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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Apostag

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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.

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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…

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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

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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).

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

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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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued… )

The Summer of 1916 on the Eastern Front: The Brusilov Offensive   Leave a comment

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The Brusilov Offensive, 4 June – 20 September 1916:

General Alexei Brusilov was a brilliant general, commander of the Russian forces in the south-west of the Eastern Front. He formulated tactics that combined rapid movement with concentrated support fire allowing soldiers to advance quickly while avoiding heavily defended positions.

In the east, where there were fewer troops per mile of front than in the west, and their abilities were more variable, a war of movement was still possible. The Germans could always break through the Russian line if they wanted to and the Russians could punch a hole in the Austro-Hungarian front. On 4 June, Brusilov did just that.

Under pressure from Austro-Hungarian forces on the Italian Front, Italy asked for assistance from its allies, and in addition to the French and British offensives on the Western Front, the Russians advanced across a 300-mile-wide front, quickly pushing back Austrian and German divisions. Brusilov was rewarded with a progressive collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in his sector, producing one of the most spectacular victories of the war.

Czech and Slovene units had always performed erratically on the Russian front; now they simply threw away their weapons and ran. The Russians took a quarter of a million of them prisoner in the course of an advance that carried on across the eastern half of Galicia. He captured 350,000 men in total during the offensive, and relieved the pressure in the west and in Italy. Brusilov’s drive then petered out, but before doing so it had had important political consequences. Romania was induced by the advance into Galicia to throw in its lot with the entente powers. Like the Italians, the Romanians hoped to gain territory from Austria-Hungary, but also like the Italians, they proved so incompetent militarily that they proved to be as much a burden as a boon to their new allies.

The Germans moved troops from Verdun to bolster their allies and then fought back to regain lost territory. The failure at Verdun weakened Falkenhayn’s position as commander of the Triple Alliance forces, and after the Brusilov offensive he was forced to resign. The Austro-Hungarian armies were thereafter unable to launch their own offensives. Ludendorff became the new chief commander, with Hindenburg as his number two. Ludendorff quickly restored the Central Powers’ position in the east, stiffening the Austro-Hungarian units with German officers and NCOs. He then sent enough reinforcements to Hungary and Bulgaria to spearhead a counter-offensive against Romania. They had optimistically invaded Hungary, but a German-Bulgarian army entering the Dobruja took them in the rear, and a German-Austrian army threw them back over the Carpathians. Given Romania’s geography, it was easy to arrange for converging attacks to cut off the southern two-thirds of the country. Caught between ‘two fires’ the Romanians had to abandon their capital, Bucharest, and the greater part of their country. The Romanian army hid behind the Russian relief force in Moldavia, while the Germans methodically drained the conquered part of Romania of its invaluable supplies of cattle, wheat and oil.

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Welcome as this new source of supply was, however, it wasn’t enough. The British blockade naval blockade of the Central Powers was beginning to hurt by mid-1916, particularly when the German navy failed to break out at the Battle of Jutland just before the Brusilov Offensive began. The queues for food in Germany were getting longer and their behaviour less orderly. There had been serious riots in the major industrial centres in the Spring. The situation was even worse in Austria-Hungary.

While the Brusilov Offensive was initially one of the war’s most successful campaigns, it came at a huge cost: the Central Powers lost 1.5 million men and the Russians 0.5 million. Altogether, Russia had lost a million troops by the autumn of 1916. This was her last major effort in support of her allies. Those who remained were utterly exhausted and sick of the sacrifice. These heavy casualties led to further discontent in Russia.

Other major events in the course of the war in the east in 1916 included a Russian advance in the Caucasus and Germany’s creation of a Polish kingdom out of territory conquered from the Russians, though this did not include any part of German Poland, nor did the Poles get a king. Also in the summer of 1916, the Greek government was forced to accept allied direction.

The Olympic Games Cancelled:

The 1916 Olympic Games were due to be held in Berlin but were cancelled. The 1920 games took place in Antwerp in honour of the suffering of the people of Belgium in the war. It was there that the flag featuring the five rings was raised for the first time. Berlin next hosted the Games in 1936.

Sources:

Colin McEvedy (1982): The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Richards, Goodson & Morris (1938): A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

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

Must Rhodes Fall?: History, Legacy & Commemoration   2 comments

Introducing the Issues:

On 28th December (2015), The Daily Telegraph reported that the student leading a campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college has turned his fire on the university itself, accusing it of spreading “injustice” around the world by educating future leaders with a “skewed” and “Eurocentric” mindset.

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Ntokozo Qwabe and the Cecil Rhodes statue on Oriel College in Oxford

(Photo: Rex).

 

South African Ntokozo Qwabe, himself a beneficiary of a Rhodes scholarship, claimed that students at Oxford endure “systemic racism, patriarchy and other oppressions” on a daily basis. The 24-year-old also said that the university’s admissions and staff recruitment systems “perpetrate exclusion” and suggested that even Oxford’s architecture is laid out in a “racist and violent” way. And he accused the British media of treating him and his supporters like “terrorists” for challenging the establishment.

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His comments came in a lengthy posting on Facebook in response to reaction to his remarks likening the French Tricolor to the Nazi swastika or the hammer and sickle under Stalin as a “symbol of violence, terror and genocide for many”. He said he had suffered a media “onslaught” as a result. Mr Qwabe shot to prominence earlier this month after Oriel College agreed to remove a plaque under a statue of the colonial era mining magnate and politician and consider talking down the statue itself. It followed protests by Mr Qwabe’s “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign group, which takes its inspiration from a movement in South Africa which has succeeded in having statues of Rhodes removed.

 

South Africa Statue Uproar

The campaigners say the statue at Oriel College glorifies a figure seen as one of the architects of South African apartheid and is therefore “offensive and violent” to students. But others have argued that taking the statue down would amount to purging the past to conform to contemporary political demands.

This rather strange, if not bizarre, set of circumstances, reminds many in Eastern Europe of the controversies of the late nineties and ‘noughties’ when the statues and commemorobilia of the Soviet Era were systematically removed, including war memorials. Many of the statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders were removed to a theme park near Budapest in the case of Hungary. More controversially, perhaps, street names were changes, often against the wishes of residents, in order to expunge any memory of the collaboration of Hungarians in the forty-year occupation.

More recently, there have been further controversies about what, who and how to commemorate the previous dark period in Hungarian history which led to the Nazi occupation of 1944-45 and the Holocaust and Hungarian Fascist regime. The erection of a statue of the Regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, Miklós Horthy, caused a furore, since many associated his regime as anti-Semitic, passing anti-Jewish Laws from the early twenties to the 1940s, facilitating the deportation of Hungary’s Jews from rural towns and villages, and then collaborating with the Nazis in the occupation of his own country, only belatedly heeding advice to leave the Axis and seek an armistice with the Allies. Was he, perhaps like János Kadar after him, a saviour or a traitor?

The Hungarian government also became unpopular with the current Jewish community in Budapest by commissioning a national memorial to ‘all the victims of the German occupation’, symbolised by a rampant eagle, rather than recognising the events of 1944-45 as a Hungarian Holocaust, Hungarian in origin, willingly participated in by Hungarian politicians, armed services and police. In some provincial towns, local figures who collaborated in these events, whether actively or passively, have had their previous contributions recognised in the commissioning and raising of statues, most recently in Szekesfehérvár, not without provoking both local and national outrage.

The who, what, why and how of acts of commemoration will, of necessity, change from generation to generation. As the events of the two World Wars become more remote from current generations, the annual Acts of Remembrance in the UK are bound to focus on more recent wars and their victims, whether fallen or surviving. Commemoration is about the needs of current communities for remembrance, not about an agreed, detailed version of the past. It is about the gathering together of diverse individual experiences into a collective memory. Just as two people’s memories of the same family members and events can be diverse, so collective memory is also heterogeneous.

However, to be true nations, we must be true to our common heritages, and that means that we must have regard to the historical bedrock from which we sculpt, both actually and metaphorically, the memorials we leave for future generations. We carve them in stone because they are supposed to represent lasting truth, not some contemporary fad. The same applies to their removal as to their erection. In deciding what and who to commemorate, politicians need to consult other craftsmen before they commission architects and artists. These metaphorical craftsmen, the historians, will no doubt have their own principles and perspectives, but they are also charged with testing all the available sources of evidence, before producing a synthesis about the legacy of past people(s) and events.

This coming year will be marked by a number of commemorations, including controversial ones such as the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin. As a second-year undergraduate I can remember reading about this latter event in some detail. Soon after submitting my essay, I met an Irish republican, and tried to apologise to him for the legacy of bitterness which originated from these events. Somewhat older and better studied than me at the time, he pointed out that I could not take responsibility for what the British Empire had done three or even two generations before. All either of us could do was to deal with the legacy as we both perceived it in our own lifetimes.

My experience of that legacy had begun with a visit to Nelson’s other column, in Dublin in the mid-sixties, shortly before it was blown up by the Official IRA. A warning was given in that case, so only the monument suffered. More recently, it had culminated in the blowing-up of two pubs in the centre of Birmingham in November 1974. This was by the Provisional IRA, and no warning was given.  Twenty-one people were killed, and many more suffered life-changing injuries. Most of them were teenagers; many, like me, aged seventeen. In fact, I could easily have been one of them, had I left the Bull-Ring Centre burger-bar minutes later than I did. Those responsible have never been held to account; instead six Irishmen were falsely imprisoned for more than fifteen years, compounding the confusion felt by the general victims, the people of Birmingham, including its well-integrated Irish community. The point is that, in wanting to apologise, I was doing what many with emotional connections to current or past events do, confusing history with legacy.  I desperately wanted to help set things straight. Much later, as part of a Birmingham-Belfast Education for Mutual Understanding Project, I had the opportunity to do so. Reconciliation became possible, but it was not history which absolved us. Nor did it condemn us; that is not its role.

Similarly, some time ago, one of my students asked to do her special study on the Amritsar Massacre. One of her reasons for this was that she first wanted to come to terms with the family legacy that General Dyer, the officer commanding the British troops that day in 1919, was a relative. She was able to write a fascinating prologue on this before providing a well-researched, dispassionate account and interpretation of the events surrounding that day. Her present-day family are Quakers pacifists.

Chronicling Cecil Rhodes and his Empire:

So, what is the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and why has it provoked such controversy both in South Africa and the UK? To understand this, we first need to examine the chronicle of events surrounding his life, and then put this in the context of South Africa’s later history in the twentieth century, asking the questions, in what sense can he be described as a ‘racist’ and to what extent can he be seen as one of the key architects of the ‘apartheid’ state?:

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  • Born in 1854, the son of a clergyman from Bishop’s Stortford, Rhodes had emigrated to South Africa at the age of seventeen before going to Oxford. He was at once a business genius and imperial visionary. It was not enough for Rhodes to make a fortune from the vast De Beers diamond mines at Kimberley. He aspired to be more than a money-maker. He dreamt of becoming an empire builder.

  • Cecil Rhodes became the wealthy chairman of the Kimberley diamond-mines, following the annexation of Griqualand West by the British Government in 1871 at the request of the Griqua chief. The extension of the Cape Colony across the Orange River checked the westward expansion of the Boer Orange Free State.

  • Though his public image was that of a lone colossus bestriding Africa, as in the cartoon above, Rhodes could not have won his near-monopoly over South African diamond production without the assistance of his friends in the City of London; in particular, the Rothschild bank, at that time the biggest concentration of financial capital in the world.

  • When Rhodes had arrived at the Kimberley diamond fields there had been more than a hundred small companies working the four major ‘pipes’, flooding the market with diamonds and driving one another out of business. In 1882 a Rothschild agent visited Kimberley and recommended large-scale amalgamation; within four years the number of companies was down to three. A year later, the bank financed the merger of Rhodes’s De Beers Company with the Compagnie Francaise, followed by the final crucial fusion with the bigger Kimberley Central Company.

  • Now there was just one company: De Beers. Rhodes did not own the company, since Rothschild was the largest shareholder, and by 1899 the Rothschilds’ stake was twice that of Rhodes. When Rhodes needed financial backing for a new scheme in October 1888, he turned to Rothschild, who by then had become the first Jew to enter the House of Lords.

  • The proposition that Rhodes wanted Rothschild to consider was the concession he had just secured from the Matabele chief, Lobengula, to develop ‘simply endless’ gold fields that Rhodes believed existed beyond the Limpopo River. The terms of his letter made it clear that his intentions towards the chief were anything but friendly. The Matabele king, he wrote, was

    the only block to Central Africa, as once we have his territory, the rest is easy, as the rest is simply a village system with a separate headman, all independent of each other… the key is Matabele Land, with its gold, the reports as to which are not based solely on hearsay… Fancy, this Gold Field which was purchasable, at about £150,000 two years ago, is now selling for over ten million.

  • Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) was in a key position in South Africa, as it lay on the direct route to the rich Zambesi valley, which Rhodes wanted to control. He had used his influence with the home Government to secure a protectorate over the territory in 1884, fearing that the Germans in south-west Africa would intervene and block British expansion northward. He now dreamed of a united Africa under British rule, extending northwards from the Cape, with a Cape-to-Cairo railway across British territories.

  • When Rhodes joined forces with the existing Bechuanaland Company to create a new Central Search Association for Matabeleland, the banker Rothschild was a major shareholder, and increased his involvement when this became the United Concessions Company in 1890. He was also among the founders of the British South Africa Company, acting as the Company’s unpaid financial adviser.

  •  Rhodes established the British South Africa Company in 1889, and was granted the right by charter to develop the resources of the country now bearing his name – Rhodesia.

  • Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890. Like many of his contemporaries, he was inspired by a sense of Great Britain’s mission to extend a civilising influence throughout its Empire, known as ‘the White Man’s Burden’, as most clearly expressed in Kipling’s poem. He saw his own part in this as extending British influence in South Africa, aiming to create a South African Federation  out of the British and Afrikaaner colonies.

  • The first step towards this was to consolidate his control over Matabeleland. When Lobengula realised he had been hoodwinked into signing over much more than mere mineral rights, he resolved to take Rhodes on. Determined to dispose of the chief once and for all, Rhodes responded by ending an invasion force – the Chartered Companies’ Volunteers – numbering seven hundred. By African standards, the Matabele had a powerful and well-organised army, numbering in the region of three thousand. But Rhodes’s men brought with them devastating Maxim guns which could fire five hundred rounds a minute, fifty times faster than the fastest rifle available.

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Above: Hiram Maxim with his gun, c. 1880.

  • The Maxim gun had been invented by an American, Hiram Maxim, who had an underground workshop in Hatton Garden, London. As soon as he had his prototype ready for the British market, he invited several members of the Royal Family and the British aristocracy to give the weapon a trial. Among those who accepted were the Duke of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Kent. The first of these, who was then Commander-in-Chief, felt ‘confident they will, ere long, be used generally in all armies’. When the Maxim Gun Company was established in 1884, Lord Rothschild was on its board. In 1888 his bank financed the £1.9 million merger of the Company with the Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company.

  • The Battle of Shangani River in 1893 was among the earliest uses of the Maxim in battle. One eyewitness recorded what happened:

    The Matabele never got nearer than 100 yards led by the Nubuzu regiment, the king’s body-guard who came on yelling like fiends and rushing on to certain death, for the Maxims far exceeded all expectations and mowed them down literally like grass. I never saw anything like these Maxim guns, nor dreamed that such things could be: for the belts and cartridges were run through them as fast as a man could load and fire. Every man in the laager owes his life under Providence to the Maxim gun. The natives told the king that they did not fear us for our rifles, but they could not kill the beast that went pooh! pooh! by which they meant the Maxim.

  • To the Matabele it seemed that ‘the white man came… with… guns that spat bullets as the heavens sometimes spit hail, and who were the naked Matabele to stand up against these guns?’ Around 1,500 Matabele warriors were wiped out. Just four of the seven hundred invaders died. The Times reported that the Matabele

put our victory down to witchcraft, allowing that the Maxim was a pure work of an evil spirit. They have named it”S’cockacocka”, owing to the peculiar noise it makes when in action.

  • The conquered territory was renamed Rhodesia, since he had masterminded the operation. However, it could not have succeeded without the financial might of Rothschilds. One member of the family noted with satisfaction the connection between ‘a sharp action having taken place with the Matabeles’ and ‘a little spurt in the shares’ of Rhodes’s British South Africa Company.

  • The official Matabeleland souvenir, published on the fortieth anniversary of the one-sided conflict, long after Rhodes’s death, opened with his ‘tribute’ to the men who had conquered the Matabele ‘savages’. The ‘highlight’ is the following hymn, originally written as a Liberal satire on the expedition, which Rhodes’s men adopted as their anthem:

Onward Chartered Soldiers, on to heathen lands,

Prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands.

Take the glorious tidings where trade can be done,

Spread the peaceful gospel – with a Maxim gun..

  • Rhodes’s ambitions brought him into conflict with the Boers whose leader, Paul Kruger, resented his policy of expansion which meant the encircling of Boer territory. The Boers were farmers, but the discovery of gold in the Witswatersrand in 1886 and the rapid development of the mines by British settlers led to the outnumbering of the Boer population by the Uitlanders in the Transvaal. Kruger adopted a hostile policy towards them, denying them all political rights and taxing them heavily. Moreover, monopolies granted to Europeans and heavy railway rates hampered the expansion of the mining industry.

  • The Jameson Raid (1896) was a plot engineered by Dr Jameson, administrator of Rhodesia, and supported by Rhodes, to use the Uitlanders to overthrow the Boer Government of the Transvaal. Its failure led to Rhodes’ resignation and discredited the British Government in the eyes of the world, uniting both Boer states against Britain.

  • The Wars in…007

  • The Uitlanders of the Transvaal continued to agitate for improved conditions and petitioned the British government to intervene on their behalf. Negotiations failed to reach a compromise, due to the obstinacy of Kruger on the one hand and the uncompromising imperialism of Joseph Chamberlain, on the other. The Boers declared war in 1899. The Boer War came to an end in 1902, after Roberts and Kitchener finally wore down the resistance of the Boers, partly through the use of concentration camps for the women and children of the irregular fighters. The Boer republics were annexed, but the Boers were to continue to rule themselves and their farmers were compensated for war damage.

  • During the Second Boer War Rhodes went to Kimberley at the onset of the siege, in a calculated move to raise the political stakes on the government to dedicate resources to the defence of the city. The military felt he was more of a liability than an asset and found him intolerable. Rhodes insisted that the military should adopt his plans and ideas instead of following their orders. Despite the differences, Rhodes’ company was instrumental in the defence of the city, providing water, refrigeration facilities, constructing fortifications, manufacturing an armoured train, shells and a one-off gun named Long Cecil.

  • Rhodes used his position and influence to lobby the British government to relieve the siege of Kimberley, claiming in the press that the situation in the city was desperate. The military wanted to assemble a large force to take the Boer cities of Bloemfontein and Pretoria, but they were compelled to change their plans and send three separate smaller forces to relieve the sieges of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith.

Funeral of Rhodes in Adderley St, Cape Town on 3 April 1902

 

  • Although Rhodes remained a leading figure in the politics of southern Africa, especially during the Second Boer War, he had been dogged by ill-health throughout his relatively short life. From age 40 his heart condition returned with increasing severity until his death from heart failure in 1902, aged 48, at his seaside cottage in Muizenberg.

  • The Union of South Africa came about in 1909, and included the two British colonies, the Cape and Natal, and the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. A constitution was drafted and accepted by the British Parliament which agreed, among other matters, a common policy towards the native African populations.

As PM of Cape Colony

As PM of Cape Colony

 

The Jameson Raid

The Jameson Raid

Churchill’s Adventures in South Africa

Of course, many others were attracted by a sense of imperial adventure to South Africa. Among them was the young Winston Churchill, who had already spent time in India with the Queen’s Own Hussars, before arriving on a ‘new’ continent as a journalist-adventurer.

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Above: Churchill as chief Boer War correspondent on The Morning Post, 

South Africa, 1899

Extracts from Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

In South Africa fame and fortune went together. Randolph (Churchill) had invested in Rand mining shares, which had appreciated by at least fifty times their original face value – a small fortune that, unhappily for Jennie and Winston, was largely consumed by the late Lord’s equally substantial debts. But Churchill also shared the indignation of the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and the empire builder Cecil Rhodes that the might of the British Empire was being held to ransom by the obstinacy of a bunch of Dutch farmers who dictated what political rights British settlers might and might not enjoy in the Transvaal. Mostly, however, the Boer War was another opportunity for the kind of military-literary adventure that Winston had made his trademark… he resigned his commission in the Hussars and was made chief war correspondent for ‘The Morning Post’. He sailed with the commander-in-chief of the expedition, Sir Redvers Buller; managed to be taken prisoner while defending an armoured train against Boer attack; escaped from a military gaol at Pretoria…, hid in a coal wagon and then walked hundreds of miles to freedom; and finally returned to active duty with the South African Light Horse in time to be at the relief of Ladysmith. The escapades were almost too fabulous to be true, and they turned Churchill from a purveyor of ripping yarns on the frontier into a genuine, nationally known war hero. Writing about his Boer War and lecturing with lantern slides in Britain, Canada and America… put £10,000 into his bank account.  

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Must Rhodes Fall in Oxford?

A prominent statue of Rhodes on the main campus of the University of Cape Town was vandalized with human excrement in March 2015, giving rise to a student-led campaign called “#RhodesMustFall” which drew attention to what the activists considered the lack of systemic racial transformation in South African institutions after apartheid. The university’s management took the statue down for relocation on 9 April 2015.

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A statue of Rhodes adorns the frontage of Oriel College, Oxford. In 2015, a group of students demanded the removal of his statue, stating that it “symbolise[d] racism and colonialism”. Certainly, the statue dominates the High Street. Rhodes was an Oriel alumnus and left the College £100,000 in his will, though he stipulated that his trustees should enquire closely into how it was spent since ‘the college authorities live secluded from the world and so are like children in commercial matters’. Appropriately, like the young Winston Churchill, he looks like a man who has just come in from a walk on the dusty veldt. The inscription is a ‘chronogram’: concealed within the message is the date of the building’s erection in Roman numerals. It is 1911, but takes some unravelling.

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There is also a plaque to Rhodes in King Edward Street (pictured above) marking where Rhodes lived as a student in 1881, and commemorating his ‘great services rendered… to his country’. Many imperial animals, including lions and elephants, also occupy important positions on Oxford’s buildings. The loftiest of these are, of course, the birds, including an eagle and a pelican, the latter being the target for a bottle thrown by an angry scholar, John Keble. Perhaps the most unusual and impressive of these statues is the Zimbabwe bird on the roof of Rhodes House (below).

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This is a copy of one of eight soapstone effigies of birds found during the excavation of the ancient Shona city of Zimbabwe in the 1880s, the only representations of animals found in any archaeological site in sub-Saharan Africa. Rhodes is known to have bought one in 1889. Of course, by logical extension, both the plaque and the bird would be additional candidates for the iconoclasm suggested for Rhodes’s statue, the former for its celebration of the man as a national hero, and the latter, in addition to its association with the house named in his honour, due to Zimbabwe’s more recent fall from grace within the Commonwealth.

Quotations from Rhodes:

 Cecil Rhodes (Sketch by Mortimer Menpes)
  • “To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annexe the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”

  • “Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better.”

  • “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race… If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…” (as an undergraduate in Oxford)

  • “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

  • “Equal Rights for all Civilized Men South of the Zambesi.”

  • “I could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour.”

  • “To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life.”

  • “Take Constitution Jesuits if obtainable and insert English Empire for Roman Catholic Religion” (outlining the original conception of the Rhodes Scholarships to Lord Rothschild, 1888).

Secondary Sources and Interpretations:

A Simple School Text Narrative of The British Empire in Africa:

001

The map shows the extent of the European empires at the end of the nineteenth century. European influence… extended considerably… between 1870 and 1900 when a scramble for overseas possessions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere took place.

The largest of the European empires in 1900 was the British Empire. This occupied about one quarter of the world’s land surface and included between one quarter and one fifth of the world’s population.

It included two types of colony. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, together with the South African states of Cape Colony and Natal, were self-governing colonies which meant that they controlled their own internal affairs. They were also colonies of settlement, for throughout the nineteenth century European settlers, most of them British, were attracted to these sparsely populated lands.

… Britain came to feel that it was her duty to lead the native peoples along the path of progress. As Joseph Chamberlain, who was Colonial Secretary between 1895 and 1903, put it: ‘We feel now that our rule over these territories can only be justified if we can show that it adds to the happiness and prosperity of the people…’ . Rudyard Kipling stressed the same idea, that possessing an empire involved obligations to the peoples ruled:

Take up the White Man’s burden –

Send forth the best ye breed –

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need….

In the first place, however, the Empire existed for the benefit of trade, as it had done in the eighteenth century… In 1885 Britain’s exports to the Empire were valued at £26 million; in 1905 this figure was £113 million. Referring to Britain’s new African territories, Lord Salisbury, who was Prime Minister for the greater part of the period 1885-1902, said: ‘It is our business in all these new countries to make smooth the paths for British commerce, British enterprise, the application of British capital, at a time when … other outlets for the commercial energies of our race are being gradually closed…’.

The acquisition of vast new territories… was accompanied at home by mounting public interest in and enthusiasm for the Empire. These feelings reached their climax in 1897 during the celebrations held to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (pictured below).  

002

 Above: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, London 1899

Extracts from Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A short history of British Imperialism. Harlow: Longman

The encirclement of the Transvaal was completed at the end of the decade, when the diamond millionaire Cecil Rhodes (who always had British colonial interests more at heart than the British Colonial Office) formed a commercial company to occupy Matabeleland and Mashonaland to the north. The idea was that the company should take over the administration of the country in return for its profits. There was opposition to this scheme from humanitarians, worried by the implications of a situation whereby native Africans were governed by their exploiters. But for a parsimonious government it was a tempting bargain. The profits to be got from the country were as yet merely notional, whereas the expense of governing them was predictable. So the company got its royal charter in October 1889. In this way Rhodesia was born, and for the British government another potential counterbalance to Afrikanerdom secured at almost no expense.

004

… one constant factor in British policy… was that British interests in South Africa be secured as cheaply as possible. As much as in mid-century, national interest had to be balanced against national economy; and ways could generally be found of reconciling the two. This was one of the purposes of the federation policy, and of the constant efforts of British governments to persuade the  colonists themselves to assume responsibility for new territories annexed. It was also a reason why Rhodes’ offer was so eagerly accepted in 1889. One result of this, however, was a kind of paradox: that in order to maintain cheaply a general British supremacy over southern Africa, Britain was tending to lose her particular authority there – her authority over the white colonists’ conduct of their domestic affairs, including, of course, their ‘native policies’.  As yet the concept of British imperial trusteeship for native races was not quite dead, and the humanitarian lobby in Britain won some minor victories, where it did not cost much in money or local goodwill. Where larger interests were at stake, however – agreement with the Boers at the London Convention, containment of the Boers by Rhodes in 1889 – trusteeship could make little headway. Slowly Whitehall’s powers were devolved upon the men on the spot, to secure their co-operation and spread the burden. Consequently, as the area of the British empire in southern Africa expanded, so its real effective control there diminished.  (pp 99-101)

008

 

Because of the many thousands of Britons and British organisations which had established themselves in far-off places, long before governments feared to tread there, it was seldom difficult for governments, if they wanted to, to find people to delegate to… in southern Africa the government of the Cape. Elsewhere a favourite instrument of vicarious colonial administration in the 1880s was the chartered company, like Rhodes’s in South Africa. The disadvantages of the giving commercial companies licence to rule colonial territories were that they discouraged free competition; and that their exploitative functions might not always be compatible with their subjects’ welfare – although current economic orthodoxy tended to assume that profits arising from exploitation did filter down. The great advantage of the chartered company was that it disburdened the British taxpayer of the cost of colonial administration. The Liberal and avowedly anti-imperialist Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir William Harcourt was reported in 1892 to have said that ‘even jingoism is tolerable when it is done “on the cheap”.’…  (104-5)   

For men like Chamberlain, Rosebery, Curzon, Milner, Rhodes, their imperialism was a serious matter: in a very literal sense a matter of life and death. It was a question of fitting Britain for survival, preparing her, as Lord Rosebery put it, ‘for the keen race of nations’. Consequently, it would involve quite drastic changes in Britain as well as abroad: all agreed, or said they did, that a true imperialism began at home. ‘An Empire such as hours’, wrote Rosebery to The Times in 1900, ‘requires as its first condition an Imperial Race – a race vigorous and industrious and intrepid. Health of mind and body exalt a nation in the competition of the universe. The survival of the fittest is an absolute truth in the condition of the modern world.(129-130)

Of course some people would not be fully satisfied until the whole world was British. Only when there were no foreigners would Britain be entirely secure from foreigners. This was the ultimate in imperialist paranoia. Cecil Rhodes as a young man envisaged Britain taking over and settling

the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seabord of China and Japan;

The whole process to be completed by ‘the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire’; and this, he concluded, would ‘render wars impossible’. This was clearly over-ambitious; but it was a common desire of imperialists to want to make existing colonies secure by surrounding them with more… there were many who saw Egypt’s frontier stretching as far as Uganda, and South Africa’s boundary way beyond the Zambesi. There were supposed to be other reasons why it was so imperative, in the interests of national survival, to take more colonies. The most common one was the economic one: an old familiar argument for imperialism, but given a new urgency… by the prevailing climate of fear. Cecil Rhodes… put it sensationally, as if the survival of the capitalist system depended on it:

In order to save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

… Ideas like these were widespread amongst self-styled ‘imperialists’ in the 1890s… Fundamentally they believed in their own abilities: were confident that they had it in them to run a great empire – that they were, if they organised themselves properly, fit to rule a quarter of mankind. ‘We happen to be’, said Cecil Rhodes, ‘the best people in the world, with the highest ideals of decency and justice and liberty and peace, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better for humanity’. Many others doubtless shared his patriotic self-esteem, but it was not common to voice it so crudely, and it was in any event not necessary to the imperialist’s  case to believe that his ‘race’ was overall and absolutely superior to others. What late Victorian imperialists did like to claim was that they were better at the practical and pragmatic science of managing the affairs of other people. In this they fancied themselves greatly. ‘I believe,’ said Joseph Chamberlain in 1895, ‘that the British race is the greatest of governing races that the world has ever seen’ (131-5).

The association of capitalism with imperialism … was commonplace: but nowhere in the late nineteenth century British Empire… was the association quite so close or so blatant as in South Africa in the 1890s. In South Africa the tissue of industrial capitalism, grafted late, had taken hold firmly in the 1880s and spread phenomenally thereafter; by the mid-nineties, for those who believed capitalism should be kept in its place and that place was outside politics, it was clearly out of control. The cause of this was the domination of the South African industrial scene by Cecil Rhodes, a man whose conception of financial and political power would not admit of any necessary demarcation between them: who believed that what was good for his Consolidated Gold Fields was good for South Africa, and would bury political power to achieve that good. Rhodes was the reason why South African capitalism in the 1890s became a force on the side of British imperialism… Of the handful of big European capitalism scrapping for riches amongst the gold reefs of the independent Transvaal… only a tiny minority believed that their interests would be furthered by an extension of British rule there; most of them… were happy digging for gold under the auspices of the relatively ordered, if not very friendly, government of the Afrikaners… Rhodes was exceptional partly because his financial interests were spread over more of southern Africa than theirs, and partly because he had very special imperial visions of his own; his capitalism was imperialistic… The consequence was that, in the imperial history of Southern Africa in the 1890s, the forces of industrial and financial capitalism played a more prominent role than they would have done otherwise.

Rhodes’s influence in South African affairs was partly the outcome of his wealth and the use he made of it, partly the result of the favour shown to him by British government ministers for reasons of their own. The two things were connected, of course: Rhodes used his wealth to cultivate ministers’ favour, and ministers favoured him partly because of the power he wielded through his wealth… Rhodes’s power had been built up in the Kimberley diamond fields, which he came to monopolise in 1888, and the gold reefs of the Witwatersrand, which he could never control absolutely, but which he shared with two or three other great magnates in the 1890s. With the wealth from these two gigantic concerns, and with winning ways with all kinds of men which none of his rivals could begin to compete with, he established for himself a predominant position in South African politics. In 1890 he became Prime Minister of Cape Colony at the head of a party which had preached and practised co-operation between the white races, and which practised, though it did not preach so loudly, co-operation too between politics and capital: of his dual role as company director and premier, ‘I concluded’, he wrote, ‘that one position could be worked with the other, and each to the benefit of all’. …in England he had the admiration of the Queen, the backing of Lord Rothschild… and the support of at least two influential journalists… This kind of influence was of great assistance to him when… in 1889 (he) secured from the Liberal government a charter to carve a whole country in his own commercial image… In the early 1890s his company took possession of its inheritance, swindled and shot the Matabele and Mashonaoples who lived there into a sullen subservience, and dug for the promised gold: but failed to find it. It was when the prospect of big dividends… receded in ‘Zambesia’ that he turned his full attention, and the powers – legal and illegal – that his wealth gave him, towards making the Transvaal British.

Rhodes always insisted that he valued riches not for their own sake but for the power they gave him to help extend and consolidate the British empire: which grand ambition, he held, justified any use he might make of those riches – ‘you must judge of my conduct by the objects that I had in view’. …It followed for Rhodes that, for southern Africa to be secured for the British Empire, the Transvaal must become part of it; and he believed he had the means to help this on. …When the Rand’s gold had first been discovered the Cape had reaped some profit from it by transporting it to the sea. By 1894, however, the Transvaal could export and import goods without touching British territory at all, by means of a new, independent railway just completed to Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa. …There were rumours too Paul Kruger, the Transvaal president, was planning a republican takeover of the whole of South Africa… And from 1894 there were more solid reports of German involvement in the Transvaal, with the Transvaal’s encouragement, which gave the situation a more sinister outlook still. Ministers in London were worried, but not worried enough yet… to take overtly aggressive action against the Transvaal… Rhodes, however, had more urgency, fewer scruples, and the power to make an African war almost on his own.  

Rhodes’s decision to use his considerable powers to incite revolution in the Transvaal, to abet it when it came, and to use it to force the Republicans into some kind of compliant union with the British colonies, arose from his conviction that a rebellion was going to break out in the Transvaal anyway, and that it had better be turned into a British imperial direction by him than into another direction, less favourable to the British, by others. For years there had been unrest amongst the largely foreign mining community on the land, the ‘Uitlanders’, who were daily subjected to innumerable aggravations and disabilities by a dominant people they regarded as rude and inferior, and who regarded them, with rather more justice, as a threat to their whole national way of life… During 1894-95 there was talk of armed rebellion on the Rand: wild talk, as it turned out, from the ordinary Uitlanders, but more serious from some of the big capitalists, who took measures – like gun-running – actively to promote it. Rhodes’s involvement in this plotting would ensure that the revolution, if it came and succeeded, would be to the advantage of the empire.

It also led the British government to be dragged into the affair: not necessarily because it approved of Rhodes’s cloak-and-dagger ways of solving its South African problem, but it was because it was coming to accept his diagnosis of that problem, and because his power and prestige in South Africa made him the readiest means to hand, if not the best, towards a solution… Rhodes was the agent she was given to work through, and Rhodes had ideas of his own… Before the autumn of 1895 he had secured the co-operation he needed from the British government to put his plot into effect: troops, a friendly High Commissioner, and a strip of land on the western border of the Transvaal he could start an invasion from. Joseph Chamberlain at the Colonial Office… played along with Rhodes… His connivance in Rhodes’s schemes rested on the assumption.. made on the best authority, that an Uitlander rebellion would take place… In that event intervention by Britain, or by a British colonial in Britain’s name, could be presented as a response to a situation generated independently of her, made in order legitimately to safeguard her nationals in the Transvaal. What ruined things for the government was that the Uitlanders never rebelled, yet the intervention took place regardless. On 29 December 1895 Dr Leander Starr Jameson rode into the Transvaal at the head of a band of 500 mounted troops and carrying a Union Jack, to aid a rebellion which never happened. He was easily stopped. The results of this fiasco were disastrous for everyone except the Boers… Chamberlain tried to cover the traces of imperial involvement, but could not… To all intents and purposes Britain was implicated in a squalid conspiracy against a foreign state… The result of the Jameson Raid was the complete opposite of what had been intended. Instead of weakening Kruger it strengthened him; instead of persuading him to compromise it made him more intransigent…

The lesson of the Jameson Raid for the British government was that it could no longer pursue its policies in South Africa on the coat-tails of capitalists.Rhodes and the government had done a great deal for each other in the past, and Chamberlain was convinced that Rhodes could do something for him still in the future – but in the north, where his buccaneering methods were likely to be more successful against black Africans than against white Afrikaners, and less likely to arouse strong feelings at home or diplomatic repercussions abroad. …Before he had raided the Transvaal Dr Jameson had been Rhodes’s viceroy in Zambesia; in this capacity he had managed to provoke the Matabele, and even their neighbours the Mashona… to seething unrest… they both rebelled, reasserted their old sovereignties, and put ‘Rhodesia’ – and the value of Chartered Company shares – in very real danger. Rhodes had to restore the authority of the Company or his whole world would have collapsed: and this he did during the course of 1896 in one of the bloodiest and most ferocious of southern Africa’s ‘punitive’ wars, capped – when it was clear the Africans were not going to be tamed by force alone – by a remarkable exercise by Rhodes in peaceful persuasion. In the north, therefore, Rhodes was left to repair his own breaches; but in the south he was, for the time being, a spent force, too discredited to be of use… The British government had perforce to disown him, and to secure its South African salvation by its own efforts – as it should have done all along.

Britain was stalemated. She could neither persuade the Transvaal to join the empire nor force her into it… The stalemate was broken slowly, in 1897-99… Chamberlain nursed public opinion in Britain on to his side in a series of speeches calculated to make it hostile to Kruger.And in south Africa he got what he needed most: a handle to turn his policy by, to fill the gap left by Rhodes’s departure. The ‘South African League was formed in 1896 to rally imperialist opinion in the two British colonies and the Transvaal… its policies were Rhodes’s, and in April 1899 Rhodes himself returned from the political wilderness to become its president. This time, however, it was not Rhodes who would take the initiatives. That duty lay firmly with… Chamberlain and his new High Commissioner, Alfred Milner…

Milner was move positively for war. A self-declared ‘British Race Patriot’, he could not conceive of the Afrikaners of the Cape being loyal to the empire while there remained an independent nation of their ‘race’ to the north to divert their loyalties…(168-176)

Cases came to light around the turn of the century of the most shocking abuses of trust by exploitative concerns. One was Cecil Rhodes’s conduct in Zambesia in the 1890s. But the worst was the Congo Free State, entrusted to King Leopold of the Belgians by the Berlin Conference in 1884, where the most horrific tales of systematic massacre and mutilation in the search for profits were revealed to the European public in the 1900s, and provoked widespread agitation which eventually led to Leopold’s surrender of his Congolese kingdom to the Belgian parliament in 1909. Rhodes and Leopold together made Liberals highly distrustful of capitalists in the tropics, and especially of capitalist monopolies with title over vast expanses of territory, which were the cause of the worst abuses. (223)

1919 was a year for dreams to come true; another one which did was Cecil Rhodes’s ‘Cape to Cairo’ scheme, when Britain took Tanganyika from Germany and so completed that chain too… further down the Union of South Africa took over the administration of South-West Africa. (248-9) 

Extracts from Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin Books.

So close was Rhodes’s relationship with the Rothschilds that he even entrusted the execution of his will to Lord Rothschild, specifying that his estate should be used to fund an imperialist equivalent of the Jesuit order – the original intention of the Rhodes Scholarships. This would be ‘a society of the elect for the good of the Empire’… Rothschild in turn assured ; ‘Our first and foremost wish in connection with South African matters is that you should remain at the head of affairs in that Colony and that you should be able to carry out that great Imperial policy which has been the dream of your life.’

The creation of his own personal country and his own imperialist holy order were indeed merely components of a much bigger Rhodesian ‘Imperial policy’. On a huge table-sized map of Africa (which can still be seen in Kimberley today) Rhodes drew a pencil line stretching from Cape Town to Cairo. This was to be the ultimate imperial railway. From the Cape it would run northwards like some huge metal spine through Bechuanaland… Rhodesia… Nyasaland… then on past the Great Lakes to Khartoum and finally up the Nile to its final destination in Egypt.

By this means, Rhodes envisaged bringing the whole African continent under British domination… There were literally no limits to Rhodes’s ambitions.

At one level, wars like the one waged against the Matabele were private battles planned in private clubs like the Kimberley Club, that stuffy bastion of capitalist conviviality of which Rhodes himself was among the founders. Matabeleland had become part of the Empire at no cost to the British taxpayer since the entire campaign had been fought by mercenaries employed by Rhodes and paid for by the shareholders in the British South African and De Beers companies. If it turned out that Matabeleland had no gold, then they would be the losers. In effect, the process of colonization had been privatised, a return to the early days of empire when monopoly trading companies had pioneered British rule from Canada to Calcutta. Rhodes was indeed consciously learning from history. British rule in India had begun with the East India Company; now British rule in Africa would be founded on his business interests. In one letter to Rothschild he even referred to De Beers as ‘another East India Company’. (227-8)

By the beginning of the new century, the carve-up was complete. The British had all but realized Rhodes’s vision of unbroken possession from the Cape to Cairo:their African empire stretched northwards from the Cape Colony through Natal, Bechuanaland (Botswana), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Nyasaland (Malawi); and southwards from Egypt, through the Sudan, Uganda and East Africa (Kenya). German East Africa was the only missing link in Rhodes’s intended chain… the lion’s share belonged to Britain. (239-40)

To Rhodes, Chamberlain and Milner, the Boer’s independence remained intolerable. As usual, British calculations were both strategic and economic… the Cape remained a military base of ‘immense importance for England’ (Chamberlain) for the simple reason that the (Suez) Canal might be vulnerable to closure in a major European war. It remained, in the Colonial Secretary’s view, ‘the cornerstone of the whole British colonial system’. At the same time, it was hardly without significance that the Boer republics had turned out to be sitting on the biggest gold seams in the world. By 1900 the Rand was producing a quarter of the world’s gold supply and had absorbed more than £114 million of mainly British capital. Having been an impoverished backwater, the Transvaal suddenly seemed set to become the economic centre of gravity in southern Africa. But the Boers saw no reason why they should share power with the tens of thousands of British immigrants, the ‘Uitlanders’, who had swarmed into their country to pan for gold. Nor did they approve of the (somewhat) more liberal way the British treated the black population of Cape Colony. In the eyes of their president Paul Kruger, the Boers’ strictly Calvinist way of life was simply incompatible with British rule… Ever since 1895, when Rhodes’s crony Dr Leander Starr Jameson had led his abortive ‘raid’ into the Transvaal, it had been obvious that a showdown was imminent.

(273-4)

Not only was imperialism immoral, argued the critics. According to the Radicals, it was also a rip-off: paid for by British taxpayers, fought for by British soldiers, but benefiting only a tiny elite of fat-cat millionaires, the likes of Rhodes and Rothschild. That was the thrust of J. A. Hobson’s profoundly influential ‘Imperialism: A Study’, published in 1902. ‘Every great political act’ argued Hobson,

‘must receive the sanction and the practical aid of this little group of financial kings… They have the largest definite stake in the business of Imperialism, and the amplest means of forcing their will upon the policy of nations… Finance is the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining the work.’ 

H. N. Brailsford took Hobson’s argument further in his ‘The War of Steel and Gold: A Study of the Armed Peace’, (written in 1910, but not published until 1914). ‘In the heroic age,’ Brailsford wrote,

‘Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships. In our golden age the face wears more often the shrewd features of a some Hebrew financier. To defend the interests of Lord Rothschild and his fellow bondholders, Egypt was first occupied and then practically annexed by Great Britain… The extremest case of all is, perhaps, our own South African War.’ 

Was it not obvious that the war had been fought to ensure that the gold mines of the Transvaal remained securely in the hands of their capitalist owners? Was not Rhodes merely, in the words of the Radical MP Henry Labouchere, an ‘Empire jerry-builder who had always been a mere vulgar promoter masquerading as a patriot, and the figurehead of a gang of astute Hebrew financiers with whom he divides the profits?’

Like those modern conspiracy theories which explain every war in terms of the control of oil reserves, the Radical critique of imperialism was an over-simplification (Hobson and Brailsford little knew what a liability Rhodes had been during the siege of Kimberley.) And like those other modern theories that attribute sinister power to certain financial institutions, some anti-imperialism conveyed more than a hint of anti-Semitism. (283-4)

Conclusion: The ‘Crux’ of the Issue

In this last comment by Niall Ferguson we reach the crux of the issue. Certainly, Rhodes was a colonialist and imperialist, as were most leading figures of his day, not just within the British Empire, but within all the European empires. In Africa, as noted here, the French were equally aggressive in their pursuit of land and resources, and the Belgians and subsequently the Italians also used what, even within the terms of this ‘scramble’ were excessive means against the native African populations. That is not to justify the actions that Rhodes was involved in, but just to place them in a broader context. It also needs to be noticed that his while his strategy for developing Rhodesia was a classical colonialist one, through the control of trading companies, his involvement in the Transvaal and later in the relief of Kimberley was concerned with achieving British supremacy over a white race, the Boers and that, if anything, his attitudes towards the original natives were far more liberal than those of the Afrikaners, certainly than those of Kruger. There is also evidence that, as a business man, he retained a practical antipathy for everyday racial discrimination. On this question, he should not be judged by today’s standards, but as living at a time when theories of racial hierarchy and paternalism were dominant throughout Britain and Europe.  These theories are certainly evident in the architecture of Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and other cities which grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If every surviving reminder of slavers, colonialists and imperialists were to be torn down, the cityscapes of Britain would look radically different, and greatly impoverished.  More importantly, much of modern human history has been about the replacement of one great ‘construct’ with another, whether in economics, politics, or art and architecture. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the liberal imperialism of the late Victorian period was criticised by Radicals who revealed themselves as overtly anti-Semitic. The new empires of fascists and communists which characterised the 1930s and 1940s were far more universally destructive than the old ones, yet we do not seek to remove every trace of them. Finally, far from being an ‘architect of apartheid’, there is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the imperialism of Rhodes and his contemporaries in Africa and the post-1948 racist regimes in Southern Africa. They drew their inspiration from a heretical view of sectarian Calvinism which was very far removed from the Victorian paternalism of ‘the white man’s burden’ to which Rhodes subscribed.

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