Meeting His People:
Having taken over the UK premiership from Margaret Thatcher and fought off the Tory “bastards” on the Eurosceptic Right in Parliament, John Major called a General Election for April 1992. BBC Chief Correspondent John Simpson was asked to cover the PM’s personal campaign. After covering the bombing of Baghdad, this should have been a stroll in the park. It turned out to be one of his less pleasant of his assignments to date. On Sunday 15 March he travelled to Sawley in Huntingdon, Major’s own constituency. Here he was to Meet the People, his people of course. As he commented:
The words were always said with a particular reverence by his handlers, as though real people were the greatest rarities in the world, unpredictable creatures who could only be approached with extreme care.
It has some echoes, a generation later, in the contemporary confection, the Will of the People, in the current Brexit debate. Simpson recalls that the whole event was dreadful. Major sat on a stool, looking uncomfortable, and a group of specially invited, carefully scanned local supporters sat equally uncomfortably in front of him. Everything had been so rehearsed that any life it originally had had long since been sucked out of it. The party ‘hacks’ reminded Simpson of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were true believers, trying their best to be patient with the sceptics. This isn’t a press conference, it’s a people conference, he was told. You’ll be able to spectate at it. He’s not just going to speak to the people, it’s for the people to be able to ask whatever’s on their minds. As it transpired, the people were as embarrassed and shy as Major himself seemed, perched on his stool. What was on their minds was the kind of thing they had read in the tabloid newspapers:
‘Is it true,’ one asked, ‘that if the Socialists win, they will do lasting damage to the British economy?’
The questions were sometimes so extreme that Major, a fair-minded man, sounded less anti-Labour than they were. The best he could do was to say that nothing much was going on in the country.
“Transcript of report from Sawley, Northants, 15.3.92
“Speaker: Rt Hon John Major, PC, MP.
“JM: Back in 1979 there was a real feeling for change. I’m telling you, it ain’t there now.”
As Simpson drove to the studios, he thought over whether he should give his report without adjectives, just giving a bald account of what had happened. Yet he felt that if the overall impression he had received of the event was of a lack of imagination and understanding, he should say so. He stopped beside the road and began writing:
“Transcript of report for 6.25 News. 15.3.92
“JS: The campaign proper began for John Major with a chance on BBC Radio to get in a brief, quotable thrust at his opponents:
“JM: This fetish the opposition parties have for raising taxes seems very damaging to the economic interests of this country.
“JS: But the business of meeting the people began on his own home ground: In Sawley, part of his own constituency. The people he’d come to see had been carefully invited by the local Conservative Party and the questions weren’t exactly designed to cause him problems…
“JS: Mr Major is no great orator, and his handlers think he’s better with small groups. But it was all desperately tame today. There are promises that his campaign may liven up a little later.”
‘Spin Doctors’ and ‘Heavy Breathers’:
The ‘spin-doctors’ at Conservative Central Office were furious when they heard this all-too-truthful account. The editor who began taking their angry calls even before the end of the broadcast rang Simpson to congratulate him on the report, but he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t wished that this particular cup had passed him by. The functionaries from Tory Central Office had identified Simpson as a wrecker, probably a paid-up member of the Labour Party. Yet the Labour Party was claiming that the BBC was biased against them. Neil Kinnock’s campaign manager warned:
If the BBC believes it can operate like this because the Conservatives hate it but Labour has a sentimental attachment to it, it had better think again. If it goes on like this and Labour wins, there won’t be as much sentiment around for the BBC as it believes.
In reality, the Labour Party wanted to control the BBC just as much as the Conservatives did. The only difference was that under Margaret Thatcher the latter gave the impression they were always thinking of tampering with the BBC’s structure. Over the decades going back to its founding, senior politicians have retained the habit of picking up the phone to the broadcasters as if they themselves own them. This is known by TV and Radio journalists as ‘heavy breathing’, and it succeeds in frightening them far too often. All too often the journalists or their editors try to be conciliatory and to explain that no offence was intended. The mere fact of replying like that encouraged the politicians to complain again. Although a genuine mistake was sometimes made, in John Simpson’s experience that was relatively rare. The parties complained most when their senior politicians had done badly in an interview, and they chose to blame the broadcasters for the poor performance. Simpson singled out ‘a new gladiator’ who had turned up in this ‘arena’ for particular attention:
I rather liked Tony Blair’s press spokesman, Alistair Campbell, when I was at Westminster: he was one of the freer-thinking political correspondents. Perhaps, like me, his time at Westminster left him less than starry-eyed about the nature of the lobby. He says what he thinks, without worrying too much about the feelings of those he talks to…
But Alistair Campbell is a man with an agenda. He wants government ministers to look and sound good on air, regardless of whether the are good. When interviewers of the quality of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys are questioning them, they don’t always shine. The Paxman style of interviewing is something that can only exist on British television. He is a national asset, and someone the BBC can and should feel great pride and confidence in. Of course Alistair Campbell and all his equivalents in British politics dislike him: he is the scourge of sloppy policy-making and muddle-headed ministers. And of course he is feared by all those who have a vested interest in tame interviews and tame broadcasting.
One morning John Humphrys had just walked out of the studio at the end of the ‘Today’ programme (on BBC Radio 4), and picked up the phone which was ringing on a nearby desk. He listened for a while to some threatening character from one of the parties.
‘Thanks for that,’ he said when the phone went quiet, ‘and I wonder if I could make an observation?’
‘Yes, of course.’
And he put the phone down.
In many ways my complaint is less against the robustness of the politicos and more against the feebleness of the broadcasters. There is no reason on earth why, in a free society, people like Alistair Campbell shouldn’t try to put pressure on the broadcasters.
But equally there is no reason why the broadcasters should pay the slightest attention, except in cases where they have broadcast something which is false or tendentious. In that case they should be forced to put it right as soon as possible. There should only be one answer to the bully, the blackmailer and the heavy breather:.. ‘le mot de John Humphrys’.
Perhaps the current American Press and Media pack should take courage from the British example in their dealings with Donald Trump’s accusations of ‘fake news’ operations among the White House Press Corps, and not be so deferential, but rather stand up for their freedoms as The Fourth Estate.
Meeting ‘Real’ People:
According to Simpson, the 1992 UK General Election was altogether nastier than either the 1987 or 1997 campaigns. Like some of the US press today, he was branded an enemy, and was treated so unpleasantly by the more obsequious editors and reporters that he preferred to travel with the photographers and television cameramen. Meanwhile, John Major’s television advisers continued to create a campaign which emphasised the very qualities which seemed to diminish him most: the mildness, the uninspired speaking style, the pen-in-the top pocket concern with detail.
On Wednesday, 25 March John Major was in Scotland, and the Media representatives flew up there with him. This was a more pleasant trip for Simpson, as he got on well with one of The Guardian columnists. He knew he had to be careful: everything he said was likely to be taken down and used in evidence against him. He was beginning to write up his notes on the plane at the end of the day when John Major came down the aisle and asked him if his campaign was really as bad as Simpson was reporting. The Guardian columnist, David Hare, published the conversation in his book, Asking Around, chronicling the campaign, later the same year:
John Major moves behind me to talk to John Simpson, and I suddenly realize he is asking for professional advice. Scraps of their conversation drift across me.
Simpson: …not sure about your campaign… not sure you’re showing yourself to the best advantage.
Major: No. I agree. I agree.
Simpson: …all seems a bit pointless… ways in which you could be better presented…
Major: I know. I know. What do you think I should do?
Simpson told Major that it wasn’t his job to give advice to politicians, but that it didn’t make good television to see politicians with ‘believers’ rather than ‘real people’. The following Saturday they were in a particularly depressing shopping centre in Luton. They had turned up early, and so had the Trotskyists, ready to give Major a hard time. When his blue coach arrived, the PM stayed on board, but one of his aides got off, opened the baggage compartment and pulled out a wooden construction of some kind. Then Major got off and someone handed him a megaphone. He got up on the construction, a soapbox, and began to rate:
Something came over him, some distant memory of being a Young Conservative in the sixties, perhaps, and he grew louder and more confident, and his voice started to drown out the shouting. There was no actual violence, though somehow the unworthy thought came to my mind that if he took a bottle on the head and a trickle of blood were to run down those decorously mild features, it would be worth at least ten marginals to him… Of course, the sight of chanting, egg-throwing lefties did wonders for John Major’s standing.
“No one’s going to keep me away from the people,” he proclaimed in his harsh, much imitated, amplified voice, as though anyone was trying to…
He was sweating slightly as he got down from his box, and the rain had speckled his glasses.
“So that is the kind of thing you wanted?” he asked me…
“It’ll look good on television, certainly,” I said. And it did.
After that, until 9 April, the soap box went with him wherever he went. Some said that it was the reason he won the election. It certainly had something to do with it, though I recall the unpopularity of Labour’s tax plans with marginal, ‘middle income’ Midlanders like me, many of whom would have been embarrassed to admit to voting Tory to the pollsters. Perhaps his instinct that this was not a time for change appealed to the innate conservatism of the British people. In the event, it will go down as a sensational personal success for him and his soapbox.
John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan (Pan).
Dancing with the Devil Himself:
Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.
Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.
Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue
As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:
From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann.
Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.
On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.
On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.
On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help. It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:
The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age
This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.
Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.
The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.
The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.
A significant birthday:
While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.
Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.
There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.
By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.
Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.
On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews. The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…
…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..
But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:
The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.
Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957
Tom continues the family’s story:
By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives
Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.
My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.
One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.
My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.
For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence. Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.
Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’
Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.
Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.
By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:
Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.
Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).
1966-1989: Kádár and the Counter-revolutionaries:
In the mid-1960s, from the vantage point of a decade further on, some of the principal goals of the Hungarian Revolution seemed, to some external commentators, such as Andrew Georgy, to have been accomplished. Leaving aside the professed rise in living standards and the advent of a degree of consumerism, it was clear to them that what they saw as the superhuman, and frequently suicidal, efforts of anti-Communist nationalism had achieved two main results. The first of these was the shaking up of the Communist régimes and substituting more acceptable, nationally orientated Communist leaders for the extreme and uncompromising Stalinists. Secondly, the Stalinist monolith was fatally weakened by the demands of for differentiated status on a country-by-country basis, in effect also terminating satellite dependency on the USSR. They helped to set the stage for a phase of pluralism in Eastern Europe. In 1966, J F Brown wrote in The New Eastern Europe that…
…what later evolved into the Kádár ‘New Course’ was caused by two factors. The first, and most important, was the need to establish some rapport with the people. The second was the very narrow base of Kádár’s support within his own Party… This atmosphere of relaxation and public decency was not reserved for the Party. It spread over the whole population…
Many Hungarians would agree, if challenged, that Kádár was the best leader Hungary could have had in the circumstances. This astonishing metamorphosis of Kádár, from the despised traitor of 1956 to the grudgingly acknowledged leader of 1964, was made possible by two factors. The first concerned the population itself. The events of October-November 1956 produced a profound disillusionment in Hungary. The collapse of the Revolution and the failure of the Western powers to come to its aid caused many many Hungarians to reappraise drastically their country’s situation. Stark realism compelled them to accept Soviet hegemony of the Communist political system for an indefinite period… The task now was to make that period as comfortable and tolerable as possible. The second factor was Kádár’s policy of conciliation; Hungarians compared this policy with Rákosi’s, and they knew which they preferred.
The slackening hold of the USSR was further revealed by its allowing Romania to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact in 1967, although its internal policy remained firmly Stalinist, as well as by the slowness with which the Soviet leadership moved to keep Czechoslovakia in the Communist fold in the following year. In Hungary in 1968 there were signs of a nascent pluralism among the political élite. The New Economic Mechanism officially introduced private incentive and individual enterprise into the economy. Trade unions were also given renewed muscle, and non-Communist Party candidates were allowed to stand in parliamentary elections. But though non-Party activity was permitted, only the Communist-dominated Fatherland Front was allowed to exist as a political organisation. As one historian commented in this period;
The cage is more comfortable but the bars are still there and the keeper still keeps his eyes open.
Following the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Brezhnev reiterated the Soviet leadership’s hard-line view in relation to the ‘satellite states’ of ‘Eastern Europe’:
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union has always been in favour of every socialist country determining the concrete forms of its development along the road to socialism, taking into account the specific character of its national conditions. But we know, comrades, that there are also general laws of socialist construction, deviations from which lead to deviations from socialism as such. And when internal and external forces try to turn the development of any socialist country backwards to a capitalist restoration, when a threat arises to the cause of socialism in that country, a threat to the security of the socialist community as a whole, that it is no longer an issue only for the people of that country in question, but a general issue which is the concern of all the socialist countries.
Obviously such an action as military aid to a fraternal country in warding off a menace to the socialist system is an extra-ordinary enforced measure that can be evoked only by direct actions on the part of the enemies of socialism within a country and outside it, actions which create a threat to the common interests of the socialist camp…
In his New Year address of January 1969, PM Jenö Fock made it clear that there were still such ‘enemies of the people’ in Hungary whom the government needed to watch carefully if not take action against:
There are people who do not care for the building of socialism, people living at the expense of society; there are politically indifferent groups and enemies waiting to exploit possible Party and government errors; and there are others who consciously act in an unlawful manner, inciting to, organising and committing political crimes.
What Hungary was experiencing was a massive rise in living standards. Moonlighting to make more money in the new relaxed economy, became common. The new co-operatives made peasants’ incomes higher than those for industrial workers. But Hungary had weekend cottage socialism as many urban workers were able to afford a small holiday home near a lake or river, in addition to their standard panel-built flat. In material terms, as well as in terms of personal autonomy, Kádár had succeeded to the point of seeing the country suffer the decline in virtues and values which followed on from prosperity – apathy, money-grubbing and high rates of divorce, abortion and suicide.
In 1969, Kádár had an interview with an Italian journalist from L’Unita, the newspaper of the Italian Communist Party. In it, he claimed that the Hungarian Workers’ Party had been most successful when it stuck to Marxist-Leninist principles, rather than to dogmatism, as it had done under Rákosi, or to revisionism, as under Nagy. So, after 4.11.56, its first task was…
… to put the Communists, and all those who believed in socialism, back on their feet and to unite them. But we laid no stress on separating from the real enemies of socialism and those who had been misled, whose number was not small…
The statement… which has in a certain sense become a slogan, ‘who is not against us is for us’, is an expression of this policy…
We try to get the Communists respected and followed by non-Party people because of the work done by them for society. We declare at the same time that the same rights and esteem are due to everybody who participates in the work of socialist construction and does a proper job, irrespective of Party membership, ideology, origin or occupation.
These ideas determine our relationship not only to the masses of workers and peasants, but also to the creative intellectuals…
We also know full well that socialism does not only mean a larger loaf of bread, better housing, a refrigerator and maybe a car but primarily new social relationships and new human ties.
In the early 1970s, it remained impossible for anything but the official interpretation of the events of 1956-58 to gain reference among contemporaries and historians. Yet it was in this realm of ideology that the régime met its most striking defeat. In essence, Kádár’s democratic centralism was a pragmatic means of strengthening the legitimacy of his régime by concentrating on economic modernisation and de-politicising certain administrative functions.
In his memoirs, written in 1971, Khrushchev tried to represent his 1958 visit to Hungary as a turning point for the Hungarian working classes:
Because I was a former miner myself, I felt I could take a tough line with the coal-miners. I said I was ashamed of my brother-miners who hadn’t raised either their voices or their fists against the counter-revolution. The miners said they were sorry. They repented of having committed a serious political blunder, and they promised that they would do everything they could not to let such a thing happen ever again…
In contrast to this account, we know that, though widespread apathy and atomisation reappeared among the Csepel workers after their return to work in January 1957, and despite the threat of a death penalty for anyone found ‘agitating’, there was continued passive resistance among them which culminated in rumbling discontent during Khrushchev’s 1958 visit to the factory. Journalist Sandy Gall was there, covering the visit for Britain’s Independent Television News. He recalled Khrushchev giving a speech over the factory’s loudspeakers at the end of a shift. In his memoirs, Gall recalls the Csepel workers simply walking away, not stopping to listen. If we take this account at face value, we have every reason to doubt that Hungary’s coal-miners, some of whom had been shot during the invasion, would have reacted in a radically different way to Khrushchev’s rebukes. It is also difficult to see how historians could give any credence to these reminiscences as evidence of anything other than an exercise in retrospective propaganda. According to this…
The Hungarian people were grateful to us and our army for having fulfilled our internationalist duty in helping to liquidate the counter-revolutionary mutiny… Everyone who spoke expressed his true feelings… Comrade Kádár said,… ‘There is no resentment in our country against the presence of your troops on our territory.’
By 1974, Comrade Kádár was, according to the journalist William Shawcross, who wrote Crime and Compromise, summing up his position in Hungary, the most popular leader in the Warsaw Pact. Over the previous eighteen years, and out of the rubble of the revolution and reprisals, Kádár had somehow managed to construct one of the most reasonable, sane and efficient Communist states in the world. Hungarians spoke of their country as the gayest barracks in the Socialist camp, praising Kádár for this achievement. From being almost universally loathed for the way he had first betrayed László Rajk in 1949 and then Imre Nagy in 1956, he was, apparently, so highly regarded by his people… that…
Hungary today is personified by Kádár and many Hungarians are convinced that without him their country would be a very different and probably far worse place to live.
Five years later, George Schopflin attended a conference of young workers in Hungary on modern Hungarian history and wrote of how confused the participants were about the events of 1956, and what led up to them. For him, the principal features of modern Hungary included…
… social inequality exacerbated by an increasingly rigid stratification and low mobility; aspirations which are in no way collectivist; weak institutionalisation; the survival of authoritarian attitudes in human relations and corresponding weakness in democracy. To what extent criticism of these and other topics influences policy-makers is extremely difficult to gauge. Obviously, published work does have some kind of impact, but against that, policy-makers appear to be reluctant to initiate major changes. Stability shading off into a fairly comfortable stagnation seems to be the main feature of the Kádár model of the 1970s.
An opinion survey of Hungarian intellectuals conducted a year earlier confirms a similar sociological anaesthesia among them. According to the author, there were four kinds of ‘taboos’ among them:
The first is well-known and concerns links with the Soviets and foreign policy questions in general. Second, it is forbidden to criticise in any way the armed forces, the judiciary and the internal security organs. Third, though it is generally not known by most people, it is not allowed to criticise anyone by name. Of course, in this case we are talking about people who are alive. The reason must be the need for ‘cadre stability’, so no-one need worry about being attacked from outside… Fourth, certain facts and subjects may not be subjected to sharp criticism. These could be brought out in an anecdotal fashion, in an Aesopian language or by way of a cut-and-dried technical analysis, but not in a radical manner.
In October 1981, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, Gordon Brook-Shepherd wrote a commemorative article for The Sunday Telegraph. He remarked that it was one thing to hear the widespread opinions, even of anti-Communist intellectuals in Budapest, that Kádár was the mainstay of Hungary’s hard-won stability and unity, but quite something else to hear the survivors from a feudal world (whose lavish hospitality with such modest means was… touching) declaring that, despite his atheism, Kádár was a good man. For these small-holding ‘peasants’, who had made their dutiful daughter break off her her engagement to the son of a local party boss, things were, on the whole, better… than they used to be. They had been convinced of the irrelevance of much of the fine talk of a generation earlier, of what turned out to be empty Western rhetoric unsupported by action or aid. ‘Freedom’ for their daughter’s generation was defined as a small apartment in the town or city and a weekend house, a shorter wait for a better car, perhaps a Lada to replace the Trabant, and more frequent foreign travel. For intellectuals, freedom consisted in the privilege to go on censoring ourselves, as one of them put it. Brook-Shepherd concluded that they had learnt that, in Kádár’s Hungary, if you do not get what you like, you eventually like what you get.
In May 1982, Kádár’s seventieth birthday was celebrated. In an article for The Guardian, Hella Pick wrote that not only did Hungarians want to congratulate him, but that they hoped he would stay in power for many more years. Despite his betrayal of the Nagy government and his support for the Soviet suppression of the revolt in 1956, resulting in so many deaths and emigration, during the period which he was feared and reviled,…
… much of what Mr Kádár did has been put into the back drawer of memory. It may not have been forgotten or forgiven but the Hungarians do accept that János Káadár… genuinely helped them to rise from the ashes of the Uprising to regain both self-respect and world respect.
In the same year, historian Robin Okey also wrote, that in retrospect, the events of 1956 … showed that ‘national Communism’ was never likely to bring about fundamental change:
Essentially a highly personalised amalgam of Marxist ideas and patriotic instincts, it proved to be an unstable basis for a broader movement and gravitated under pressure either to its nationalist or its Communist poles.
Between 1956 and 1982, both the rulers and the ruled in Eastern Europe concerned themselves more and more with ‘bread and butter’ issues, as an antidote to alternating periods of hope and disillusionment. Communist leaders were more conscious of the need to dangle the carrot of affluence in front of their peoples, rather than beating them with the stick of dogmatic ideology. A Hungary in which he who is not against us is for us best represented the sort of society that seemed possible within the limits again set by the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Marxism must not be treated as dogma, but as a set of essential principles reflecting changing social and economic realities. The weekend cottage socialism of the 1980s was hardly what the revolutionaries of 1956 demanded, but it did epitomise the sense of personal independence felt by many in the mid-1980s. It is sometimes easier, and less confusing, to die than to live. In 1956 Kádár chose to live rather than the martyrdom suffered by so many of his comrades and compatriots, the path which he himself had vowed to follow in his speech to Parliament and Andropov on the day he disappeared from public view.
Even at the end of the 1980s, the general view of the man and his ‘era’ was that, at the cost of immense immediate unpopularity only gradually softening into grudging acceptance, he had salvaged something from the wreckage that was Hungary in 1956. Writers from both sides of the iron curtain agreed that by accepting the hatred of his people, he had saved them in a very real material sense. The BBC correspondent John Simpson echoed this sense, albeit in a less sentimental tone, shortly after Kádár’s in 1989:
The man whom Moscow selected to govern Hungary and return it to orthodoxy was a strange, secretive figure. János Kádár might have been undistinguished as a political thinker, but he was a survivor whose ideas evolved remarkably over the years. He had suffered personally under Stalinism. He usually kept his hands hidden when he met foreign visitors, but if you looked closely you could still see the marks where his finger-nails had been torn out by the secret police in Rákosi’s time. When he was imposed on Hungary in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 uprising he was loathed by the great majority of his people. Yet Khrushchev had chosen well. Kádár was never loved, but by the mid-1960s he had shown sufficient independence to earn the grudging support of many Hungarians.
Eventually, moving with immense care and slowness, he edged away from the rest of the Soviet bloc in economic terms. Managers ran their own factories with minimal interference from the Ministry of Heavy Industry in Budapest. Workers were given access after hours to the machinery of their plant so that they could produce goods which they could sell privately. The authorities had realised that the workers were doing it anyway, so they tried to make sure it happened only during their time off. Farmers sold to a free market. None of it worked particularly well, but it was a great deal more efficient than any other socialist economy. Leonid Brezhnev recommended the Hungarian way as the model for the Soviet Union and the rest of its allies, without seeming to realise that it undermined the old system of centralised planning. When Margaret Thatcher visited Hungary in 1984, she received a rapturous reception from ordinary people when she walked down the main shopping street of Budapest. Kádár, hearing of this, tried the same thing a few days later. No one took any notice of him.
It was in this context that the attempts at further reform won excessive and flattering judgements in the West. This reverence for him in the West was at least partly born out of a sense of deep guilt that Hungary had been abandoned to its own fate by them in 1956. Simpson himself, though only a short-trousered schoolboy at the time, remembered how the events of the fateful year had been talked of in his school, with those in Egypt being treated as if they were part of a Boy’s Own yarn:
When Colonel Nasser threatened our control of the Suez Canal, it was necessary to teach him a lesson.
“These Gippos only understand one thing” Captain Fleming told us during a Latin class, and we all nodded eagerly; though we weren’t quite sure what the one thing was which they understood… And then, one dark afternoon in November 1956, the whole world seemed to change, melting like ice under our feet. Our elderly English master, who had retired from a big London public school and was humane enough to read us ghost stories… was intoning in a ghostly manner, when one of the older boys, his voice crackling and breaking, burst excitedly into the room.
“The Headmaster’s compliments, sir, and I’m to tell you we’re at war with Egypt.
The class erupted into cheers. That was the stuff to give the old Gippos! They had it coming to them, cheeky buggers. They only understood one thing. British and best.
And yet, extraordinarily enough, it turned out that not everyone though the same way. Some of the boys came to school the next day full of their father’s opposition to the whole business. My own father, always so forthright about everything, seemed suddenly unsure.
Within days it was clear that things had gone very wrong… We weren’t a superpower after all… Our pretensions as a nation were revealed to the world as empty. It wasn’t merely wrong to have attacked Egypt, it was stupid. In the meantime the Russians took advantage of the distraction to crush the Hungarian Uprising in the most brutal way possible. After it was all over… no one… said ‘British and best’, or ‘Don’t panic – remember you’re British’. It was the start of thirty years or more of intense national self-degradation… we came to feel ashamed of it all: the Establishment, the old boy network, the class system, the Empire. It was a long time before we even started to feel comfortable with ourselves again, and by then everything had changed forever.
In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that both the British and the Americans were happy to subscribe to the myth that Hungary was working out its own salvation, even at the time of Mrs Thatcher’s 1984 visit. The reality, as we now know, was that, even at that time, and certainly by the late 1980s, as in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern bloc countries, it was becoming public knowledge that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of thirty billion dollars, most of it in two reckless years of spending. This was, in fact, where Kádár’s ‘goulash communism’ had led, as István Lazar wrote in 1992, and who knew where it would lead on to?:
… this was what the divergence of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable living standard, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone will have its effect felt for decades, and will cripple all renewal.
In spite of these fairy-tale foundations to the apparent economic success of the happiest barrack in the camp, it was largely due to Kádár’s leadership that Hungary had become the only country where the system had successfully evolved away from Marxism-Leninism. This was because before 1956, conditions in Hungary were in many respects far worse than those elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The 1956 Uprising was a reaction to such vicious excesses as those in the concentration camp at Recsk, in the Mátra mountains north of Budapest, where political prisoners worked for fifteen hours a day cutting andesite from the quarry and carrying it with their bare hands. When Nikita Khrushchev had spoken out about such horrors of Stalinism, people believed he would accept the democratic changes set out by the Nagy government. They also believed that the West would help persuade him. But Nagy, Simpson wrote,…
… was thirty years too early… Khrushchev was no Gorbachev, and the 1950s was not the time for a satellite country like Hungary to slip into neutrality.
The ‘Gulag’ State…
Despite the strength of world opinion, expressed through the United Nations as well as by individual governments, the Kádár Government was determined to stick to its line that the ‘uprising’ of the previous autumn had, in fact, been counter-revolutionary. In Hungary itself, there wasn’t much room for discussion or debate about this at the beginning of 1957. On 5 January, the government introduced more stringent measures of control, threatening the death penalty for striking or agitating for a strike, as well as for anyone even disrupting normal work. The leaders of the Csepel Central Workers’ Council, the last organ of the revolution and now of resistance, were arrested. Elek Nagy was sentenced to twelve years in prison, József Bácsi to ten. The Csepel militants went back to work, defeated and disorganised. On 17 January, the Writers’ Union, one of the initial intellectual forces behind the uprising, was dissolved by the authorities. Many intellectuals were arrested and served time in prison, while many others had already managed to escape abroad.
The May Day Demonstration…
On 1 May the Kádár government held a mass demonstration in Heroes’ Square in Budapest, a traditional May Day parade, but this year also designed to show the strength of its support from among the general Hungarian population. As photographs of the event confirm, the square was filled with people, at least a hundred thousand. Some party estimates put it at four times that number. György Lítván, former director of the 1956 Institute, who was himself one of the curious onlookers, explained how…
It was a genuine demonstration by many thousands and it was at the same time forced – not in the physical sense, but maybe in some enterprises there was a bit of pressure; on the other hand many people wanted to show their new orientation, their readiness to support the new régime… It was an experience to see how swiftly people could forget their opinions, their attitude of the previous months and very quickly adjust themselves.
Probably for this reason, much of the recent writing on the events of 1956-57 has tended to ignore the rally, though one exception is the work of Békés (et al.) which asserts that by early 1957 a wave of acceptance had swept over the country and that the turnout for the traditional May Day celebrations in Budapest was simply an expression of this, of a continuity which had been broken, not supplanted, by the memory of October and November. The authors conclude that force alone could not account for the change… but that a feeling of political apathy… had developed due to the litany of strikes, speeches, meetings and negotiations, all of which had come to nothing except the creation of a well of frustration. It was those who sought a means of expression for this who swelled the considerable ranks of the political establishment of the Rákosi-Gérő régime, members of the party and its huge bureaucracy as well as other ordinary citizens who either supported the régime of felt no particular apathy toward it. Some of these people…
… had undoubtedly felt terrorized during the revolution because of their status or sympathies, and possibly humiliated or remorseful in its aftermath… Contrary to general opinion in Hungary today, this group represented a not inconsiderable proportion of the overall population.
While these crowds may, genuinely, have celebrated a combination of liberation and victory, that does not mean, as the régime’s sources claim, that the sympathy of the entire country was demonstrated in the event. This is no more credible than the UN Special Committee’s 1957 report on Hungary which claimed that, following the Soviet intervention of 4 November, in the light of the evidence it had received, that it may safely be said that the whole population of Budapest took part in the resistance. The means by which Kádár managed, through a clever combination of stick and carrot, to generate sufficient support to establish a régime which lasted thirty-three years, is well summarised in László Kontler’s recent History of Hungary. For him, the Heroes’ Square May Day demonstration was one of…
…acquiescence, if not sympathy, by the people of a capital which, after the shocks of invasion and destitution, could not but want to believe in the message of tranquility and safety that the concessions transmitted.
Party membership rose from a mere 40,000 in December 1956 to 400,000 a year later. Despite the efforts of Revai, who returned from Moscow in January 1957 and tried to arrange a reversal to ‘orthodoxy’, Kádár received assurances from Khrushchev and was confirmed in his position at the party conference in June through the election of a centralist leadership, including Marosán and others not implicated in the pre-1956 illegalities, like Ferenc Münnich, Gyula Kállai, Jenő Foch and Dezső Nemes. At the same time, the reorganised Patriotic Popular Front, whose new task was to transmit and popularise party priorities to society at large, was chaired by the hardliner, Antal Apró. After the disintegration of the Alliance of Working Youth, the Communist Youth League was set up in March 1957 to take care of the ideological orientation of young people and ensure a supply of future cadres. Purges and voluntary resignations among the officer corps, the confirmation of first Kádár and then Münnich in the premiership, and the approval of his policies in May, all consolidated the restoration of the party at the centre of state power. In addition, the external guarantee was signed on 27 May, by which the Soviet troops were given temporary residence in Hungary. Their number became stabilised at around 80,000 once the Hungarian army was considered politically reliable.
The People’s Court…
Sándór Kopácsi, the deposed Chief of Police, later recorded the harsh system of repression to which he and the other internees of the Budapest gaol were subjected. On the morning of 6 February, 1958, the prisoners were lined up in the corridor. He met Pál Maleter again, whom he hadn’t seen since they had crossed Budapest, singing, on a Soviet half-tank a year previously. From a third cell emerged Zoltán Tildy, the former President of Hungary, and a former Protestant pastor, a minister in Nagy’s government who had negotiated the surrender of parliament to the Soviets. He had been under house arrest throughout almost the whole of the Rákosi years and was now, aged seventy, imprisoned again. They were joined by four other prisoners and then Imre Nagy himself:
He came out of the cell as if he were coming out of a meeting room, his face preoccupied. I found him a bit thinner, but the build was the same: the peasant or the sixty-year-old blacksmith, the village strongman in the most commanding period of his life. The legendary pince-nez straddled his nose as before. For an instant, he turned toward us and his glance passed us in review… He gave each of us a brief, friendly nod. Our presence seemed to reassure him… We were to be tried by the Supreme Court in order to rule out the possibility of an appeal. The judge was Zoltán Rado, a seasoned man, fat and rather friendly…
This turned out to be a rehearsal, however, though Moscow’s order to interrupt the proceedings didn’t arrive until the next day. They were all accused of having fomented a plot aimed at reversing by force the legal order of the Republic of Hungary. In addition, Nagy was accused of high treason, and Maleter and Kopácsi with mutiny. Then József Szilágyi was called forward and, when asked if he acknowledged his guilt, he replied:
In this country, the only guilty one is a traitor named János Kádár Supported by the bayonets of the Soviet imperialists, he has drowned the revolution of his people in blood.
There followed a sharp and bitter exchange between Rado and Szilágyi. Except for Nagy, the prisoners were all then returned to their cells. During the next two days of hearings, the Kremlin changed its mind four times as to what verdicts would be pronounced. Khrushchev found himself in an awkward position, since his policy of reconciliation with Tito was shaky. At the time of its second intervention, the Kremlin was still counting on Tito’s friendship and, to begin with, he got it, but after the kidnapping of Nagy and his entourage from the Yugoslav Embassy, relations between Moscow and Belgrade deteriorated, and they had remained strained in November 1957 when Tito refused to accept the hegemony of the Soviets over the ‘fraternal parties’ at a conference of world Communist parties. When Khrushchev interrupted the Nagy trial and sent Kádár to Belgrade to negotiate with Tito, the latter leader told Kádár:
You have to do it like Gomulka: Fight to get the maximum of independence vis-à-vis the Russians and we’ll support you.
When Kádár told Khrushchev of this ‘duplicity’, he became furious, and his desire to teach Tito a lesson explains why, two years after the Hungarian Uprising had been quelled, and the population pacified, the Russians relentlessly pursued the trials and executions of the Nagy government. However, Kopácsi had saved Kádár’s life at the time of the uprising, and Kádár managed to persuade the Russians that he should not be executed, in exchange for his help in convicting Nagy. First it was Szilágyi’s turn, however. After a brief trial in which Kopácsi was a forced witness, he was sentenced to death, and his hanging was carried out on 24 April in the prison courtyard. He climbed the scaffold, head held high, declaiming, long live free and independent Hungary!
At the trial of the other defendants, the prosecution tried to prove that they had been part of a Nagy conspiracy which had begun in 1955, and that, allied to the forces of reaction, both within the country and outside they had provoked the counter-revolution to re-establish the old regime. They asked for the death sentence against Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes, the young journalist. For Kopácsi, they requested life imprisonment. On 14 June, Nagy spoke to the court:
Twice I tried to save the honour of the word “Socialism” in the Danube River Valley: in 1953 and 1956. The first time I was thwarted by Rákosi, the second time by the armed might of the Soviet Union. Now I must give my life for ideas. I give it willingly. After what you have done with it, it’s not worth anything any more. I know that History will condemn my assassins. There is only one thing that would disgust me: if my name was rehabilitated by those who killed me.
He was followed by Pál Maleter, who said he had respected the oath of a socialist soldier and went with the people through fire and storm. Kopácsi spoke of how he had fought in northern Hungary with the Soviet Army, and that even in October 1956 he never had a Russian uniform in (his) sights. Revolution isn’t simple, he said. Neither is what follows it, whether the revolution is victorious or otherwise. The ‘People’s Court’ condemned to death Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes. Kopácsi was sentenced to life imprisonment, Ferenc Donáth to twelve years, Ferenc Jánosi to eight years, Zoltán Tildy to six and the journalist Miklós Vásárhélyi to five. Imre Nagy refused to enter a plea for clemency, and although Maleter’s and Grimes’ lawyers made appeals on behalf of their clients, both were rejected.
The Graveless Dead…
Cover of the 2008 film about the arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution of Imre Nagy
At 6 a.m. on Monday 16 June, Nagy, Maleter and Gimes were hanged in the yard known as the ‘little dungeon’ at the central prison. Everybody was ordered to keep away from the windows. According to the prison ‘information agency’, the Russians forced Nagy to be present while the others were executed. He stood, tottering, at the entrance to the yard. If the report is correct, this was the second time he had had to witness the execution of an innocent friend. In 1949, Rákosi had forced him to attend the hanging of Rajk, who had been personally promised by Kádár that his life would be spared and who, before dying, cried out, János, you tricked me!
The last words of Nagy and Maleter, spoken from the gallows, were the same: Long live independent and Socialist Hungary! Gimes remained silent. The Soviet authorities were apparently satisfied. Pravda described the verdicts as severe but just. Peking’s major paper carried the headline, Good news from Budapest! When Choi En-lai had visited Hungary some months previously he had complained that not enough people had been hanged. Khrushchev had demonstrated to him and Mao that his hand didn’t tremble when dealing with deviationists.
Serov, the KGB chief, however, felt that leaving Kopácsi and the others alive was a scandal. The day after the executions, he began trying to correct what he viewed as the leniency of the Budapest court. On the direct order of the Hungarian emissary of the KGB, Hungarian Politburo members Antal Apró and Karoly Kiss organised public meetings to gain support for cancelling the verdict and demanding that everyone in the Nagy group be hanged. The two men went to the large metallurgical factory, Ganz Mavag, to prime workers to push for these demands. There would be a vote taken at a general by a show of hands. The result seemed assured, but several former Resistance fighters at the factory prevented the KGB from going too far. General László Gyurkó asked to speak, having been sent by the Partisans’ Union. He briefly described the Resistance background of those who would be the victims of further death sentences. He urged the meeting to reject the idea of interfering in the verdicts already pronounced. The show of hands defeated the proposal, and with it Serov’s hard-line. The workers’ meeting demonstrated that there were different currents of opinion in Budapest, and that there was no widespread support for further retribution.
In September 1958, Sándór Kopácsi was transferred to the central prison where the executions had taken place six weeks earlier. In May 1959, the political prisoners were moved again, this time to Vác prison, fifty kilometres from Budapest, which was full of criminals. Tibor Dery, the elderly writer was thrown into a cell with a murderer who beat him badly in exchange for alcohol and tobacco from the ÁVH captain. Kopácsi intervened to stop this, and Dery survived his detention to become president of the Writers’ Union and write many more works. The police chief then found himself thrown into ‘the hold’ for two weeks before being put on ‘coal duty’, pushing a hundred kilos from a boat on the Danube for ten hours every day. He realised that this was the ÁVH’s way of finishing him off, so he asked to see the prison commandant, who was a Holocaust survivor. Kopácsi was relieved of his duties. The following year, the writers were given an amnesty, but the Imre Nagyists as they were known, were not yet released. A hunger strike went through the prison and the ÁVH imposed a total blackout. Many of the Nagyists were transferred back to Fő utca and threatened with death. Several committed suicide. The Vác prison became an ÁVH hell, with the prisoners deprived of the most elemental rights. Even the guards were beaten. Kopácsi remarked:
It would have been the end of us if our community hadn’t been what it was, a team prepared for any ordeal. It was in prison that I learned to respect strength of character, the last defence of a man in distress… What moved me most… was the ingenuousness and tenacity of the prisoners. Despite the dense network of informers, we manufactured radios that were good enough to bring in the news from Western stations. At any given time there was hardly a cell that didn’t have its own miniature receiver, the size of a coin and lacking for nothing… Thanks to the radios, gipsy music played late into the night in the ears of the poor jailbirds dreaming of the bustling life outside the prison walls.
After seven years in prison, Kopácsi and the other Nagyists finally said goodbye on 25 March, 1963, thanks to the general amnesty decreed by Khrushchev to mark the implementation of the détente he had worked out with President Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous October.
By this time, 1960s, the tone, if not the content, of the comments made from both ‘outside observers’ and exiles towards the régime had also softened somewhat. In 1962, Eric Bourne, the journalist who had written his eye-witness accounts of the uprising, commented in The Christian Science Monitor that…
Few Hungarians these days talk about the uprising… Many – with varying mental reservations – fall in with the régime’s general effort at conciliation and accept the ‘guided’ liberalisation from the top with relief. But it is evident that the liberalisation has its calculated limits and that the régime, which has gone further than any other in Eastern Europe with de-Stalinization, is concerned to keep the process from getting out of hand.
Two ‘émigré’ journalists, the first, Lászlo Tikos, exiled in the USA, and the second, George Pálóczi-Horváth, in Britain and broadcasting on the BBC, made the following optimistic comments:
Hungarians now enjoy greater personal, spiritual and political freedom, an increased measure of national independence and economic well-being, and an end to isolation from the West – all things that the 1956 revolution stood for and that are now more in evidence than at any other time since the Communist take-over. (Tikos)
When we were marching on that revolutionary protest march, if anyone had told us that in five or six years life would be in Hungary as it is now, we would have been very pleased, because it would have accomplished a great deal, if not everything we wanted to achieve. (Pálóczi-Horváth)
As a former political prisoner, however, Sándór Kopácsi continued to receive the attention of the ÁVH and its network of informants. One day at work he casually remarked that on the outside he was surrounded by as many informers as he had been in prison. The remark was reported and the next day he was summoned to the Fő utca ÁVH HQ. He was told that he had broken the rule prohibiting a liberated prisoner from revealing anything he had experienced in prison. The penalty for this was a further ten years in prison, so he denied the report and agreed to sign a statement reiterating his promise not to infringe the regulation. He and his wife met dozens of other spies; on foot, on the tram, in the bus, and even on the doorstep of their apartment. They openly asked him for news about himself and others of his prison comrades he might have been in contact with. There were so many that they decided to invite the least disagreeable of them in for coffee, or got them to take them for country drives if they had cars.
Their daughter Judit’s life was made unbearable, however. From the day her father was imprisoned, she was made the object of official discrimination. At school, she was put on a list of children deemed socially alien. Her mother went to see the principal:
‘Socially alien to whom?’
‘To the workers’ state,’ the principal replied with a straight face.
‘My daughter has nothing but working-class ancestors, on her father’s side as well as her mother’s side, for four generations.’
‘Agreed,’ said the principal. But her father has betrayed the working class.’
Some of the children at the school took advantage of the situation to tease Judit mercilessly, possibly encouraged by the teachers and the parents. The bullying got so bad that, at the age of fourteen to fifteen, she was seriously contemplating suicide. An old social democrat, whom Kopácsi had rescued from the ÁVH in 1952 and who had subsequently escaped as a refugee in 1956, came to the family’s help. He had settled in Quebec and had become a Canadian citizen. He was visiting Hungary, and called on the Kopácsis. He and his wife offered to take charge of Judit, but her father said they could not part from her. Soon afterwards, however, Judit tried to poison herself. Kopácsi wrote to László Sárosi and six weeks later she was on the plane to Quebec. They did not see her for another six years, by which time she was a Canadian citizen. Finally frustrated by their inability to speak freely, Sándor and Ibolya Kopácsi emigrated to join their daughter, then with a family of her own, in 1974. They settled in Toronto, where Sándor ended his working life at Ontario Hydro.
Progress and Reaction…
Later in the year that Kopácsi was released, in June 1963, the United Nations agreed to normalise relations with Hungary following the general amnesty. The US was also seeking to move towards a policy of seeking gradual change in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, some restrictions were slowly relaxed, especially in cultural spheres, and a new economic course continued to be followed. Kádár famously announced, whoever is not against us is with us, allowing a broadening of discussion and debate. Nonetheless, relations between the US, in particular, and Hungary remained strained, and were exacerbated by the actions of Hungarian troops in August 1968, when they took part in the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to remove the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, which had come to power in the Prague Spring. The first full US Ambassador, appointed a year before, noted Kádár’s…
… early endorsement of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely publicised meditator role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.
Even the man who admitted signing the request for the Soviet invasion in 1956 (three days after it happened), András Hegedűs, openly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a result, and although he had been Rákosi’s prime minister, he was fired from his job as a statistician and expelled from the party. In Britain, too, Hungary’s part in the armed intervention led to a setback for developing cultural links. The emerging civic links between Coventry and its twin-town of Kecskemét in the midlands of Hungary had to be ‘put on ice’, and were not fully defrosted again until the Cold War entered its permanent thaw in 1989.
Re-burial and Reconciliation…
As 1989 began, a momentous year in European history, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law allowing citizens to form independent associations, including political parties, thus paving the war for an eventual end to Communist rule. In February, a groundbreaking report prepared by a historical commission of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party officially rejected the interpretation of the 1956 Uprising as a counter-revolution. Instead, it was described as a popular uprising against the existing state power, since under Stalin, the ideal of international communism was turned into a merciless imperial programme. This was followed in June by an important step designed to heal old wounds and come to terms with the events of 1956-58. Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and three others executed in 1958 received a public reburial and state funeral, attended by an estimated 250,000 Hungarians, broadcast nationwide on state-controlled radio and television. The ceremony also paid tribute to the hundreds of others who had died in the retribution meted out by the Kádár Government. The next day, János Kádár died. These developments led to much open public discussion about the events of 1956, for the first time. On the anniversary of the uprising on 23 October 1989, Mátyás Szűrös, the Acting President, proclaimed the new, democratic constitution of a country now called “the Republic of Hungary”, no longer the “Hungarian People’s Republic”, the ‘different’ country I had entered just a week before.
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.
Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.
Sándor Kopácsi (1989), In the Name of the Working Class. London: Fontana.
9-31 December 1936 – Abdication, Accession & Aftermath:
While the King was making and announcing his decision to his brothers and the prime minister, Wallis had remained in the relative safety of Cannes, from where she issued a statement that she would be willing, if such action would resolve the problem, to withdraw forthwith from a situation that has been rendered unhappy and untenable. Wallis knew that Edward would never give her up, however, and was adamant in his intention to marry her. Everybody who knew the couple knew that Edward was so besotted with her that he would follow her, not just to Cannes, but to the ends of the earth. She may have tried to persuade him during the several hours each day they spent in telephone conversations while the King remained besieged at Fort Belvedere. Clearly she did not succeed, despite the Daily Mail trumpeting her announcement as marking the End of the Crisis.
Although Baldwin sent Theodore Goddard to Cannes and he returned with a signed statement confirming that she was indeed willing to renounce her hold on Edward, few believed her to be sincere. Baldwin sent a telegram to the governments of the Dominions dismissing it as no more than an attempt to swing public opinion in her favour and thereby give her less reason to be uneasy as to her personal safety. While the King had received many letters of support, she had received just as many hate messages, some containing threats, and a brick had been thrown through her window. In any event, when Wallis telephoned Edward on Wednesday 9th December to tell him of her decision herself, he replied:
‘it’s too late…the Abdication documents are being drawn up – You can go where you want – to China, Labrador, or the South Seas. But wherever you go, I will follow you.’
The King sat up late at Fort Belvedere, thinking over his decision. He could keep the throne – and give up Mrs Simpson; he could ignore Baldwin’s advice, ask for the Premier’s resignation, and rule with a new Cabinet, or he could abdicate.
The following morning, 10th December, at ten o’clock, King Edward VIII signed the Instrument of Abdication, renouncing for ever all claim to the throne for himself and for his descendants. His three brothers were witnesses, the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Kent, the eldest of which, Albert, then succeeded him as George VI. The established fact, however, that he lied about his personal wealth to exact a huge pay-off, making him one of the richest men in Europe, led to a bitter family split which was never healed in his lifetime, as well as a damaging quarrel with his great ally, Winston Churchill. Queen Mary, although sympathetic to her son’s emotional state, was horrified by his action. She told him later that she could not understand how, when more than a million men of the British Empire had done their duty and given their lives in the Great War, he could not have made a lesser sacrifice and given up a woman so unsuited to be the King’s wife. She felt even greater sympathy for ‘poor Bertie’, the nervous, shy, retiring brother who burst into tears when his fate was confirmed. The Queen told Baldwin that her eldest son had brought disgrace on the family in not carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the Sovereign of our great Empire.
That afternoon, Baldwin stood up in the Commons, nervously holding some papers, a message from His Majesty the King, signed by His Majesty’s own hand he told the packed House. He then handed the papers to Capt. Fitzroy, Speaker of the House, who read out the Instrument of Abdication in a quavering voice. When he had finished, Baldwin again rose, this time to be greeted by cheers, and now told his fellow MPs the whole story, speaking for a whole hour, referring only briefly to his notes. He was heard in dead silence, the silence of Gettysburg as Harold Nicolson described it. Baldwin told him afterwards that Edward…
could see nothing but that woman… He lacks religion… I told his mother so… I love that man. But he must go.
The ‘King’s Abdication Bill’ was passed the next morning because the King wishes it and so, Nicholson recorded in his diary, thus ends the reign of King Edward VIII, after just 327 days, and without a coronation. His reign was the shortest in the history of England and Wales since the disputed reign of Lady Jane Grey four centuries earlier, and the shortest in the history of the United Kingdom. After a goodbye lunch with Winston Churchill at the Fort and a farewell dinner with his family at the Royal Lodge, Edward went to the Castle. Here, introduced by Sir John Reith as His Royal Highness the Prince Edward, he finally got to deliver his broadcast to the nation in the voice of an angry man at the end of his tether, declaring:
I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.
His last words were ‘God save the King!’ In Merthyr Tydfil, the effect of his abdication speech was shattering. The people had lost someone who they thought was going to do something for them at last, so the mood was slightly different from the national response, as John Meredith commented.
After the broadcast and a final, warm farewell to his family at the Royal Lodge, Edward left Windsor just after midnight and was driven to Portsmouth, from where he left Britain as the Duke of Windsor in the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Fury. From France he was to make his way to Austria, where he would stay with Baron Eugene de Rothschild until Wallis’ divorce was made absolute at the end of April. After Fury slipped its moorings and headed out to sea in the early hours of 12 December, he spent the rest of the night drinking heavily, pacing up and down the officers’ mess in a state of high agitation as the enormity of what he had done began to dawn on him.
It was now the reign of ‘Albert the Good’, George VI, earnest, dignified, embodying sound family values. Later that same morning, George was proclaimed King by the Heralds, and at his Accession Council, the new King declared his adherence to the strict principles of constitutional government and… resolve to work before all else for the welfare of the British Commonwealth of Nations. His voice was low and clear, though punctuated with hesitations. His accession showed that cherished family values had been placed once more on their pedestal. Together with his charming wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters, the little Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, they became the first happy family to have its home in Buckingham Palace since it was built. The Victorian sage of the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, had written:
We have come to believe that it is natural to have a virtuous sovereign.
Edward’s belief that the public role of the monarch should be separated from his private life had been rejected. The monarch and the man were once more fused together, if not identical. This has remained the case for the last eighty years of the Windsor dynasty, beginning with the fifteen-year reign of George VI under the steady guidance of Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, and continuing with the reign of HM Elizabeth II. Edward’s experiments with modernity were at an end and, in future, the monarchy would be more concerned to provide continuity of tradition, with only incremental, evolutionary change.
This wholesale return to Victorian virtues, if not values, was part of a deliberate attempt of Baldwin and Chamberlain to reverse what they saw as a decline in moral standards that was afflicting the nation as a whole. It was part of a cultural counter-revolution in which a ‘very British coup’ had become an absolute necessity. How else could their steely determination to see Edward depart be explained? Baldwin had twice sacrificed veracity to what he saw as ‘the greater good’. He had deliberately misled the King both about the need for an act of Parliament to achieve a morganatic marriage, and about the position of the governments of the Dominions over the matter. Looked at with the perspective of the time, however, Baldwin’s handling of the whole transition between monarchs appeared, and still appears, masterful, and it certainly preserved him in office for a time of his own choosing, after the coronation, now to be that of George VI. Other key ‘establishment’ figures did not reveal the same statesmanlike abilities.
On Sunday 13th December, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, broadcast a sanctimonious homily in which he compared Edward to James II, fleeing into exile in darkness, and attacking him for putting his craving for personal happiness before duty and condemning his morals. He went on to state that it was…
…even more strange that he should have sought his happiness in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage, and within a social circle whose standards and ways of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of his people. Let those who belong to this circle know that today they stand rebuked by the judgement of the nation which had loved King Edward.
The directness of the Archbishop’s comments distressed the Duke of Windsor, listening to it from the Rothschild’s castle in Austria, and produced an angry response from several people who wrote to the newspapers. Letters were published in the Daily Telegraph condemning Lang’s words as unnecessary and needlessly unkind. The broadcast was criticised by the Bishop of Durham and caused a perfect storm of protest. Lang had offended the British sense of fair play by kicking a man when he was down. H. G. Wells called the sermon a libellous outburst and the primate was lampooned in a memorable verse:
My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are!
And when your man is down, how bold you are!
Of Christian duty how scant you are!
And, auld Lang swine, how full of cant you are!
Lang had revealed his hatred for Edward and the modernity he stood for. He had done nothing to reassure doubters that he had not abused his high office to force his Supreme Governor to abandon his role on the grounds of his outdated morality. He had also tactlessly referred to King George VI’s long battle to overcome his speech defect. For years Prince Albert had indeed struggled to overcome his speech defect, with the help of his therapist Lionel Logue, as recently depicted in the film The King’s Speech. Logue was among the first to send his congratulations to ‘Albert’ on 14 December:
May I be permitted to offer my very humble but most heartfelt good wishes on your accession to the throne. It is another of my dreams come true and a very pleasant one. May I be permitted to write to your Majesty in the New Year and offer my services.
As Logue complained, to draw attention to the King’s speech impediment at this stage could only make matters worse. Rather than leaving his comment on the new King by referring to the obvious fact that in manner and speech he is more quiet and reserved than his brother, Lang chose a parenthesis which he hoped would not be unhelpful. He reminded the nation, unnecessarily, of the Duke’s stammering which had been so much worse in the previous decade, and which he and Logue had succeeded in controlling, where many others had failed:
When his people listen to him they will note an occasional and momentary hesitation in his speech. But he has brought it into full control and to those who hear, it need cause no embarrassment, for it causes none to him who speaks.
Lang’s comments were picked up by the American press and Time magazine asked all three hundred Privy Councillors if the king still stuttered. On 21 December it reported that none could be found willing to be quoted as saying that His Majesty does not still stutter. Moreover, as one prominent ‘courtier’, Henson observed about Lang’s broadcast ‘homily’, there was an assumption of patronising familiarity with the new King and his family which was also offensive. On Christmas Eve, Lang sent out an urgent clerical circular imposing a period of silence. I think enough has been said on this painful matter and the time has come for reticence, he told his colleagues, fearing that they might use their Christmas sermons for further attacks. He had received a telephone call from the Palace the previous night in which Lord Wigram had told him that the King was ‘put out’ and urged ‘reticence’ on the ‘leaders of religion’.
For their part, the British newspapers certainly played their role in ensuring a smooth transition, and did not comment on the matter of the king’s speech. Instead, they greeted the resolution of the crisis with enthusiasm. Bertie may not have had the charm or charisma of his elder brother, but he was solid and reliable. He also had the benefit of a popular and beautiful wife and two young daughters, whose every move had been followed by the press since their birth. The Daily Mirror, which the week before had been doggedly supporting Edward VIII, now doted on the great little sisters whom, it said, the whole world worships. However, as Lloyd George commented from his isolated rest in Jamaica, this second king was…
…just the sort of King which suits them, (one who) will not pry into any inconvenient questions: he will always sign on the dotted line and he will always do exactly what he is told’.
Completely foreign observers were even more cynical. In the same edition in which it drew attention to the king’s continuing impediment, Time magazine commented, rather unkindly:
Neither King George nor Queen Elizabeth has lived a life in which any event could be called of public interest in the United Kingdom press and this last week was exactly as most of their subjects wished. In effect a Calvin Coolidge entered Buckingham Palace with Shirley Temple for his daughter.
Inadvertently, Lang’s comments helped fuel a whispering campaign of gossip against the new king and his fitness to rule. Several among the Duke of Windsor’s dwindling band of allies suggested ‘Bertie’ might be to weak and frail to survive the ordeal of the coronation, let alone the strains of being king. They also made sure that the idea took hold that there had been an establishment plot to remove King Edward. Certainly, all the evidence we now have, suggests that, just because Edward himself may have believed it to the point of paranoia, that did not mean that there were not those in the establishment who were ‘out to get him’, Baldwin, Chamberlain and Lang among them. Vera Brittain expressed the view of many liberal intellectuals that the whole Simpson affair had been…
…a convenient excuse for removing a monarch whose informality, dislike of ancient tradition, and determination to see things for himself had affronted the “old gang” from the beginning.
Certainly, whatever tributes Baldwin may have paid the retiring monarch from the floor of the Commons, he showed in private how relieved he was that Edward had been persuaded to depart. There was little, if any, sign of regret. Both Nicolson and Bernays recorded similar gleeful reactions from him in their exchanges with him on the corridors of the House. No quiet reflection, certainly no remorse or guilt. Most tellingly, Baldwin told Bernays that a crisis was bound to come and that it might have come on a more difficult issue. In this remark, at the time it was made, he can only be referring to one issue – that of unemployment and the distressed areas. The timing of ‘the crisis’ and the nervousness of ministers and civil servants before, during and after his visit to south Wales, is a clear sign that his intervention in social policy was what precipitated his downfall.
Though there was undoubtedly a sizeable body of opinion supporting Edward when they eventually heard of the crisis, which was unable to find its own voice, free from the machinations of politicians, there was also a strong feeling of disappointment in Edward, even a sense that he himself had betrayed them, or at least let them down at a time of great need. Nevertheless, the sense of exclusion from the process leading to the Abdication, of ‘democratic deficit’, led one young man in Lancashire to set up an organisation to gauge public opinion. Tom Harrison set up Mass Observation in December 1936, to find out and publish the views of ordinary people on the issues of social and foreign policy.
George V had started Christmas Day broadcasts from Sandringham four years earlier, and as the festive season approached, there was some speculation as to whether George VI would keep up the tradition. In the event, Alec Hardinge, acting on the advice of Lionel Logue, decided against it. The King was in a nervous state about it, due partly to the Archbishop’s recent tactless remarks, which had made him even more self-conscious and the public even more aware of his impediment. There was also a feeling at court that a period of silence from a monarchy still in disgrace would be appropriate. The royal family continued to enjoy a quiet family holiday together.
Mark Logue & Peter Conradi (2010), The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy. London: Quercus
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico
Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance. London: Murray
Andrew J Chandler (1989), ‘The Re-Making of a Working Class’ (PhD thesis, UCW Cardiff).
Andrew J Chandler (1982), ‘The Black Death on Wheels’ in Papers in Modern Welsh History. Cardiff: Modern Wales Unit.
Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Cardiff: Poetry of Wales Press.
René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles