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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in 1918 – Winter into Spring.   Leave a comment

Soldier-Poets, Philosophers,Treaties and Retreats:

We must strike at the earliest moment… before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British.

General Erich Ludendorff, November 1917.

The following letter appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 14 January 1918:


Might I suggest that you would be doing a public service if you could induce the authorities to relieve the peaceful inhabitants of the city from the diurnal shock of the One O’clock Castle Gun? At the present time it is all the more an intrusion in that there are so many convalescent soldiers within range of the concussion. Two of these from Craiglockhart, suffering from shell shock, had to be carried home from Princes Street the other day after the shot was fired. We abolish police whistles in the vicinity of hospitals, why keep up this more violent reminder of their sufferings?

I am, etc, Citizen.

Shell-shock was the common name given to a range of emotional and mental disorders suffered by troops. The symptoms included hysteria, anxiety, physical tremors, sensitivity to noise, and nightmares. Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital treated soldiers suffering from shell shock; it was where Siegfried Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and encouraged him in his writing of poetry. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon wrote or completed the poems that were to be published in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it.  Sassoon also directed his indignation against the old and the rich who were making a handsome profit out of the war and who did not share the young soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet had the effrontery to conceal their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving. In Blighters, he aims his anger at the vulgar jingoism of a music-hall show and the shallow applause of the civilian audience:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin

And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks

Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;

‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’


I’d like to see a Tanks come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes or ‘Home, sweet Home’,

And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

In certain of his poems Owen imitates Sassoon’s irony; for instance, in ‘The Dead-Beat’, he tells how a soldier suddenly drops unconscious and is taken to casualty clearing-station. The stretcher-bearers label him a ‘malingerer’, but the poem ends with Owen mockingly mimicking anyone who talks callously about another’s death:

Next day I heard the Doc’s well-whiskied laugh:

‘That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!’

Another special target for satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. Sassoon’s poem, They, satirises the Bishop who is delighted with the way in which war ennobles soldiers:

We’re none of us the same’, the boys reply.

‘For George lost both his legs, and Bill’s stone-blind;

‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die…’

In At a Calvary near the Ancre Owen also attacks the military chaplains:

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom thegentle Christ’s denied.

Owen, who as a patient at Craiglockhart had seen Sassoon’s angriest poems before they were published, is here imitating Sassoon’s mood and techniques. He also condemns the old when in The Parable of the Old Men and the Young he envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Despite their anger, both men returned to the western front to be with their men within a few months of writing these lines. The firing of ‘Mons Meg’ at Edinburgh Castle at one o’clock, an age-old tradition, was halted in April 1918 and it remained silent for over a year.




With the coming of 1918, the initiative passed to Germany. For three years every attempt to decide the issue on the western front had proved a costly failure, but in 1918 Ludendorff decided to risk his entire reserves in a final effort to break the Allied line. The collapse of Russia enabled them to put larger forces on the front than the Allies could muster. They had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the USA could send her armies; it was Germany’s purpose before that date to reach a decision in the field. It was their last chance. The submarine had failed; Britain could not be starved into submission. On the contrary, the Allied blockade was undermining the health and morale of the German people. They were weak with privations and sick with hope deferred. A little longer and their wonderful fortitude would break. With all the strength they could muster, with their new tactics to aid them, and with a desperate necessity to goad them, they undertook the last great sally, staking everything on victory. Germany’s allies were giving way under the strain of prolonged war: the Turkish armies were in retreat; the Bulgarians, having already got all they wanted, were anxious for peace; the subject peoples of the Austrian Empire naturally faced privations with less fortitude than the Germans. It was ‘now or never’; the American troops were not yet in the field, but would be very shortly.

Ludendorff’s general plan was to isolate the British Army, roll it up from its right, and drive it into the sea, or pin it down to an entrenched camp between the Somme and the Channel – a ‘Torres Vedras’ from which it would only on the signature of peace. This done, he could hold it with a few troops, swing around on the French, and put them out of action. He must, therefore, strike with all his might at the point of junction of Haig and Pétain, on the western face of the great salient, where the Allies were weakest and the ground easiest. His position on interior lines gave him the chance of surprise, for until the actual attack the Allies would not know on which side of the salient the blow was to fall. His admirable communications would enable him to obtain a great local predominance. For the first stage of the great battle, he had sixty-three divisions in line or in immediate reserve.

The Versailles Council, formed by the Entente towards the end of 1917, miscalculated both the place and the date of the attack. Haig’s Intelligence service informed him of the exact hour, but he had neither the time nor the resources to prepare an adequate defence. He held 130 miles of line, and these were the most critical in the West, with approximately the same numbers as he had had two years before when his front was only eighty miles long and Russia was still in the fold. An initial German success was almost inevitable. Nineteen divisions in line and thirteen in reserve could scarcely stand against a first attacking wave of thirty-seven divisions, which was soon to grow to sixty-three.

Meanwhile, back at home, the historian and philosopher Bertrand Russell was jailed for six months in February for writing an article criticising the US Army. His action was described by the judge as being ‘a very despicable offence’ and in contravention of the Defence of the Realm Act, as it was likely ‘to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with the USA’. Also in February, William MacCaw MP was found guilty of hoarding foodstuffs (listed below). For this contravention of the 1917 Food Hoarding Order he was fined four hundred pounds:


During the build-up of Germany’s forces on the western front, it also consolidated the territory it had gained in the east as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and actually occupied considerably more Russian territory than they were entitled to by the treaty. Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War after the Bolshevik takeover was formalised by the settlement between Lenin’s Russia and Germany and her allies on 3 March 1918 at Brest-Litovsk. The treaty, deeply unfavourable to Russia, revealed the in part the Europe Berlin hoped would be the outcome of the war. Russia lost all of its western provinces: Finland, the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine (as well as Georgia under the Treaty of Berlin of August 1918).


They took Belorussia simply to shorten their line, but in the Black Sea region, where they advanced to the lower Don and crossed from the Crimea to the Taman Peninsula, they were clearly aiming at taking over permanently. In due course, they would doubtless have imposed a third round of concessions on the Revolutionary Russian government. Bolshevik power in this area was at a very low ebb. The Don Cossacks were refusing to accept the authority of Moscow, which became the seat of government in March when Lenin decided that the Germans were getting too close to Petrograd. Anti-Bolshevik forces rallying to the white flag of General Denikin were proving more than a match for the local Bolsheviks. In Caucasia, in the far south, the Turks had occupied not only the town they had lost in 1878, which they were entitled to as a result of Brest-Litovsk but everything else that wasn’t already in the hands of their German allies.

The Romanians also badly needed some compensation. After the completion of the initial Brest-Litovsk negotiations in March, it was their turn to sign on the dotted line. When they eventually did so (in May), they lost the southern half of Dobruja to the Bulgarians and the northern half to the Germans (another area to be included in the Black Sea Province) besides having to make major frontier adjustments in favour of Austria-Hungary. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had brought the war in the east to a successful conclusion, they now had to try to do the same in the west.


They had until the summer to do so, before the Americans appeared in France in strength. For the moment, after the transfer of the eastern armies to the west, the German Army had superiority: 192 divisions facing 165 Allied divisions on the Western Front, but this would not last long. The critical blows would have to be struck during March and April, a Spring Offensive, of which ‘Operation Michael’ was the first part. It eventually became known as the Second Battle of the Somme, which continued until 5th April. It wasn’t just a case of overall numerical superiority; Ludendorff also had seventy specially trained ‘assault divisions’ facing just thirty-five similar British units on the Somme battlefront.

This most perilous stage for the British Army – and, except for the First Marne, the most perilous for the Allied cause – opened in the fog of the early morning of 21st March, when at a quarter to five four thousand German guns were released against the British front, firing more than a million shells over the following five hours, while all the back areas were drenched with gas, which hung like a pall in the moist air. When the guns crashed out and the attack went in, the British line simply disintegrated: whole battalions vanished, never to be heard of again. Reinforced with half a million troops from the Eastern Front, the German Infantry made strong breakthroughs using airpower and shock troops to bypass defensive positions in foggy conditions that hampered the defenders. By the end of the first day, twenty-one thousand prisoners were taken as the Germans overran the British positions. Lieutenant Ernst Jünger of the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment commented; We had but no doubt that the great plan would succeed. 

The narrative of the Somme retreat, however, was a tale of confused operations, improvised plans, chances, mischances, and incredible heroism. On the first day, a fifty-mile gap had opened in the Allied line, forty miles of the British line were submerged, and, in a week, forty miles off, the enemy tide was lapping the walls of Amiens. In the face of the German advance, General Carey was given the task of organising a last-ditch defensive unit to be positioned at Hamel, to protect Amiens. As well as infantry stragglers, ‘Carey’s Force’ was composed of an assorted collection of 3,500 soldiers, including kitchen staff and storemen, most of whom were not well versed in infantry tactics. ‘The Péronne Handicap’ was the name given to the ‘race’ by the 17th Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, in their bid to reach the French town before being caught by pursuing German forces. Forty-six out of the British Expeditionary Force’s fifty-six divisions took part in the battle.

Within the first week, the leading German formations had advanced forty miles, a penetration ten times better than anything the Allies had ever achieved. The attack had broken the British Fifth Army and nearly severed the British communications link with the French. German schools were closed to allow celebrations but they were premature. The advance was magnificent, but it was not enough. Allied reinforcements were rushed in while rushed in while hungry German troops slowed, gorging on appropriated food and drink. After a fortnight, the impetus had gone out of the attack and German losses were beginning to exceed Allied casualties. In their advance, the Germans had outstretched their supply lines and losses of over a quarter of a million men couldn’t be sustained, so the offensive was halted and closed down.  The Germans sent forward large Krupp cannons, capable of long-range firing, their shells able to hit Paris from a distance of seventy-five miles. The huge shells were in the air for three and a half minutes. The French capital was hit by 183 of them, which killed over 250 Parisians.


Ludendorff achieved much, but he did not achieve his main purpose. By 5th April, though, the main battle had died down, Amiens had not been taken, the front had been restored, and the French were not separated from the British. The ultimate failure was due to many factors; Ludendorff was false to the spirit of his own tactics and, instead of exploiting a weakness when he found it, wasted his strength on the steadfast bastion of Arras; half-way through he fumbled, forgot his true aim, and became a hasty improviser.

Perhaps Ludendorff sought to achieve the impossible, for his troops outmarched their supplies and their stamina, and, accustomed to short commons, lost discipline often when they found Allied stores to plunder. Yet he won a notable victory, and, to the ultimate advantage of the Allies, was encouraged to continue, for, had his blow been parried at the outset, he might have relapsed on the defensive, and thereby protracted the war. For his role in the success, commander Paul von Hindenburg was awarded the ‘Iron Cross with Golden Rays’, the highest medal of honour available. The only previous recipient was the Prussian Field Marshal von Blücher, honoured for his part in defeating Napoleon in 1815 at Waterloo.

For its part, the British Army had written a shining page in its history, for a retreat may be as glorious as an advance. By the end of March seventy-three German divisions had engaged thirty-seven British. The disparity was, in reality, far greater than two to one, owing to the German power of local concentration, in many parts of the field the numbers had been three-to-one. Added to this, after the second day, the British had no prepared lines on which to retire, and the rivers parallel to their front were useless from the drought. It was a marvel, war correspondent John Buchan noted, that our gossamer front wavered and blew in the wind but never wholly disappeared. He went on:

Again and again complete disaster was miraculously averted. Scratch forces held up storm troops; cavalry did work that no cavalry had ever done in the history of war; gunners broke every rule of the textbooks. The retreat was in flat defiance of all precedent and law, and it succeeded only because of the stubborn value of the British soldier.

The moment was too solemn for half-measures. A divided command could not defend the long, lean front of the Allies against Germany’s organised might, directed by a single brain towards a single purpose, one strong hand only must be on the helm. On 23rd March, General Haig, after seeing Pétain, telegraphed to London for the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At the request of Lloyd George, Lord Milner also crossed the Channel on the 24th, and on the 26th he and Sir Henry Wilson met Clemenceau and Poincaré, Haig, Foch and Pétain at Doullens. This conference, held amid the backwash of ‘the great retreat’, was, in a sense, the turning point of the war. The proposal for a supreme commander-in-chief, urged by Milner and supported by Clemenceau, was accepted and Pétain and welcomed by Haig, and for the post, Foch was chosen unanimously. The Allies in their extremity turned with one accord to the slight, grizzled, deep-eyed man of sixty-six, who during a life of labour had made himself into a master of warfare.

The ordeal of the Second Battle of the Somme was the source of other blessings, though some of them were somewhat mixed. The renowned Australian Corps had come under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson in early 1918. He was pleased, if bemused by the troops, as he wrote in his diary:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

The US increased its recruiting and strained every nerve to quicken the dispatch of troops, so that it might soon stand in line with the Allies. Lloyd George and Clemenceau appealed to President Wilson and their appeal was generously met. General Pershing postponed his plan of a separate American section of operations and offered Foch every man, gun and lorry which they had in Europe. France was showing that quiet and stoic resolution to win or perish which two years before had inspired her troops at Verdun. In Britain, the threat of industrial strikes disappeared and of their own accord the workers gave up their Easter holiday in order to make up by an increased output for lost guns and stores.

Nonetheless, when King George visited his armies in France in the last days of March, the situation was still on a razor’s edge. He had gone there for a week during the flood-tide of the first Battle of the Somme and again, accompanied by the Queen, on the eve of Passchendaele. Now he went to them in the throes of their sternest trial. He saw remnants of battalions which had been through the retreat, and he saw units which in a week or two were to be engaged in the no less desperate Battle of the Lys. Already his armies had lost more men in the German offensive than in the whole thirty-four week Dardanelles campaign. His appeal to his troops now was to “take counsel from the valour of their hearts”, an appeal which, two weeks later, Haig put into his own grave and memorable words.

In the meantime, divisions were being transferred from Palestine and Salonica to France and the old precautions against invasion were dropped. On 10th April, the House of Commons had passed a Bill raising the limit of the military age to fifty, and giving the Government power to abolish the ordinary exemptions. These mobilisations meant that within a month from 21st March, 355,000 extra men were sent across the Channel.


However, few of these reinforcements arrived in time to soften Ludendorff’s second blow, which came on 1st April. Originally designed as a mere diversion, Operation Georgette, it grew by its startling success into a major effort, the Battle of the Lys, and thereby further compromised his main strategy. His aim was to drive for Ypres, pushing through between La Bassée and Armentiéres and then, pressing north-west, to capture Hazelbrouck and the hills beyond Bailleul. This would, he hoped, result in a British retirement and a direct threat to Calais and Boulogne, eating up the Allied reserves. That it achieved, but it also ate up his own reserves.

Depleted British units which had been involved in the great retreat across the Somme of the previous month were now stationed on what was known as a ‘quiet sector’. Portuguese troops were also in the line here, but were under strength and lacking motivation; a third became casualties as the Germans broke through. In three days they had advanced eleven miles,  and Allied troops were moved in hastily to stem the tide. For a week or more he met stern resistance from the British, against all the odds, in what became known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres (9-29 April). Haig’s patience was sorely tried by Foch’s delay in sending help, but on 11th April, with the Allies under severe threat by the onslaught, Haig issued his famous order:

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike on the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment. 

The British front sagged and bent, but held, and by the end of April Ludendorff realised that he must try elsewhere, and called off the offensive at the end of the month. His second blow had proved yet another tactical success, but a strategic failure. He was now becoming desperate; his original strategic scheme had gone, and his remaining efforts were now in the nature of a gambler’s throw. The Fourth Battle of Ypres also became known for the first combat between two tanks, or ‘armed tortoises’ as they were first described by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell of the British Tank Corps. Three British Mark IV’s faced three German A7Vs. The British were the victors in this first historic engagement, which took place on 24 April at Villers-Bretonneux. Overall, the April attack had forced the Allies to abandon all the territory they had so dearly bought in the Passchendaele campaign and, for a while, had seriously threatened the Channel ports.



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

András Bereznay (2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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

Irene Richards (1937), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

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




























A Journalist’s Sarajevo Sojourn, December 1992 – January 1993.   1 comment

Former Yugoslavia in Crisis: Views from Beyond the Borders:

The successful conclusion to the prosecution of Ratko Mladic at the International War Crimes Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague last week (22 November 2017) has taken me back in my mind’s eye both to January 2001, when I witnessed some of the evidence being presented at the War Crimes Tribunal during a trip to the Hague, as well as to 1992, when I was on the periphery of the events themselves. In August of that year, I moved back to Hungary with my family, to the beautiful southern cathedral city of Pécs, close to the border with ‘Former Yugoslavia’, which had recently become four borders, with Slovenia in the west, Croatia and the UNPROFOR disputed territory to the south, and Serbia to the east. Pécs is just a few hundred kilometres from the Croatian border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, and yet the scenes shown on British (ITN) television and on networks around the world that August were like those shot on cine-cameras on the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau nearly half a century earlier: pictures of barbed wire and skeletal figures from the camps run by the Bosnian Serbs at Omarska and Trnopplje. As I sat outside the glass courtroom in the Hague almost a decade later, I had those unforgettable images in my mind as the commandant of one of the camps was listening to the evidence brought against him for his role in what had already been presented to the world as a second Holocaust. That ‘presentation’, of course, was erroneous from the first suggestion that the term could be applied to any events other than the original ones.

Yet, not all was as it seemed from those pictures. Somehow along the way, the reservations of the ITN team which had filmed the camps were cast aside. The ITN reporters had been careful not to make an analogy with the Nazi concentration camps, but others did in their own voice-overs and commentaries. The skeletal figures shown weren’t inside the barbed wire, for instance, but outside it. The wire was old and ran around a small enclosure, and the cameraman got behind it to shoot the scene. There was also a famine-like food shortage at that time and place, which meant that everyone in the locality was starving. The most skeletal of all the prisoners shown, Fikrit Alic, was just as thin weeks after his release. ITN’s reporting was accurate, but the pictures seemed to speak for themselves. They caused a sensation in the United States, forcing the Executive there to act.

In October 1992, the United States announced that it would contribute an additional $900,000 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to support refugees from the former Yugoslavia who were in Hungary. Many of these were Hungarian-speakers from the Vojvodina province in the disputed area between Croatia and Serbia. I remember a former English teacher from the town of Osziek who was also fluent in German, in addition to her ‘native’ languages of Hungarian and Croatian. Not qualified to teach in Hungary, she had found employment in a travel agency, where her multi-lingual abilities were put to good use in a time before people began to make their travel and accommodation arrangements online. My work involved placing and supporting teachers from the UK in various towns and villages throughout Baranya, the county surrounding and including the city of Pécs, including Harkány, Siklós and Mohács, along the southern borders. Driving between them and visiting even more remote villages, I was struck by the lack of any development in a long belt of land, due to the constant threat of conflict between Yugoslavia and the Warsaw Pact which had been one of the untold stories of the Cold War. More recently, during the brief but fierce war between the Serbs and Croats in 1991, stray mortars had landed on or near some of these villages. The most serious incident of this kind was when a bomb fell on the town of Barcs but fortunately did not explode. In total, the borderline between Hungary and the former Yugoslavia stretched over six hundred kilometres. Legislators and executive authorities, both national and local, were faced with adjusting to a significant security crisis to the south of this border at a time when they had just embarked upon a path of civilian democratic development, in which I played a modest part between 1992 and 1996. They could ill afford for the newly-independent central European states to be dragged back into another Balkan Crisis like that of a century before.

The intensity of this crisis had caught Western Europe and the United States unprepared. These regional powers were already hardly coping with the swift changes that were taking place following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, so that they were even less equipped to cope with the internal tensions and conflicts related to the creation of new nation states. A multitude of small and medium-intensity armed conflicts differing in character from the conflicts previously known emerged in Bosnia-Herzegovina from the autumn of 1990, and even more violently from July 1991. Neither the United Nations, nor the European Union, and not even the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, proved capable of coping with the crisis. There was general agreement among the Hungarian political élite, both at a national and local level, that the only real means of breaking away from a disintegrating central-eastern European region was by gaining access to the integrating West. The reunification of Germany, although not a template for the rest of central-eastern Europe, proved that the institutional anchoring of a former member of the Warsaw Pact within the NATO alliance was possible.

By the Spring of 1992, the actual warfare had shifted considerably further south of the Hungarian border, to the territories which had only recently become known as Bosnia-Herzegovina. But with the intensification of the civil conflict came an intensification of ‘western’ involvement, and of Hungary’s strategic role within it. At the end of October, with the permission of the Hungarian Government of József Antall, AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, under NATO command, began flying missions from Hungarian airspace to monitor the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Throughout this period, UNPROFOR convoys of blue-helmeted troops were a common sight on the roads through the city, headed towards the borders with humanitarian aid and supplies for the peace-keeping operation. The Hungarians quickly realised the necessity of replacing their membership of the Warsaw Pact with a collective security system based on NATO. As a country neighbouring the Balkan region, which had turned into a hotbed of crisis, Hungary was already experiencing the economic and political implications of that crisis directly, not to speak of the danger, felt to be very real at the time, of a territorial spillover of the hostilities. Neutrality was not a viable alternative for a people living in the centre of Europe, since risks existed irrespective of the independent status of their country, and by their nature, these risks did not halt at national borders. Following its own peaceful transition to independence in 1989, Hungary had begun to develop its own external relations with five neighbouring countries as one of the smallest countries in the region, but by the mid-nineties, five out of its seven neighbours had a statehood younger than its own, and Hungary had become one of the medium-size leaders in the region.

In both the regional and international contexts, second-rate journalism was bound to be commonplace. Editors wanted from their reporters what other editors were getting from theirs. The hunt was on for Nazi-style atrocities, and several reporters won major awards for revealing them, even though their sources were questioned afterwards. Atrocities certainly took place, and more were carried out by the Bosnian Serbs than by anyone else, but a climate began to be created in which it became very hard to understand what was really going on, because everything came to be seen through the filter of the Holocaust. As a result, and as the war ‘progressed’, there were stories about extermination centres and mass rape camps, as if the Bosnian Serbs were capable of a level of organisation akin to that of the Third Reich. The fact that they were believed meant that the Bosnian Crisis began to monopolise the foreign policy of the major Western powers in a manner in which the three two previous Yugoslav crises did not.

What was the Bosnian War?: A Chronology of the Conflicts:

The Bosnian War was an international armed conflict that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. The war was part of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Following the Slovenian and Croatian secessions from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, the multi-ethnic Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina – which was inhabited by mainly Muslim Bosniaks (44 percent), as well as Orthodox Serbs (32.5 percent) and Catholic Croats (17 percent) – passed a referendum for independence on 29 February 1992. This was rejected by the political representatives of the Bosnian Serbs, who had boycotted the referendum.

Following a number of violent incidents in early 1992, the war is commonly viewed as having started on 6 April 1992. However, there is still debate over the start date of the war. Clashes between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats started in late February 1992. Following Bosnia and Herzegovina’s declaration of independence (which gained international recognition), the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadžić and supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), mobilised their forces inside Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to secure ethnic Serb territory. War soon spread across the country, accompanied by ethnic cleansing.

Nevertheless, Serbs consider the Sarajevo wedding shooting, when a groom’s father was killed on the second day of the Bosnian independence referendum, 1 March 1992, to have been the first incident of the war. The Sijekovac killings of Serbs took place on 26 March and led to the Bijeljina massacre (of mostly Bosniaks) on 1–2 April. On April 5, when a huge crowd approached a barricade, a demonstrator was killed by Serb forces, and it was widely reported that full-scale hostilities had broken out by 6 April. This was the same day that the United States and the European Community (EC)  recognised Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although BBC correspondent Misha Glenny gives a date of 22 March as the starting point, Philip Hammond, then a junior minister at the Foreign Office and currently the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, claims that the most common view is that the war started on 6 April 1992. It ended on 14 December 1995.

The main belligerents were the forces of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and those of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska and Herzeg-Bosnia, which were led and supplied by Serbia and Croatia, respectively. The conflict was initially between the Yugoslav Army units in Bosnia which later transformed into the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) on the one side, and the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) which was largely composed of Bosniaks, and the Croat forces in the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) on the other side. However, tensions between Croats and Bosniaks increased throughout late 1992 and in 1993 the war evolved into a three-cornered conflict between the three armies.

Ethnic map of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991
  Bosniaks (Green)   Serbs (Blue)   Croats (Gold)

From the very beginning, it was accompanied by war crimes against civilians and acts of ethnic cleansing on all sides, which became, on the Serbian side, an attempted genocide against ethnic Bosniak populations, as demonstrated in the trials at the International War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia at the Hague. However, the first atrocity following the outbreak of war occurred when, on 21 June 1992, Bosniak forces entered the Bosnian Serb village of Ratkovići near Srebrenica and murdered 24 Serb civilians.

In the same month, UNPROFOR, originally deployed in Croatia, had its mandate extended into Bosnia and Herzegovina, initially to protect the Sarajevo International Airport. In September, its role was expanded still further in order to protect humanitarian aid and assist relief delivery in the whole Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as to help protect civilian refugees when required to do so by the Red Cross.

On 4 August 1992, the IV Knight Motorised Brigade of the ARBiH attempted to break through the circle surrounding Sarajevo, and a fierce battle ensued between the ARBiH and the VRS in and around the damaged FAMOS factory in the suburb of Hrasnica. The VRS repelled the attack but failed to take Hrasnica in a decisive counterattack. On 12 August 1992, the name of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was changed to Republika Srpska (RS).

By November 1992, 400 square miles of eastern Bosnia was under Bosniak control. On 21 July 1992, the Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation had been signed by Tuđman, the Croat President, and Izetbegović, for the Bosniaks, establishing a military cooperation between the two armies. At a session held on 6 August, the Bosnian Presidency had accepted HVO as an integral part of the Bosnian armed forces. Despite this, the Croat–Bosniak alliance was often far from harmonious. The existence of two parallel commands caused problems in coordinating the two armies against the VRS.  Tensions steadily increased throughout the 2nd half of 1992 and on 18 October, a dispute over a gas station near Novi Travnik that was shared by both armies escalated into an armed conflict in the town centre. The situation worsened after HVO Commander Ivica Stojak was killed near Travnik on 20 October. On the same day, fighting escalated on an ARBiH roadblock set on the main road through the Lašva Valley. Spontaneous clashes spread throughout the region, resulting in almost fifty casualties until a ceasefire was negotiated by the UNPROFOR on 21 October. However, on 23 October, a major battle between the ARBiH and the HVO started in the town of Prozor in northern Herzegovina and resulted in an HVO victory.

The Serbian forces were not slow in taking advantage of these divisions. On 29 October, the VRS captured Jajce although the town had been jointly defended by the HVO and the ARBiH. The lack of cooperation between the ‘allied’ forces, combined with an advantage in troop size and firepower for the VRS, led to the fall of the town. Croat refugees from Jajce fled to Herzegovina and Croatia, while around 20,000 Bosniak refugees settled in Travnik, Novi Travnik, Vitez, Busovača, and villages near Zenica. Despite the October confrontations, and with each side blaming the other for the fall of Jajce, there were no large-scale clashes and a general military alliance was still in effect. Tuđman and Izetbegović met in Zagreb on 1 November 1992 and agreed to establish a Joint Command of HVO and ARBiH.

Bosnian war

Above: The executive council building burns after being hit by artillery fire in Sarajevo May 1992; Ratko Mladić with Army of Republika Srpska officers; a Norwegian UN soldier in Sarajevo.

Who killed Sarajevo?:

John Simpson, BBC correspondent and (in 1992) a journalist at The Spectator magazine, first went to Bosnia in December 1992. On arrival in Sarajevo, he decided he would use an approach to reporting which had served him well in the past: the night walk. He had taken long walks after dark in Tehran, Baghdad and other weird places, writing about them for the Guardian. Why not, then, in Sarajevo? Despite much advice to the contrary. he decided to walk back to the Holiday Inn where he was staying from the television station from where they sent their material by satellite. As he walked, he began to think that he should have accepted his colleague’s advice:

I was in a world of utter darkness, loneliness and cold, and it was clear to me directly the glass door of the shattered building swung laxily closed behind me that I had made a terrible mistake. There was no sound except for the grumbling of artillery on Mount Igman and Zuc Hill, a few miles away, and no light except for the occasional distant magnesium flares, which gave a blueish tinge to the skyline, like the fingernails of a corpse. The besieged city was dead, and sprawled around me abandoned. Not a window glowed in the huge blocks of flats which lay along the line of the main avenue. No street lamp was left standing. The snow itself barely glimmered in the darkness.

Simpson’s colleagues had headed off in their armoured vehicle, having failed to persuade him to go with them. He made his way down the front steps of the television station. It had taken a lot of hits, and every step was difficult. He made his way gingerly to the main street, which he had only seen from the safety of the vehicle before. Under Tito this had been named The Boulevard of ‘something empty and pompous’, but it had been renamed Sniper Alley since the beginning of the war.  Every intersection along its course was dangerous and in the daytime, those who couldn’t avoid crossing did the nervous, stuttering dash for which the journalists also had a name: the Sarajevo shuffle. The snipers were holed up in buildings which lay a hundred yards or so back from the southern side of the road, the right-hand side, as he walked in the direction of the Holiday Inn:

Within thirty seconds the cold had worked its way through my protective clothing. Protective in a double sense. I had put on the whole armour of Messrs Tetranike, complete with the latest ceramic plates to the chest and the back. It bound my ribs and stomach like a Victorian corset. Usually I hated it. Not now; it gave me warmth and the feeling that even if something struck me I might live. I especially didn’t want to die in this loneliness and dark.

Later in his sojourn, he got into trouble with the BBC when he told them he had given up wearing his flak-jacket. He was embarrassed to walk among the people in the streets who had no such protection against the shells and snipers’ bullets. Kalashnikov rifles were trained on every crossing along the road. Cars raced across the intersections as bullets cracked, but the echoes from the vast, smashed, empty buildings of Tito’s dream deflected the sound so that it was impossible to tell the direction of the firing. The buildings weren’t entirely empty as some had windows left in them. lit by candles and the sounds of the last inhabitants coming from within:

Who killed Sarajevo? I mused as I left the little flicker of life behind me.

Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Serbia, whose ambitious, angry nationalism had broken up the Yugoslav Federation in 1991 and led to three ferocious wars of liberation, complete with the horrors of ethnic cleansing?

Radavan Karadzic, the ludicrous Bosnian Serb leader, with his mane of greying hair and the psychiatrist’s diploma on his office wall?

Ratko Mladic, the psychopath who could have been his patient but was his military commander instead, playing him off against Milosevic?

The predominantly Muslim government of Bosnia, decent enough in its way, which had insisted on holding a referendum on independence and had given the Bosnian Serbs the excuse they needed to attack?

Tito, who had bottled up the vicious nationalistic passions of a century and insisted that nothing but Yugoslavism existed? The Germans, who unwisely recognised the independence of their friends the Croats and so helped to spark off the fighting?

Britain and France, united only in their determination to avoid getting involved in a shooting war? The United States, which liked to criticise everyone else but refused to stir from its own sloth?

It doesn’t really matter, I thought, as I headed towards the first sniper intersection; but people in a state of advanced despair need someone to blame, and most of the candidates were too vague or too distant to qualify. Only the United Nations, driving round the streets in the daytime in its large white vehicles, was on hand for everyone to see and revile. 

On reaching the pavement on the other side of the road and came to a line of burned and looted shops, there was a crack from a high-velocity rifle nearby. Something slammed into the concrete above his head and, as he ran along, bent double, there was another crack even closer to him. He sprawled on the pavement. After a while without hearing more shots, he got up and began walking again. There was the distant sound of artillery and an upward rush of rockets from a mile away. In a minute or so, he was alongside the white wall which marked the museum dedicated to Tito’s socialist revolution. The building was burnt out and empty. The Holiday Inn was just ahead of him.

A Tale of Two Christmases and two Cities under Siege:

John Simpson spent a lot of time in Sarajevo during the war, but Martin Bell had established himself as the resident BBC correspondent in the former Yugoslavia. So Simpson had spent much of his time up to Advent and Christmas 1992 doing other things while the series of ugly little wars had erupted. He had always enjoyed working over Christmas and New Year. The audience for the news bulletins was huge between watching the Queen, Christmas pudding and the family blockbuster shows and dramas. On Christmas morning, 25th, his crew drove into Sarajevo in a fleet of aid lorries manned by volunteers, unemployed drivers from his own home county of Suffolk. It was a terrible drive through smashed tanks, wrecked cars, burned and ruined houses. It wasn’t the most damaged city he had seen, but it was the most miserable. The lorries, probably the same ones I had seen in convoys leaving southern Hungary, were bringing flour to the last bakery operating in Sarajevo, though what the bakers needed most of all was fuel for their ovens. They filmed the last loaf coming off the conveyor belt, and then the bakery closing down.

The Holiday Inn, the only hotel left operating, was a hideous construction of concrete and yellow plastic facing, standing at the end of the motorway leading to the older part of the city. It had been hit many times by shells and mortars, and the upper floors were closed, as were the rooms at the front. They looked out on a Jewish cemetery a few hundred yards away on the opposite hillside, marking the Bosnian Serb front line. They parked their armoured Land Rover, brought in by the BBC, behind the hotel, and worked their way nervously around the outside of the building. The big plate-glass windows on the ground floor had been smashed and replaced with thin clear plastic sheets. Inside, the hotel was dark and very cold. It had been in an ‘atrium’ style, with a large, open space, bigger than the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

The reception staff huddled together in a small room, around a stove which ran on bottled gas, wearing overcoats and gloves. Simpson and his crew were given rooms on the fourth floor. His crew consisted of a producer, a sound recordist and a huge South African cameraman. They were not made to feel particularly welcome by those already resident on the floors below. These included Christiane Amanpour from CNN and John Burns from the New York Times, but the rest were mostly young ‘daredevils’ who had arrived there early on in the war, attracted by the danger and hired by better-known news organisations who couldn’t get more famous reporters to go there. The temperature inside their rooms was indistinguishable from that outside which, within a day or so of their arrival, had dropped to minus nineteen degrees centigrade. The windows had long since been blown in, so there was nothing between the curtains and the outside world except for a single thin sheet of clear plastic. There was no electricity and no water. Simpson describes the lengths he had to go to in order to take a bath after three weeks, and how for days he would wear the same things, day and night, only removing his boots to get into his sleeping bag. He describes the night of the first winter snowfall on 27 December:

The city lost what little colour it still had. A sky as grey as a dirty handkerchief hung over the patchy white of fields and parks from which the trees had long been stripped for firewood. The misery grew much worse. Thanks to the United Nations, no one was starving. No one, that is, that you hears about. Anything could be happening behind the broken windows and tattered curtains in the darkness of thousand blocks of socialistic blocks and Austro-Hungarian stuccoed buildings. 

Life for most people in Sarajevo was so dreadful it was hard to understand how they could remain law-abiding and relatively decent to one another. A university professor I knew kept himself and his wife alive by burning his books… he offered some to a neighbour… Yet in this Hobbesian existence people didn’t savage each other for scraps of food, they behaved as if there were still rules which had to be obeyed. They presented themselves at distribution centres where the UN food was parcelled out, and accepted their inadequate ration without complaint; even though the Bosnian government bureaucrats skimmed off large quantities for their own families’ use.

For most people, the worst thing was not so much the privation as the risk of sudden death. The city was running out of space for graves faster than it was running out of everything else. One young man told them to stop filming a line of shivering people queuing at one of the few water-pumps in the old city centre, outside a disused brewery. He believed that the Bosnian Serbs would watch their pictures and know where to aim in order to cause maximum casualties. It was difficult for people to come to terms with the idea that the violence had no pattern to it, that it was utterly random. A peasant woman in her late forties could only carry a couple of small orange-juice containers the two miles back to her home. Her heart was bad, she explained. Her husband was dead, her mother had died of her wounds after being shot by a sniper.

On that morning of the first snow, the BBC crew went to an old people’s home not far from the airport. The building lay on the Serbs’ front line. It was extremely difficult to get there along a narrow lane blocked off with wooden screens which hid them from the Bosnian government snipers. A Serbian tank was parked in the hedgerow, its gun pointing at positions only two hundred yards away. The home had once cared for two hundred and fifty patients, most of them from the Yugoslav haute bourgeoisie. It had had a staff of a hundred doctors, nurses and domestics. There were bullet holes in nearly all the windows, and large portions of the building had been rendered uninhabitable by shell-fire. A UN armoured car stood outside, and a couple of French soldiers were chopping wood next to it. There were still a hundred and twenty old people in the home, although over the previous four nights eight of them had died of cold, and only six staff remained to look after them. One of them was a Serb woman, jolly and hard-working. She and her bird-like Muslim colleague were overwhelmed by their task of caring for the incontinent, bed-ridden patients. They could only heat one room per floor, and everyone who could walk there huddled inside. The rest stayed in bed, slowly dying.

One of these patients, a ninety-four-year-old man, declared proudly that he had been born in Sarajevo, where he had lived all his life, and that he would now die there. Simpson reflected that he would have been sixteen at the time of the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914. The wars that Gavrilo Princip’s action had precipitated had killed at least a hundred thousand lives in one way or another, and had led directly to the ascendancy of Marxism-Leninism and Nazism as dominant ideologies. Even this nasty little siege in the same city was a distant ripple of the shots fired by Princip; an old man who remembered the moment was waiting to die of cold and exposure as a result. Outside, the French soldiers had left in their APC, and an old man in his late seventies was finishing the job of chopping wood they had left. Simpson interviewed him:

Transcript of report on 9.40 news, 27.12.92

JS: Without his efforts, there will be no heating for the old people’s home for the rest of today and tonight.

Old man: I like to do it. I’m the only one left here who can do it now. They need me.



The bullet entered his head exactly between the eyes; a copybook killing. There can have been no mistake about it, no thought that he might have been a Serb soldier.

The longer John Simpson spent in Sarajevo, the more he decided that the proper distinction was not between constitutional rights and wrongs, nor between taking pro-Bosnian and pro-Serb positions, western journalists instinctively and invariably taking the former. The real distinction was between the powerful and the powerless. He was shocked to discover, for example, that the reason Sarajevo had neither water nor electricity was that the Bosnian government wouldn’t allow the UN to repair the electricity sub-stations just outside the city. There were various legitimate tactical reasons behind this, not least that the repaired sub-stations would also supply power to a Bosnian Serb weapons factory. But there was more to it than that, Simpson commented. The Bosnian government, lacking the military strength of the Serbs, regarded international opinion as their chief weapon. The more the Western press based in the Holiday Inn reported on the savage horrors of the siege, the more likely it was that the British, French and Americans would intervene on their side. It was not, therefore, in the interests of President Alija Izetbegovic and his government to ease the suffering of their fellow citizens. Those sufferings, on the contrary, might just be the key to victory.

Much of the reporting from Sarajevo was one-sided, so much so that even the UN forces were regarded as an enemy. The UN’s announcements about the obstructiveness of the Bosnian government was hardly reported in the Western press, and neither was the discovery by UN troops of a group of Serb prisoners who had been held by Bosnian government forces in a large sewage pipe for several weeks, fed once a day by food thrown into them in the darkness and the excrement. Worse atrocities were carried out by Serbs against Muslims, but they were all faithfully reported. On the other hand, when Simpson tried to report the crimes committed by the other side, he was labelled as being pro-Serb:

In fact I was very far from being pro-Serb. It was perfectly clear to me that it was the Bosnian Serbs, with the support of their puppet-master Slobadon Milosovic… who were guilty of the war crimes we saw enacted in front of us. The Bosnian Serbs were undoubtedly the aggressors, and the Bosnian government and its people were equally unquestionably the victims: unprepared for war, peaceable, non-sectarian.

Although the government became increasingly Muslim, and sometimes fiercely so, it still had the support of Croats and Serbs who lived in the city. There were no witch-hunts. Simpson knew of the case of an elderly Serb woman who was taken in by a Muslim family because she had nowhere else to live. She would sometimes get a phone-call from her son after a shelling episode, checking that she was all right. He was manning one of the guns on the mountainside which was firing the shells. The old woman’s Muslim hosts never blamed her for the shelling.

John Simpson reported on the former Yugoslavia for the next three years, but didn’t enjoy it. As he put it,

… I didn’t like the place at all. There was too much extremism, too much hatred, too much cruelty. I liked many individuals, but found each of the population groups – Serbs, Croats and Muslims – equally unattractive. The Serbs, overall, were the least lovable, but I found the international media’s demonization of them outrageous. It was an enormous relief to read the words of my friend and colleague, Nick Gowing of BBC World:

“Some of the strongly anti-Serb reporting in Bosnia is the secret shame of journalism. There is a cancer now which is affecting journalism: it is the unspoken issue of partiality and bias in foreign reporting.”

I am not alone, I thought, when I read that.

There were no good guys. The abandonment of the Muslims of Srbrenica to the murderous General Mladic by the Dutch contingent of the UN was one of the most shameful incidents of my lifetime. 

Simpson was also critical of the other UN contingents, including the Ukrainians, the Egyptians, the French and the Americans. Each had their own agenda and though the British were by far the best soldiers, they played as minimal a part as they could, he thought. The UN allowed the Serbians to maintain their checkpoint on the road to the airport, even though, according to the agreement between them, the Serbs had no right to be there. It was this checkpoint which had caused the city to run out of drinking water in the summer of 1992, because the Serbs wouldn’t allow the UN to bring through oil for the pumping station. This had created a sense of fear among the populace, which was worse than the cold and hunger. This was a sense of fear about not having enough to drink, as their mouths cracked with dryness, and everybody smelled bad because they wanted to conserve what little water they could get for drinking rather than washing. Yet the UN allowed the checkpoint to continue, because if the Serbs were antagonised it would be harder than ever to bring food and medicines into the city. This demonstrated to all, including the Serbs, the weakness of the UN deployment in Sarajevo. The UN also policed the siege in other ways for the Serbs, stopping people from leaving the city, forcibly turning back those they caught trying to escape and preventing private individuals from bringing in food supplies. If only the UN had had the guns to fire a couple of tank rounds here on the day the Serbs had set up the point, how much easier things would have been for the people of Sarajevo, Simpson reflected, as they picked up speed in their UN vehicle towards the airport, looking forward to a UN flight to Croatia or Italy, to real food and even hot water.

On 7 January 1993, Orthodox Christmas Day, 8th Operational Unit of the ARBiH, based in the besieged city of Srebrenica under the command of Naser Orić, attacked the village of Kravica near Bratunac. Altogether, forty-six Serbs died in the attack: thirty-five soldiers and eleven civilians. The attack on a holiday was intentional, as the Serbs were unprepared. The Bosniak forces used the Srebrenica safe zone (where no military was allowed) to carry out attacks on Serb villages including Kravica, and then flee back into the safe zone before the VRS could catch them. In total, 119 Serb civilians and 424 Serb soldiers died in Bratunac during the war. Republika Srpska claimed that the ARBiH forces torched Serb homes and massacred civilians. However, this could not be independently verified during the ICTY trials, which concluded that many homes were already previously destroyed and that the siege of Srebrenica had caused extreme hunger, forcing Bosniaks to attack nearby Serb villages to acquire food and weapons to survive.

What are they doing to my lovely Sarajevo?

The following morning, 8 January, the BBC crew headed off to see the man who was primarily responsible for causing so much misery. The Bosnian Serbs’ headquarters was a small skiing village on the outskirts of Sarajevo, where the winter Olympics had been held a few years earlier. Pale had been one of the main centres in this, and various identikit hotels had been built there in a style that was half Titoesque and half Alpine. Simpson was greeted by a question from a dark, fierce-featured young woman: What are they doing to my lovely Sarajevo? She was the daughter of Radovan Karadzic, but Simpson replied unabashedly: When you say “they”, who exactly do you mean?  She replied that she meant the Muslims, of course, whom she then claimed were always shelling their own people. Her father entered the room: a big man with hair like a badger and fingers badly gnawed from nervousness. His military commander, Ratko Mladic, seemed by contrast to be a monster of ferocity and anger; a strong, stocky little man with a thick neck. Simpson had once seen him grab a Sky News correspondent round the throat, forcing him up on tiptoe.

Simpson assumed that Karadzic managed to live with himself by blocking off the reality of what he was doing. Like his daughter, he regarded everything as the fault of the other side. If the Muslims hadn’t done this or that, his forces wouldn’t have been obliged to respond:

Transcript of interview with Dr Radovan Karadzic, 8.1.93.

JS: Conditions to Sarajevo are increasingly bad now. Why do you treat innocent civilians as the legitimate targets of war?

RK: But we don’t, you understand. Our Serbian communities inside and outside the city are under constant attack by the Muslims, and we have to  defend them. That is what we are doing.

JS: But how is firing mortars and sniping and cutting  off their food and fuel and water supplies defending the Serbs?

RK: We have to respond to their attacks. Our people are dying and being injured every day, and the international community does nothing to help them. We have to help ourselves. 

JS: And what about the Serbs who live in Sarajevo and support the government  there?

RK: They are not acting as true Serbs.

JS: So they become legitimate targets too?

RK: If the Muslims attack us, we must defend ourselves.


The argument went on in this circular fashion for some time. Outside, Simpson bumped into Karadzic’s deputy, Nikola Koljevic, who had been a Shakespearean scholar at Sarajevo University. Quotations from the bard peppered his conversation, though Simpson felt that they were perhaps somewhat misquoted:

Interview with Nikola Koljevic, 8.1.93:

NK: We are surrounded by enemies, and it is necessary for us to keep our own counsel. As your great national poet William Shakespeare says in his tragedy of Macbeth, ‘love, obedience and honour  and groups of friends, we cannot expect to have.’   

Simpson found it impossible to understand how someone who had spent his life studying the works of the most humane writer who ever lived could support so inhumane a cause. People said it was because his son had been killed, apparently by Muslims; until that time he had been a gentle enough academic, but his character had been changed by the incident. Yet even as he mouthed the verbal defences of the Bosnian Serbs about their being the innocent victims of Muslim aggression, something else seemed to be working away inside him. Eventually, when the siege of Sarajevo was in its final stages, he shot himself.

One morning in mid-January, as they were driving through Sarajevo, Simpson started talking to Vera Kordic, their fixer and translator, about ways of showing the misery of ordinary people in the siege. Why don’t we just ask any of these? she said, pointing at the lines of harassed women queuing for water. But the journalist felt that they needed to be inside someone’s house, to see how they lived from day-to-day. They walked along a street and eventually found a small doorway with a dark little window on either side of it: a miserable, humble place. They knocked at the door, and an old woman clutching her worn dressing-gown eventually came to the door and agreed to let them in. She lived in a single room, cold, but with the fug of living and cooking filling the place. A candle burnt by her bedside. She spent most of her day in bed, keeping herself warm and using up fewer calories. The food she was given by the UN was just enough to keep her going. She had a small stove and a covered bucket as a lavatory. There was no water: she had to queue up for that, if her neighbour couldn’t spare any. A few keepsakes decorated her place, including a little tapestry of a young girl hung on the wall. She was sallow and not very clean, with greasy grey hair. Most people in Sarajevo lived without washing: water was too valuable to waste, and soap non-existent. In the background, shells landed from time to time, and there was the regular crack of a sniper’s rifle. The old woman flinched in fear every time there was an explosion, which shook the whole place and caused a little dust to drift down from the ceiling. She was ashamed of the way she lived, and that they should see it, but Vera persuaded her that this was the only way people outside Sarajevo could understand what it was like to live there. By the time they started to interview her about her life, her story poured out of her:

Transcript of interview with woman in Sarajevo, 14.1.93:

I was a nurse in a hospital, a trained nurse. I wasn’t always poor like you see me now. I had people under me. But I am alone in the world, you see. My neighbours, they were Muslims, were very good to me even though I am Serbian. ‘We must help each other’ they said, and they helped me. But now they don’t. Maybe they are dead. I don’t know. So many people have died here.

(sound of shell explosion, not far away).

I am so frightened when I hear these noises. I don’t know what to do. I am old, you see, and completely alone. No one cares about me. I have no family, no husband, no children. I am alone in the world. And I am very frightened. 

Simpson’s crew gave her money, medicine and food. She wept again, and gave them a few little keepsakes from her life before the siege. Every time they went back to Sarajevo after that they would take things to her, and see how she was. It may have made her feel better, but the real effect was on them. To do anything for anyone amid this horror made them feel a little better, and a little less guilty that they could get out of Sarajevo at any time they wanted, leaving the victims of the siege to the mercy of the snipers, shells and shortages.

War Crimes and Punishment of the Perpetrators:                                                   

Above: Ratko Mladic, former Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republika Srpska.

The reporting of eye-witness journalists from Sarajevo and elsewhere provide historians with valuable primary sources about the nature of the Bosnian War.  It may take some time before historians to be able to form balanced views, since even at a distance of twenty-five years, the same distance as between the outbreak of the first and second world wars, the level of propaganda surrounding the events is still creating ripple effects, especially in deciding on responsibility for the atrocities which took place on all sides of the ethnic triangle. The ICTY in the Hague has finally ended with the dramatic self-poisoning of one of the accused in the courtroom itself.

On the Serbian side, in addition to the well-publicised case of the former President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, in 2006, Radovan Karadzic was held on trial and was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2016 for crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide. Ratko Mladić was also tried by the ICTY, charged with crimes in connection with the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre. Mladić was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment by The Hague in November 2017.

Alija Izetbegović during his visit to the United States in 1997.

After the death of Alija Izetbegović, The Hague revealed that he was under investigation for war crimes; however, the prosecutor did not find sufficient evidence in Izetbegović’s lifetime to issue an indictment. Other Bosniaks who were convicted of or are under trial for war crimes include Rasim Delić, chief of staff of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who was sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment on 15 September 2008 for his failure to prevent the Bosnian mujahideen members of the Bosnian army from committing crimes against captured civilians and enemy combatants (murder, rape, torture). Enver Hadžihasanović, a general of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was sentenced to 3.5 years for authority over acts of murder and wanton destruction in Central Bosnia. Hazim Delić was the Bosniak Deputy Commander of the Čelebići prison camp, which detained Serb civilians. He was sentenced to 18 years by the ICTY Appeals Chamber on 8 April 2003 for murder and torture of the prisoners and for raping two Serbian women. Bosnian commander Sefer Halilović was charged with one count of violation of the laws and customs of war on the basis of superior criminal responsibility of the incidents during Operation Neretva ’93 and found not guilty. In 2006, Naser Orić, commander of the Bosnian government troops near Srebrenica on 8 January 1993, was found on the charges of not preventing the murder of Serbs, but was subsequently acquitted of all charges on appeal.

Dario Kordić, the political leader of Croats in Central Bosnia, was convicted of the crimes against humanity in Central Bosnia i.e. ethnic cleansing and sentenced to 25 years in prison. On 29 May 2013, in a first instance verdict, the ICTY sentenced Prlić to 25 years in prison. The tribunal also convicted five other wartime leaders of the joint trial: defence minister of Herzeg-Bosnia Bruno Stojić (20 years), military officers Slobodan Praljak (20 years) and Milivoj Petković (20 years), military police commander Valentin Ćorić (20 years), and head of prisoner exchanges and detention facilities Berislav Pušić (10 years). The Chamber ruled, by a majority, with the presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti dissenting, that they took part in a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) against the non-Croat population of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that the JCE included the Croatian President Franjo Tuđman, Defence Minister Gojko Šušak, and General Janko Bobetko. However, on 19 July 2016, the Appeals Chamber in the case announced that the Trial Chamber made no explicit findings concerning [Tudjman’s, Šušak’s and Bobetko’s] participation in the JCE and did not find them guilty of any crimes.  It was left to the lesser military staff to take responsibility for the Croat war crimes. A final chapter in these cases was reached as I was writing this, on 29 November 2017, when Slobodan Praljak killed himself by taking poison in Court, having had his appeal against his twenty-year sentence rejected. His last words were, I am no war criminal.

Not surprisingly then, the Bosnian Serbs, and to some extent the Bosnian Croats have accused both the UN authorities on the ground, and the ICTY of practising selective justice by actively prosecuting Serbs (and Croats) while ignoring or downplaying Bosniak war crimes. When is a war crime ethnic cleansing? When is it genocide? When is it not a war crime? The Bosnian War posed all three questions and subsequently, at least seemingly, answered them.

Main Sources:

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

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

Major’s Soap-Box: The Spring 1992 General Election Campaign.   Leave a comment

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.’

‘Eff off.’

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). 

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


Dancing with the Devil Himself:

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

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


Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

A significant birthday:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

In hiding…


Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957

Tom continues the family’s story:

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Secondary Source:

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

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


1966-1989: Kádár and the Counter-revolutionaries: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hungary back under the heel: 1957-1968 (and beyond).   Leave a comment

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)

Perpetual Persecution…

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…

002 (3)

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.

The Land of Might-Have-Been: Chapter One, part seven.   1 comment


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

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