Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

A Hundred Years Ago: The British Empire in 1917.   Leave a comment

Jan Smuts 1947.jpg

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), pictured above, was a South African statesman and member of the British Imperial War Cabinet from 1917 to 1919. In June 1917, as a colonial prime minister, he joined the ‘new imperialists’ – Curzon, Milner and Balfour – in the cabinet, giving his view of the development of the British Empire and Commonwealth as he saw it:

The British Empire is much more than a State. I think the very expression ‘Empire’ is misleading, because it makes people think as if we are one single entity, one unity, to which the term ‘Empire’ can be applied. We are not an Empire. Germany is an Empire, so was Rome, and so is India, but we are a system of nations far greater than any empire which has ever existed; and by using this ancient expression we really obscure the real fact that we are larger and that our whole position is different, and that we are not one nation, or state, or empire, but we are a whole world by ourselves, consisting of many nations and states, and all sorts of communities under one flag…

I think that this is the fundamental fact which we have to bear in mind – that the British Empire, or this British Commonwealth of Nations, does not stand for unity, standardisation, or assimilation, or denationalisation; but it stands for a fuller, a richer, and more various a life among all the nations that compose it. And even nations who have fought against you, like my own, must feel that they and their interests are as safe and as secure under the British flag as those of the children of your household and your own blood. It is only in proportion as that is realised that you will fulfil the true mission that you have undertaken. Therefore, it seems, speaking my own individual opinion, that there is only one solution, that is the solution supplied by our past traditions of freedom, self-government and the fullest development. We are not going to force common Governments, federal or otherwise, but we are going to extend liberty, freedom and nationhood more and more in every part of the Empire.

T E Lawrence was one of those who took Smuts’ vision of Empire at face value. He became closely identified with this new strategy of ‘extending liberty’ by inciting an Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, under the leadership of the Sharif of Mecca, Husain Ibn Ali. Lawrence was an Oxford historian turned undercover agent, an archaeologist, a linguist, a skilled cartographer and an intuitive guerrilla fighter, as well as a masochist who yearned for fame, only to spurn it when it came. He was the illegitimate son of an Irish baronet and his nanny; a flamboyant Orientalist who delighted in wearing Arab dress. His affinity with the Arabs was to prove invaluable. His aim was to break the Ottoman Empire from within, by stirring up Arab nationalism into a new and potent force that he believed could trump the German-sponsored jihad against the British Empire. Turkish rule over the deserts of Arabia had been resented for centuries and sporadically challenged by the nomadic tribes of the region. By adopting their language and dress, Lawrence set out to turn their discontent to British advantage. As liaison officer to Husain’s son Faisal from July 1916, he argued strongly against deploying British troops in the Hejaz. The Arabs had to feel they were fighting for their own freedom, Lawrence argued, not for the privilege of being ruled by the British instead of the Turks. His ambition, he wrote, was…

…that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony. Arabs react against you if you try to drive them, and they are as tenacious as Jews, but you can lead them without force anywhere, if nominally arm-in-arm. The future of Mesopotamia is so immense that if it is cordially ours we can swing the whole Middle East with it.

It worked. With Lawrence’s support, the Arabs waged a highly effective guerrilla war against Turkish communications along the Hejaz railway from Medina to Aqaba. By the autumn of 1917 they were probing Turkish defences in Syria as General Edmond Allenby’s army marched from Sinai towards Jerusalem. The Arab revolt helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields for the duration of the war. But this did not solve Britain’s long-term problem of how to safeguard her middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem connected with it, of how to avoid quarrelling with her friends over it. To settle these problems she had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. When it was revealed to the world after April 1917, following the entry of the USA into the war, Sykes-Picot was on the face of it a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperialistic plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it to the Arabs, who got to know of it from the Russian Bolsheviks later that year. T E Lawrence claimed that it was evident to him that Britain’s promises would amount to nothing, and confessed that he himself had been party to deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that the Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.

Writing in 1954, Lord Vansittart claimed that Lawrence’s Arab army was overrated, and that it had raced rather than fought its way to Damascus. He had believed that the Arabs occupied the city first, but later found out that it was the Australians who bore the brunt of the siege.  Of Lawrence himself, he wrote that…

He felt too big for the pumps in which he entered my office, boasting of having torn off his British decorations… Lawrence was one of the people I was glad to have known and not to have known better. He was an acquaintance, not a friend, a relative so distant that we never mentioned the subject… He wanted to go far with him, seeming to think that I could ‘do something about’ the kingdom terrestrial yet not of this world, on which he had set his public heart.

In June 1917, there were six ‘young imperialists’ in the wartime cabinet, including Leopold Amery and Mark Sykes, who were there to advise on eastern and middle eastern affairs. Harold Nicolson was seconded to work with Sykes. John Buchan was deputy director of a new Information Ministry created to brief ministers. It was a remarkable resurrection of a school of imperialism which had been thought to be dead and buried for years, spurned by successive electorates since 1906. In ordinary times it would have remained mouldering under the ground, but the extraordinary circumstances of war had acted like an earthquake, throwing up the coffin and breaking it open. As Bernard Porter has put it, Joseph Chamberlain walked the earth again. Leopold Amery’s first and foremost war aim was the immediate security and, still more, freedom for the development and expansion of the British Commonwealth in the world outside Europe. A Cabinet Committee on Territorial Desiderata chaired by Curzon in 1917 recommended that this expansion be concentrated in east Africa and the lands between Egypt and India. It was clear what these new imperialists had in mind, if they were still in control of government when the war was over.

The Great War was a total war, and, for its duration, it stretched the Empire’s resources to the limit. When peace eventually came, she would be much less able to hold the empire by force: even now she could ill afford to keep tied up in the colonies troops which were badly needed in Europe, or to count on reinforcing them in an emergency. In India, for example, the number of British troops numbered only 15,000, which was 23,000 fewer than on the eve of the mutiny, sixty years earlier. The perils of the situation were clear, and could only be met by compromising with any insurgency or emergency which might arise. Given the somewhat feigned antipathy of the USA for being harnessed to imperialists after April 1917, concession was a means by which the British could retain control of their empire, but it was also a way in which that control was diluted as well. The war forced it into all kinds of actions which were unwise in the long-term, but the sort of war it was made these almost inevitable. In wartime there could be no long-term coherent policy for the empire. Everything was overshadowed by the war on the Western Front. Consequently colonial policy decisions could not be other than pragmatic, unplanned, short-term, often inconsistent. Quite often they came to be regretted afterwards, especially those made to curry favour from various quarters, to nationalists in India and the middle east.

In India the promises came very slowly, because until 1917 it looked as if they might be done without. India was relatively tranquil when war broke out, and Indians refrained from exploiting the difficulties of their British ‘masters’. It seemed that Britain would not need more than 15,000 troops to control them. Nevertheless, some of the members of the government, including Edwin Montagu, were keen to announce reforms from the beginning. India’s representation at Imperial Conferences of the ‘white’ self-governing dominions, were met with considerable opposition from those dominions who protested that India was neither ‘white’ nor ‘self-governing’. Despite this, India was admitted at the beginning of 1917, and promises of political reforms followed in August. Both concessions were late enough to suggest that they were born out of fear rather than persuasion, for in the year before the nationalists had healed both of the main breaches: between Congress and the Muslim League by the Lucknow Pact of December 1916, and between moderates and extremists when Tilak, released from gaol in 1914, was readmitted to Congress in the same month, capturing it soon afterwards. In 1916 the nationalists had gone on the offensive under him and, ironically, the Englishwoman Annie Besant. Montagu wrote later that it was her activity which really stirred the country up. By June 1917, they were threatening enough to persuade the Indian government to intern Mrs Besant, which provoked further agitation. In July the viceroy wrote home that the situation was urgent, and any further prevarication over the reforms would be fatal. It was at this moment that Montagu, who had returned to the India Office as Secretary of State in July, was allowed to make a declaration of intent for India to provide…

…the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.

Montagu was able to use the words ‘responsible government’ in 1917, even though it provoked a storm in the House of Lords and a flurry of resignations in India, because the situation was then more desperate: nationalist opposition more widespread, the need to arrest the further defection of moderate opinion, according to Chelmsford, more urgent, the country, according to Montagu, rolling to certain destruction. This was the result of the war, but the war had also made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would be enough to stem the nationalist tide.Indian nationalism was fired enormously by the war: its grievances compounded, its following augmented, its organisation greatly improved, its expectations increased; a seething, boiling, political flood, as Montagu described it in November 1917, raging across the country. Yet the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if nothing else, as Montagu wrote in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.  Whether they were big enough to keep pace with them was yet to be seen when the war finally ended.

                 

Sources:

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism. London: Longman.

Niall Ferguson (2005), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

            

What a year that was: Britain and the World in 1947: Part II.   Leave a comment

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The Winter of 1947 has gone down in history and personal memory as a time of almost unbearable bleakness. For three months, Britain endured not only the shortages of almost everything in the shops, and a virtual medieval peasant diet, heavily based on potatoes and bread, nor only the huge state bureaucracy bearing down on so much of daily life, with its 25,000 regulations and orders never heard of in peace time before. Neither was it just the smashed and broken homes, and the irreplaceable war dead. The crisis of 1947 was also the product of that most common of British complaints, the unpredictable weather.

Towards the end of January, a great freeze had swept across from Siberia and covered the country in thick snow, a bitter cold which brought the exhausted British people very nearly to their knees. The country still ran on coal,  newly nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the piles at the pits froze solid and could not be moved. The collieries’ winding gear ceased to function and drifting snow blocked roads and rail lines. At the power stations, the remaining stock piles ran down swiftly until, one by one, the stations were forced to close. Lights went off, men dug through snow drifts, tamping for miles to find food to carry back to their families and neighbours. Cars were marooned on exposed roads. Factories across the Midlands and South of England had to stop work and within a week two million people were idle. Electric fires were banned for three hours each morning and two in the afternoon. As people ran out of coal, they had only blankets to keep them warm. Around London, commuters were unable to reach the capital. Scotland was cut off from England.

Government ministers were not immune to the health problems which resulted. Herbert Morrison was nearly killed by thrombosis when new drugs given to him caused his kidneys to pour with blood. While he was still in hospital, Ellen Wilkinson, the education minister who adored him and may have been his mistress, died from an overdose of barbiturates. Wilkinson, a small flame-haired woman who had led the pre-war Jarrow Crusade for most of its length to London, was much-loved in the party, but became increasingly depressed by the slow pace of change, particularly in education. On 25 January, in the middle of the blizzard, she insisted on opening a theatre school in a blitzed, open-to-the-sky building in south London. Ellen became ill and seems to have muddled up her medicines, though others believed she killed herself, out of a mixture of frustrated love and political disappointment. In some ways, her death was symptomatic of the strain Attlee’s government was under.

Then things deteriorated further as the coldest February for three hundred years began. Another half million people had to stop work. The sun was so little seen that when it came out, a man rushed to photograph the reassuring sight for the newspapers. The greengrocers ran out of green vegetables. After a short thaw, March brought terrible storms and snow-drifts thirty feet high. There were ice-floes off the East Anglian coast. Three hundred main roads were impassable. These conditions were then followed by the worst floods in living memory, cutting off towns and drowning crops in huge areas of low-lying England. Sheep were dying on the hills, unable to be brought down to lower-lying pastures. Their carcasses had to be burnt in huge pyres, causing foul-smelling smoke to hang over the hillsides of rural Wales.

As people were digging out frozen vegetables from fields and despairing of the empty shops, the run on the pound resulting from Keynes’ Washington ‘deal’ and the balance of payments crisis meant that the Treasury was running out of dollars to buy help from overseas. This was the moment when the optimism of 1945 died for many voters. But the summer did come, and it was a good one, the sun blazing away with the cricketers at Lords as the nation sweltered. However, the pound continued to fall dramatically against the dollar, and with the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, unable to buy food from the USA, secret preparations were made for a ‘famine food programme’ which included a provision to take children out of school to help with the harvest. It was never instigated, but the rationing of bread, which had not been necessary during the war, was put in place, as wheat supplies could no longer be bought from the United States. At the same time, British ministers had to ensure that there was no famine in other parts of the world for which they were responsible, including India, Germany and Palestine. Bread rationing at home was hugely unpopular and long remembered.

As Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Coventry had demonstrated, housing was the most critical single social issue of the post-war era, remaining at the top of the political agenda throughout the early fifties. Half a million homes had been destroyed or were made uninhabitable by German air-raids and a further three million were badly damaged. Overall, a quarter of Britain’s 12.5 million homes were damaged in some way. London was a capital with a background of ruins and wrecked streets. Southampton had lost so many buildings that during the war officials reported that the population felt the city was finished and ‘broken in spirit’. Coventry had lost a third of her housing in a single night in the November Blitz of 1940. Birmingham had lost 12,000 houses, with another 25,000 badly damaged. Together with the impact of demobilization of young men eager to marry and start families, the government estimated that 750,000 new houses were needed urgently. In addition, there was a need for further slum clearances in London and the older industrial cities, the grimy terraces lacking proper sanitation, gas and electricity supplies.

The demand was for more than bricks and mortar, since the war had separated husbands and wives, deprived children of their parents and, in general, shaken the familial fabric of the country.  Some 38 million civilians had changed addresses a total of sixty million times. Despite the break-up of many marriages under the strain of war, most people wanted a return to the security of family life. There were more than 400,000 weddings in 1947 and 881,000 babies were born, the beginning of the ‘boom’ that would reshape British life in the decades ahead. In all, a million extra children were added to the population in the five years after the war. Since there were not nearly enough individual homes to go round, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves living with their parents or in-laws, deprived of privacy and trapped in inter-generational conflict.

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It was, in positive terms, a time when people were prepared to live more communally than would be the case later. Wartime queuing had revived a kind of street culture which lingered among women, as they spent hours standing together. Cinemas and dance halls continued to be crammed with people trying to escape the cold of their homes which as yet had no television (only 0.2 per cent of the population owned a television in 1947) or central heating, and not much by way of lighting. People really were in real austerity together, managing without much privacy and with the ongoing effects of wartime requisitioning, evacuation and the direction of labour, lodging in unfamiliar rooms. The sharing of toilets and kitchens in the late forties was therefore just a continuation of conditions they were already used to, like the meagre food and dreary clothing.

The most dramatic government response was the factory-made instant housing, the ‘prefabs’. Although designed only for a few years’ use, many of them were still lived in forty or more years later. Between 1945 and 1949, under the Temporary Housing Programme, a total of 156,623 prefabs went up, a welcome start in the provision of mass housing. They were more than huts, but a prototype bungalow, with a cooker, sink, fridge, bath, boiler and fitted cupboards. It cost fractionally more than a traditional brick-built terraced house, it weighed a fraction of the latter and was prefabricated in former aircraft factories using a fraction of the resources, then unloaded and screwed together on a concrete plinth, ready for families to move into within days. They were all weatherproof, warm and well-lit. The future Labour leader Neil Kinnock lived in one, an Arcon V, from 1947 to 1961, and remembered the fitted fridge and bathroom causing much jealousy among those still living in unmodernised colliers’ terraces in the south Wales valleys: Friends and family came to view the wonders. It seemed like living in a spaceship. They came to be regarded as better than bog standard council housing. Communities developed on prefab estates which survived cheerfully well into the seventies; I remember visiting these, homes to many of my teenage friends at that time.

The British Housewives’ League, formed in 1945 by a clergyman’s wife to campaign against rude shopkeepers and the amount of time spent queuing, helped remove the hapless food minister Ben Smith over the withdrawal of powdered egg. Other foods brought into the country and foisted on consumers were regarded as disgusting. Horses were butchered and sold, sometimes merely as ‘steak’. Whalemeat was brought from South Africa, both in huge slabs and in tins, described as rich and tasty, just like beefsteak. It was relatively popular for a short while, but not long, because it had a strong after-taste of cod-liver oil. Then there was snoek, a ferocious tropical fish supposed to be able to hiss like a snake and bark like a dog. The young Barbara Castle was then working for the fish division of the Ministry of Food. She was quartered at the Carlton Hotel, which had generously sized baths which she filled with the fish, which she observed for experimental purposes. Her report on its behaviour must have been favourable because in October 1947 the government began to buy millions of tins of snoek from South Africa. So ministers tried to persuade the British people that, in salads, pasties, sandwiches or even as ‘snoek piquant’, the bland-tasting fish was really quite tasty. The people begged to differ and mocked it mercilessly, buying very little. Eventually it was withdrawn from grocers and sold off for almost nothing as cat-food.

The Labour government’s attempts to import alternative sources of protein became a great joke in newspapers and in Parliament. The Conservatives put out pamphlets showing pictures of a horse, a whale and a reindeer to show the wide choice of food you have under the Socialists. Labour tried hard to keep the country decently fed during the forties when most of the world was at least as hungry. But between the black market organised by ‘spivs’, the British Housewives’ League, whose rhetoric influenced a young student called Margaret Thatcher, and the spontaneous uprising against the snoek, the public was becoming fed up to the back teeth with rationing. From 1948, Labour ministers began to remove the restrictions and restore something like a free market in food.

It also took a long time for British clothes to brighten up. Well into my childhood in the sixties, children were still wearing baggy grey trousers and home-knitted jumpers throughout the week and all year-long. Our fathers were still dressing in heavy grey suits, with macs and hats, and older women still wore housecoats and hairnets. However, younger women did try to dress more fashionably. One of the women who attended the unveiling of Christian Dior’s New Look in London in 1947 said that she heard for the first time in her life, the sound of a petticoat, realising  at once that, at long last, the war was really over. However, the British Guild of Creative Designers complained that they did not have the materials to compete or keep up with French frippery. Yet from the young princesses downwards, women were ignoring matronly MPs like Bessie Braddock and doing everything they could to alter, buy or borrow to achieve the Dior look. Clothing became a powerful symbol of a return to the prosperity of the 1930s for many women, if not men.

001A Honeymoon Couple at Billy Butlin’s Hotel near Brighton, 1957

The Holidays with Pay Act, passed shortly before the outbreak of war, was another postponed pleasure, but few workers could afford to travel abroad for these in 1947. For one thing, total time on holiday was limited to a fortnight in total. For another, the amount of money a person could take out of the country was severely restricted. Just over three per cent of people holidayed abroad, the vast majority being wealthy. Few of these went further than Northern France or the Riviera. They didn’t drive around the British countryside, as they had done in the thirties. Nonetheless, in 1947 slightly over half the British did take some kind of holiday. Many took the train to one of the traditional Victorian-era seaside resorts, soon bursting with customers. Others went on cycling or camping expeditions, since the roads were almost entirely empty of traffic. Yet more began to take the ‘charabanc’ or train to one of the new holiday camps, run by such entrepreneurs of leisure as Billy Butlin. He opened his first at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936, and by 1947 he had become a millionaire. To begin with, he was targeting the middle classes as much as the better-off workers. Opera singers, Shakespearean actors, radio stars, sporting heroes, politicians, archbishops and royalty were all invited to his camps, and came. Although Butlin had his fingers burnt with an attempt to open a Caribbean camp in 1948, for millions of British people the camps remained a synonym for a summer holiday well into the age of cheap overseas tourism in the 1970s.

On reflection, and with the benefit of seventy years of hindsight, 1945-1947 was not the best time to set about building a new socialist Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed. The direction of factories to the depressed areas brought few long-term benefits to those areas. Companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets ahead. Inflation, a major part of Britain’s post-war narrative, appeared as an economic factor for the first time by the end of the forties.

Again and again, Britain’s deep dependency on the United States was simply underestimated by the politicians. Harold Wilson, for example, slapped import duty on Hollywood films in 1947, when the sterling crisis made saving dollars a priority. The Americans responded by simply boycotting Britain, a devastating measure for a population so reliant on film as its only real means of mass entertainment. Some wonderful British films were made to fill the gap, but already glamour was something that came from the Pacific coast. Could Labour’s 1945 dream of a socialist commonwealth, high-minded and patriotic, standing aside from American consumerism, still be built on Britain’s grey and muddy land? The reality was not only that she was dependent on her transatlantic cousins, but also upon an Empire which, paradoxically, she was having to let go, at least in piecemeal fashion.

MOOC pic

India and Pakistan had become independent on 15 August 1947, ten months ahead of Attlee’s original schedule. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, had arrived in Delhi on 22 March. He appealed to everyone to do their best to avoid any word or action which might lead to further communal bitterness or add to the toll of innocent victims. He soon decided that the June 1948 transfer date was too late, as the communal rioting had reached a state of which he had no conception when he left England. In making this decision, he was also indulging his lifelong fondness for acceleration. It seemed to him that a decision had to be taken at the earliest possible moment unless there was to be risk of a general conflagration throughout the whole sub-continent. He had a remarkably careful yet quick and businesslike method of working. As soon as he finished an interview with a leader, and before proceeding to the next, he would dictate a résumé of the talk, a copy of which would be circulated to each member of his staff. He held staff conferences every day, sometimes twice and even thrice a day, to study and discuss how events were shaping.

Consultation with the Governors certainly gave him a good idea of the colossal administrative difficulties involved in a transfer of power based on partition. Within six weeks of his arrival Mountbatten had produced a plan which marked the first stage towards the transfer. In all his discussions with party leaders and others, despite their divergent views, which he was forced to adjust and reconcile, there was nowhere any evidence of an attempt to question either his own impartiality or the bona fides of His Majesty’s Government. The greater the insistence by Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, on his province-wide Pakistan, the stronger was the Congress demand that he should not be allowed to carry unwilling minorities with him.

In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe  – cruelly mocked by W H Auden – to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab.  Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as ‘the appointed day’:

The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…

At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…

In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations.

It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as General-Governor of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable.

The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was so stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Mountbatten that he agreed to take over the helm of responsibility at that critical stage, and it redounds to the statesmanship of Nehru that he unhesitatingly and confidently offered it to him.

According to V P Menon, the Constitutional Adviser to the Governor-General from 1942 to 1947, reflected in 1957 that the main factor in the early transfer of power was the return of the Labour Party to government in 1945. The Attlee Government’s decision  to quit India not only touched the hearts and stirred the emotions of Indians, he argued, it also produced an immediate reassuring effect on the whole of South-East Asia and earned Britain universal respect and goodwill in the region. India and Pakistan both chose to remain in the Commonwealth and this was taken by a demoralised Britain as a tacit but welcome vote of thanks. Burma followed on India’s heels into the ranks of newly independent nations in January 1948, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February. Both of them had far too much independence already for the full version to be denied to them. Ceylon remained in the Commonwealth, but Burma did not. The first stage of Britain’s decolonisation came to an end there, with the letting go of what, after the war in the East, just could not be held.

In some ways, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the break-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed compared with the two centuries it had taken to build it. Once the British had made up their minds to get out, they aimed to catch the first boat home, regardless of the consequences in their former colonies. In the words of the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton:

When you are in a place where you are not wanted, and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out.

This had its disadvantages. In their haste to get shot of India, they left behind a chaos that almost undid two centuries of orderly government.

For those colonies in other parts of Britain’s global empire who wished to pursue India to independence, it was not simply a matter of following along a path beaten flat by her. The hurdles she had knocked down Britain erected again for the others. To become free, they would need to fight. What was chiefly standing in their way was their value to an all but bankrupt Britain. That value was not quite what it had been, but Britain had plummeted quite disastrously in the world’s league table of great economic powers. She no longer had a significant surplus to send abroad. In 1900, she was responsible for a third of the world’s exports in manufactured goods. Sixty years later this share had declined to 18 per cent. Just before the war the empire had accounted for 40% of her imports and 49% of her exports. After the war the imperial proportion of what trade she had left was even greater. Between 1946 and 1949 it accounted for 48 per cent of imports and 58 per cent of exports.

It followed  that Britain’s political interests in the world were not so very different either, though her capacity to safeguard them may have been. Britain still had stakes in certain parts of the world, like Africa and south-east Asia, where security or stability seemed to depend upon her maintaining a political presence there, or nearby. In addition, these stakes and all Britain’s others in more reliable parts of the world, like North America and Oceania, together made up a network of interests which was thought to require continued political presences elsewhere to safeguard it; forts and garrisons at strategic points to protect the traffic between Britain and the world. For a colonial people ambitious to be free, either of these interests, or both, would continue to present a considerable obstacle to their independence.

In the years after the war African nationalism sprang very suddenly and very rapidly into full growth. Out of the plethora of welfare associations, tribal associations, community leagues, friendly societies, youth movements, trade unions and all the other vehicles for African discontent which had proliferated before the war, there arose in the 1940s most of the main colony-wide movements for national liberation which took the battle to Britain in the 1950s, and most of their leaders. They took encouragement from India, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war they showed their teeth. There was a six-week general strike in Nigeria in 1945, and another one in the Sudan in 1947.

The British could not afford to ignore these events, claiming that the nationalists were trying to push things too fast, to achieve in one jump what the government claimed to be preparing them for in easy stages, and far in advance of the bulk of the people they professed to represent. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they resisted the whole idea of colonial independence. But for many of those who did not, who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists, the ‘power-seekers’, as their ‘proper successors’.

In the  immediate post-war period, there had been various grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was convinced that the road to domestic recovery began in Africa. As A H Poynton of the Colonial Office told the United Nations in 1947:

The fundamental objectives in Africa are to foster the emergence of large-scale societies, integrated for self-government by effective and democratic political and economic institutions both natural and local, inspired by a common faith in progress and Western values and equipped with efficient techniques of production and betterment.

There was a new Colonial Development Corporation and an Overseas Food Corporation, and marvellous-sounding schemes for growing groundnuts in Tanganyika and producing eggs in the Gambia. The Crown Agents travelled the world, selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government that could pay and some that could not. There were ambitious plans for the federation of West Indian colonies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. There was even talk of a new building for the Colonial Office. The old Empire meanwhile continued to attract a steady stream of migrants: from 1946 until 1963 four out of every five emigrants leaving Britain by sea were headed for Commonwealth countries.

The imperial renaissance might have led further if the United States and Britain had made common cause. Imperial recovery was dependent on American support and Clement Attlee certainly saw the need for it, although he was more realistic than Churchill about the future of the Empire as a whole. He recognised that the new military technologies of long-range power meant that…

 … the British Commonwealth and Empire is not a that can be defended by itself… The conditions which made it possible to defend a string of possessions scattered over five continents by means of a fleet based on island fortresses have gone. 

In their place, he had argued in 1946 that it was now necessary to consider the British Isles as an easterly extension of a strategic arc the centre of which was in the American continent, rather than as a power looking through the Mediterranean and the East. The North Atlantic ‘Alliance’ was, of course, mainly a product of the Americans’ growing awareness that the Soviet Union posed a far more serious threat to American interests than the British Empire. With the beginnings of the Cold War, the White House and the US Chiefs of Staff both agreed that there was something to be said for British imperial and maritime power after all, especially its network of military bases which could complement their own. All this made Bevin bullish:

Western Europe, including its dependent overseas territories, is now patently dependent on American aid… The United States recognises that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth… are essential to her defence and security. Already it is… a case of partial inter-dependence rather than of complete dependence. As time goes by (in the next ten to twenty years) the elements of dependence ought to diminish and those of inter-dependence to increase.

Of course, within that next decade, the Suez crisis was to reveal that the fundamental American hostility towards the Empire lingered on and the facade of neo-imperial power collapsed. 

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Sources:

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan-Pan.

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

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Dancing with the Devil Himself:

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

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

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Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apostag

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

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

A significant birthday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In hiding…

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Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957

Tom continues the family’s story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary Source:

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

Exodus & Asylum at Advent: Refugee Experiences in the Aftermath of the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, 1956   1 comment

Part One, 1-9 December – Fleeing the Homeland

Revolutionary Sportsmen and their families…

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The famous footballers of Honvéd Budapest had left Hungary on 1 November, just before the second Soviet intervention, in order to prepare for their European Cup match against Athletico Bilbao. After the invasion, the players suddenly found themselves cut off from their homeland and their families, but, accompanied by the solidarity and compassion of their western European hosts, they played matches for charity and to cover their expenses. They donned black armbands and cut the red-starred Honvéd badge from their shirts.

The players did everything they could to get their families out of the country from behind the even more strictly controlled border fences of their homeland. Puskás’ wife and their four-year-old daughter, Anikó, had managed to cross into Austria on 1 December, making their way through muddy, ploughed fields, in the cold, wet night. Anikó had been told when they set off that they were going to visit relatives in Dunaföldvár, on the western bank of the Danube, some forty kilometres south of Budapest. She slept most of the way, carried for part of it by a young man, Tamás Csonka.

The family was reunited in Milan, receiving the attention of the world’s press. They spent Christmas together in the team’s hotel, together with the other players and the relatives who had managed to escape. Eventually Puskás, emboldened by his wife, along with Zoltán Czibor, who had taken part in the Uprising and was elected as the Honved sports’ club’s Revolutionary Committee, Sándor Kocsis, coach Jenő Kalmár, and technical director Emil Öestreicher, all chose to remain in the west, despite the pleading of Gusztáv Sebes, the Hungarian national team coach, as well as thinly-veiled threats from the Kádár regime.

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Meanwhile, at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, Hungary’s highly successful water-polo team, who had also left the country just before the Soviet invasion, defeated the USSR team 4-0 in what became known as the Blood in the Water match, played on 6 December. After winning the gold medal, defeating the Yugoslav team, some of their star players also decided to defect and settle for a life in exile.

Leaving Love…

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Tom Leimdorfer, on a Geography school trip in the Bakony Hills, September 1956

In these highly sensitive times for the Soviets and their puppet régime in Budapest, it was natural for those who chose to leave to be very cautious and only let their closest family know. Arrests had already begun, and many of those caught fleeing were among those detained. Edit Leimdorfer told her sister-in-law Juci, but they did not go to say goodbye to them or anyone else. There were still army checkpoints across the city, so that only essential trips were made.

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Above: The Leimdörfer family: Grandparents, Aunt Juci, his father and his mother, Edit.

On Friday, the 7th of December, Tom and his mother went back to their flat. Everything had to be done so as not to arouse suspicion from neighbours. They packed essential clothing in a rucksack each with just a few treasured possessions. In Tom’s case, this included a few photographs of family and friends, including that of his girlfriend Kati, whom he had known for three years:

My last piano teacher lived on Rózsa Domb (Rose Hill), some distance from our flat. I needed to take a tram and then a bus to get there, but by the age of eleven I travelled independently all over the city. This teacher was recommended by my mother’s colleague, István. He and his wife Katalin were friends of my mother’s and I was getting increasingly attracted to their very talented daughter Kati, who was a year younger than me. We visited them at their lovely flat in the Buda hills, with great views of János Hegy (John peak) across the valley. The flat had a balcony and a steep hillside garden with steps and paths leading round shrubs and rockeries. Wonderful for hide and seek.

Kati was very musical and well ahead of me on the piano, in spite of being younger. It was her teacher who took me on and my weekly lesson usually followed hers. I made sure I was early and waited outside, so I could snatch a brief few moments alone with Kati. I was not yet a teenager, but I was definitely in love. I thought of Kati as embodying perfection in a girl and unattainable for mere mortal boys like me. Her parents were far better off than my mother and I always felt I had to be on my very best and formal behaviour when we visited their spotless and beautiful flat. Besides, the family were Catholics and such religious divides mattered, communism or no communism.

Their budding childhood relationship had been dealt a further blow when Edit Leimdörfer decided that they should move to the much smaller flat in Pest, a lot further away on the opposite side of the Danube, from where they were now escaping Hungary. Shortly before the October Revolution in the capital, the parents of the ‘couple’ had found an ingenious way of bringing the young lovers together again:

The piano had to be sold and my piano lessons ceased. With it went my weekly rendezvous with Kati and I barely saw her during the first nine months of 1956. This did not diminish my longing and teenage fantasies. One day in September 1956, my mother gave me an envelope with a mysterious smile as an ‘early 14th birthday present’. When I opened it, two season tickets to the opera dropped out. I was very pleased and asked her when we were going to the first performance. ‘Oh, you are not going with me’ she said. ‘Then who is the other ticket for?’ I enquired. ‘Well, who would you really like to take instead of me?’ she teased. I was both delighted and astounded.  ‘But did Pista bácsi agree?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it was his idea’, my mother answered. This really surprised me. I knew Kati’s mother doted on me, but I thought her father would be protective and not regard me as altogether suitable… Kati and I talked excitedly on the phone about our forthcoming first date.

We arranged to meet on the day at the terminus of the old underground by the statue of the poet Vörösmarthy and travel together to the opera. We were both very smartly dressed and Kati looked stunning. I remember little of the performance itself, which was the Hungarian epic opera ‘Hunyadi László’, by Erkel. This time, the interval was more important, getting Kati her drink and impressing her with my attentions. Afterwards, we walked slowly hand in hand towards the underground station. To my disappointment, Mami and Kati’s parents were waiting there, having had a meal out in a nearby restaurant. That was just two weeks before the fateful day of the  October revolution. The next time I saw Kati was sixteen and a half years later. We were both married, introducing our spouses to each other and watching our children play in the garden where we had played as young children.

Little over a month later, back in the city centre flat with his mother, Tom had to leave his now useless season ticket and settle for collecting the other things which could be packed in his rucksack. These included a pocket chess set and his button football team. Not being allowed to phone Kati made him feel miserable. He knew she would be fine, as they lived up in the Buda hills where there was no fighting, but guessed that she would be worried about them. It was a strange day, but he could not feel sentimental about leaving the flat as it never really felt like home. His real childhood home was the flat in Buda with the garden which he had been so sad to leave the year before. Now it was his desk, originally belonging to his father (killed on the Russian front during World War II), to which he bade a regretful farewell:

The beautiful green baize surface, which was the scene of button football triumphs and the backdrop to long hours of homework, the lovely inlaid marquetry patterns, all remained imprinted in my memory. The painful thought of leaving family and friends was pushed well into the subconscious as we prepared for our big adventure.

Initial Escapades…

In the early hours of the 8th December, Gyuri, Ferkó and Marika rang the bell of the flat and they all met by the front door. It was still dark as they walked by the least conspicuous route to the railway station, hardly saying a word to each other. They had a rucksack each, looking as if they were going for a brief outing. Walking past piles of rubble, burnt-out lorries, broken power tram lines, shell holes in apartment blocks, some blocks totally in ruins, they could see for the first time the full extent of the damage in the war-torn, grey, sad, defeated city. It made sense to them then that they were leaving that scene.

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The train was packed with similar ‘holiday makers’ all favouring unlikely resorts near the Austrian border, all eyeing each other curiously but not communicating. They had no idea if there were plainclothes police or ÁVH agents amongst us. Everyone watched the countryside rushing by the windows, all with memories of a homeland they were leaving behind, with hopes and fears of what lay ahead. The five got off the train before most of the others and joined what seemed to Tom to be a pre-arranged group:

I assumed this was the arrangement made by Mami through contacts. Apart from the five of us, there was a distant relative of ours in the same group. We were met by someone with a lorry and got on the back. Sandwiches were eaten en route and we arrived at some railway sidings, by a village near the border. There we waited for a while, then our ‘guide’ appeared and we followed him. Within minutes, we were faced with a small detachment of border police who asked for our documents. As I glanced round, I saw our ‘guide’ disappear under a stationary goods wagon and run as fast as his legs could carry him. None of the border guards bothered to run after him. We were summarily arrested.

The next few hours were like something out of a Kafka novel. The Hungarian border guards marched us to their base and took our details. They had clearly no real enthusiasm for what they were doing, but the new orders were to arrest people trying to flee, so they went through the motions. We were all interrogated separately. I was asked how many Russian tanks I blew up with Molotov cocktails. The guard seemed disappointed when I answered truthfully that I did no fighting. Many young teenagers did. Then a dozen or so Russian soldiers turned up and asked the Hungarian border guards if we were the refugees who stole their lorry. The border guards pretended to speak no Russian, so Ferkó was asked to translate. No, we affirmed, we did not steal their lorry. So the Russians left, with much shrugging of shoulders on the part of the Hungarian border guards. It was getting late and we were starving.

There certainly were many among the escapees who had been involved in attacking tanks, both in Budapest and the provincial towns, some of whom had actually killed Soviet soldiers and were unable to return to Hungary until the 1990s when a full amnesty was declared. With these Russians gone, however, Tom’s mother sprung into action again. She produced her (quite useless) documentation for the Hungarian officer, showing that they were going for a holiday as a respite from the trauma of recent events. Yes, they did join the refugee group once they were nearing the border, but this was an impulsive action they soon regretted. The children were tired and bewildered, she said, as they just expected to go on holiday. Would the officer allow them to seek to lodge for the night with someone in the village? They would report promptly in the morning to be transported back to Budapest under arrest. Edit Leimdörfer was at her most persuasive and the officer agreed, even suggesting which house they could try for a night’s lodgings.

Guests, a Guide and his Grenades…

The middle-aged couple who offered them refuge and hospitality were getting ready for bed when the family of five knocked on the door and explained their situation. They immediately rushed about getting food, getting spare beds ready and mattresses on the floor with duvets. Then the peasant-farmer started talking to Edit and Gyuri:

Surely, we were not going to give up our plans? “Oh yes”, we said, our attempt had failed and we would go back home. The man looked at us in earnest: “Is that really what you want to do?” He knew the border like the back of his hands. He ploughed the fields and had special permission to go right up to the fences. He could safely get us through before dawn. Mami and Gyuri hesitated, perhaps wondering if the man was an agent provocateur, but he looked like an honest peasant farmer, who would have had no interest in tricking us. By why would he take the risk? Mami explained that she had already given her money to the ‘guide’ who led us straight into the hands of the border guards. The best she could do was to give him an address in Budapest and a letter where he would get financial compensation if we were successful. The adults looked at us, Ferkó nodded in agreement, so did Marika and I, although we were too exhausted to care.

After no more than three hours’ sleep in their clothes, they were woken at 3.00 am on the Sunday morning of the 9th December. The wife hurriedly gave them some bread and milk before they set off:

It was a cold, clear night. The crescent moon had set already and the sky was bedecked with countless stars, the full glory of the Milky Way high and bright above us. All was still and we were very conscious of the noise of our footsteps. The man, in his late forties or early fifties, gave us brief military type instructions. The only lights visible apart from the stars were rotating searchlights of the border guards’ observation towers and we were making for a spot roughly halfway between two of these. We were crossing a plain with no trees, no shelter. Once my eyes got used to the dark, I felt very conspicuous and wondered why we could not be seen from the towers. We were walking through what had been a field of maize and there was enough stubble left for cover if we lay flat on the ground. As we reached the area within reach of the searchlight beams, the man gave precise commands to ‘lie down’ as the beam neared us and ‘walk on’ as it passed. Then at one point he said ‘stay down, stay still’ and we did just that till he said ‘walk on’ again. We reached the first set of wires without seeing them ahead of us. They were not formidable and there was a point where they had been cut and we could get through. The second set of barbed wires, a few meters on looked more difficult, but the man found a place where the bottom strand was missing so we could pass our rucksacks through and then crawl underneath. Even that did not seem as formidable an ‘iron curtain’ as the high electrified wire installation I was to witness being dismantled in May 1989 about thirty miles from where we were crawling to freedom that night.

The farmer warned them that they were not yet safe as the wires were well inside the actual border with Austria. They needed to walk towards what they had just started to make out was a line of trees. He told them to look carefully where they trod. Their flight and that of tens of thousands of others was only made possible by the de-mining of the border region as a goodwill gesture to neutral Austria earlier in the year, but they could not be sure that there were not still some active mines left in the ground. Tom could not resist the occasional glance upwards into the night sky:

All this time, none of us spoke. I felt a sense of danger, of course, mixed with a feeling of excitement at the adventure and pure wonder at the glorious firmament above, the sight of which has stayed with me all my life.

As we approached the lines of trees and bushes, it was clear that we were getting to a river bank. Suddenly, there was a shout of ‘Halt!’ and we froze until it was followed by a milder sounding: ‘Achtung, hier entlang’ (or something like it) as two young Austrian guards emerged to direct us towards a crossing point. Gyuri started to talk to them in his fluent German. It was time to express our immense gratitude to our guide, which he tried to shrug off. My mother gave him the letter with the address to visit in Budapest for his reward. She then said: “It was not as dangerous as I feared”. The man replied: “Did you not see the border guards passing when I asked you lie still on the ground?” None of us had. Then he said: “But I was prepared anyway” and he took two hand grenades out of his pockets. Even in the dark I thought I saw Mami go pale and a shiver went down my spine. Still, we had to concentrate on crossing the wide stream by balancing on the makeshift planks and tree-trunks, helped across by the two Austrian guards. We clambered on to the back of an army jeep waiting nearby. We made it. We were safe. We were refugees.

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Asylum in Austria…

It was a short ride to the village of Andau where they were deposited outside a large hall. It was teeming with refugees, all of them new arrivals awaiting transportation to one of the large transit camps set up for Hungarian refugees under the auspices of the United Nations. An official took our details. ‘Gyuri bácsi’ was now in charge of the situation as he not only spoke totally fluent German (Edit’s was almost fluent, but less confident), but he also had some friends and a pre-war business partner living in Vienna. So, he explained, we only needed shelter till they could collect us.

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Meanwhile, they were given a drink and some chocolate and a place on the floor to sleep. It was around six o’clock in the morning, but still dark. They were utterly drained and exhausted, sleeping on blankets on the hard floor until about ten in spite of people milling around in the noisy hall. There was some food on a long table for breakfast and a chance for a quick wash. Gyuri said his former business partner was very pleased to hear from him and was on his way down from Vienna to collect them:

We hardly had time to take in fully the scene of the motley, fairly bedraggled crowd of Hungarian refugees of which we were a part for just six hours. At midday, we went outside the hall in the bright sunshine of the village square. I remember the church bells ringing and villagers in local traditional rural Sunday best clothes standing around. They did not look any different from a Hungarian village over the border. Affluence had not yet reached rural Austria.

Then the heads of several people turned towards the road leading to the square and we saw a large black Cadillac approach. When it stopped, a portly man emerged and greeted Gyuri as a long-lost friend. I saw several villagers staring with open mouths as these refugees with their rucksacks piled into that luxury car and were driven off towards the capital. A few kind questions were addressed to us in Hungarian, before the conversation switched to German. Ferkó listened with interest, while Marika and I just watched the countryside go by. Actually, in many ways Marika was the real the real hero of this adventure. She was not yet twelve years of age, but she showed no fear, no tears, no complaints throughout those extraordinary couple of days.

(to be continued).

Secondary Source:

Gzörgy Szöllősi (2015), Ferenc Puskás, The Most Famous Hungarian. Budapest: Rézbong Kiadó.

Twenty-five years ago: October-December 1991: End of the Cold War?   1 comment

Links and Exchanges

In the late autumn/ fall of 1991, with the Cold War coming to an end, Americans, Hungarians and other Europeans became urgently and actively engaged in redefining their relationships in this new era. As a British teacher from Coventry living and working in its twin town of Kecskemét in Hungary, married to its citizens, I continued to re-establish links which had lain dormant since the Hungary’s involvement in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, especially through educational exchanges, organised through the Hungarian Ministry of Education and the (then) European Community ‘s Tempus Programme. Besides the Peace Corps volunteers who continued to arrive to all parts of the country, the United States and Hungary had established a joint commission for educational exchange, which included a Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission. Again, Fulbright scholars began arriving in a variety of Hungarian towns that autumn, placed in schools and colleges, and Hungarian teachers were able to travel to the USA in exchange.

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Diplomatic Goals

In October 1991, Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall made a ‘private’ visit to Washington. Just over a year earlier, Antall had been sworn in as PM of the first freely elected Hungarian Parliament since that of 1945. In his first address, he had pointed out that…

… the new government will be a European government, and not only in the geographical sense of the word. We stand for the tradition of democracy, pluralism and openness. We want to return to the European heritage but, at the same time , also to those values that Europe has created in the course of the past forty years, in the wake of the terrible lessons and experience of World War II.

At the Washington ‘summit’, President George Bush reiterated the US commitment to the economic and political transformation of Hungary, particularly in view of the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union. Antall also expressed concern about the civil war in Yugoslavia which was just beginning at that time. At their meeting in Krakow on 6 October, the Foreign Ministers of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, issued a joint statement on their wish to become involved in NATO activities. On 1 July, the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded by the Protocol of Prague, which had annulled the 1955 Treaty (Hungary’s Parliament passed the Act ratifying this on 18 July) and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary had been completed in June.  COMECON, the economic organisation of what was now a collapsing empire was also being disbanded. Parallel to that, Hungary had started the process of catching up with the community of developed Western democracies. Already, by the end of 1991, the country had concluded an Association Agreement with the European Community.

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NATO accession

Along with the Czech Republic and Poland, Hungary was among the first countries of Central and Eastern Europe invited to start talks on NATO accession. The invitation showed that Hungary was taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by the social and political changes of 1989-91 and that, having regained the sovereignty it had last lost in November 1956, it had made the right decision on its security policy goals and how to achieve them. Neutrality was no longer an option. A consensus was emerging among the parties represented in the new Parliament on the well-known triple set of goals… Euro-Atlantic integration, development of good-neighbourly relations and support for the interests of Hungarian communities living abroad. These remained valid throughout the following decade and into the twenty-first century.

In another sign of its growing international integration, on 20-21 October, at the plenary meeting of North Atlantic Assembly in Madrid, Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Wörner announced that it would hold its 1995 session in Budapest. Hungary was represented by Foreign Minister, Géza Jeszenszky and Tamás Wachsler, a FIDESZ Member of Parliament, both of whom gave presentations. The Madrid summit constituted a historic moment in the redefinition of the security roles of European institutions at a time when global and regional changes, and the democratic developments in the central-eastern European states reached a point which coincided with the interests of both the major Western powers and the southern European states. Through its (then) comparatively advanced democratic development and previous historical experience, Hungary was seen as well-suited to figure among the states to be included in the first wave of NATO enlargement. Such experience stemmed, most importantly, from the Revolution of 1956 and its struggle for sovereignty and neutrality, as well as from the initiatives it had taken from within the Warsaw Pact and the UN in the 1980s. A week after Madrid (see picture above), PM Antall visited NATO Headquarters in Brussels, where he addressed the North Atlantic Council, expressing the wish of the Hungarian Government to establish closer cooperation with NATO, including the creation of an institutionalised consultation and information system.

On 30 October, at the invitation of the Minister of Defence, Lajos Für, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General John Galvin, visited Hungary and met József Antall. A week later (7-8 November), a summit meeting of the North Atlantic Council was held in Rome at which the Heads of State/ Government approved the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept which supported the efforts of the central-eastern European countries towards reforms and offered participation in the relevant forums of the Alliance. On this, they issued the Rome Declaration on Peace and Cooperation:

We have consistently encouraged the development of democracy in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We therefore applaud the commitment of these countries to political and economic reform following the rejection of totalitarian communist rule by their peoples. We salute the newly recovered independence of the Baltic States. We will support all steps in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe towards reform and will give practical assistance to help them succeed in this difficult transition. This is based on our own conviction that our own security is inseparably linked to that of all other states in Europe…

Wishing to enhance its contribution to the emergence of a Europe whole and free, our Alliance at its London summit extended to the Central and Eastern European countries the hand of friendship and established regular diplomatic liaison.  Together we signed the Paris Joint Declaration… Our extensive programme of high level visits, exchanges of views on security and other related issues, intensified military contacts, and exchanges of expertise in various fields has demonstrated its value and contributed greatly towards building a new relationship between NATO and these countries. This is a dynamic process: the growth of democratic institutions throughout central and eastern Europe and encouraging cooperative experiences, as well as the desire of these countries for closer ties, now call for our relations to be broadened, intensified and raised to a qualitatively new level…

Therefore, as the next step, we intend to develop a more institutional relationship of consultation and cooperation on political and security issues.   

The NATO summit in Rome was one of the most significant international consultations to take place as to how to deal with these new security threats. The heads of state identified the goals and tasks to be achieved and to be realistically achievable by the Western European organisations over the following four to five years, as well as the mechanisms which would be required to fulfill them.

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Hungary & The End of a Bipolar World

While this summit meeting was taking place, the de facto collapse of the so-called socialist word order was proceeding apace. These new processes within NATO were manifested mainly by the young democracies of central-eastern Europe that had just regained their independence from the USSR and its now defunct Warsaw Pact. However, they were also informed by global developments, such as the impact of the Gulf War and its lessons and conclusions. The dissolution of the bipolar world order was not simply related to the collapse of the USSR, but to threats to security originating in ethnicity-based conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans.

The renewed Republic of Hungary found itself in a unique situation, since with the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the east of it, and the break-up of both the Yugoslav Socialist Republic and Czechoslovakia on its southern and northern borders, it suddenly found itself with seven neighbours rather than five. From the spring of 1991, along a borderline of 600 kilometres, the crisis in the former Yugoslavia had a considerable impact on Hungary’s legislators and executive authorities at a time when it had just embarked on the path of civilian democratic development. The armed clashes, which became more violent and intense from July onwards, were taking place were predominantly along the Hungarian border and there were incidents across the border of lesser or greater scale, the most serious of which was the bomb which fell (accidentally and without exploding) on the large village of Barcs on Hungarian territory. Trade also became affected by border closures which were necessary to prevent gun-running to the militias, and thousands of refugees escaped the violence into Hungary. There was an emerging consensus among the Hungarian political élite that the only possibility of breaking away from the nightmare scenario of a disintegrating central-eastern European region was through accession to the integrating West. The reunification of Germany, although it could not serve as a model, proved that the institutional anchoring of a former COMECON and Warsaw Pact country was possible.

The Republic of Hungary concluded that its geopolitical situation had changed completely, and a process took place within NATO to realise Euro-Atlantic integration in the region through NATO enlargement. In this process, the Hungarian defence forces earned worldwide recognition and the government of the Republic succeeded in fulfilling its strategic foreign policy objectives while in domestic policy, it established the conditions for stable and democratic development. Naturally, this took a full term of government to achieve, but the fact that the process began in the crucible which was the end of the Cold War, when states were collapsing on almost every border, is a truly remarkable tribute to the transition government in Hungary.

Demise of Gorbachev & the Soviet Union

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In the aftermath of the failed coup in August, the Soviet republics voted to reject Gorbachev’s Union Treaty; the new state would be a confederation. On 30 November, Yeltsin’s Russia, the leading power in the new association, took control of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and of all its embassies abroad. In Minsk on 8 December, Yeltsin for Russia, Leonid Kravchuk for Ukraine, and Stanislaw Shushkevich for Belarus, the three Slav states, without bothering to take the other republics with them, signed a pact ending the USSR and creating instead the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). By telephone they told first George Bush, then Mikhail Gorbachev, what they had done. Gorbachev, humiliated, next day denied their right to have done it; but the Russian parliament ratified the commonwealth agreement, and within days all but one of the other republics joined.

In Moscow a week later, James Baker saw both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, and had it brought to his attention that the Soviet military was now backing Yeltsin and the CIS.  Gorbachev accepted this as a fait accompli, announcing that all central structures of the Soviet Union would cease to exist at the end of the year. The four republics in possession of nuclear weapons  – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – announced that they would abide by and implement the cuts in arms and nuclear weapons agreed to by Bush and Gorbachev.

Meanwhile, both the CIS and the Russian government proved incapable of coping with the crisis in southern Russia. The United Nations, the European Community, the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe were, to begin with, equally ineffective in dealing with the conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, it became obvious that the UN was unable to create the mechanisms needed to handle these conflicts and to bring the political and military conflicts to a solution. This led on to the question as to what NATO’s responsibilities could be in response to the new risk factors of regional character that were emerging in the early 1990s.

On 19 December, the Foreign Ministers of the newly independent Central and Eastern European states met in Brussels, together with those of the full member states of NATO. Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky again represented Hungary. The Soviet Union was also invited, and its name appears on the final communiqué issued by the North Atlantic Council. The purpose of the meeting, as decided at the Rome summit, was to issue a joint political declaration to launch this new era of partnership and to define further the modalities and content of this process. The following day, 20 December, the inaugural meeting of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) was attended by representatives of the sixteen full NATO members and the nine central-eastern European nations. It was established to integrate them into the Alliance:

Our consultations and cooperation will focus on security and related issues where Allies can offer their experience and expertise. They are designed to aid in fostering a sense of security and confidence among these countries and to help them transform their societies and economies, making democratic change irreversible.

… We welcome the continuing progress towards democratic pluralism, respect for human rights and market economies. We encourage these nations to continue their reforms and contribute to… arms control agreements. 

Just five days later, On 25 December 1991, Christmas Day in central-western Europe, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist. The Red Flag, with its golden hammer and sickle, prophesying a worldwide workers’ revolution that never came, was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. For Gorbachev this was an unintended consequence of the reform process, perestroika, that he had started. He retired from public life, since he no longer had an office from which to resign. He telephoned his farewells to Bush at Camp David. He wished George and Barbara Bush a merry Christmas. He was, he said, still convinced that keeping the independent republics within the Soviet Union would have been the better way forward, but hoped that the US would co-operate instead with the CIS and would help Russia economically. The “little suitcase” carrying the nuclear button had been transferred, constitutionally, to the Russian president. He concluded by saying, you may therefore feel at ease as you celebrate Christmas, and sleep quietly tonight. How long the West could sleep easily with Boris Yeltsin in charge of the red button   turned out to be a moot point, of course.

Two hours later Gorbachev delivered a long, self-justifying television address to the citizens of the fifteen former Soviet republics. He insisted that the USSR could not have gone on as it was when he took office in 1985. We had to change everything, he said. Bush left Camp David for Washington to make his Christmas broadcast. He praised Gorbachev, announced formal diplomatic recognition of the new republics, and called on God to bless their peoples. For over forty years, he said, the United States had led the West…

… in the struggle against communism and the threat it posed to our most precious values. That confrontation is over.

The Fate of the Unions

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On 28 January 1992, in his State of the Union address for what was to be an election year (above), George Bush proclaimed that the United States had won the Cold War. Other contemporaries have now been joined by some historians in claiming the same. Speaking the same month, Gorbachev preferred to hail it in the following terms:

I do not regard the end of the Cold War as a victory for one side… The end of the Cold War is our common victory.

Certainly, at the end of this forty-five-year period of East-West tensions that we continue to refer to as The Cold War, the United States remained the one great power and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Reagan, and then Bush, had cautiously and skilfully avoided giving the reactionaries in Moscow a good reason to reverse perestroika, but it was Gorbachev who made the more dramatic moves to end the arms race and the Soviet control of its satellite states in central-Eastern Europe. He surrendered Communist rule in those states and introduced a multi-party system in the USSR itself. He failed to achieve significant economic reform and could not prevent the breakup of the Union, but he played a major role in the manner of the ending of the great power conflict. As the former State Department analyst commented,

He may not have done so alone, but what happened would not have happened without him; that cannot be said of anyone else.

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The Cost of the Conflict

At the end of 1991, The United States stood alone as the only remaining superpower, with a booming economy. The poor of the US, however, could certainly have used some of the resources committed to armaments over the previous forty years. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment that Lyndon Johnson’s promise of a Great Society was lost on the battlefield of Vietnam was not short of the mark, and might well be extended to explain the overall failure of successive US administrations to redirect resources to dispossessed and alienated Americans in the decades that have followed President Bush’s triumphalist declaration. Perestroika never made it to the USA, where Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex remained more firmly entrenched at the end of the Cold War than it had been during his presidency.

Above all, the cost of the Cold War must be measured in human lives, however. Though a nuclear catastrophe was averted by a combination of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the watchfulness of those operating surveillance systems on both sides, the ‘proxy’ wars and conflicts did take their toll in military and ‘collateral’ civilian casualties: millions in Korea and Vietnam; hundreds of thousands in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia; tens of thousands in Nicaragua and El Salvador; thousands in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe. Some of the post-colonial regional conflicts might well have happened anyway, but superpower involvement, direct or indirect, made each conflict more deadly. We also need to add to the victims of open hostilities the numbers and names of those who fell foul of the state security and intelligence forces. As well as those, the cost to their home countries of those forced to flee in terror for their lives can never be outweighed by the significant contributions they made their host countries as refugees.

The Cold War also stifled thought: for decades the peoples of Eastern Europe, living under tyranny, were effectively “buried alive” – cut off from and abandoned by the West. Given the choice and the chance, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Slovenes, Croatians, Albanians and Serbs  all rejected the various forms of communism which had been imposed on them. After the fall of Allende in Chile, only Fidel Castro in Cuba, until today (26 November 2016) the great Cold warrior and survivor, kept the Red flag flying and the cause of the socialist revolution alive with some remaining semblance of popular support. I heard of his death, aged ninety, after I began to write this piece, so I’ll just make this one comment, in this context, on our right to make judgements on him, based on the text of one of his earliest speeches after coming to power in the popular Marxist revolution forty-seven years ago: History and historians may absolve him: His subsequent victims surely will not. Surely, however, his passing will mark the end of communism in the western hemisphere, and especially in ‘Latin’ America.

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Legacies, leaders and losers 

Then there is the great question mark left hanging over the twenty-first century: China? The world’s most populous nation is still ruled over by a Communist autocracy, and one which has often played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Cold War, not least in Hungary, where it helped to change Khrushchev’s mind as to what to do about the October 1956 Uprising and then insisted on severe retribution against Imre Nagy and his ministers following the Kádár ‘coup’. It may no longer follow the classical Marxist-Leninist lines of Mao’s Little Red Book, now more revered on the opposition front benches in the UK Parliament than it is in the corridors of power in Beijing, but it may yet succeed in reconciling Communist Party dictatorship with free market economics. Or will the party’s monopoly of power ultimately be broken by the logic of a free market in ideas and communication? That would leave a dangerously isolated North Korea as the only remaining communist dictatorship with nuclear weapons, surely a ‘leftover’ issue on the Cold War plate which the global community will have to attend to at some point soon.

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It is hard now to realize or even to recall it, but whole generations in the last century lived with the fear that one crisis or another – Korea, Vietnam, Berlin, Cuba, Suez, Hungary – might trigger a nuclear apocalypse, as the two superpowers were too often prepared to go to the brink. There was also, more omnipresent than we ever realized, the chance of a Dr Strangelove scenario, a nuclear accident, which we now know had much to do with the shift in President Reagan’s policy at the beginning of his second administration in 1984. Fear was endemic, routine, affecting every aspect of every human relationship on much of the globe. The advice to every household in the UK government’s 1970s Protect and Survive was famously lampooned as finally, put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye! Sex was about making love while you still could, and with whoever you could. It wasn’t about bringing more children into the world to live with the fear of fear itself. Parents in many countries remember looking at their children when the world news grew grimmer, hoping that they would all live to see another day, let alone another generation growing up. As teachers, it became our duty to terrify our teenagers into understanding the reality of nuclear war by ‘reeling’ into schools The War Game. The happiest people on the planet were the poorest, those who lived without newspapers, radios, televisions and satellite dishes, blissful in their ignorance and therefore fearless of the world outside their villages and neighbourhoods. Except in some corners of the globe, that fear has been lifted from us, essentially because the world’s leaders recognised and responded to these basic human instincts and emotions, not for any grand ideological, geopolitical goals and policies. But the ignorance, or innocence, had gone too, so the potential for fear of global events to return was only a turn or a click away.

In the end, those in command, on both sides, put humanity’s interests higher than short-term national advantages. Watching The War Game had also worked for Ronald Reagan. Teachers could now stop showing scenes of terrible mutual destruction and start to build bridges, to bring together speakers from Peace through NATO with those from CND, to forge links, to educate and empower across continents. Even then, during the more hopeful final five years of 1986-91, we had to trust our ‘leaders’ in crisis after crisis. Even after glasnost, we could not be sure what exactly they were doing, why and how they were doing it, and what the outcomes would be.

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and survived… so wrote Jeremy Isaacs for his ground-breaking television series on The Cold War. As we celebrate twenty-five years since its ending, still lurching from one regional and international crisis to another, are we in danger of celebrating prematurely? Do we need a more serious commemoration of all those who were sacrificed for our collective security, to help us remember our sense of foreboding and genuine fear? With a seemingly less skilful generation of evermore populist, nationalist and autocratic leaders in ‘charge’ across the continents, are we about to re-enter a new age of fear, if not another period of ‘cold war’? How will the seek to protect us from this? How will they ensure our survival? After all, there’s only one race, the human race, and we all have to win it, otherwise we will all be losers, and our oikoumene, the entire created order, will be lost for eternity.

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Secondary Sources:

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

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers/ Bantam Press

Marc J Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.

The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956: Suez & Hungary, a postscript.   Leave a comment

Aftermath: Autumn into Winter…  

1-3 December: To flee or not to flee?…

For the recently extended family of Tom Leimdörfer, the first few days of December were totally surreal. Fourteen-year-old Tom, his mother Edit, Gyuri Schustek and his two children, Ferkó (16) and Marika (12) had already taken the decision to leave their homes in Budapest and to flee Hungary, following the onset of the Soviet repression. They were in a state of suspended animation in which the various experiences of excitement, planning, doubt and fear abounded. Were they too late to escape? News of the first waves of arrests at the border reached them as the border guard units were reconstituted. There was plenty of news of arrests as well as rumours of executions, as the Kádár regime asserted its authority, but the dominant feeling was one of uncertainty: Were the phones being tapped again? Had the secret police been re-established to a degree that they could be under surveillance?

Tom had been the only one of the family of five to take part in the revolutionary demonstrations of 23 October, and it was unlikely that anyone had noticed his spontaneous action in leaving their city centre flat that afternoon to join the mass crowds in the square outside Parliament. The police forces seemed only to be after known prominent figures. Getting caught while trying to flee, however, would certainly put them under suspicion, especially since Gyuri Schustek already had a prison record. In addition, many fourteen-year-olds had already been detained and questioned about their roles in the street demonstrations and fighting which had taken place from the 23rd to mid-November.

Both the contemporary and potential intellectual leaders and other icons were over-represented among those fleeing the country, and included the poet György Faludy, a distant relative of the Leimdörfers, who had spent time in the Rákosi era working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book My Happy Days in Hell, and the pianist György Cziffra. Among the figures who stayed and received sentences were the writers István Bibó, Tibór Déry, Zoltán Zelk, Gyula Háy and the writer, translator (of Tolkien) and post-1989 Head of State Árpád Göncz, as well as the historian Domokos Kosáry. Of course, it is impossible to enumerate those who were removed from their jobs as punishment or in order to narrow their sphere of intercourse and influence.

With all its horror, however, Kádár’s ‘terror’ was not of the Stalinist kind in which Rákosi indulged. While it was an act of arbitrary power, its victims were not selected in any arbitrary manner and it did not collectively punish whole social groups in the name of some general political strategy, but aimed, on the basis of very specific political calculation and selectivity, at individuals who had proved to be, or were considered to be, dangerous to the Kádár régime. Almost from the beginning, the usurper’s isolation of this active minority through administrative and police measures were not pursued with any great consistency.

Naturally, those choosing to flee the country in the winter of 1956-7 were not in a position to make this judgement or take the risk. Domokos Szent-Iványi, Horthy’s cabinet secretary and envoy to Moscow, had faced a similar dilemma in 1946, when the Rákósi dictatorship  began, and had chosen to stay, only to be arrested, remaining in prison for a decade before his release on 18 September 1956. He later wrote :

The first question I was confronted with after my release was whether I should flee from Hungary or not? This question became particularly acute at the time of the mass emigration from Hungary after the collapse of Hungarian resistance on or about 7 November 1956. For many reasons I decided to stay and so… until… September 1968,  I dropped all ideas of leaving Hungary… several of our friends, like András, Sándor Kiss, Jatzkó, Szent-Miklósy, Veress and others, left the country…

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He must have feared re-arrest at any moment. Reflecting on his decision in 1977, he was able to put it in the broader context of Hungarian history and, in particular, its experience with the fake promises of freedom held out by ‘the Western democracies’, contrasted with their real imperial priorities in the Middle East:

As in the past, in 1241, in 1526, in 1711, in 1849 and in 1920, Hungary was once more abandoned in 1956 by the Western Powers which believed that their interests had more to be defended around the borders of Suez and Israel and not on the Eastern bulwark of European Civilisation… As Hungary could not and cannot expect any effective help from the Western democracies, Hungary must renounce her centuries old idea of protecting European peace, prosperity and civilisation, and must try to arrive at some peaceful settlement and cooperation with her most powerful eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union.   

3-12 December: The Diplomatic Crisis in Bucharest, New York & Washington… 

On 23 November, the day after the abduction of the Nagy group from the Yugoslav Embassy (the occupants of the bus had refused to leave it when they arrived at the Soviet HQ and had to be pulled off by force, the women screaming and the children shrieking in fear), the Kádár government had issued a statement which was published in the press to the effect that Imre Nagy and his friends have left at their request for the Popular Republic of Romania. Of course, the truth soon became public knowledge, but it had taken until 26 November for Kádár to reply to a request for an explanation from the National Workers’ Council. He had broadcast on Radio Budapest:

We promised that the behaviour of Imre Nagy and his friends would not be subject to legal proceedings. We will keep that promise. We do not consider their departure as permanent. But, in our opinion, it is to the advantage of Imre Nagy  and his associates and their families to leave Hungary for a certain period of time.

Several days later, at the plenary session of the United Nations on 3 December, the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs declared:

The Romanian government assures that Prime Minister Imre Nagy and his group will enjoy the full benefit of the right of political exile. The Romanian government will observe the international rules regarding this right.

The US government also kept up its diplomatic pressure on the USSR, verbally protesting the unwarranted use of Soviet force against Hungarian citizens to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. The US diplomats specifically noted the Soviet tanks that had parked on the sidewalk outside their Legation in Budapest. The Department of State also protested twice when the Soviets interfered with Americans who were trying to leave Hungary. It also protested to the Hungarian Legation in Washington concerning the interruption of telegraphic communications with the US Legation in Budapest. The UN General Assembly also adopted a resolution calling on the Soviet Union and Hungary to comply with earlier resolutions on the Hungarian question and to allow UN observers to visit Hungary. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld offered to visit personally, but the Kádár government refused to receive either him or admit observers. On 12 December, the GA adopted a resolution calling on the USSR to end its illegal intervention in Hungarian affairs and to make arrangements for a UN-supervised withdrawal from the country.

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The same day, President Eisenhower announced the organisation of the President’s Committee for Hungarian Refugee Relief. He also announced that Vice President Richard Nixon would visit Austria between 18 and 23 December to discuss assistance to the Hungarian refugees there. In total, up to May 1957, the United States resettled 32,075 Hungarian refugees, most of whom were processed at Camp Kilmer, a former army base in New Jersey. This was over ten thousand more than Eisenhower had promised to resettle on 1 December, with the utmost practical speed. It also provided an additional $4 million to the UN to aid Hungarian refugees, popularly known as freedom fighters, besides the funds committed by private organisations in the US.

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The Women’s Demonstration in Heroes’ Square, 4 December…

No major demonstrations or events had taken place in Heroes’ Square during the Uprising, but on 4 December, exactly one month after the second Soviet intervention, there was a silent protest of women in the square. This has not received the attention it deserves in the histories of the events of 1956. The demonstration was promoted by the underground newspaper Élünk (We Live) and was not only against the continued occupation by Soviet forces, but also a vigil for those killed in the Uprising and its suppression. The focal point was the memorial at the foot of the column in the centre of the square, originally inscribed in memory of those who had fought in World War I. It had recently been officially rededicated in memory of those who had given their lives for the freedom of the Hungarian people.

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Above: Heroes’ Square

Zsuzsanna Pajzs, a 25-year-old doctor at the time, was one of those present at the demonstration . She later recalled a line of women entering the square, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front, a candle in the other. She remembered the presence of Soviet tanks, but they made no move on the silent demonstration, and both the soldiers and the Hungarian security troops looked on in silence, according to thirteen-year-old schoolgirl, Márta Boga. She recalled how:

We believed, with the minds of children, that everything was starting again. There were lots of women. Those who had lost someone were dressed in black from head to toe. There were candles burning in many windows. There were some with pushchairs. No one shouted out. This was a silent demonstration.

A report in the Yugoslav publication Borba spoke of columns of demonstrators arriving from fifteen different directions at around 10.30 am. There were two or three women in each line carrying either the Hungarian tricolour or black flags. . The report quotes from leaflets protesting against the slanders calling our dead ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and our Hungarian revolutionaries ‘fascists’. There were old and young, and all had flowers in their hands.

Borba also reported that Soviet armoured cars arrived and blocked Andrassy út (as it was named before 1950 and has been since 1990). Shots were fired in the air. Some women were pushed back and told to disperse, though there was some dialogue between the women and the Soviets. The AP reporter Endre Marton also witnessed these scenes, estimating that the demonstrators numbered twenty thousand. It constituted a cross-section of society,

the famous actress with the streetcar conductor… the lovely straight avenue… teeming with women and only women. 

Tanks appeared and stopped the silent demonstration two blocks from Heroes’ Square, Marton reported. A Soviet colonel got up on one of the tanks, shouting at the women in Russian. According to Marton, the women’s lines…

…opened up and then closed again behind the monsters, leaving them hopelessly engulfed by the oncoming thousands.

When the lines reached the square, in seconds the tomb was bedecked with flowers… The colonel now turned his eyes to the few journalists observing the events in the square, whom he began to harangue and harass:

He could not stop this mass demonstration, but wanted to prevent the world from learning what had happened.

The women then hived off and went to demonstrate in front of the US and British embassies. A Soviet tank arrived at the latter Legation. József Molnár, employed as an interpreter there, remembered an amusing exchange which occurred as Sir Leslie Fry, the British ambassador telephoned Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador, for an explanation:

The Soviet ambassador said that the tank had been sent to protect the Legation from the demonstrators. To this Sir Leslie Fry responded that if the Soviet armed forces had nothing better to do in Hungary than to protect the British Legation from Hungarians, then they could peacefully go home since the Legation had no need for it.

The following day several hundred women attempted to demonstrate and lay flowers at the Petőfi statue in Március 15 tér, but were prevented from doing so by Soviet and Hungarian security forces. In the course of the next five days there were further women’s protests in the provincial towns of Gyula, Székesfehérvár, Esztergom, Pécs, Miskolc and Eger.

6-27 December: The Workers’ Councils of Budapest and Csepel…

Throughout the early weeks of December, the Budapest Central Workers’ Council continued to offer the last bastion of opposition still operative in Hungary. Since it was an elected body, with representatives from each major workplace, it had great credibility, and both the Kádár régime and the Soviets had to take it seriously. Despite the revival of the strike following the abduction of the Nagy ‘rump’, Kádár still hoped to use the council to control the workers. Its members were given travel passes, whereas most workers were restricted to travel between home and work, and were also authorised to carry arms. The security forces also appointed their own delegate, a colonel, to the council, and even Kádár and senior Soviet officials sometimes attended its meetings. Sándor Rácz, president of the council, was only twenty-three and had little public education, but as he was a remarkable speaker he had been elected to head the council. However, by the beginning of December, it seems that the Soviets, if not Kádár himself, were beginning to run out of patience with the council. By the 2-3 December, although there was still a chance that there might be some agreement between the KMT (the Central Workers’ Council) and the Kádár government, the negotiations were in their final phase. The end game was approaching and, as things turned out, it could be argued that the KMT should have been much bolder. In the event, Rácz was summoned to their general HQ where the Soviet envoy and commander, General Serov was waiting for him, and abruptly informed him:

It’s finished. We don’t want to hear any more phony demands from you and you are not going to continue the strike. Consider yourself fortunate that I allow you to walk out of this room.

On 6 December, the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council issued a memorandum which had a rather fatalistic tone, admitting its failure to reach a compromise in its negotiations with the Kádár government:

…Our wish is the same as all workers, indeed the whole Hungarian people: decent standards of living, peace, a life without fear, independence and a strong government controlled by the workers and peasants of this country. We know that the working class is the greatest force in creating and safeguarding these aims… We drew a sharp line between ourselves and those who are bent on mischief, armed forays, or acts of terror. We must state here and now that our efforts have not brought the desired results. While we have done our best to restart productive work in all workplaces throughout the countryside, we have suffered provocations from many sides, sometimes leading to strike action… We accept that Prime Minister János Kádár is doing his level best to bring the country back to normal conditions. But it seems that he is not strong enough to remove certain persons in his entourage who have earned the undying hatred of Hungarian workers.

The memorandum went on to complain about the numerous arrests of workers’ councils’ members throughout the country and the disruption of meetings, concluding that these seemed to be part of an organised attack. These abuses had been brought to the attention of the government, it stated, in the hope that an impending catastrophe might be avoided. It’s conclusion, however, was that our efforts have been fruitless. After that, its demand that the government should disclose its plans on the radio the following day (7 December) seem, in retrospect, rather weak. There was not even a hint of a threat of action by the KMT to force this. On 8 December, in what seems now like an act of desperation, the KMT addressed, in very diplomatic language, an address to Nikolai Bulganin, the USSR’s Prime Minister:

We should be deeply obliged to Your Excellency, and you would render a great service to the cause of Hungarian political consolidation, if you could give an opportunity to the democratically elected delegates of the Hungarian working class to submit to you their views on Hungarian economic-political reality.

On the same day, the KMT held a meeting with workers’ councils’ delegates from the provinces in Budapest. One of the major items on the agenda was the continuing arrest of workers’ councils’ members. As the meeting got underway, news came through of the fatal shooting of a number of workers during a protest demonstration in Salgótarján, an industrial town to the northeast of the capital. The result was an immediate call for a forty-eight-hour, nationwide general strike for 11-12 December, with the exemption of medical and energy supplies.

Meanwhile, communiques were published among the public, assuring them that Imre Nagy and his group were enjoying the hospitality of the Romanian government in an excellent atmosphere marked by mutual understanding. Despite these attempts at placating the public, On 11 December, the forty-eight-hour strike began. As Sándor Rácz recalled in 1983:

… the strike of December 11-12 and the appeal were the last things we did. We didn’t have anything left to say to Kádár’s lot who, in place of negotiating with us, had fired on us. You know, it’s my feeling that the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest put its stamp on the whole revolution, showing that this wasn’t an uprising of hooligans, but of workers.

As the strike was getting underway, the government issued a strongly worded pronouncement declaring a state of emergency, introducing measures such as summary jurisdiction.  At the same time it declared:

…the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest, the district workers’ councils of the capital, and the county and town workers’ councils to be illegal… sober working men have been unable to gain ground against a counter-revolutionary majority. These… elements are working for nothing less than to turn the workers’ councils of Budapest into bastions of the counter-revolution.  Their armoury consists of spreading rumours, acts of terror, calls for strikes and renewed armed provocations.

In the government’s view the deaths and injuries at Salgótarján had been caused by counter-revolutionary provocateurs who had opened fire on the demonstrators, though it gave no evidence to support this claim in its pronouncement.

Sándor Rácz was called before parliament on 11 December, supposedly for more talks. Reluctantly, he made his way there despite the beginning of arrests of other leaders of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council. Arriving at the door of the Parliament House, he was also arrested and bundled off to the Fő utca prison in Buda. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment. The repression continued across the city, with further arrests and the occupation of factories by Soviet troops. The general strike of mid-December was the high point for the KMT, but it also marked the beginning of its speedy decline.

This left the Csepel Workers’ Council as the only remaining organised force capable of offering resistance to Soviet control. The Council decided to take over the responsibility of negotiating with the government, in order to stop the arrests, free those who had been arrested, and preserve what elements it could of workers’ control and self-management. The Csepel workers had refused to support the general strike call and János Kádár assured them that their councils, as factory-based organisations, were not regarded as outside the law. In the end, however, negotiation with his government proved just as difficult and frustrating a task as it had done for the KMT.

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The Csepel Works, on the Danube, south of Budapest, photographed in the 1990s, following privatisation.

The leader of the Csepel Workers’  Council, Elek Nagy, had an interesting confrontation at a weekly press conference with a New York Times reporter who asked why the Csepel workers were so unprincipled and opportunistic, why they had returned to work rather than sticking to the call for the removal of Soviet troops. Nagy lost his temper and responded that he was well aware that America was anti-Soviet, and pointed out that the degree of Soviet friendship in Budapest could be judged from the widespread ruins. He asked the reporter if he would prefer not to see any building standing in the city, and to see thousands of orphans and widows, so that the critics could censure the Soviets all the more:

You would only have the moral right to raise your question if the Russian army had killed proportionately as many Americans as it has here, and was ruining your country. Until then you have no right to talk about principles and opportunism.

A correspondent for Pravda, who asked about the fulfilment of the production plan got off no more lightly. Nagy ranted in response:

Hungary isn’t working under a plan. What do you want? To tell more lies? You’ve told enough already. Rather write about how the Great Boulevard and Andrássy út are in ruins; write about how your liberating troops behaved when faced with a small nation fighting for national independence; write this rather than how we have already fulfilled the socialist norm by 150 per cent!

Negotiations with the Kádár government continued in parliament, but in an increasingly antagonistic atmosphere, the two sides failing to see eye to eye over their respective roles. József recalled one of the last meetings, on 27 December, when Kádár reiterated strongly that the Party must have the leading role, and when his fellow minister György Marosán angrily jumped up, shouting…

…Take note! Here power is in the hands of the Party, and there can be no counting on any solution which puts a question mark over the Party’s political monopoly. Meanwhile you continually talk about revolution. You should understand that it was a counter-revolution here.

By the end of the year, whatever contemporary or historical perspective was applied to the events of the previous ten weeks, the Revolution had come full circle, and remained in the same position for the next thirty years, at least.

Reflections and Projections on the fate of the Revolution and Communism  

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Above: Painting by Krisztina Rényi, The János Kádár Era (1956-89). Rényi was born in 1956, at the beginning of the era, and her son was born in 1989, at its end.

Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution in her renowned The Origins of Totalitarianism is often quoted and referred to as a positive appreciation of the 1956 events from a Marxist perspective, but those quoting her rarely reflect deeply on her comments about the direct democracy of the workers’ councils which emerged as being at the core of what was positive about these events. She has pointed out that whenever and wherever such councils have emerged they were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies from Right to Left, and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists. Certainly, the role of the workers’ councils in 1956 has been (conveniently) neglected in much of both historical and commemorative writing since the tag counter-revolution was officially abandoned in October 1988.

Apart from Arendt’s writing, that of Milovan Djilas, once the friend and later the persecuted critic of Tito, reflects a positive, contemporary appraisal of the role of the Hungarian Revolution in the context of a prophetic view of the long-term, terminal decline of Communism in Eastern Europe. In The New Leader, written at the end of 1956, he drew the following lessons from that year’s events:

The Communist régimes of the East European countries must either begin to break away from Moscow or else they will become even more dependent. None of the countries – not even Yugoslavia – will be able to avert this choice. In no case can the mass movement be halted, whether it follows the Yugoslav-Polish pattern, that of Hungary, or some new pattern which combines the two. 

Despite the Soviet repression in Hungary, Moscow can only slow down the processes of change; it cannot stop them in the long run. The crisis is not only between the USSR and its neighbours, but within the Communist system as such. National Communism is itself a product of the crisis but it is only a phase in the evolution and withering-away of contemporary Communism… the revolution in Hungary means the beginning of the end in Communism.

… The Hungarian Revolution blazed a path which sooner or later other Communist countries must follow. The wound which the Hungarian Revolution inflicted on Communism can never be completely healed. All its evils and weaknesses, both as Soviet imperialists and as a definite system of suppression, had collected on the body of Hungary and there, like festering sores, were cut out by the Hungarian people.

I do not think that the fate of the Hungarian Revolution is at all decisive for the fate of Communism in the world. World communism now faces stormy days and insurmountable difficulties, and the people of Eastern Europe face heroic new struggles for freedom and independence.

Those heroic new struggles for freedom and independence began on 23 October 1988, when it was announcement on the radio that the struggle in 1956 would no longer be viewed by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party as a counter-revolution and that the Soviet Union had agreed to star withdrawing its troops from the country the following spring. The wheel of revolution was beginning to turn again, but this time it would bring about the final fall of Communism by accelerating the development of privatisation and free-market economies throughout the Eastern states, together with a switching of military alliances.     

Secondary Sources:

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz

Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa

 

  

The Twin Crises of 1956: Suez and Hungary; part eight.   1 comment

15-30 November:

Turning the World Upside Down

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In her interview for September’s BBC History Magazine, Alex von Tunzelmann was asked  why she thought the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt was so badly bungled. She pointed out that the military plans from the time show that they were full of gaps, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were clearly opposed to the whole operation. Indeed, they themselves had advised the British Prime Minister that consequences of the action could be terrible, but he had chosen to ignore their advice. They were proved right, but partly because of the weight of world opinion was so heavily against them that, by the time the British and French forces got a third of the way down the canal, they had to stop. Israel achieved its objective of taking Sinai, but soon lost it again. Neither Britain nor France achieved their objectives, and all that they succeeded in doing was strengthening Nasser’s control in the Middle East while his ally, the Soviet Union, reasserted its control over its satellite states. In addition, people no longer talked about Britain as a major world power. From this point on, there were just two ‘superpowers’, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the following years and decades, Britain was reduced to playing the junior partner in its ‘special relationship’ with the USA.

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Eisenhower was not in favour of an immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops until the US ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. pushed for it. Eden’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill commented on 22 November, “I cannot understand why our troops were halted. To go so far and not go on was madness.” Churchill further added that while he might not have dared to begin the military operation, nevertheless once having ordered it he would certainly not have dared to stop it before it had achieved its objective. Without further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by 22 December 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of the UNEF. Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt within a week; Israel did not. A rare example of support for the Anglo-French actions against Egypt came from West Germany; though the Cabinet was divided, the Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was furious with the United States for its “chumminess with the Russians” as Adenauer called the U.S. refusal to intervene in Hungary and voting with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, and the traditionally Francophile Adenauer drew closer to Paris as a result.

File:Suez Crisis aftermath.ogv

Still from a 1957 newsreel on the aftermath of the crisis

Reading the newspaper accounts of the Autumn of 1956, von Tunzelmann was struck by the speed of the events both in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the way in which both sets seemed simultaneously to be upsetting the existing order of the world. In the climate of world opinion against Britain and France, the Soviet Union was able to avoid large-scale diplomatic repercussions from its violent suppression of the rebellion in Hungary, and even to present an image at the United Nations as a defender of small nations against imperialism. In addition, the Soviet Union made major gains with regards to influence in the Middle East. The American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote about the aftermath of the crisis:

When the British-French-Israeli invasion forced them to choose, Eisenhower and Dulles came down, with instant decisiveness, on the side of the Egyptians. They preferred alignment with Arab nationalism, even if it meant alienating pro-Israeli constituencies on the eve of a presidential election in the United States, even if it meant throwing the NATO alliance into its most divisive crisis yet, even if it meant risking whatever was left of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, even if it meant voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council at a time when the Russians, themselves, were invading Hungary and crushing—far more brutally than anything that happened in Egypt—a rebellion against their own authority there. The fact that the Eisenhower administration itself applied crushing economic pressure to the British and French to disengage from Suez, and that it subsequently forced an Israeli pull-back from the Sinai as well—all of this, one might thought, would won the United States the lasting gratitude of Nasser, the Egyptians and the Arab world. Instead, the Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.

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In Hungary, by the middle of November, the rebellion had been completely crushed. The Soviet invasion had rolled back its small, nascent reforms and life became much more unpleasant for many people living in the Soviet bloc. Yet, initially, Kádár had no real idea as to how to cope with the situation he faced, no clear set of policies to implement. The government programme which he had drafted in Moscow at the beginning of November, included promises of welfare measures, amnesty, workers’ self-management, indulgent policies towards the peasantry and small-scale private enterprise in general, and even a transition to a multi-party system and a re-negotiation of the presence of Soviet troops (once order was restored).

Last days in Budapest

Tom recalls continuing to listen to the radio in their shared flat during the second fortnight in November:

One bizarre event was the holding of the International Liszt Piano Competition. Of course, it was boycotted by everyone outside the Warsaw pact countries. Still we listened to it on the radio as the two top prizes were awarded to Russian pianists playing Liszt’s piano concertos. The third prize went to a Hungarian who played the less known ’Mephisto Waltz’ in the final round. The dance of the devil – a touch of artistic resistance rewarded by the jury? We could hope so. Then the Olympic Games started in Melbourne towards the end of November, so we started to take an interest in the exploits of the Hungarian team. How were they feeling competing against Soviet athletes?  Every medal still gave us a sense of national pride.  

On 16 November, one of the major centres of underground resistance, Péterfy utca Hospital, was raided and a number of leaders arrested. Since 23 October, this had been one of the main hospitals in the capital where those injured in the fighting, including some ÁVH and Soviet soldiers, were brought for emergency treatment. It was not far from the Eastern Railway Station, where a number of armed groups had their base, and close to Köztársaság Square, so that it received those injured on 30 October. On 4 November, the day of the Soviet reoccupation of the city, more people had turned to the hospital for shelter from the storm of tank fire raging outside, including the armed insurgents. An illegal press had been established under the hospital, with groups of young people delivering leaflets around the city encouraging resistance. This work was inspired and led by István Angyal, who set up a base in the same basement. On the 16th, armed security forces surrounded the hospital complex and entered the grounds. The whole building, including its underground passageways was combed and the publishing equipment seized. There was no armed resistance from inside, and Angyal was arrested and taken away, to be executed later for his part in the uprising. Others among the resistance spent years in prison.

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On the same day, Sándor Rácz, the outspoken twenty-three-year-old toolmaker from the Beloiannisz (Standard Electric) factory in Buda, was elected President of the KMT (Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest). Following his delegation’s meeting with the Kádár government the previous day, his first act was to go on the radio to appeal for a return to work. The appeal was printed in the following day’s Népszabadság:

Fellow workers! Regardless of any outside call, we feel that the immediate resumption of productive work has now become essential. We are saying this in full awareness of our profound responsibility towards the national economy and the people of our country. We have all suffered enough; in the present critical situation sober judgement, conscience and solidarity dictate us to call upon you, while maintaining the right to strike, to return to work on 17 November… Negotiations are continuing. We are convinced that all questions left open can and will be satisfactorily resolved by our joint effort.

Rácz, interviewed in 1983, recalled further reasons why the call for the return to work was made:

We couldn’t allow Kádár’s lot to be the ones who gave work and bread to the workers. , because then they would manipulate them. If the Central Workers’ Council could bring the men back to work, back into the factories, then it would be strengthening its own position as well – that was the idea. The workers’ councils also had to be re-elected. Kádár’s lot were always going on about the workers’ councils not being valid, because the workers weren’t there in the factories – as if they, on the other hand, had been elected by public acclaim.

Despite these justifications, the Associated Press correspondent, Endre Marton, remembered the KMT as a haphazard organisation, whose leaders were manual workers, and not professional trade union men. They had no written statutes and did not care about parliamentary procedures. Nevertheless, he added, they knew their strength and knew that Kádár desperately needed their help to reopen the country’s idle industrial plants. Before the revolution, Kádár had been a popular and respected figure among the workers. Even after 4 November, Marton recalled, while remaining loyal to Imre Nagy, several council members grudgingly acknowledged that they still trusted Kádár despite his betrayal of the revolution.

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In addition to the strike issue, the KMT was determined that the workers’ councils should cooperate on both a regional and national basis. While Kádár was willing to accept the idea of councils at a factory level, concerned with questions of production, and had issued a decree to this effect on 13 November, he was firmly opposed to them establishing networks which might pursue demands of a more political nature. If these were  to materialise into a national body, this might constitute a situation of dual power. Although there was no such intention on the part of the KMT, its leaders certainly wanted to establish a National Workers’ Council to represent workers across the country. They issued a call for a conference to establish this, to be held on Wednesday 21 November at the National Sports Hall in Budapest. However, when the delegates arrived they were confronted by Soviet tanks blocking the streets around the hall, and had to make their way back to the KMT’s headquarters at Akácfa utca. There, an angry meeting passed a resolution calling on the government to recognise a democratically elected national workers’ council as the sole body empowered to carry out negotiations in the name of the working class. They also agreed to the call for a forty-eight hour general strike throughout the capital, excepting food workers, in protest against the banning of the proposed earlier meeting.

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While Kádár negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, he also ordered hundreds of arrests. While the uncertainty as to his real goals remained, he had busied himself in organising special police squads for the purposes of retaliation and maintaining order. This was also the day which saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates, who left the Yugoslav Embassy on assurances of safe passages home given by Kádár himself, but found themselves being taken by Soviet forces to Romania, where they were placed under house arrest. The developments at the Yugoslav Embassy had, as their international background, a speech by Tito to a group of Communist Party activists on the Istrian peninsula on 11 November, the contents of which did not become known in Budapest and Moscow until a week later. In it, he argued that while the Hungarian uprising had been a  justified response to the failure of the Soviets to make a clean break with Stalinism, it had been taken over by counter-revolutionaries. Therefore, in his view, the second Soviet intervention was also justified, as was the setting up of, and his support for, Kádár’s government. The Yugoslav deputy foreign minister was sent to Budapest to negotiate a written agreement between Kádár and himself to the effect that the Hungarian ministers, their families and fellows, would be free to go home without fear of prosecution.

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So it happened that, late in the day on Thursday 22 November, a bus arrived at the embassy allegedly to take the Hungarians home. The ‘refugees’ were already nervous, as Mária Haraszti recalled:

At the time I was very pessimistic, but I can’t explain why… I turned to ‘Uncle Imre’ and asked ‘Is it definite we are going home?’ He said, ‘Of course, Marika, it’s definite’.

As they got on the bus, the first members of the group soon realised that their driver was Russian and some returned to the embassy building to warn the others. Eye-witnesses report that this was followed by a lively exchange between Nagy and the Yugoslav ambassador, who stressed that if they had any doubts about the situation, they should not leave. The belief that there was a formal written agreement seems to have decided the issue, so that the whole group boarded the bus. They had little alternative, since they could not go home on their own due to the curfew. As they pulled away, the Yugoslav embassy cars were prevented from following the bus by two Soviet armoured vehicles. When the bus failed to turn to stop at the first address, the general alarm of its occupants was echoed by one of their children, six-year-old Juli, who cried out, “Oh, no! The Russians are taking us away!” The remaining Yugoslavs on the bus were then ordered off. They were then taken to the Rácóczi Barracks, then used as the KGB base, on the perimeter of Pest. From there they were flown to Romania and placed under house arrest in a villa in Snagov, thirty kilometres north of Bucharest.

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While the revolutionary committees were also being dissolved, almost simultaneously, the ideological justification for the ‘retaliation’ campaign was being drawn up at a Party conference which blamed the October events on:

  • the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction;
  • the formation of a circle around Nagy which undermined the party;
  • a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of the Horthyite fascists;
  • the intervention of international imperialists.

lenin-imperialism

Despite its obvious absurdity to post-communist readers, at the time this was a clever ‘two-front’ strategy of struggle by a virtuous centre against Stalinism on the one hand and revisionism on the other, emphasising both the enemies within and outside the country. The Suez Crisis served its purpose in respect of reminding people of the latter, and Kádár’s other, internal justifications served as the basis for bans, arrests and prosecutions which began under the introduction of summary justice. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months afterwards. Eventually 35,000 people were brought before the Hungarian courts; 22,000 were sentenced and 13,000 imprisoned. Around 350 people were executed (229 were sentenced to death). Thirteen thousand were sent to internment camps without trial, many of these eventually being deported to the Soviet Union without any evidence being brought against them. Some sources have estimated the deportations to have been as high as twenty thousand. The UN General Assembly, meeting in plenary session, adopted a series of resolutions urging the Soviet Union to stop deporting Hungarian citizens from their homes and calling on the Hungarian Government to admit UN observers to assess the situation, also urging member states to assist refugees. Some two hundred thousand Hungarians fled their country as refugees, including the current and future intelligentsia, among them Tom Leimdorfer and his family, as well as many famous writers, poets, artists musicians and athletes. President Eisenhower announced that the United States would offer asylum to 21,500 Hungarian refugees, and that these would be brought to the US with the utmost practicable speed.

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When the news of the abduction of Nagy and his ministers began to trickle through to the ordinary citizens of Budapest, no doubt it added to the anger and determination which resulted in the silent ‘shut down’ of the city in the afternoon of 23 November. Exactly a month after the uprising began, the streets of the capital fell silent as a planned protest against the continued Soviet occupation. Word had spread that between 2 pm and 3 pm there would be a silent protest, that the city centre would be deserted and that no-one would set foot on the streets. Endre Marton, the AP correspondent drove his Volkswagen towards Blaha Lujza tér, one of the busiest squares in the capital and parked it near the National Theatre. Then minutes before two o’ clock the normally crowded square rapidly emptied, people in doorways motioning to those still on the streets to join them. When the church clocks chimed two, the whole city centre came to a standstill. Marton commented that there was more life… on those streets during the hours of air raids in 1945 than there was during that hour. The only vehicle he saw moving was an armoured car packed with Soviet soldiers shouldering rifles, wearing combat fatigues and steel helmets, and when they slowly passed our car I could see the tension on the young faces looking around in disbelief. After comparing notes with other journalists, Marton reported that the situation had been the same everywhere, even in the residential districts and industrial suburbs – deserted streets and complete silence.

Though there were few other acts or events to follow that Friday in the capital during the last week of November, passive resistance throughout the country continued to take place over the following early weeks of December, with strikes and marches being met by police rounds, killing hundreds of demonstrating workers in northern towns of Salgótarján, Miskolc and Eger.

Preparing to leave

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For Tom Leimdorfer, that last week of November brought the dawning yet still dismal realisation that his prospects would now, indeed, involve leaving his beloved Budapest:

As that sad, depressing November drew to its close, we started to talk about the future. Somehow, those four weeks created a break with everything we had regarded as our normal pattern of life. We heard that the border was still open and tens of thousands had already fled. Some were escaping from certain retribution, having played a prominent part in the revolution. Most others were leaving because they could not face a return to repression after hopes for freedom were crushed. Mami started to talk about London again, but this time it was not just for me or the two of us. Gyuri seemed to take to idea and gradually Ferkó and Marika warmed to the thought of a new life in England. Yet it must have been a frightening prospect for them. They had a really lovely flat, their childhood home, which they would leave for an uncertain future. None them spoke even the little English I had. Ferkó spoke quite good German and schoolboy Russian and his father was fluent in German and French but knew no English. Sári néni must have been devastated at the prospect of being left alone by her family, having only lost her daughter two years before. Yet she was supportive of the idea that we should try to leave.

Once the decision was made, my mother swung into action. She went back to her workplace and sought an interview with a senior manager. Somehow, she persuaded him to write an official document entitling her and her family (including her new partner’s two children!) to a week’s holiday at one of the hostels at the disposal of the worker’s union – which just happened to be close to the Austrian border. This was in case we were challenged on the train journey. Then she went to see her friend and colleague who desperately needed a small flat, having lived with her parents all her life. She told her in confidence what our plans were, gave her our duplicate keys and instructions about what to do and say to the authorities if we were successful and also if we were arrested. Some money for our furniture was to go to our family, which eventually was turned into a single lens reflex Praktica camera I was to use for over 25 years.

The next episodes in Tom’s tale, mirroring those of the bitter winter which followed for many of his compatriots, is one of exodus and exile, which I aim to tell in my next series of posts. They are more concerned with the personal and familial experiences of fleeing the homeland, arriving as a refugee in England, and the struggles associated with settling into the host country. That is why they need to be told separately from the events of the autumn of 1956 in Budapest and elsewhere, though they are no less a seminal part of modern European history, especially given the more recent troubles and turmoil to affect both the continent, and the ‘Middle East’.

Main Secondary Sources:

Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of Drama. Budapest: Europa Könyvkiadó.

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: US Department of State.

László Kontler (2009),  A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz kiadó.

Primary Sources as given in the texts.

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