God had withdrawn his strength from them, and there would soon be no priests or monks left on earth. If they burnt him as a heretic, he threatened, a fearful punishment awaited them. He also called upon the people to stop paying taxes and tithes. Priests should be made to give up their many benefices and live from meal to meal on what their parishioners chose to give them. The celebrated Abbot of Sponheim commented:

What would the laymen like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master’s yoke.

The Primate of Germany, the Archbishop of Mainz, also saw in the propheta of Niklashausen a force which might inflict irreparable damage on the Church. In the end, Böhm also revealed himself as a social revolutionary, proclaiming the imminence of the egalitarian Millennium based on Natural Law.  In the coming Kingdom, the use of wood, water and pasturage, the right to fish and hunt would be freely enjoyed by all, as they had been in ‘olden times’. Tributes of all kinds would be abolished forever. No rent or services would be owed to any lord, no taxes or duties to any prince. Distinctions of rank and status would cease to exist and nobody would have authority over anybody else. All would live together as brothers, everyone enjoying the same liberties and doing the same amount of work as everyone else, from the poorest peasant to local lords and princes to the Emperor:

Princes, ecclesiastical and secular alike, and counts and knights should only possess as much as common folk, then everyone would have enough. The time will have to come when princes and lords will work for their daily bread… The Emperor is a scoundrel and the Pope is useless. It is the Emperor who gives the princes and counts and knights the right to levy taxes on the common people. Alas, poor devils that you are!

The demand for the overthrow of all rulers, great and small, probably appealed particularly to the urban poor; we know that townsfolk came to Niklashausen from all over southern and central Germany. On the other hand in demanding that all basic resources and activities should be free for all men, Böhm’s teaching was appealing to the peasants. The German peasants believed that these rights had, in fact, been theirs in ‘olden time’, until usurped by the nobility; this was one of the wrongs that they were always expecting the future ‘Emperor Frederick’ to undo. But above all it was the prestige of the preacher himself, a miraculous being sent by God, which drew tens of thousands to the Tauber Valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader, a saviour who could bestow on them the fulness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.

News of the wonderful happenings at Niklashausen passed rapidly from village to village in the neighbourhood and was carried further afield by messengers who went out in all directions. Soon vast hordes of the common folk of all ages and both sexes, including whole families, were streaming towards Niklashausen. Not only the surrounding country but all parts of southern and central Germany were in commotion, from the Alps to the Rhineland and on to Thuringia. Artisans deserted their workshops and peasants their fields, shepherds and shepherdesses abandoned their flocks and hastened to hear and adore him who was now known as ‘the Holy Youth’. What the plebs pauperum had believed of Jerusalem these people believed of Nikashausen. There Paradise had literally descended upon the earth and infinite riches were lying ready to be gathered by the faithful, who would share them out amongst themselves in brotherly love. The hordes advanced in long columns, bearing banners and singing songs of their own composition. One became particularly popular:

To God in Heaven we complain

Kyrie eleison

That the priests cannot be slain

Kyrie eleison.  

As the pilgrims arrived at Niklashausen they placed offerings before the statue of the Virgin, but an even more intense devotion was given to the propheta himself. They dropped to their knees before him, crying, O Man of God, sent from Heaven, take pity on us! It was reported that by laying-on of hands, he had cured people who had been blind or dumb from birth, that he had raised the dead and that he had made a spring gush from a rock. Chroniclers talk of as many as seventy thousand gathered together on a single day, and though this figure is absurd, the assemblies must have been very sizeable. A vast camp grew up around the little village; tents were set up in which tradesmen, artisans and cooks catered for the travellers’ needs. From time to time, Böhm would mount a tub, or appear at an upper window, to preach his revolutionary doctrine to the crowds (see the woodcut below).

The pilgrimages began towards the end of March 1474 and by June the authorities, both ecclesiastical and secular, had decided that Böhm’s propaganda was a serious menace to the social order which must be dealt with. The Town Council of Nuremberg forbade their citizens from going on pilgrimage to Niklashausen and Würzberg soon followed suit. Perturbed at the number of strangers who were pouring through the town, the Council closed as many of its gates as possible, bade its citizens to arm themselves and did what it could to put a stop to wild talk. In the end, the Prince-Bishop set about breaking the power of the propheta. He summoned a Diet at which it was decided that Böhm should be arrested.

According to his enemies, Böhm now tried to organise a revolt, telling his audience in a sermon on 7 July to come armed, without women or children, on the next Sunday. On the night before, a squad of horsemen sent by the Bishop descended on Niklashausen, seizing Böhm and carrying him off to Würzburg. The next day thousands of the assembled pilgrims marched, with only a few weapons but many giant candles taken from the shrine, to the castle at Würzburg where Böhm was imprisoned, arriving at dawn beneath the castle walls. The Bishop and the Town Council sent an emissary to reason with the pilgrims, but he was driven off with stones. A second emissary was more successful in persuading those pilgrims who were subjects of the Bishop to return to their homes. The rest stood firm, insisting on the release of the Holy Youth. A few cannon-shots were fired over their heads, but when no-one was hurt, the pilgrims were convinced that the Virgin was protecting them. As a result, they then tried to storm the town. This time the shots were directed at them and were followed by a cavalry-charge in which some forty of them were killed, the rest fleeing in panic.

Support for Böhm was so strong that even after this overwhelming victory the Bishop and Town Council could not feel secure. The burghers of Würzburg were warned to expect a second and more formidable attack. It was also feared that there were many within the city who might join forces with the pilgrims. The Bishop sent out a request to the neighbouring lords to hold themselves ready to come to his assistance if needed. Before any fresh disturbances could occur, however, Böhm had been tried by an ecclesiastical court and found guilty of heresy and sorcery. Two of his peasant disciples were beheaded and the Holy Youth himself was burnt at the stake, the common people hoping in vain for a miracle from Heaven which would save him. His ashes were thrown into the river so they could not become relics.

Everything possible was done to eradicate all trace of Böhm and his works. The offerings left at the church of Niklashausen were confiscated and shared between the Archbishop of Mainz, the Bishop of Würzburg and the count in whose territory the church stood. In all the affected areas of Germany, bishops, princes and town councils joined in forbidding any further pilgrimages to the village shrine. Nevertheless, pilgrims continued to arrive even after they were threatened with excommunication and the church had been closed and placed under an interdict. In the end, at the beginning of 1477, the church was demolished by order of the Archbishop.

Undoubtedly, the Holy Youth of Niklashausen had been exploited by men far shrewder than he was. Certain local lords made use of the popular excitement to weaken their overlord, the Bishop of Würzburg, with whom they had been in conflict for some years. These men headed the nocturnal march on the city; one of them had later, by way of penance, to hand over much of his land to the cathedral chapter. Like many previous propheta, Böhm was a simple shepherd-boy; we are told that from earliest youth he had appeared as half-witted, that until he began to preach he had never been able to form a coherent sentence, and that he was even unable to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. He was able to throw vast areas of Germany into commotion due to the backing he received. The parish priest of Niklashausen was quick to realise that a few miracles could attract huge offerings to his hitherto obscure shrine; he later admitted inventing miracles and attributing them to Böhm. The major part, however, was played by a hermit who had for some time been living in a nearby cave and who had acquired a great reputation for holiness. He seems to exercised a total domination over Böhm, both intimidating him and inspiring him. When Böhm addressed the crowds from a window the hermit stood behind him and prompted him, as he is shown to be doing in the woodcut from Schedel’s Chronicle below:

  002 (2)

Even if this part of the popular narrative is fanciful propaganda, it probably indicates the true relationship between the two men. The hermit fled when the Holy Youth was arrested, but was caught soon afterwards. The ecclesiastical records name him as Beghard, a native of Bohemia and a Hussite. Although the evidence cannot be called conclusive, it seems reasonably certain that it was the hermit who turned a religious pilgrimage into a revolutionary movement. In the quiet and picturesque Tauber Valley, he must have seen the future centre of a millennial kingdom in which the primal egalitarian order was to be restored.

Egalitarian millenarianism had now effectively penetrated Germany. The forgotten manuscript, the Reformation of Sigismund, after existing for some forty years, appeared for the first time as a printed book within a couple of years of Böhm’s burning and was reprinted in 1480, 1484, 1490 and 1494. The original manuscript was written just after the collapse of Táborite power in Bohemia and was an example of the attraction of the movement’s ideals. Despite its relatively moderate programme, which I have written about in earlier posts on this site, it too summoned the poor to take up the sword and enforce their rights under the leadership of the priest-king Frederick. In a far more violent form, the same theme reappears in the Book of a Hundred Chapters which was produced by an anonymous publicist who lived in Upper Alsace or the Breisgau and who is generally known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. This elderly fanatic was thoroughly familiar with the enormous mass of medieval apocalyptic literature and drew freely upon it in order to write his treatise, in German in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the last and most comprehensive expression of the popular eschatology of the Middle Ages.

What that strange prophet foretells at enormous length is, after all, precisely what had been so simply articulated by John Ball, the Lollards and the Táborites. After one bloody struggle against the hosts of Antichrist perfect justice would be re-established on earth and all men would be equals and brothers, perhaps even holding all things in common. These fantasies were not confined to books; also in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine there appeared conspiratorial movements which were dedicated to translating them into reality. These were the movements which were known collectively as the Bundschuh, a term meaning a peasant’s clog and having the same significance as the term sansculotte during the French Revolution.

In one respect this ‘revolutionary’ was truly original – nobody before him had combined devotion to the principal of communal or public ownership with megalomaniac nationalism. This man was convinced that in the remote past the Germans had in reality ‘lived together like brothers on earth’, holding all things in common. The destruction of that happy order had been the work first of the Romans and then of the Church of Rome, through the imposition of a Canon Law which had introduced the idea of private property and thereby undermined the value of fraternity, opening the way to envy and hate.

Behind this curious interpretation of early Church history, lay a whole different and distorted philosophy of history. The Old Testament was dismissed as valueless; for from the time of the Creation onwards it was not the Jews but the Germans who were the Chosen People. Adam and all his descendants down to Japhet, including all the Patriarchs, were German-speaking Germans; other languages, including Hebrew, came into existence only at the Tower of Babel. It was Japhet and his kin who first came to Europe, bringing their language with them. They had chosen to settle in Alsace, the heart of Europe, and the capital of the Empire which they founded was at Trier. This ancient German Empire was so vast, covering the whole of Europe, that Alexander the Great could be claimed as a German national hero. It had been the most perfect of empires, a true earthly paradise, for it was governed according to a legal code, known as the Statutes of Trier, in which the principles of fraternity, equality and communal ownership were enshrined. It was in these Statutes, and not in the ‘Decalogue’ invented by Moses, that God had expressed his commandments to mankind. The Revolutionary appended a copy of these to his work.

The time was at hand, he claimed, when the power of evil epitomised by the Latin peoples and their Church was to be broken forever. When the great leader from the Black Forest seized power as Emperor Frederick he would not only cleanse Germany from the Latin corruption and bring back the ‘Golden Age’ based on the Statutes of Trier but would also restore Germany to the position of supremacy which God intended for her. ‘Daniel’s Dream’, that old apocalypse which had brought such inspiration to the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, was subjected by the ‘Revolutionary’ to yet another reinterpretation. The four successive Empires – Assyria, Babylon, Syria and Greece – now turned into France, England, Spain and Italy. Enraged by the overwhelming pride of these nations the Emperor would conquer them all and establish the German Empire as the fifth and greatest Empire, which shall not pass away. Next, returning from his western campaigns, the Emperor would utterly defeat the Turks. Pressing east at the head of a vast army drawn from many peoples he would carry out the task traditionally assigned to the Last Emperor. The Holy Land would be conquered for Christendom and the society of Mohammedans would be utterly overthrown. The infidel will be baptised and those that will not accept baptism are no Christians nor people of the Holy Scriptures, so they are to be killed, then they will be baptised in their blood. After all this the Emperor will reign supreme over the whole world, receiving homage and tribute from thirty-two kings.

According to ‘the Revolutionary’, the teachings of the historical Christ were directed only to the Jews, not the Germans, for whom the proper religion was still that which had prevailed in ‘the Golden Age’ of Trier and which Emperor Frederick would reinstate. When that happened the spiritual centre of the world would not be Rome but Mainz, where a patriarch would preside in place of the vanquished pope. But it would be the Emperor – ‘the Revolutionary’ himself, triumphant and glorified, who would stand at the centre of the future religion as the ‘supreme priest’, recognised as ‘an earthly God’.  The future Empire was thus to be no less than a quasi-religious community or theocracy, united in adoration and dread of a messiah who would be the embodiment of the German spirit. This was what ‘the Revolutionary’ had in mind when he cried, jubilantly, that the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and will do so again, and with more power than ever.

In this fantasy, the crude nationalism of a half-educated intellectual erupted into the tradition of popular eschatology. The result was uncannily similar to the quasi-religious folk fantasies which were the core of the National-Socialist ‘ideology’ of interwar Germany five centuries later. We only have to turn back to the tracts produced by Rosenberg and Darré, among others, to be struck by the resemblance. There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once revealed and was the source of all good down the centuries until it was undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior non-German people and the Church of Rome. This ‘true German’ culture would now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble but ‘truly German’ stock, under a God-sent saviour who is it once an emperor and a messiah. The whole history of the Third Reich is foreshadowed, the offensives in the West and the East, the Terror wielded as an instrument of policy and for its own sake, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-German peoples and the biggest massacres in human history. All that is missing is the final consummation of the world-empire, the welt-Reich, which, in Adolf Hitler’s words, was to last a thousand years, like the earthly kingdom of the returning Messiah in the earlier Judao-Christian prophecies.

The Book of a Hundred Chapters was not printed at the time, nor has it ever been, in contrast to the Reformation of Sigismund, and there is nothing to suggest that the anonymous ‘Revolutionary’ played any significant part in the social movements of his day. The importance of the text lies in its recognisable influences in the apocalyptic literature of the Middle Ages. In particular, there can be little doubt that the prophecy of a future Frederick, a ‘Sleeping Emperor’ who would be the messiah of the poor, continued to fascinate and excite the common people of Germany, peasants and artisans alike, until well into the sixteenth century. In one emperor after another, from Sigismund to Charles V, the people contrived to see a reincarnation of Frederick II. When these monarchs failed to play the eschatological role expected of them, the collective imagination of the people continued to dwell on a mythological parallel emperor ‘of lowly descent’, who would rise up from among the poor, to oust the actual monarch and reign in his stead. The ‘Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine’, writing in 1510 had predicted the apocalyptic year for 1515. When a Bundschuh rising broke out in the same area in 1513 its declared aim was to help righteousness and get rid of blasphemers and finally to recover the Holy Sepulchre.

The leader of the Bundschuh was a peasant called Joss Fritz and many of the rank-and-file were also peasants. This was not the first rising he had organised. Like the outbreak at Niklashausen, the rising which occurred in the diocese of Speyer in 1502 was provoked in a general sense by the failure of the latest attempt to restore the disintegrating structure of the Empire, and by the excessive taxes levied by an insolvent Prince-Bishop, but its object was nothing less than a social revolution of the most thorough-going kind.  Not only the peasantry but also the urban poor, disbanded mercenaries, beggars and the like are known to have played a large part in the movement, giving it its peculiar character. For there were many other peasant risings in southern Germany at that time, and they all aimed merely at limited reforms of the feudal system. Only the Bundschuh aimed at achieving the Millennium. All authority was to be overthrown, all dues and taxes abolished, all ecclesiastical property distributed amongst the people, all woods, waters and pastures were to become communal property.

The flag of the movement showed Christ crucified with on one side a praying peasant, on the other the peasant clog, above it the slogan: Nothing but God’s Justice! It was planned to capture the town of Bruschal, where the Bishop’s palace was located; from there the movement was to spread throughout Germany, bringing freedom to the peasants and town-dwellers who supported it, but death to everyone else. Although this plot was betrayed and the movement crushed, Joss Fritz survived to organise similar risings in 1513 and 1517, in which there were similar mixes of fantasies: on the one hand exterminating all the rich and powerful and establishing an egalitarian order and on the other, a determination to get rid of blasphemers, of being led by the Emperor and of recovering the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, the image of the Bundschuh came to possess such prodigious significance that it was a popular belief that the original capture of Jerusalem had been achieved by peasants fighting under that banner.


Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and certainly by the end of the fifteenth century, national boundaries were hardened and the concept of “statehood” was emergent, becoming politically more important than that of the “nation”, in its original meaning of a people of common descent. This development is most marked in the development of England, Scotland, France and Spain. The growth of national consciousness was not, however, dependent on the authority of a unitary state. The strong consciousness of Germanness and German nationhood evolved in a very different political context from that of the western European states.


Above: Central-Eastern Europe in the Later Middle Ages (circa 1493).

Meanwhile, in a different part of Germany – Thuringia, a territory fertile in millenarian myths and movements –  a radical reformer, Thomas Müntzer, was embarking on a stormy career which was to end by turning him too into a prophet of the egalitarian Millennium.

(to be continued…)

Britain Sixty Years Ago (VI): Immigration and the Myths of Integration   Leave a comment

Recent debates about migration to Britain from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and elsewhere are somewhat reminiscent of those which began to be heard in the late fifties in British politics. From 1948 to 1962, there was a virtually open door for immigrants coming into Britain from the remaining colonies and the Commonwealth. The British debate over immigration up to about 1957, the year I was added to the natural increase statistics of Nottinghamshire, had been characterised by contradiction and paradox. On the one hand, overt ‘racialism’ had been discredited by the Nazi persecutions, and Britain’s identity was tied up in its identity as the vanquishing angel of a political culture founded on racial theories and their practices. This meant that the few remaining unapologetic racialists, the anti-Semitic fringe and the pro-apartheid colonialists were considered outcasts from civilised discourse. Official documents from the period describe the handful of handful of MPs who were outspokenly racialist as ‘nutters’. Oswald Mosley, who would have been a likely puppet prime minister had Hitler’s plans for invading Britain succeeded, was let out of prison after the war and allowed to yell at his small band of unrepentant fascist supporters, such was the lack of threat he posed to the King’s peace. The public propaganda of Empire and Commonwealth instead made much of the concept of a family of races cooperating together under the Union flag.

In Whitehall, the Colonial Office strongly supported the right of black Caribbean people to migrate to the Mother Country, fending off the worries of the Ministry of Labour about the effects of unemployment during economic downturns. When some five hundred immigrants had arrived from the West Indies on the converted German troopship, SS Windrush, in 1948, the Home Secretary had declared that though some people feel it would be a bad thing to give the coloured races of the Empire the idea that… they are the equals of the people of this country… we recognise the right of the colonial peoples to be treated as men and brothers of the people of this country. Successive governments, Labour and Tory, saw Britain as the polar opposite of Nazi Germany, a benign and unprejudiced island which was connected to the modern world. The Jewish migration of the late thirties and forties had brought one of the greatest top-ups of skill and energy that any modern European state had ever seen. In addition, the country already had a population of about seventy-five thousand black and Asian people at the end of the war, and Labour shortages suggested that it needed many more. The segregation of the American Deep South and the development of apartheid policies in South Africa were regarded with high-minded contempt.

However, while pre-war British society had never been as brutal about race as France or Spain, never mind Germany, it was still riddled with racialism from top to bottom. In places like Coventry, there had been a good deal of prejudice against the Welsh, Irish and Indian migrants who had arrived in large numbers from the mid-thirties onwards. This continued after the war, with coloured workers, in particular, being kept in low-paid factory jobs by foremen and union shop-stewards alike. Although the small wartime community in the city had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, this was still a relatively small number compared with white migrants from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, especially Ireland, as can be seen in the tables below:


The sub-continental ethnic minority communities were described by many contemporary Coventrians as quiet and peace-loving, ‘colonising’ some of the more rundown housing stock along the Foleshill Road to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry at the time, the Indian minorities were anxious to protect their own culture and identity. As early as 1952, the City Council had granted Pakistani Muslims land for separate burial facilities and for the building of a Mosque. Despite being relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian and Pakistani communities were, however, not immune from the sort of racial prejudice which was beginning to disfigure Britain nationally, especially the barbs directed at the Caribbean communities. Estate agents in Coventry began to operate a colour bar in October 1954, following the following editorial in the Coventry Standard, the weekly local newspaper:

The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas… They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room. 

These were not the outpourings of a bigoted correspondent, but the major editorial, the like of which had appeared in local newspapers before the War, questioning the arrival in the city of the sweepings of the nation, in reference to the destitute miners whom my grandfather helped to find accommodation and work in the Walsgrave and Binley areas on the outskirts of the city. But these new stereotypes, though just as inaccurate, were far more virulent, and could not be so easily counteracted and contradicted by people who appeared so different from, and therefore to, the native Coventrians. The reality, of course, was at variance from this obvious conflation of the Caribbean and Asian minorities.  The former was an even smaller minority in Coventry than the latter, amounting to only 1,200 even by 1961, and the idea of alcoholic or methylated Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus staggering along the Foleshill Road stemmed from a complete ignorance of other religious and ethnic cultures, even when compared with other prejudicial statements of the time.

Although the Standard‘s editor may have been conscious of the housing pressures in neighbouring Birmingham, the vision of black people pouring into cities throughout Britain was, again, a clear exaggeration, especially for the early fifties. This can only be explained by the observation that ‘racialism’ seems to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society at this time, including the engineering trade unions. The Census of 1961 below showed that immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population. The local population was increasing by approximately four thousand per year between 1951 and 1966,  but the proportion of this attributable to general migration declined dramatically over these fifteen years. Between 1951 and 1961 a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for 44.5 per cent of population growth in what it referred to as the Coventry belt (presumably, this included the nearby urbanised towns and villages of north and east Warwickshire).

In many areas of the country in the early fifties, white working-class people hardly ever came across anyone of another colour after the black GIs returned home. Neither were Polish and Eastern European migrants free from discrimination, although their white skins were more welcome. As with the Welsh and Irish migrants before them, the prejudice against the wartime Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation, strengthening the need for ethnic identification and compensatory status, reinforcing minority group solidarity and building the Polish community into a social entity. These conditions defined the ethnic vitality of the community, giving shape to its social, religious, economic and political life, in addition to enabling it to meet every need of Polish immigrants in Britain. By the end of the next decade, it could be observed that:

The Pole can buy Polish food from Polish shops, eat in Polish restaurants, sleep in Polish hotels or digs, with a Polish landlady, entertain friends in Polish clubs, attend a Polish doctor (over 500 are practising in Britain or dentist (80 Polish dental services), have a Polish priest and be buried by a Polish undertaker.

Anti-Semitism also remained common in the popular literature of the 1950s, and the actual practices of the British upper middle classes towards ordinary Jewish communities remained, as they had done before the war, close to the colour bar practised by Americans. Before the war, Jewish working people had been barely tolerated as servants and shopkeepers. The centres of Yiddish-speaking in London until the early 1950s were the East End districts of Whitechapel, Aldgate, Spitalfields and Stepney (the latter subsequently formed part of the larger borough of Tower Hamlets, which was widely populated by the Bangladeshi community from the 1980s). The influential major Jewish school in the East End, the Jews’ Free School, which had up to five thousand pupils in the early 1900s, saw itself as a citadel of anglicisation through to the 1950s, since Yiddish was regarded, not as a language in its own right, but as a corrupt form of German, itself still labelled as the language of the corrupt and oppressive Nazi regime. Even before the Second World War, irrespective of their attitudes towards religion, many Zionist groups throughout Europe had promoted Hebrew and stressed their rejection of Yiddish as the product of the Diaspora. Popular Jewish youth clubs in Britain, in common cause with the schools, had also promoted anglicisation and had also been highly successful in producing a generation oriented towards sports, dancing and mainstream British leisure pursuits.

Nevertheless, there also remained substantial Yiddish-speaking immigrant communities in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. The fundamentalist, or Orthodox communities, had already established themselves in the Stamford and Stoke Newington areas of Greater London before the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that these communities grew to significant sizes. For many of them, continuing to speak Yiddish, rather than using the modern Hebrew of Israel after 1948, was an act of defiance towards Zionism. It was therefore not surprising that, as early as the 1950s, it was a very common response of both first and second generation British Jews from the mainstream communities to deny all knowledge of Yiddish. Of those who did, only a tiny minority would be heard using it in public, even as late as the early 1980s, though that decade also, later, saw an enormous increase in Yiddish.

In the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the numbers of Ashkenazi Jews were swollen by a significant proportion of the relatively few Holocaust survivors who were allowed to settle in Britain and still further boosted by some hundreds of Hungarian Jews who left Hungary after the 1956 Uprising, after which they suffered further persecution from the Kádár regime. I have written extensively, elsewhere on this site, about the Hungarian refugees who arrived in Britain in the winter and spring of 1956-57, and we know that of the 200,000 who fled Hungary during those months, some 56,000 were officially admitted to the UK. Of course, in addition to the Jews who had already settled in London and Manchester, these latest arrivals were from all religions and classes in Hungary, not just the élite army officers, landowners and capitalists who had fled the Fascism of the Horthy and Szalási regimes, but all those fearing repression and reprisals, or seizing the opportunity to seek a higher standard of living in western Europe.  Among them were many of Jewish origin who had converted to Protestantism or Catholicism, along with the original adherents of those religions. The fifty-six exiles comprised a wide range of landless peasants, unskilled workers, craftsmen, professionals and entrepreneurs.

Marika Sherwood emigrated first to Australia as a ten-year-old in 1948 with her parents and grandparents. She quickly learnt English and easily assimilated into school life. She was briefly married to an Australian, but her amorphous yearning for Europe led to her re-migration to London, where she formed a circle of native British friends since she knew almost no Hungarians. Although returning to Hungary for regular visits to relatives, her Hungarian was English-accented and of the ‘kitchen’ variety. While her son maintained an interest in Hungary, he spoke only a few words of Hungarian, and his wife and friends were all English. Marika’s roundabout route to Britain was far from typical of the Hungarian exiles there who left their native land in the late forties and fifties, but her rapid assimilation into English life certainly was so. Unlike the Poles, the Hungarians did not establish separate support networks or religious and cultural institutions, though at the height of the exodus the Hungarian Embassy sponsored nine British-Hungarian associations. The oldest one, in London, was founded in 1951 and conducted its meetings in English. In the following twenty years, its membership dropped by half, from 150 to 75. In one area the membership included only ‘fifty-sixers’, as earlier immigrants either died or moved away, but in two others there were remnants of earlier migrations. Marika Sherwood’s concluding remarks are perhaps the most significant in her account, in that they draw attention, not so much to discrimination faced by immigrants among their hosts, but to the lack of attention paid by ‘the British’ to questions of migration, assimilation and integration:

The British myopia regarding immigration has prevented researchers recognising that some more general questions regarding the absorption and assimilation of immigrants have to be answered before we can begin to understand reactions to Black immigrants or the responses of Black peoples to such host reactions. We need to know the ramifications of meaning behind the lack of hyphenated Britons. We need to know if there are pressures to lose one’s ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and which indicators the natives find least tolerable – and why. When we know more we might be able to deal more successfully with some aspects of the racism  which greeted and continues to greet Black immigrants. 

The fact remains that almost as soon as the first post-war migrants had arrived from Jamaica and the other West Indian islands, popular papers were reporting worries about their cleanliness, sexual habits and criminality: ‘No dogs, No blacks, No Irish’ was not a myth, but a perfectly common sign on boarding houses. The hostility and coldness of native British, particularly in the English towns and cities, was quickly reported back by the early migrants. Even Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour cabinet in 1945-51, talked of the polluting poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities of the African colonies. Perhaps, therefore, we should not act quite so surprised that such attitudes still continue to fall as readily from the lips of Labour as well as Tory politicians in the twenty-first century as they did sixty years ago.

Even then, in the mid-fifties, questions of race were obscure and academic for most people, as the country as a whole remained predominantly white. Until at least a decade later, there were only small pockets of ‘coloured’ people in the poorer inner-city areas. There were debates in the Tory cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, but most of them never got anywhere near changing immigration policy. Any legislation to limit migration within the Commonwealth would have also applied to the white people of the old dominions too, or it would have been clearly and unacceptably based on racial discrimination. In the fifties, conservatives and socialists alike regarded themselves as civilized and liberal on race, but still showed a tendency to pick and choose from different parts of the Empire and Commonwealth. For instance, the Colonial Office specifically championed the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians over the unskilled and largely lazy Indians. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent had begun almost immediately after its independence and partition, as a result of the displacement of both Hindus and Muslims, but it had been small in scale.

Sikhs, mainly from the Punjab, had also arrived in Britain, looking for work in the west London borough of Southall, which quickly became a hub of the subcontinent. Indian migrants created their own networks for buying and supplying the corner shops which required punishingly long hours, and the restaurants which had almost instantly become part of the ‘British’ way of life. By 1970 there were more than two thousand Indian (especially Punjabi) restaurants, and curry became the single most popular dish in the UK within the following generation. Other migrants went into textile production and the rag trade, growing relatively rich compared with most of their British ‘neighbours’, who were (perhaps naturally enough) somewhat jealous of the people they viewed as ‘newcomers’.

So immigration continued through the fifties without any great debate. Much of it was not black but European, mostly migrant workers from Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Italy, France and other countries who were positively welcomed during the years of skill and manpower shortages. There was a particularly hefty Italian migration producing a first-generation Italian-speaking community of around a hundred thousand by 1971, adding to earlier immigration going back to the 1870s, and even as far back as the 1400s. Migrants who moved to the UK before the Second World War settled in different parts of Britain, including the south Wales valleys, where they set up bracchi shops selling coffee, ice cream and soda among other goods. Their links within the catering trade and subsequent competition encouraged dispersion. Chain migration led to the settlement of groups coming from the same area in particular locations, similar to the patterns experienced by Welsh migrants to England in the inter-war period.

After 1945, the destination for the mass-recruited Italian migrants, coming almost exclusively from the rural areas in southern Italy, were towns where industrial settlements required unskilled labour, like the brick-making industries of Bedford and Peterborough, or rural areas needing labour for agriculture. In later decades, as Italian migration to Britain declined, the proportion of migrants from the centre and north of Italy increased at the expense of that from the impoverished south. Areas associated with the mass recruitment of the 1950s witnessed the formation of close-knit communities of people whose personal histories were similar, who came from the same region or neighbouring regions, often from the same village. The home dialects were often mutually intelligible and therefore played a great role in community interaction. It was often a crystallised form of dialect, that, outside its natural environment, did not follow the same evolution as the dialect back home. Instead, these dialects were heavily loaded with English borrowings. Even something as simple as a ‘cup of tea’ was usually offered in English, as it represented a habit acquired in the new environment.

Throughout the 1950s, there was constant and heavy migration from Ireland, mainly into the construction industry, three-quarters of a million in the early fifties and two million by the early seventies, producing little political response except in the immediate aftermath of IRA bombings. There was substantial Maltese immigration which caught the public attention for a time due to the violent gang wars in London between rival Maltese families in the extortion and prostitution business (many of them were originally Sicilian). In addition, there were many ‘refugees’ from both sides of the Greek-Turkish Cypriot conflict, including one of my best friends in Birmingham, a second-generation Greek Cypriot whose family owned a restaurant in their adopted city and continued to attend Orthodox services. Again, apart from the enthusiastic adoption of plate-smashing and moussaka-throwing in such restaurants, there was little discernible public concern.

The first sizeable Greek Cypriot group arrived in the inter-war years and was composed of young men in search of education and work. On the outbreak of the Second World War, most of them were conscripted as ‘overseas nationals’ and served as British soldiers in various parts of the world. After the war, more significant numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and suitable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the subsequent struggles and invasions. By the 1980s, the Greek Cypriot population in Britain had reached two hundred thousand. Although there were small Greek communities in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, by far the largest proportion of the Greek speech community was concentrated in London. In the national context, the numbers of Greeks was relatively small. Within the capital, however, Greeks formed a significant minority, and the number of recorded Greek-speakers there only began to decrease in the 1980s, though still constituting one of the largest bilingual groups in Inner London schools.

Greek Cypriots, although leaving behind a sometimes bloody conflict, left their island homes mainly as economic migrants. The majority of them came from lower socio-economic groups, setting out with high aspirations, confident about their hard-working nature and grounded in the strong sense of solidarity binding them to their compatriots. Once in Britain, they worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, hairdressing and grocery-retailing, as well as in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries. In the villages of Cyprus, most women’s work had been confined to the household and the fields. In Britain, though still undervalued and underpaid, a substantial number of women went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small family run factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piece-work rates.

Mother-tongue teaching was provided by the Greek Orthodox Church in the early 1950s. Increasingly, however, this role was taken over by various parents’ groups. The longest-standing of these is the Greek Parents’ Association in Haringey, which dates back to 1955. Other parts of London and the country slowly took their lead from this, and classes were established in Coventry in 1963, and much later, in 1979, in Bradford. Children spent between one and four hours per week in these community-run classes, with the average attendance in the region of three hours. A pressing issue in these classes has been the place of the Cypriot dialect. While parents wanted their children to learn standard modern Greek (SMG), many British-trained teachers felt that the Cypriot dialect should also have a place as a medium of instruction.

Migration from Turkey and Cyprus followed very different patterns. Cypriot settlement preceded emigration from Turkey, dating back to the 1950s when the British government was actively seeking labour. In the 1960s, the birth of the Republic of Cyprus and the subsequent fighting between Greek and Turkish communities further encouraged migration to Britain, often in a bid to gain entry before the enactment of increasingly stringent immigration legislation. With the occupation of the northern part of the island by Turkey in 1974, a further nine thousand Greek and Turkish Cypriot refugees fled to Britain. It is impossible to tell how many of these came from each ethnic group since only place of birth information was recorded on settlement in the UK, not ethnic identity. Migration from Turkey itself only began in the 1970s. Cypriot Turkish has traditionally been accorded low status, often dismissed as ‘incorrect’ or as ‘pidgin Turkish’, although Turkish Cypriots have defended the legitimacy of their own variety and, since 1974, have resisted linguistic assimilation from mainland Turkey. 

Chinese migration, mainly from the impoverished agricultural hinterland of Hong Kong, can be measured by the vast rise in Chinese fish-and-chip shops, takeaways and restaurants since the mid-fifties, when there were a few hundred, to more than four thousand by the beginning of the seventies. Their owners were speakers of the Cantonese dialect.


A Jamaican immigrant seeking lodgings in Birmingham in 1955

Thus, if there were clear rules about how to migrate quietly to Britain, they would have stated first, ‘be white’, and second, ‘if you can’t be white, be small in number’, and third, ‘if all else fails, feed the brutes’. The West Indian migration, at least until the mid-eighties, failed each rule. It was mainly male, young and coming not to open restaurants but to work for wages which could, in part, be sent back home. Some official organisations, including the National Health Service and London Transport, went on specific recruiting drives for drivers, conductors, nurses and cleaners, with advertisements in Jamaica. Most of the population shift, however, was driven by the migrants themselves, desperate for a better life, particularly once the popular alternative migration to the USA was closed down in 1952. The Caribbean islands, dependent on sugar or tobacco for most employment, were going through hard times. As word was passed back about job opportunities, albeit in difficult surroundings, immigration grew fast to about 36,000 people a year by the late fifties. The scale of the change was equivalent to the total non-white population of 1951 arriving in Britain every two years. The black and Asian population rose to 117,000 by 1961. Although these were still comparatively small numbers, from the first they were concentrated in particular localities, rather than being dispersed. Different West Indian island groups clustered in different parts of London and the English provincial cities – Jamaicans in the south London areas of Brixton and Clapham,  Trinidadians in west London’s Notting Hill, islanders from Nevis in Leicester, people from St Vincent in High Wycombe, and so on.


405,000 people from the Caribbean migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1958, mostly single men.

The means and manners by which these people migrated to Britain had a huge impact on the later condition of post-war society and deserves special, detailed analysis. The fact that so many of the first migrants were young men who found themselves living without wives, mothers and children inevitably created a wilder atmosphere than they were accustomed to in their island homes. They were short of entertainment as well as short of the social control of ordinary family living. The chain of generational influence was broken at the same time as the male strut was liberated. Drinking dens and gambling, the use of marijuana, ska and blues clubs were the inevitable results. Early black communities in Britain tended to cluster where the first arrivals had settled, which meant in the blighted inner cities. There, street prostitution was more open and rampant in the fifties than it was later so that it is hardly surprising that young men away from home for the first time often formed relationships with prostitutes, and that some became pimps themselves. This was what fed the popular press hunger for stories to confirm their prejudices about black men stealing ‘our women’. The upbeat, unfamiliar music, illegal drinking and drugs and the sexual appetites of the young immigrants all combined to paint a lurid picture of a new underclass.


In the 1960s, women and children joined their men: 328,000 more West Indians settled in Britain.

More important in the longer-term, a rebelliousness was sown in black families which would be partly tamed only when children and spouses began to arrive in large numbers in the sixties, and the Pentecostal churches reclaimed at least some of their own, sending out their gospel groups to entertain as well as evangelise among the previously lily-white but Welsh-immigrant-led nonconformist chapels in the early seventies. Housing was another crucial part of the story. For the immigrants of the fifties, accommodation was necessarily privately rented, since access to council homes was based on a long list of existing residents. So the early black immigrants, like the earlier immigrant groups before them, were cooped up in crowded, often condemned Victorian terrace properties in west London, Handsworth in west Birmingham, or the grimy back-streets of Liverpool and Leeds.


Landlords and landladies were often reluctant to rent to blacks. Once a few houses had immigrants in them, a domino effect would clear streets as white residents sold up and shipped out. The 1957 Rent Act, initiated by Enoch Powell, in his free-market crusade, perversely made the situation worse by allowing rents to rise sharply, but only when tenants of unfurnished rooms were removed to allow for furnished lettings. Powell had intended to instigate a period during which rent rises could be cushioned, but its unintended consequence was that unscrupulous landlords such as the notorious Peter Rachman, himself an immigrant, bought up low-value properties for letting, ejecting the existing tenants and replacing them with new tenants, packed in at far higher rents. Thuggery and threats generally got rid of the old, often elderly, white tenants, to be replaced by the new black tenants who were desperate for somewhere to live and therefore prepared to pay the higher rents they were charged. The result was the creation of instant ghettos in which three generations of black British would soon be crowded together. It was the effects of Powell’s housing policies of the fifties which led directly to the Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth riots of the eighties.



Yet these were not, of course, the only direct causes of the racial tensions and explosions which were to follow. The others lay in the reactions of the white British, or rather the white English. One Caribbean writer claimed, with not a touch of irony, that he had never met a single English person with colour prejudice. Once he had walked the entire length of a street, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid. If only we could find the “neighbour” we could solve the whole problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble. Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country. Numerous testimonies by immigrants and in surveys of the time show how hostile people were to the idea of having black or Asian neighbours. The trades unions bristled against blacks coming in to take jobs, possibly at lower rates of pay, just as they had complained about Irish or Welsh migrants a generation earlier. Union leaders regarded as impeccably left-wing lobbied governments to keep out black workers. For a while, it seemed that they would be successful enough by creating employment ghettos as well as housing ones, until black workers gained a toe-hold in the car-making and other manufacturing industries where the previous generations of immigrants had already fought battles for acceptance against the old craft unionists and won.

Only a handful of MPs campaigned openly against immigration. Even Enoch Powell would, at this stage, only raise the issue in private meetings, though he had been keen enough, as health minister, to make use of migrant labour. The anti-immigrant feeling was regarded as not respectable, not something that a decent politician was prepared to talk about. For the Westminster élite talked in well-meaning generalities of the immigrants as being fellow subjects of the Crown. Most of the hostility was at the level of the street and popular culture, usually in the form of disguised discrimination of shunning, through to the humiliation of door-slamming and on to more overtly violent street attacks.

White gangs of ‘Teddy boys’, like the one depicted below, went ‘nigger-hunting’ or ‘black-burying’, chalking Keep Britain White on walls. Their main motivation stemmed, not from any ideological influence, but from a sense of young male competition and territory-marking. They were often the poor white children of the remaining poor white tenants in the same areas being ‘taken over’ by the migrants.  As the black British sociologist, Stuart Hall, has written, in the ‘society of affluence’,  which threw up paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotyped remedies, as was demonstrated by the following respondent to a BBC radio enquiry of the late fifties:

It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.               

‘They’ were, of course, West Indian or Asian sub-continental immigrants. A motor-cycle lad who said, of his parents, they just stay awake until I get in at night, and once I’m in they’re happy,… but every time I go out I know they’re on edge, talked casually about going down to Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. All this came to a head at Notting Hill the next year, 1958, with the now infamous riots which took place there, though the anti-immigrant violence actually started in St Ann’s, a poor district of distant Nottingham, near my birthplace, and spread to the capital the following day.


In my next post, I want to deal with these events in more detail. For now, I will pause with the paradox of the year in which I was born, 1957, just forty days before Harold Macmillan told the good burghers of Bedford, no doubt some of them Italian immigrants, that most of our people have never had it so good. Today, it feels as if the British, myself included, have spent the last sixty years trapped inside that paradox, that illusionary ‘bubble’. To paraphrase Stuart Hall’s commentary, combining it with the well-known ‘East End’ song, we have been blowing bubbles, but they always seem to burst, just like our dreams. When the mists and myths clear, we are still the same country we were born into sixty years ago. The Sixties’ ‘Social Revolution’ never really happened. The poor are not only still with us, but they are there in greater numbers. The ‘economic miracle’ has dissipated, and the one percent of the adult population who owned four-fifths of all the wealth still do. The ‘Macmillenium’ is long since over, as this millennial generation is the first since the Industrial Revolution not to have as good as its predecessors, let alone better.


Main sources:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (ed., n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.



































































































































































































































A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War, 1917 – Autumn into Winter   Leave a comment

This year’s Armistice Day (Saturday 11 November) also marks the end of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres), which ended on the 10th November, following the fall of the village of Passchendaele to Canadian troops on 6 November. It was claimed the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but if this were true, it was only at a cost of 275,000 British casualties in return for just five miles of territory.

While British troops were dying in the Flanders bogs, the usual autumnal sacrifice of an ally was all but consummated. Twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought on the Italian Front between June 1915 and November 1917. The Italians had little success after joining the war on the Allied side and suffered heavy losses in defeats by the Austro-Hungarian forces. Machine-gunners were heard to shout to Italian troops to stop and go back, promising to stop shooting. Italian commander Luigi Cadorna punished his underperforming units by shooting every tenth man, in a throwback to the Roman system of decimation. 

In 1917, the Battles on the Isonzo continued between June and November. On 24 October 1917 on the middle Isonzo, an army of nine Austrian divisions and six German burst in the misty morning through the Italian front, and in a fortnight’s fighting forced it back from river line to river line with a loss of 600,000 men. The German and Austro-Hungarian allies then advanced to positions just fifteen miles from Venice following their overwhelming victory at Caporetto in October and November, after which 260,000 Italian soldiers surrendered. The Italians eventually found standing ground on the River Piave, where they stopped their seventy-mile retreat, covering Venice, though only just. Britain and France sent reinforcements, and their generals helped to reconstitute the broken Italian forces.


Back on the Western Front on 20th November, British forces, at last, achieved a breakthrough by deploying 476 Mark IV tanks at Cambrai. For a moment, they almost brought back the warfare of manoeuvre. Although first used at Flers-Courcelette, Cambrai was where tanks first showed their true potential. Additionally, the battle incorporated new tactics from the air as well as on the ground. Ground-attack aircraft and coordinated artillery fire ensured the advancing troops were able to move forward in a way which had hitherto been impossible or, at least, uncommon, along the front. The surprise was achieved across a broad section of it, and troops broke through the Hindenburg Line, in places gaining five miles of territory. Church bells were rung in celebration, somewhat prematurely, as it turned out.


Yet Passchendaele had so drained and depleted British reserves that they were unable to develop their initial victory into an outright one at Cambrai or to prevent a determined German counter-attack ten days later. The reach of British forces had exceeded their grasp. The German counter-attacks reversed the successes. Casualties amounted to 45,000 on each side, but the battle at least, and at last, gave hope to the Allies that new tactics could succeed where the war of attrition had failed. Cambrai remains one of the key actions of the War, for it offered them a means of release from the bondage of sieges. For the first time the British, in particular, were able to learn the true value of a weapon of which they were the exponents.

At Cambrai, the British forces were pioneers in new tactics which their enemy did not grasp the full meaning of. But the Germans had also been innovative in their tactics. All former offensives had, sooner or later, come to a halt for the same reason – wearied troops were met by fresh reserves. The attackers continued hammering at an unbreakable front because they had ‘set the stage’ for action in that one area, and could not easily shift their batteries and communications. In a word, all offensives lacked mobility. Germany’s first business, therefore, was to make the battle mobile and introduce the element of surprise.


Above: An ammunition column at the Battle of Cambrai, 21 November 1917.

Yet their plan was not a breakthrough in the older sense of puncturing the line in one spot, but a general crumbling of the line. It was based on the highly specialised training of certain units, and the absence of any preliminary massing of near the point of attack. There was no longer to be any prolonged bombardment to alarm the enemy. The advance was made by selected troops in small clusters, carrying light trench-mortars and many machine-guns, with the field batteries close behind them in support. The actual mode of attack, which the French called infiltration, was like a hand with steel finger-tips being pushed through a yielding substance, like loose earth. The élite troops at the fingertips made gaps through which those behind them passed, till each section of the defending line found itself outflanked and encircled. Rather than an isolated stroke, the offensive was like a creeping sickness which could demoralise a hundred of miles of front.

In fact, the Germans had first used these tactics at the capture of Riga in September, but the true test had come in October at Caporetto. The Allied Staffs had been slow to grasp the significance of the new method for the Western Front. Caporetto was explained by a breakdown in Italian nerve, hence their ill-preparedness for the counter-attack at Cambrai. There the attack on the British left, carried out using the old tactics, signally failed, while the assault on their right, deploying the new ones, was an obvious success. Yet the Allied Staffs blamed their defeat on defective local intelligence. As a consequence, four months later, their armies read the true lessons of Cambrai in letters of fire.

After Passchendaele and Caporetto some inquisition into military methods was inevitable. The first changes were at British Headquarters. The Prime Minister was in favour of a change in the chief command, but Haig could not easily be forced from his place. He made a bold bid for more unity in command, securing some lesser resignations in order to improve the efficiency of his staff. After Caporetto it was decided that a War Council should sit at Versailles, consisting of the Prime Minister and one other statesman from each of the Allies. The soldiers naturally objected to being mere advisers without executive power, so in January 1918 a revised machinery was framed – a military committee with Foch as president, empowered to create a general reserve by contributions from all the Allied armies. The committee soon failed, however, since it is one of the first principles of war that the same authority which controls general operations must also control reserves, and a committee cannot, therefore, command an army. Added to this, Haig refused to allocate British divisions to the general reserve since he believed that he had no divisions to give since they were all already deployed at the front.

If at the beginning of 1918, Haig and Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had proposed Foch as their overall Commander, they would have carried the day, but in November 1917 Lloyd George was more interested in a great offensive in Palestine and determined to make the Versailles machinery work. He had complained, perhaps unfairly, that he did not get sufficient help from his official military advisers. Nevertheless, as John Buchan pointed out in 1935,

In a democracy relations between soldiers and statesmen must always be delicate, but they were notably less strained in Britain than in France or Italy.

At the close of 1917, British public opinion could no longer see a clear outline of the war. Russia had fallen out of that line, and new and unknown quantities had entered the conundrum. It had been a depressing year which, beginning with the promise of a decision, had closed for the Allies in a deep uncertainty. They had taken Baghdad and Jerusalem, indisputable successes, but ones which affected only Turkey, and even there weakening her extremities rather than striking at her heart.

Discomfort was growing in every British home since lights were darkened and rations were reduced, and there was the unvarying tale of losses to rend the heart. One such tale was that of Mrs Amy Beechey, who had eight sons, all of whom served in the armed forces. Five were killed: Barnard at Loos in September 1915; Frank on the Somme in November 1916; Harold at Arras in April 1917; Charles in Tanzania in October 1917 and Leonard, who died in December 1917 after being wounded at Cambrai. When the King and Queen met Mrs Beechey, she told the Queen:

I did not give them willingly.

Of her three other sons, Chris suffered severe injuries after being hit by a sniper at Gallipoli, Samuel served in France at the very end of the war, and Eric became a dentist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In addition to these bereavements, women were also being killed in the munitions factories at home. In 1916-17 ninety-six died from poisoning caused by working in TNT. Women munitions workers became known as ‘canaries’ due to the toxicity affecting the liver and causing jaundice, turning their skins yellow.  The economic cost of war was also taking its toll, with seventy percent of Britain’s Gross National Product being spent on it in 1917.


Above: Women making shells

Peace, Bread and Land were what the Bolsheviks promised the Russian people in the October Revolution (which took place in November in the western, Gregorian calendar). Protests had led to the end of the tsar’s rule in March, after which the Provisional Government had kept Russia in the war. The minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, advocated a fresh attack but the lacklustre Kerensky Offensive in June, although initially successful, saw the Russian Army disintegrate as the Germans overwhelmed their opponents, reaching Riga in September.  The First Women’s Battalion of Death was set up to shame male Russian soldiers into fighting, though they were also antagonistic towards those seeking to prolong the war.  In total, several hundred Russian women took part in the war.

Kornilov, the one fighting General left, wasted his in futile quarrels; a weary people turned to whatever offered leadership; and in October the Bolshevik revolution, inspired by Vladimir Lenin and organised by Leon Trotsky, marched swiftly to power. On 7 November (in the west) its triumph was complete, the triumph of a handful of determined men. When Lenin and Trotsky established the Bolsheviks as the dominant group in December, he was then in a position to take Russia out of the war. An armistice soon followed, on 16 December, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the war. At Brest Litovsk before the close of the year, the new Russian rulers accepted from Germany a degrading peace. The victory of the Bolsheviks and the defeat of Russia meant Germany would no longer be fighting on two fronts, and so troops were released to take part in the Spring Offensive – Germany’s last chance to win the war.

In Britain, the Russian Revolution, followed by the Stockholm Conference, let loose a flood of theorising; there were incessant Labour disputes. John Buchan observed that the British people were…

… war-weary, puzzled, suspicious, and poisoned to some extent by false propaganda. All zest and daylight had gone out of the struggle. The cause for which the British people had entered it was now half-forgotten, for men’s minds had grown numb. Civilians at home, as well as soldiers in the field, felt themselves in the grip of an inexorable machine.

He remarked that it was a dangerous mood;

… dangerous to the enemy, for it meant that grim shutting of the teeth which with Britain is a formidable thing. But it was also dangerous also to ourselves, for it might have resulted in a coarsening of fibre and a blindness to the longer view and the greater issues.

But Buchan believed that Britain had an effective antidote to this mood in the stoical form of George V:

That this was not its consequence was in large part due to the King, who by his visits to every industrial centre kept before dazed and weary minds the greatness of the national purpose and the unity of the people. Wherever he went he seemed to unseal the founts of human sympathy. 


He visited the shipbuilders on the Clyde and the Tyne, as well as most of the major munitions works. To the disquiet of the War Cabinet, he also went to Lancashire during a strike, where he was warmly welcomed. Lloyd George paid the following tribute to his role:

The loyalty of the people was heartened and encouraged… by the presence of their Sovereign in their midst, and by the warm personal interest he showed in their work and their anxieties. In estimating the value of the different factors which conduced to the maintenance of our home front in 1917, a very high place must be given to the affection inspired by the King, and the unremitting diligence with which he set himself in those dark days to discharge the functions of his high office.

The Autumn and early Winter of 1917 were indeed the darkest days of the war for Britain, but exactly how dark was only realised by the Government and the Admiralty. Lloyd George himself also rose to the crisis. The loss of British shipping to the U-boats in the early part of the year had left the country with only six weeks of corn supplies. It was impossible to lay a mine-field close to the German bases or to attack them because the Battle of Jutland had left the Royal Navy without full command of the North Sea. Much was done by rationing, by increasing home production and through the expansion of shipbuilding, but the real remedy, which, before the summer had gone had relieved the situation, was a new plan of defence. The convoy system was pressed upon an unwilling Admiralty at a time before Britain had even the promise of a multitude of American destroyers. With the help of some of the younger naval officers, it was finally accepted and put into force. It had an immediate effect, as the losses to convoyed ships amounted to only one percent, compared to the one in four being lost in April. By September, the monthly tonnage lost was under two hundred thousand, compared with the 875,000 lost in April, at the peak of the losses. When peace came, eighty-eight thousand merchant vessels had been convoyed, with a loss of only 436. At the same time, the advent of better depth charges led to the destruction of more than half of the U-boats by the Royal Navy before the end of the War.

Despite this improving picture at sea, by the end of 1917, the initiative in the war on the land had passed once again to the Central Powers. Russia’s collapse enabled the Germans to redeploy large forces from the Eastern to the Western Front which meant that they could muster more men on the latter than the Allies, who had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the Americans could send their armies. Germany had one last chance to beat the Allies before that happened. The U-boat campaign had failed and the German people were weak with privations and their hope was failing, having suffered so many military disappointments. A decisive Spring Offensive was all that stood between them and ignominious defeat in the year to come.



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

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


Budapest, 1944-45: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment


Dancing with the Devil Himself:

Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.

Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.


Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue

As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:

From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann. 


Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.

On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.

On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order  went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.

On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help.  It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:

The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age

This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make  contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.

Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of  Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.




The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.

The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.

A significant birthday:

While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.

Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.

There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.

By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.


Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.

On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews.  The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…

…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..

But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:

The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.

In hiding…


Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957

Tom continues the family’s story:

By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives


Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.

My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.


One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s  mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.


My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout  Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.

For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence.  Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.

Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’

Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.

Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was  unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.


By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:

Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.

with-second-cousin-kati Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).

1956 and All That Remains… A Matter of Interpretation(s): Part One   Leave a comment


1966-1989: Kádár and the Counter-revolutionaries: 

In the mid-1960s, from the vantage point of a decade further on, some of the principal goals of the Hungarian Revolution seemed, to some external commentators, such as Andrew Georgy, to have been accomplished. Leaving aside the professed rise in living standards and the advent of a degree of consumerism, it was clear to them that what they saw as the superhuman, and frequently suicidal, efforts of anti-Communist nationalism had achieved two main results. The first of these was the shaking up of the Communist régimes and substituting more acceptable, nationally orientated Communist leaders for the extreme and uncompromising Stalinists. Secondly, the Stalinist monolith was fatally weakened by the demands of for differentiated status on a country-by-country basis, in effect also terminating  satellite dependency on the USSR. They helped to set the stage for a phase of pluralism in Eastern Europe. In 1966, J F Brown wrote in The New Eastern Europe that…

…what later evolved into the Kádár ‘New Course’ was caused by two factors. The first, and most important, was the need to establish some rapport with the people. The second was the very narrow base of Kádár’s support within his own Party… This atmosphere of relaxation and public decency was not reserved for the Party. It spread over the whole population…

Many Hungarians would agree, if challenged, that Kádár was the best leader Hungary could have had in the circumstances. This astonishing metamorphosis of Kádár, from the despised traitor of 1956 to the grudgingly acknowledged leader of 1964, was made possible by two factors. The first concerned the population itself. The events of October-November 1956 produced a profound disillusionment in Hungary. The collapse of the Revolution and the failure of the Western powers to come to its aid caused many many Hungarians to reappraise drastically their country’s situation. Stark realism compelled them to accept Soviet hegemony of the Communist political system for an indefinite period… The task now was to make that period as comfortable and tolerable as possible. The second factor was Kádár’s policy of conciliation; Hungarians compared this policy with Rákosi’s, and they knew which they preferred.  

The slackening hold of the USSR was further revealed by its allowing Romania to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact in 1967, although its internal policy remained firmly Stalinist, as well as by the slowness with which the Soviet leadership moved to keep Czechoslovakia in the Communist fold in the following year.  In Hungary in 1968 there were signs of a nascent pluralism among the political élite. The New Economic Mechanism officially introduced private incentive and individual enterprise into the economy. Trade unions were also given renewed muscle, and non-Communist Party candidates were allowed to stand in parliamentary elections. But though non-Party activity was permitted, only the Communist-dominated Fatherland Front was allowed to exist as a political organisation. As one historian commented in this period;

The cage is more comfortable but the bars are still there and the keeper still keeps his eyes open.

Following the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Brezhnev reiterated the Soviet leadership’s hard-line view in relation to the ‘satellite states’ of ‘Eastern Europe’:

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union has always been in favour of every socialist country determining the concrete forms of its development along the road to socialism, taking into account the specific character of its national conditions. But we know, comrades, that there are also general laws of socialist construction, deviations from which lead to deviations from socialism as such. And when internal and external forces try to turn the development of any socialist country backwards to a capitalist restoration, when a threat arises to the cause of socialism in that country, a threat to the security of the socialist community as a whole, that it is no longer an issue only for the people of that country in question, but a general issue which is the concern of all the socialist countries.

Obviously such an action as military aid to a fraternal country in warding off a menace to the socialist system is an extra-ordinary enforced measure that can be evoked only by direct actions on the part of the enemies of socialism within a country and outside it, actions which create a threat to the common interests of the socialist camp…

In his New Year address of January 1969, PM Jenö Fock made it clear that there were still such ‘enemies of the people’ in Hungary whom the government needed to watch carefully if not take action against:

There are people who do not care for the building of socialism, people living at the expense of society; there are politically indifferent groups and enemies waiting to exploit possible Party and government errors; and there are others who consciously act in an unlawful manner, inciting to, organising and committing political crimes.

What Hungary was experiencing was a massive rise in living standards. Moonlighting to make more money in the new relaxed economy, became common. The new co-operatives made peasants’ incomes higher than those for industrial workers. But Hungary had weekend cottage socialism as many urban workers were able to afford a small holiday home near a lake or river, in addition to their standard panel-built flat. In material terms, as well as in terms of personal autonomy, Kádár had succeeded to the point of seeing the country suffer the decline in virtues and values which followed on from prosperity – apathy, money-grubbing and high rates of divorce, abortion and suicide.

In 1969, Kádár had an interview with an Italian journalist from L’Unita, the newspaper of the Italian Communist Party. In it, he claimed that the Hungarian Workers’ Party had been most successful when it stuck to Marxist-Leninist principles, rather than to dogmatism, as it had done under Rákosi, or to revisionism, as under Nagy. So, after 4.11.56, its first task was…

… to put the Communists, and all those who believed in socialism, back on their feet and to unite them. But we laid no stress on separating from the real enemies of socialism and those who had been misled, whose number was not small…

The statement… which has in a certain sense become a slogan, ‘who is not against us is for us’, is an expression of this policy…

We try to get the Communists respected and followed by non-Party people because of the work done by them for society. We declare at the same time that the same rights and esteem are due to everybody who participates in the work of socialist construction and does a proper job, irrespective of Party membership, ideology, origin or occupation.

These ideas determine our relationship not only to the masses of workers and peasants, but also to the creative intellectuals…

We also know full well that socialism does not only mean a larger loaf of bread, better housing, a refrigerator and maybe a car but primarily new social relationships and new human ties.

In the early 1970s, it remained impossible for anything but the official interpretation of the events of 1956-58 to gain reference among contemporaries and historians. Yet it was in this realm of ideology that the régime met its most striking defeat. In essence, Kádár’s democratic centralism was a pragmatic means of strengthening the legitimacy of his régime by concentrating on economic modernisation and de-politicising certain administrative functions.

In his memoirs, written in 1971, Khrushchev tried to represent his 1958 visit to Hungary as a turning point for the Hungarian working classes:

Because I was a former miner myself, I felt I could take a tough line with the coal-miners. I said I was ashamed of  my brother-miners who hadn’t raised either their voices or their fists against the counter-revolution. The miners said they were sorry. They repented of having committed a serious political blunder, and they promised that they would do everything they could not to let such a thing happen ever again… 

In contrast to this account, we know that, though widespread apathy and atomisation reappeared among the Csepel workers after their return to work in January 1957, and despite the threat of a death penalty for anyone found ‘agitating’, there was continued passive resistance among them which culminated in rumbling discontent during Khrushchev’s 1958 visit to the factory. Journalist Sandy Gall was there, covering the visit for Britain’s Independent Television News. He recalled Khrushchev giving a speech over the factory’s loudspeakers at the end of a shift. In his memoirs, Gall recalls the Csepel workers simply walking away, not stopping to listen. If we take this account at face value, we have every reason to doubt that Hungary’s coal-miners, some of whom had been shot during the invasion, would have reacted in a radically different way to Khrushchev’s rebukes. It is also difficult to see how historians could give any credence to these reminiscences as evidence of anything other than an exercise in retrospective propaganda. According to this…

The Hungarian people were grateful to us and our army for having fulfilled our internationalist duty in helping to liquidate the counter-revolutionary mutiny… Everyone who spoke expressed his true feelings… Comrade Kádár said,… ‘There is no resentment in our country against the presence of your troops on our territory.’

By 1974, Comrade Kádár was, according to the journalist William Shawcross, who wrote Crime and Compromise, summing up his position in Hungary, the most popular leader in the Warsaw Pact. Over the previous eighteen years, and out of the rubble of the revolution and reprisals, Kádár had somehow managed to construct one of the most reasonable, sane and efficient Communist states in the world. Hungarians spoke of their country as the gayest barracks in the Socialist camp, praising Kádár for this achievement. From being almost universally loathed for the way he had first betrayed László Rajk in 1949 and then Imre Nagy in 1956, he was, apparently, so highly regarded by his people… that…

Hungary today is personified by Kádár and many Hungarians are convinced that without him their country would be a very different and probably far worse place to live.

Five years later, George Schopflin attended a conference of young workers in Hungary on modern Hungarian history and wrote of how confused the participants were about the events of 1956, and what led up to them. For him, the principal features of modern Hungary included…

social inequality exacerbated by an increasingly rigid stratification and low mobility; aspirations which are in no way collectivist; weak institutionalisation; the survival of authoritarian attitudes in human relations and corresponding weakness in democracy. To what extent criticism of these and other topics influences policy-makers is extremely difficult to gauge. Obviously, published work does have some kind of impact, but against that, policy-makers appear to be reluctant to initiate major changes. Stability shading off into a fairly comfortable stagnation seems to be the main feature of the Kádár model of the 1970s.

An opinion survey of Hungarian intellectuals conducted a year earlier confirms a similar sociological anaesthesia among them. According to the author, there were four kinds of ‘taboos’ among them:

The first is well-known and concerns links with the Soviets and foreign policy questions in general. Second, it is forbidden to criticise in any way the armed forces, the judiciary and the internal security organs. Third, though it is generally not known by most people, it is not allowed to criticise anyone by name. Of course, in this case we are talking about people who are alive. The reason must be the need for ‘cadre stability’, so no-one need worry about being attacked from outside… Fourth, certain facts and subjects may not be subjected to sharp criticism. These could be brought out in an anecdotal fashion, in an Aesopian language or by way of a cut-and-dried technical analysis, but not in a radical manner.

In October 1981, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, Gordon Brook-Shepherd wrote a commemorative article for The Sunday Telegraph. He remarked that it was one thing to hear the widespread opinions, even of anti-Communist intellectuals in Budapest, that Kádár was the mainstay of Hungary’s hard-won stability and unity, but quite something else to hear the survivors from a feudal world (whose lavish hospitality with such modest means was… touching) declaring that, despite his atheism, Kádár was a good man. For these small-holding ‘peasants’, who had made their dutiful daughter break off her her engagement to the son of a local party boss, things were, on the whole, better… than they used to be.  They had been convinced of the irrelevance of much of the fine talk of a generation earlier, of what turned out to be empty Western rhetoric unsupported by action or aid. ‘Freedom’ for their daughter’s generation was defined as a small apartment in the town or city and a weekend house, a shorter wait for a better car, perhaps a Lada to replace the Trabant,  and more frequent foreign travel. For intellectuals, freedom consisted in the privilege to go on censoring ourselves, as one of them put it. Brook-Shepherd concluded that they had learnt that, in Kádár’s Hungary, if you do not get what you like, you eventually like what you get.

In May 1982, Kádár’s seventieth birthday was celebrated. In an article for The Guardian, Hella Pick wrote that not only did Hungarians want to congratulate him, but that they hoped he would stay in power for many more years. Despite his betrayal of the Nagy government and his support for the Soviet suppression of the revolt in 1956, resulting in so many deaths and emigration, during the period which he was feared and reviled,…

… much of what Mr Kádár did has been put into the back drawer of memory. It may not have been forgotten or forgiven but the Hungarians do accept that János Káadár… genuinely helped them to rise from the ashes of the Uprising to regain both self-respect and world respect.

In the same year, historian Robin Okey also wrote, that in retrospect, the events of 1956 … showed that ‘national Communism’ was never likely to bring about fundamental change:

Essentially a highly personalised amalgam of Marxist ideas and patriotic instincts, it proved to be an unstable basis for a broader movement and gravitated under pressure either to its nationalist or its Communist poles.

Between 1956 and 1982, both the rulers and the ruled in Eastern Europe concerned themselves more and more with ‘bread and butter’ issues, as an antidote to alternating periods of hope and disillusionment. Communist leaders were more conscious of the need to dangle the carrot of affluence in front of their peoples, rather than beating them with the stick of dogmatic ideology. A Hungary in which he who is not against us is for us best represented the sort of society that seemed possible within the limits again set by the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Marxism must  not be treated  as dogma, but as a set of essential principles reflecting changing social and economic realities. The weekend cottage socialism of the 1980s was hardly what the revolutionaries of 1956 demanded, but it did epitomise the sense of personal independence felt by many in the mid-1980s. It is sometimes easier, and less confusing, to die than to live. In 1956 Kádár chose to live rather than the martyrdom suffered by so many of his comrades and compatriots, the path which he himself had vowed to follow in his speech to Parliament and Andropov on the day he disappeared from public view.

Even at the end of the 1980s, the general view of the man and his ‘era’ was that,  at the cost of immense immediate unpopularity only gradually softening into grudging acceptance, he had salvaged something from the wreckage that was Hungary in 1956. Writers from both sides of the iron curtain agreed that by accepting the hatred of his people, he had saved them in a very real material sense. The BBC correspondent John Simpson echoed this sense, albeit in a less sentimental tone, shortly after Kádár’s in 1989:

The man whom Moscow selected to govern Hungary and return it to orthodoxy was a strange, secretive figure. János Kádár might have been undistinguished as a political thinker, but he was a survivor whose ideas evolved remarkably over the years. He had suffered personally under Stalinism. He usually kept his hands hidden when he met foreign visitors, but if you looked closely you could still see the marks where his finger-nails had been torn out by the secret police in Rákosi’s time. When he was imposed on Hungary in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 uprising he was loathed by the great majority of his people. Yet Khrushchev had chosen well. Kádár was never loved, but by the mid-1960s he had shown sufficient independence to earn the grudging support of many Hungarians.

Eventually, moving with immense care and slowness, he edged away from the rest of the Soviet bloc in economic terms. Managers ran their own factories with minimal interference from the Ministry of Heavy Industry in Budapest. Workers were given access after hours to the machinery of their plant so that they could produce goods which they could sell privately. The authorities had realised that the workers were doing it anyway, so they tried to make sure it happened only during their time off. Farmers sold to a free market. None of it worked particularly well, but it was a great deal more efficient than any other socialist economy. Leonid Brezhnev recommended the Hungarian way as the model for the Soviet Union and the rest of its allies, without seeming to realise that it undermined the old system of centralised planning. When Margaret Thatcher visited Hungary in 1984, she received a rapturous reception from ordinary people when she walked down the main shopping street of Budapest. Kádár, hearing of this, tried the same thing a few days later. No one took any notice of him.



It was in this context that the attempts at further reform won excessive and flattering judgements in the West. This reverence for him in the West was at least partly born out of a sense of deep guilt that Hungary had been abandoned to its own fate by them in 1956. Simpson himself, though only a short-trousered schoolboy at the time, remembered how the events of the fateful year had been talked of in his school, with those in Egypt being treated as if they were part of a Boy’s Own yarn:

When Colonel Nasser threatened our control of the Suez Canal, it was necessary to teach him a lesson.

“These Gippos only understand one thing” Captain Fleming told us during a Latin class, and we all nodded eagerly; though we weren’t quite sure what the one thing was which they understood… And then, one dark afternoon in November 1956, the whole world seemed to change, melting like ice under our feet. Our elderly English master, who had retired from a big London public school and was humane enough to read us ghost stories… was intoning in a ghostly manner, when one of the older boys, his voice crackling and breaking, burst excitedly into the room.  

“The Headmaster’s compliments, sir, and I’m to tell you we’re at war with Egypt. 

The class erupted into cheers. That was the stuff to give the old Gippos! They had it coming to them, cheeky buggers. They only understood one thing. British and best.

And yet, extraordinarily enough, it turned out that not everyone though the same way. Some of the boys came to school the next day full of their father’s opposition to the whole business. My own father, always so forthright about everything, seemed suddenly unsure.

Within days it was clear that things had gone very wrong… We weren’t a superpower after all… Our pretensions as a nation were revealed to the world as empty. It wasn’t merely wrong to have attacked Egypt, it was stupid. In the meantime the Russians took advantage of the distraction to crush the Hungarian Uprising in the most brutal way possible. After it was all over… no one… said ‘British and best’, or ‘Don’t panic – remember you’re British’. It was the start of thirty years or more of intense national self-degradation… we came to feel ashamed of it all: the Establishment, the old boy network, the class system, the Empire. It was a long time before we even started to feel comfortable with ourselves again, and by then everything had changed forever.

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that both the British and the Americans were happy to subscribe to the myth that Hungary was working out its own salvation, even at the time of Mrs Thatcher’s 1984 visit. The reality, as we now know, was that, even at that time, and certainly by the late 1980s, as in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern bloc countries, it was becoming public knowledge that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of thirty billion dollars, most of it in two reckless years of spending. This was, in fact, where Kádár’s ‘goulash communism’ had led, as István Lazar wrote in 1992, and who knew where it would lead on to?:

… this was what the divergence of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable living standard, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone will have its effect felt for decades, and will cripple all renewal.

In spite of these fairy-tale foundations to the apparent economic success of the happiest barrack in the camp, it was largely due to Kádár’s leadership that Hungary had become the only country where the system had successfully evolved away from Marxism-Leninism. This was because before 1956, conditions in Hungary were in many respects far worse than those elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The 1956 Uprising was a reaction to such vicious excesses as those in the concentration camp at Recsk, in the Mátra mountains north of  Budapest, where political prisoners worked for fifteen hours a day cutting andesite from the quarry and carrying it with their bare hands. When Nikita Khrushchev had spoken out about such horrors of Stalinism, people believed he would accept the democratic changes set out by the Nagy government.  They also believed that the West would help persuade him. But Nagy, Simpson wrote,…

… was thirty years too early Khrushchev was no Gorbachev, and the 1950s was not the time for a satellite country like Hungary to slip into neutrality.

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

‘About Turn’ to Turning Point:

31st October – 1st November


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued… )

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