Archive for the ‘Nationality’ Category

The Recovery of the Labour Party & the Left in Britain, 1934-39: Fighting the Right & the Growth of a United Front.   1 comment

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

Following the November 1935 General Election, and Attlee’s subsequent election as leader, the Labour Party was firmly back onto the road to recovery. The components of that recovery were many and varied, but they could be summarised as including the following ten ‘key points’:

  • acceptance of the changing nature, or ‘re-making’ of the working classes, from those based on the older extractive and manufacturing industries to those in the newer, lighter engineering industries, including large numbers of women workers;

  • acceptance of the need to put the ‘National Interest’ ahead of sectional ones, whilst still seeking to develop primary policies to benefit the poorer sections of society, especially the unemployed;

  • giving priority to the needs of the working classes for local and national representation rather than promoting revolutionary activism among them;

  • ending narrow sectarianism and developing a willingness to develop socialist ideas in practice, and across a broad front, and in alliance with other groups, rather than on the basis of exclusive ideological principles;

  • developing co-operative and collective means of organising production, distribution and trade by building coalitions of social and economic organisations, including Co-operative Societies;

  • promoting social justice and equity as long-term aims as well as guiding principles for policy-making;

  • upholding the rights of all to the rights of freedom of association and expression, particularly in their participation in trade unions and organisations;

  • upholding the values of the British people, including ‘patriotism’ and the continuing importance of ensuring ‘thrift’ in programmes of public expenditure by ensuring long-term ‘planning’ of essential public services.

  • upholding the institutions of British Democracy, including its constitutional monarchy and the sovereignty of its people through Parliament, based on universal and equal representation.

  • advancing the cause of ‘municipal socialism’ through the development of local parties committed to encouraging a sense of civic pride and the establishment of social services, especially in health, maternity and education, accessible to all.   

These points are not listed in any order of priority but reflect recurring themes in contemporary sources, rather than the current concerns of sectional and sectarian protagonists within the Labour Party. Clearly, however, there are echoes and resonances which affect our interpretations of past principles and priorities. Of course, these interpretations themselves are not necessarily new, as the Thirties were set in mythology before they even ended. Then, in my lifetime, against the background of economic decline under the final Wilson administration in 1977, John Stevenson and Chris Cook published their ground-breaking book, The Slump – society and politics during the depression, which began the process of de-mythologising the period by attempting to separate the myths, potent as they still were in popular consciousness, from the historical realities.

Certainly, the politics of the immediate post-war era were fought on the record of the National Government in the pre-war years.  As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with the election slogan, ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. The popular view of the 1930s as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when that era had clearly come to an end, the ghosts of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent.

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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Now we have passed the point of ‘No Return to the Thirties’ and the memories of the decade are no longer first-hand fears, perhaps this process will soon be brought to its conclusion and we will no longer be stuck with the powerful and all-pervasive images of ‘the wasted years’ and the ‘low dishonest decade’, even if the Thirties will be forever associated with mass unemployment, hunger marches, appeasement and the rise of Fascism at home and on the continent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. It would, of course, be fatuous to suggest that the Thirties were not for many thousands of people a time of great hardship and personal suffering. At the time, there was a thirst for information on which policy to ameliorate, if not cure this malaise could be based, especially in the Labour Party. However, it took the Party two years until the end of 1937 to set up a ‘Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas’, to produce its report and to agree on a course of action at a special conference in December 1937. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the National Government itself had, in the face of already overwhelming political pressure, passed the Special Areas Act in 1934 to take some measures in four distressed regions to help the long-term unemployed. Commissioners had been appointed and departments created, though Whitehall in-fighting and economic orthodoxy hampered their work.

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But alongside the images of the unemployed must be placed those of another Britain, of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living. Some sectors of the economy grew rapidly, particularly car manufacture, electrical engineering, the paper and publishing industries, and rayon production, all industries heavily concentrated in the Midlands. The output of the UK car industry increased from seventy-one thousand vehicles in 1923 to over 390,000 by 1937, by which time Britain was second only to the USA in the export of motor vehicles. The share of the ‘new industries’ in total industrial output rose from seven per cent in 1924 to twenty-one per cent by 1935. As a consequence of these ‘new industries’, the living standards of people who remained in employment actually improved by about sixteen per cent between the wars. Although the new industries were not sufficiently large to reverse the overall trend of economic decline, they were important in minimising the effect of the Depression for the employed, especially through the migration of workers from the older industries to the new. The economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. As 1936 progressed, it was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War.

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As can be seen from the maps above, giving an Index of Relative Unemployment, South Wales was hit harder than any other region by unemployment and poverty. Average unemployment there was thirty-one per cent, compared with twenty per cent in Scotland and twelve per cent in England. Within Wales, there were also huge local variations in levels of unemployment, from eighty-two per cent in Taff Wells, seventy-two in Pontycymmer and sixty-six per cent in Merthyr and Abertillery down to those in the coastal towns and areas below the regional average, if not the national one. By the 1930s, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire had the highest proportion of people on poor relief in the UK, apart from Durham. To combat poverty, the National government had passed the Special Areas (Development) Act in 1934 and followed it with the Special Areas Reconstruction (Agreement) Act in 1936, which provided financial incentives to industry to move to the four distressed areas of the UK. Most of Glamorgan and west Monmouthshire became one of the ‘Special Areas’. The other areas were Glasgow-Linlithgow-Kilmarnock, South Shields-Hartlepool, and Workington. A few new industries were established in each of the areas, but the effects were inadequate.

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

In South Wales, the social effect of high levels of poverty was devastating. With poverty came malnutrition and disease. The incidence of rickets and scarlet fever soared, and the death rate from tuberculosis was 130 per cent above the average for the UK. Local shops and services became unviable. Chapels found their congregations dwindling as large numbers of people found themselves having to leave their country, moving to the ‘new industries’ of the southeast and Midlands of England.  Some of the migration continued to be ‘planned’ by the Ministry of Labour, which sponsored the transfer of workers. Between 1921 and 1940, over 440,000 left Wales permanently, eighty-five per cent of them from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. They either left with the majority under their own steam, or on the Ministry’s schemes, but by the late thirties, it was estimated that as many as one in ten of those officially transferred had taken themselves back to their valleys. Therefore, those experiencing some form of migration from Wales in the interwar years may well have been closer to half a million.

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In July 1934, Professor Marquand of Cardiff University published an article in The Times arguing for state stimulation of investment by means of a Trust for new industries. But he also admitted that it was unlikely that any government whether socialist or capitalist could do little more than tilt the balance very slightly in favour of regions like South Wales. It was therefore important that the transference policy should be stepped up as the revival of industry in England proceeded. This provoked an angry reaction from y Blaid Genedlaethol Cymru (‘The Welsh Nationalist Party’), the only party wholly opposed to transference at this time, although it advocated resettlement of ‘Welsh’ and ‘half-Welsh’ industrial workers in rural or ‘de-industrialised’ Wales, while the pre-1921 ‘English’ immigrants to the Coalfield could be returned to their counties of origin. The Party accused Marquand of looking longingly towards state aid and admitting that it would never be forthcoming and then hoping that England’s recovery would be sufficient to enable the flower of Welsh manhood to be dumped there. But these were voices heard only as crying in the wilderness of the ‘Celtic fringe’, as Wyndham Portal’s 1934 Report showed that the government continued to advocate transference on the largest possible scale. 

The Portal Report and the continuing emphasis placed on transference by the Government’s ‘Special Areas’ machinery, to the deliberate exclusion of any policy designed to attract new industries did, however, meet with a growing tide of protest and disgruntlement at a local and regional level within Wales. The Nationalist arguments that the ‘best elements’ in Welsh society were being ‘shipped off’, that migration was having an anglicising effect greater than that of the BBC and that the National Government was only concerned to ensure that there there was ‘no trouble’ in Wales, began to have a broader appeal among ‘establishment’ liberals and church leaders alike. They began to accept that transference and migration did not discriminate between the ‘alien accretions’ and ‘the old Welsh stock’, between the citizens of Welsh-speaking Rhymney and those of anglicised Abertillery. The statistical evidence bears this out, as the number of those identifying as Welsh-speakers declined from 155,000 in 1921 to just sixty thousand by 1939. These views were strengthened by the resolve with which the new Commissioner for the Special Areas, P. M. Stewart, set about his task in the New Year of 1935. In his first report, Stewart offered a stern rebuff to the growing tide of national feeling in Wales by suggesting that:

… love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.

In the New Year of 1936, the Government’s policy again came under fire, from a more local perspective, when the Report of the Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve the bankrupt County Borough’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions. Either the borough should be subjected to a wholesale ‘evacuation’ or there should be a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those that remained. Neither was being pursued with any vigour by the Government, but there was one course of action for which no case could be made. That was:

… the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole … It is this last course which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

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In May, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Most of the prominent figures in the Social Service movement in South Wales attended the Conference, including Church leaders and MPs. The young Labour MP for Ebbw Vale (a family scene from where is pictured above), Aneurin Bevan called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of the establishment Liberals who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if the problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken  as there was neconomic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

This was the clearest statement to come from the Labour Left to date, but it was quickly countered by members of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite at the Conference, who suggested that the valleys of East Monmouthshire had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life … However, the majority view of the conference appears to have been that what had been taking place was ‘expatriation’ rather than ‘repatriation’. Later that summer, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, Elfan Rees developed this theme at another conference in Llandrindod Wells, that of the Welsh School of Social Service, taking issue with the recent comments made by Professor Marquand in his recent short book, South Wales Needs a Plan, that a population largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil … a people without roots may be as ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in. Countering this, Rees argued that:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going … the unwillingness to remain idle at home … are the qualities that mark our indigenous population. … if this process of… despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

This division among the left-liberals advocates of ‘Planning’ and the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite helps to explain what Bevan referred to as the ‘complacency’ of ‘The Welsh Nation’ over the policy of transference during the previous eight years. The liberal establishment in the Social Service movement had hoped that it would remove, as they saw it, the ‘alien’ activists typified by A J Cook and others in the Miners’ Federation who had robbed them of the loyalty of the Welsh people. By 1936, they were clearly embarrassed by their newly-formed impression of a large number of people of Welsh origin who were leaving the valleys. Rees and others tended to exaggerate this process (the 1951 Census shows that the proportion of Welsh-speakers remained similar to that of 1931), it is clear that the growing awareness of the indiscriminate nature of migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in the transference scheme in favour of a more patriotic opposition to it. Marquand himself was critical of this hypocritical and manipulative élite and the nationalist passions of persons who hold safe jobs themselves. The response which his overtly political South Wales Needs a Plan received in official circles and the prominence given to it in the ‘responsible’ press was seen by contemporaries as a measure of the extent of the shift which had taken place in national opinion. The journal Planning commented that, had the book been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously, and wryly suggested that Marquand was…

… still young enough to have the satisfaction of knowing that if the ideas he put forward were to go on making headway at their present rate, he would live to see most of them forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.

However, the Commissioner, Malcolm Stewart responded by allocating funds to the National Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire for a ‘Second Industrial Survey’ to be made with Marquand as editor. His team of investigators worked rapidly, publishing the report in three volumes in 1937. As there was little prospect of the revival of the staple industries, the Report suggested that the only alternative to continued mass emigration lay in the diversification of the region’s economy by the introduction of new industries, supported by state action. The establishment of trading estates, like the one already projected for Treforest, near Pontypridd, was seen as a means of ensuring the success of these industries. Thus, by the outbreak of war, the economy of the region was slowly being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament. However, this grudging shift in Government policy did not take place until the end of a decade of mass unemployment and migration. Neither was the Labour Party very far ahead of the government in producing its policies. Its own Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas, appointed in November 1936 under the direction of Hugh Dalton, was not published until May 1937. Despite the fact that the Commission received evidence from a large number of local parties, Labour groups, women’s sections and trade union branches, the report on South Wales amounted to little more than a précis of Marquand’s survey in the form of a thirty-page pamphlet, the cover page of which is pictured below.

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The Report echoed the ‘sentiments’ of nationalists and ‘Cymric’ liberals in its statements that ‘the strength of the Welsh communities were being sapped’ and that ‘youngsters’ were ‘being torn away from parental care’. But the overall importance of the slim document lay in its drawing together of the current ‘middle opinion’ thinking and the vogue for ‘planning’ into a coherent set of policies for South Wales as a region. It criticised the work of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), established in June 1936, over its bureaucratic and onerous financial provisions. Despite the government’s shift in policy, 1937 was the peak year for the Transference Scheme. Welsh nationalists continued to conduct a forceful campaign, often confronting Welsh-speaking juvenile employment officers whom they accused of being ‘determined to force people out of Wales’ and of adopting ‘a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of transference’. But by the end of 1937, the new public consensus had finally succeeded in supplanting transference as the main official response to the problem of mass unemployment in the Special Areas. However, this did not mean an immediate end to the continued exodus of older workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom in the Midland factories was swallowing up more and more labour.

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Above: Pages from the Labour Party’s Report on South Wales, using Marquand’s surveys. 

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

The interwar years are frequently regarded as radical ones in political terms, characterised by popular and revolutionary left-wing support for the Labour Party, the growth of the Communist Party, and hunger marches organised and led by the Communists’ organisation for the unemployed, the NUWM. Perhaps it was the genuine fear of the street violence and disorderly protests over the means test which encouraged the vast majority of the electorate to continue to vote Conservative in national elections, most notably in November 1935. In 1935, the Communists remained a small party with about seven thousand members, but each member was, according to Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (in ‘The Long Weekend’, 1940), an extremely active centre of agitation and … adept at giving a Marxist turn to every discussable topic. The Daily Worker had doubled its size and greatly increased its circulation. In addition, between 1935 and 1937 nearly a million copies of the Communists’ pamphlets and leaflets were sold. Graves and Hodge summed up the commitment required to be a Communist:

To belong to the party meant devoting one’s time and money so whole-heartedly to the cause and having one’s political and social history so carefully investigated that very few sympathisers with the Communist position either desired to join the ‘corps d’élite’ of the party or would have been accepted had they offered.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once acknowledged as a show-down between the Left and the Right in Europe. The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees reverberated throughout the Labour left. While Bevin, Citrine and Dalton won the TUC in September 1936 for the Eden-Baldwin policy of non-intervention, informal discussions were being held by Cripps, Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. Earlier that summer Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski and John Strachey had launched the spectacularly successful ‘Left Book Club’, preparing the ground for a ‘Popular Front’ spanning the ‘Labour Left’ and the Communists, the latter by then having abandoned their bitterly sectarian ‘Class Against Class’ policy.

A volunteer ‘International Brigade’ arrived quite early in the conflict, including 2,762 British volunteers, 543 of whom died in Spain. Most of the British popular press was on the whole for the Republicans, but for the Conservative newspapers, they were always the ‘Reds’ or ‘the Communists’. To many people of René Cutforth’s generation, the war remained the most significant and deeply felt experience of their lives, little remembered, or read about, by today’s ‘soft’ Communists on the ‘hard Left’ of the Labour Party. Cutforth’s observation was particularly true of the mostly middle-class associates of the Thirties’ intellectuals, many of whom, like George Orwell, went to fight for the Republicans.  In Britain, communication across the class divide was almost impossible, but in Spain, some were able to achieve this. It was quite easy to dodge the non-interventionist authorities as the arrangements were mostly controlled through the CPGB, and once the volunteer presented himself at the recruiting office, he could be on his way into battle within a few hours. But, as Cutforth commented:

… the feelings which drove the Spaniards to massacre each other in droves turned out to have little or no bearing on those which had inspired the idealism of the British Left, most of which was derived from the protestant Christian conscience. … That the public school ethics of fair play and esprit de corps had played a large part in the formation of the minds which launched the Thirties movement is obvious from their works, and the British Labour movement always owed more to Methodism than to Marx.

This conscience-pricking idealism was utterly alien to the Spaniards fighting their private war. … their motives were personal, local, regional and sectarian. Communists had no hesitation in shooting Anarchists to gain control of a local situation. …

The foreign comrades were slow to realise that … the Asturias and Catalonia were not divisions like English counties, but furiously jealous little nations. … hundreds of thousands died by execution on both sides. … This … applied even to men obstensibly on the same side – ‘Trotskyite traitor’ was a common verdict. It was the sight and sound of these daily mass-executions which revolted the civilised Western participants. Was this the Revolution they had willed? Was there any real connection between this vindictive bloody mess and the social justice to which they were committed? 

But most of the British soldiers of the International Brigade were not socialist or communist intellectuals, but autodidactic workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales, some of whom I had the privilege of walking alongside in protest against the returning mass unemployment of the early eighties. Their convictions had been built in over generations of deprivation and years of survival underground had made them tough and fearless. Added to this, long-term unemployment had prepared them for the necessary privations of war, even if they were too young to have fought in the trenches like their fathers. To demonstrate their non-sectarian commitment to the cause, one of the two British contingents was named after the mild-mannered former soldier, Major Attlee. When most of the volunteers returned home in the spring of 1937, as the Germans and Italians moved in to support Franco’s side, they and the British Left, in general, redoubled their efforts to rally support for the Republicans in raising funds and producing propaganda. The survivors had had a short, but tough war. Twenty per cent of the entire British force were wounded, and more than three-quarters of the survivors had been wounded. By the time they disembarked from the ferry, the Civil War was already beginning to look like the ‘dress rehearsal’ for something much worse in the Great Confrontation between Good and Evil.

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While the International Brigade volunteers had been on the front line against fascism, Spain had already become the catalyst that brought a greater degree of united action within the organised labour movement in Britain, than any other political issue of the Thirties. As Michael Foot later reflected:

Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.

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Above: Oswald Mosley. leader of the British Union of Fascists, with his ‘blackshirts’.

It was not just the growth in extremism on the Left which alarmed many, but the emergence of radical right-wing groups during the second half of the 1930s. These consisted largely of disaffected Conservatives who demanded a renewed emphasis on imperial unity and tariffs to protect British industry, while at the same time rejecting parliamentary democracy. The financial crisis of 1931 was seen as proof of the failings of the policies of the established political parties. The most notorious of the right-wing groups was the British Union of Fascists established by Oswald Mosley on 1 October 1932. Mosley had been a junior member of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-31 Labour Government, rising to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, one of the four ministers charged with solving the problem of unemployment. His colleagues were J H Thomas, Minister for Employment, who had the primary responsibility, George Lansbury and Tom Johnston. Mosley had a clear and practical policy but was totally frustrated by Thomas who had little grasp of the intricacies of economics. Mosley thought him ‘a drunken clown’ and treated him with aristocratic contempt, but he had been unable to convince MacDonald to sack the incompetent minister because, as the former national officer of the NUR, he had strong trade union support and influence within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Sir Oswald Mosley, baronet, had arrived in the Party via Winchester, Sandhurst, the Harrow Conservative Association and Cliveden so that his rapid rise in the MacDonald hierarchy after 1924 was regarded with suspicion and resented by many of his colleagues. Mosley resigned from the Labour Government in May 1931 when his radical solution to the unemployment problem was rejected by both the Cabinet and the House of Commons. At that stage, both he and John Strachey were both seen as being on the radical left of the Labour Party. Mosley left it to publish his proposals as The Mosley Manifesto, signed by seventeen supporters including Aneurin Bevan and A. J. Cook, the Miners’ leader, along with Strachey and others.

‘They Shall Not Pass’ – Resisting the ‘Blackshirts’:

Mosley formed the ‘New Party’ and was joined by three other MPs, but when this fell apart, they parted ways with Mosley migrating to the authoritarian Right and founding the BUF complete with Nazi-style regalia. His storm troopers were his ‘Blackshirts’, the élite of them housed in barracks at Chelsea, complete with parade ground. Much of his funding came from Lord Nuffield, the founder of the Morris Motor Company, and other wealthy industrialists for some years to come. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was a staunch protagonist for Mosley and on 15 January 1934, his Daily Mail appeared with the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’.

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Above: Anti-Fascists in Limehouse, London. Wherever Fascism was strong, as it was in East London, anti-Fascists were also very strong and could be violent. While Limehouse had a significant fascist vote (see the text below), it was still the safe seat of Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Mosley held military-style rallies, miniature Nuremberg, at which he could posture as a ‘British Führer’. They were also the scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, the ‘United Front’. In 1934, at the peak of British Fascist strength, Mosley led three big rallies, at the Albert Hall, Hyde Park and Olympia. At the Olympia rally the blackshirts, anxious to demonstrate their efficiency as storm troopers shocked the nation with the violence of their attacks upon protesters within the hall. The Times reported the next day ( June) on the methods used:

The Fascist meeting at Olympia last night suffered from continuous interruptions, and the interrupters suffered heavily at the hands of the blackshirted stewards, male and female. … It proceeded easily for the first ten minutes before the Socialists made their first move. 

… It was countered with … a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence. Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing in the end of his resistance, he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays. …

… The speech was suspended at every display of force. When it resumed it improved with a brief homily on the need of Fascist methods to preserve free speech and on the British people having become accustomed to ‘red violence’ over a period of years.

It was a strangely mixed audience … people of middle-age who wore neither black shirt nor badge; people with a tired expression of eye and wrinkled brows; some of the people who bore the strain of war and the cost of peace. 

Olympia set the pattern for all of Mosley’s meetings. When the hall had filled the doors were locked and the speeches began. There was a spotlight worked from the platform and if any heckler interrupted, or even if anyone rose from their seat, they would be caught in the spotlight and as they stood there blinded and helpless a squad of ‘biff boys’ would move and give them a savage beating up in view of the audience, before turning the offender out of the hall. As René Cutforth commented, the audience simply sat there as if mesmerised by the thuggery taking place in front of them:

It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming. Mosley was never short of an audience.

In 1936, about 330,000 Jewish people lived in Britain, less than one per cent of the total population. The East End of London was home to between a half and one-third of them, mostly concentrated into a densely-populated area centred on Brick Lane, so it was a particular target for Mosley and his thugs. He was stirring up racial antagonism in this impoverished area by blaming the Jews for the high rates of unemployment, rent increases and poor wages. During the Slump, it had suffered particularly badly and was a pocket of poverty as bad as anything in the distressed areas of South Wales and the North of England, full of slums, filth and futility. Mosley’s Fascists took full advantage of the general restlessness created by the hunger marches and demonstrations against the means test. They stepped up their parades until the East End felt it was being invaded almost every night. They always marched with a heavy guard of police, who seemed to be as much part of their parade as their own ‘biff boys’. The East End, with its large Jewish community, became the chief battleground of the opposing factions and parties. But there had been ‘skirmishes’ with the BUF at a number of regional rallies. On 12 July six blackshirts at one rally were knocked unconscious by men wielding iron bars. Mosley’s car window was shattered by a bullet as he drove away. At other meetings across the country, anti-Fascists pelted the rally-goers with bricks and stones. and many were injured. At a rally outside Leeds on 27 September, attended by thirty thousand people, Mosley was showered with missiles.

Many of the Jews living in the East End were second-generation, the children of parents who had been forced to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the sanctuary of Britain. Most of the older generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in an enclosed community of crowded tenements, synagogues, baths and kosher butchers. They tended to work in the clothing and furniture trades. They were an obvious target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed the windows of Jewish grocery shops, chalked anti-Semitic graffiti on walls and shouted racist insults during street meetings and as they marched through Jewish areas, such as The Yids, the Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids! In the summer of 1936, the more abusive the blackshirts became, the more the police appeared to protect them from their victims. In September there was particular anger in the East End over two incidents. Fascist thugs threw a Jewish boy through a plate-glass window, blinding him. Later, a further horror occurred when a Jewish girl was caught and strapped to an advertisement hoarding in the attitude of the crucifixion. Neither incident led to a prosecution.

Young Jews did not take these attacks with the forbearance of many of their parents and the official bodies that represented them. They wanted to fight back. Even though they were British-born and British-educated, young Jews felt alienated and stigmatised by the anti-Semitism that flourished in British society. Many became Communists, seeing the party as the most vigorous opponent of Fascism. Others joined the Labour Party, although it was much less active in the fight, contrary to the current mythology of a Labour Left riddled with anti-Semitism itself. Others formed their own self-defence groups or ‘street gangs’. At this time, the anti-Semitic outbursts of the Fascists were reaching a climax, and large numbers of people came onto their streets to protest against the BUF’s overtly racist abuse, and there were scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, ‘the United Front’.

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

When the BUF announced that it would stage a mass march through East London to celebrate its fourth anniversary on Sunday 4 October, a coalition formed to confront Mosley. The battle lines were drawn up, leading to the riots in Stepney which became known, famously, as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ (see the photos below). The prospect of Mosley’s major demonstration, with all the inevitable resistance and ensuing violence, led many to call for it to be banned. Labour MPs and the mayors of London’s boroughs pleaded with the Home Secretary to halt the march. A petition of a hundred thousand signatures was presented to him, but to no avail.

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Mosley had planned the route of the provocative military march of his uniformed racists to go right through the heart of Whitechapel. The coalition of Communists,’ leftists’ and young Jewish activists set to work organising the opposition. The older generation in the Jewish community was dead-set against them. The Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle told readers in the East End to remain indoors and pull down the shutters. But their advice was ignored. The leaders of the Jewish community had lost control of their people. Labour too urged its members to keep off the streets; the Labour-supporting newspaper, The Daily Herald argued with typical pusillanimity that the best way to defeat Fascism was to ignore it. Even the Communist Party at first kept quiet. No official body wanted to be seen encouraging action that would inevitably lead to violence and law-breaking. For most, taking to the streets to stop Mosley’s march was a spontaneous expression of hatred of Fascism. Moseley was not the only public figure to completely underestimate the extent of the determined and deeply-felt opposition to his creed of hate and more than two hundred thousand Londoners, Jews and Gentiles, rallied under the Spanish anti-fascist slogan, They shall not pass! Spain was the constant refrain. For Charles Goodman, an East End Jew who was not a member of the CPGB, it was the motivating factor:

… it was not a question of a punch-up between the Jews and the fascists … in my case it meant the continuation of the struggle in Spain.

Those planning to take part in the counter-demonstration were by no means all Jews or Communists. The bleak turn of events abroad was a mobilising force for thousands with a left-liberal view of the world, whatever their ethnicity or party affiliation, and halting Mosley in the East End had a wider significance, as Harold Smith, an eighteen-year-old office worker and activist at the time, later recalled:

We were young, enthusiastic, Spain was on, Hitler was on the march, it was a British contribution to stop Fascism.

Two East End Communists, Joe Jacobs and Phil Piratin planned the unofficial fightback. A week before the demonstration, the latter arranged a meeting at his house in Stepney for a group of ‘Aryan-looking’ members of the CPGB, who would be able to pass themselves off as Fascists during the march and keep an eye out for any changes to the planned route of the march. In the early afternoon of 4 October a young medical student, Hugh Faulkner, dressed as a doctor and with an empty medical bag, joined the blackshirt demonstration at the Tower of London. He was allowed through the rows of police:

I found myself in the middle of the Fascists and caught sight of a member who worked in my hospital. On the spur of the moment I said “I’ve finally made up my mind. I want to come in with you”. He was such a clot he immediately accepted this … he was absolutely delighted and almost immediately showed me a duplicate sign of the route.

Armed with this latest intelligence, Faulkner ran off to telephone the plan of the march to Piratin and his fellow organisers. Meanwhile, vast crowds had assembled, ready to do battle with the Fascists. They had already built barricades while the blackshirts were being held up by police. The Cable Street riot was not a battle between the blackshirt supporters of Oswald Mosley and his opponents; it was a battle between the police and the anti-Fascists. When Harold Smith arrived at Gardiner’s  Corner at mid-day, where Piratin had placed trams to block the entrance to Commercial Road, he found a sea of people, ‘like the Cup Final’ he said. By then an estimated 310,000 people had turned up to stop the Fascists marching through. Although Communists under Phil Piratin had been the principal organisers of the opposition, it was not a Communist counter-demonstration. In 1936, the Party had only eleven thousand members. But the Party had been able to organise far greater support across a wide cross-section of British society. The police set to work to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators so that the blackshirts could gain access to Commercial Road, down which they had planned to march. They used a combination of brute force and mounted police charges. People everywhere were bleeding from head wounds inflicted by batons and staves. After several charges and forays, it became obvious to Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner, that there was no way that Mosley’s men and women could pass through to Commercial Road, ‘short of mayhem and murder’, so he decided on an alternative route, via Cable Street.

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Thanks to Hugh Faulkner’s intelligence, Piratin quickly became aware of the switch and ordered his ‘flying squads’. As its name suggests, it was close to the docks and lined with ships’ chandlers, lock-ups and warehouses. They were full of carts and heavy equipment which made perfect materials for barricades. As at Gardiner’s Corner, the mounted charges were unable to make headway, and the women in the tenement buildings began throwing everything they could lay their hands on down on the police, forcing them to retreat and, after taking shelter in the lock-ups, to surrender. The demonstrators took their helmets and truncheons and told them to ‘shove off!’ More than a hundred were wounded in the riot, and eighty-three anti-Fascists were arrested. The next day, many of them were sentenced, like Charlie Goodman, to four months’ hard labour. At about six in the evening, the news came through that the march through the East End had been cancelled on the orders of the Police Commissioner, after consulting with the Home Secretary. The demonstrators were elated, while there was despair among Mosley’s followers. They had waited with their ‘Leader’ for almost six hours, ‘kettled’ by the police in Royal Mint Street. The setback was significant, not simply because the march had been stopped, but because of the violence which it triggered.

For the left, by contrast, the Battle of Cable Street was a tremendous victory. The three thousand blackshirts did not pass, as the anti-Fascist demonstrators prevented the police from ushering Mosley’s ‘stormtroopers’ through the East End, a victory which proved a decisive blow from which the British fascists never recovered. It brought together, at least for the following year, a fractured movement that had long been divided on sectarian and ideological grounds on the major issues of the day. It also united people from different ethnic and religious groups and across classes. One of the leaders of the ‘resistance’ recalled that the most amazing thing was to see a silk-coated religious Orthodox Jew standing next to an Irish docker with a grappling iron. A number of men, like Frank Lesser, took such pride in having stopped the Fascist march that they were motivated to volunteer to fight Franco:

It seemed to me that the fight against Fascism had to be fought in England, it had to be fought, and I went to fight it a year later in Spain too. 

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

In the aftermath of the events on Cable Street, the Cabinet met on Wednesday 14 October, with the disturbances at the top of the agenda together with the marches and protests of the unemployed which were happening at the same time. It was not only the disciplined ‘Crusade’ of the men from Jarrow which concerned the ministers. Two other marches were heading through the capital at the same time. One of these was a three-pronged demonstration led by the NUWM against the means test. The prospect of more revolutionaries fighting on the streets of London with the police after the debacle of the previous week in Stepney was more than the politicians could stomach. Some form of action was needed, but it was unclear what the government could do to stop the marches. Stanley Baldwin had recovered enough from a two-month illness to chair the meeting and called on Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, to report on the situation in general and specifically on Cable Street.

Two days earlier, eight days after the riot, the steely-cold Sir John had produced a Memorandum for the Cabinet that showed the degree of concern that he and his colleagues felt. They had faced an almost complete breakdown of law and order on the streets of the capital. The police had been unable to control the demonstration, nor had the Fascists been able to march, as was their right. More clashes were likely as Communists, buoyed up by success, took to the streets again to prevent further Mosley rallies. and demonstrations. The stopping of the march at Cable Street was a blatant denial of free speech to the BUF, as well as a victory over the legitimate authorities. As Mosley complained:

We were prevented from doing what we had done before, marching through London where we had tremendous support and would certainly have won a parliamentary seat.

Then he told his colleagues that nothing should be done to prevent orderly bands of demonstrators marching where they planned. Perhaps surprisingly, however, those who had stopped the BUF in its tracks and beaten back the police were not the object of Simon’s wrath. Instead, he singled out Mosley and his blackshirts for their provocative behaviour and drew attention to their uniform. There was something essentially un-British about a political party dressing up and strutting around in military-style. The Home Secretary spoke of the intense resentment that it caused in the country at large, with the assumption of authority by a private army. That was bad enough, but what was worse was Mosley’s aping the anti-democratic régimes of Europe, where the wearing of black or brown uniforms led to the overthrow of popular liberties … Sir Oswald makes no secret of his desire to follow the German and Italian examples. Simon told the Cabinet that the men and women who dressed as blackshirts looked much smarter than when wearing their everyday clothes. He thought this added to the appeal of the Fascists among poorer people. There was only one solution: uniforms had to be banned.

He also suggested that, on the subject of ‘hunger marches’, action be taken to minimise the risk of violence and that the newspapers should be made aware of the futility of these marches. Baldwin agreed that selected journalists should be briefed so as to counter the favourable publicity given to the marchers and that no ministers would meet any deputations of marchers. Clearly, the ‘nightmare’ on Cable Street was, in part, what led the government to take its hard-line over the presentation of the Jarrow petition. However, the Labour Party conference’s decision not to back the Crusade made it easier for the government, and the ‘Downing Street Declaration’ echoed the speeches which questioned the desirability of getting ill-fed men to march.

Banning uniforms was just one of several measures needed to deal with the disturbances, Simon said. He also threw in a restriction of liberty. He told the Cabinet that the onward thrust of modernity had made the police’s job impossible. Thousands of people could now be summoned at short notice by radio and newspaper., they could travel quickly by public transport, and they could be harangued by demagogues using microphones and loudspeakers. These developments, combined with ‘the European crisis’ and the hysterical fear that an anti-Jew agitation might gain the mastery in this country, meant that the authorities had to have the right to be able to stop demonstrations in future if they feared they might lead to disorder. The Cabinet agreed.

Despite the limitations on freedom of speech, a bill went before Parliament less than a month later. But to the Cabinet’s frustration, the legislation giving the police powers to ban demonstrations was weeks away from enactment. The government restricted BUF activities by enacting The Public Order Act banning political uniforms and allowing the police to ban marches for three-month periods. A coalition of all sides of the Commons came together to stop Mosley, united in hatred of the blackshirt as a political tool, and in loathing of his politics. It was a thoroughly partial piece of legislation in the first instance. Its practical purpose may have been to prevent the recurrence of violence on the scale of the Battle of Cable Street, but its political effect was to cripple the BUF. Denied their uniforms, prevented from marching purely at the discretion of local police, their extra-parliamentary party went into sharp decline. Mosley had few friends at Westminster and he claimed that the British Government had surrendered to red terror.

This forced the BUF back to using more conventional and constitutional political methods. Electorally, they had some local success in the East End. Although the BUF gained support in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, the East End remained its heartland.  In the London County Council elections of March 1937, the BUF won twenty-three per cent of the vote in North-East Bethnal Green, nineteen per cent in Stepney (Limehouse in Clement Attlee’s constituency) and fourteen per cent in Shoreditch. Nonetheless, the fascists failed to win more widespread support. BUF membership (as far as we can tell) rose from seventeen thousand in early 1934 to between forty and fifty thousand by July, organised in four hundred branches. After dropping from that peak to five thousand within a year, it recovered to 15,500 during 1936, reaching 22,500 by the outbreak of war. More generally, the fascists were unable to win parliamentary seats, not even in East London, despite Mosley’s certain declarations that they would. The BUF had no doctrines except jingoism, a professed love of the British flag and the Royal Family, and hatred of Jews and Communists.

In any case, the voting system worked in favour of the two dominant parties. The Conservative Party remained attractive to the middle classes and the BUF was unable to compete with Labour and the trade unions for the support of the unemployed. As the economy improved in the 1930s, the attraction of a political alternative diminished. The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it had been in Berlin in the Thirties where it was extremely easy for anyone to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Below: A press picture from ‘The Daily Worker’  of a great united anti-fascist protest in Trafalgar Square in 1937. Mosley and his followers are seen giving the Nazi salute, their demonstration ringed by a great phalanx of anti-fascists, their clenched fists raised in the salute of the ‘United Front’. Interestingly, despite the hatred, each side nurtured for each other, a single line of policemen was all that separated the opponents and the protest passed without violence, Mosley’s speech being drowned out by the mass singing of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’.  The demonstrators then kept up a continual barrage of anti-fascist slogans.  

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Below: A counter-rally organised by the BUF in Bermondsey in 1938. May Day was traditionally a Socialist festival. The Fascist salute, taken very seriously by the party, was regarded as richly comic by most of the public. 

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

In January 1937, the first issue of Tribune was published, its controlling board including Bevan, Cripps, Laski, H N Brailsford and Ellen Wilkinson. Later that month the United Campaign was launched at a great meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Stafford Cripps, James Maxton and Harry Pollitt appeared on the platform, and Nye Bevan, Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher and Fenner Brockway were among the principal signatories to the manifesto. As the non-interventionist right-wing fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, ILP, Socialist League, Communist and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually, the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George and Harry Pollitt sharing a platform and Clement Attlee visiting the remaining International Brigade soldiers in Spain.

From its outset, the Spanish Civil War had absorbed the attention of the international community. It served as a kind of litmus test for whether democracy would survive or Fascism would triumph. In 1938, the outcome of this ideological conflict was more unsure than ever. The official line of the powers, sanctioned by the League of Nations, remained one of non-intervention, a policy willfully ignored by Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. The extreme polarisation of political forces inside Spain, together with the active intervention of Italy and Germany on behalf of the insurgents and the Soviet Union supposedly championing the cause of the Left, turned the Spanish Civil War into the ideological cause célebre of the late 1930s. Conscious that the conflict accentuated the division of Europe into Left and Right, the National Labour MP, Harold Nicolson inclined towards a more robust anti-Franco line in the belief that the government had been ‘weak and confused over the Spanish question’. At a dinner party, he told Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’. The destruction of Guernica, the ancient Basque capital, on 26 April 1937 by bombers of the German Kondor Legion had reinforced his feelings. He wrote to his wife Vita …

… I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.

At the end of February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, ostensibly over Chamberlain’s precipitate and inept handling of Anglo-Italian relations. As a National Labour MP, there was nothing Harold Nicolson could do about the doleful events in Germany, but Eden’s resignation affected him deeply. He had loyally upheld Eden’s handling of British foreign policy, and did not want to become ‘one of Winston’s brigade’. But he had come to the unavoidable conclusion that ‘National Labour’ had ceased to exist as a separate entity. Nicolson was determined to defend Eden, whose resignation speech, muddled and indecisive, had not gone down well. The Foreign Secretary, he revealed to the restless MPs, had resigned not over ‘a little point of procedure’, but on ‘a great question of principle’. He lashed into Italy, …

… a country which has continuously, consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered … our great principles of policy … the rule of law , the theory of the League of Nations, the belief in the sanctity of treaties … butchered to make a Roman holiday.

His speech was warmly received by other critics of Chamberlain’s government, including Lloyd George and Churchill. Supporters of the government thought it damaging to ‘the cause of peace’. But Nicolson had no doubt that Chamberlain was blindly leading the country into a political and diplomatic minefield:

 … their policy is nothing less than the scrapping of the ideas which have been built up since the war and the reversion to the old pre-war policy of power politics and bargaining. This means: (1) that we shall have to buy the friendship of Italy and Germany by making sacrifices. (2) That this frienship will not be worth tuppence once is is bought. And (3) that in doing so we shall sacrifice the confidence of France, Russia, the United States and all the smaller countries.

For many, ‘Tricky Chamberlain’ no longer inspired trust, but nor did the National Labour Party that had behaved like worms and kissed the Chamberlain boot with a resounding smack. But the die-hard Tories were jubilant at having flushed out all the nonsensical notions of the past and having got back the good old Tory doctrines. Nicolson’s pessimism intensified when, on 12 March, German forces crossed into Austria and Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss. Although he still sat on the government benches, he emerged as a leading critic of the government’s foreign policy, claiming that we are going to let Germany become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us. The Anschluss passed off to whispers of protest, but Spain remained a burning issue. Four days after Hitler’s coup, with Franco’s troops on the offensive, Nicolson spoke out forcefully on the issue. He began by expressing his ‘deepest sympathy’ with the Spanish government and his ‘deepest hatred’ for Franco. A Franco victory, he pointed out, would gravely menace Britain’s interests and security. A free Spain, he stressed, had traditionally been of immense strategic advantage to Britain.

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Above: A snapshot from a woman Labour Party member of another anti-fascist gathering at Belle Vue, Manchester, early in 1938, showing women Labour Party members, Margaret Whalley and Mary Eckersley, waiting to attend the United Front rally.

May Day 1938 was one of the largest since 1926 and the message was ‘Spain above all’. Herbert Morrison spoke from the Labour platform, reminding his audience of the heroic Spanish people and their fight against foreign invasion. Hammersmith Labour Party carried a banner announcing that it had collected five hundred pounds to send an ambulance to Spain and West London engineers paraded a motorcycle of the type they had sent. Everywhere in the procession were the tricolour flags of the Spanish Republic, and a red banner proclaimed, Spain’s fight is our fight. Tens of thousands assembled at the eight platforms in Hyde Park to hear speakers from every section of the labour movement call for arms for Spain and the end of the Chamberlain government. As the long column of marchers entered the park, the loudest cheers came for the wounded members of the International Brigade, closely followed by a group of women of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (pictured below), dressed in nurses’ uniforms, collecting to buy milk for Spanish children.

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

In the view of Harold Nicolson, Neville Chamberlain was an ‘ironmonger’ who had no conception… of world politics and was quite unsuited to the task of concluding a successful negotiation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in September 1938. It soon became apparent that Chamberlain, who didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetans were in the Reich or out of it, had brought back sn agreement that, in principle, ceded to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept this arrangement.  At one stage, ‘Baffy’ Dugdale, a National Labourite and member of the Executive of the League of Nations Union, rang up Harold to tell him that she had been sick twice in the night over England’s shame’, and had thrown up again after having read in The Times that the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not … be expected to make a strong ‘prima facie’ appeal to them. Thereupon, she had resigned from the Party. Nicolson himself penned a note of protest to ‘Buck’ De La Warr about National Labour’s refusal to speak out on the issue: He would consider his position.

Chamberlain returned empty-handed from the second round of talks held at Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, but he was given a ‘blank cheque’ from public opinion for his peace efforts. Nicolson told Churchill that the international situation would bring about the end of the British Empire. They discussed tactics should Chamberlain decide to ‘rat again’. They agreed to press for a Coalition Government and the immediate application of war measures since war seemed imminent.  On 28 September, the House of Commons convened to hear the PM clarify the chain of events leading to the crisis. As he entered the Chamber he was greeted by shouts of applause from his supporters, many of whom rose in their seats and waved their order papers. The opposition remained seated and silent, as did Harold Nicolson, ostensibly a government supporter. The next day he addressed a meeting of the National Labour group in Manchester, hitting out at the Government and its advisors, which rallied the Chamberlainite supporters against him. Matters worsened when he voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging to support the PM, leading to accusations of ‘dishonourable behaviour’.

The high point of Nicolson’s parliamentary career was his attack on the government’s foreign policy after the Munich agreement. His stand was uncompromising and brought him much credit from the opposition. Hitler, he stated, had three aims: to swallow the Sudeten Germans; to destroy Czechoslovakia and to dominate Europe. We have given him all those three things, he stated. He would have given him the first of these three, as the Sudetenland was not worth a war. But by Chamberlain’s capitulation on this point, a deadly chain reaction had been set off that led, inexorably, to total surrender. He went on:

The essential thing, the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still ought to resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany … this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat (is) one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occured in our history. … The tiger is showing his teeth, the cage door is open; the keeper is gone … we have given away the whole key to Europe. … Germany will have the whole of Europe in a stranglehold. …

… I know that that those of us who believe in the traditions of our policy … that the one great function of this country is to maintain moral standards in Europe, to maintain a settled pattern of international relations, not to make friends with people whose conduct is demonstrably evil … but to set up some sort of standard by which the smaller Powers can test what is godd in international conduct and what is not – I know that those who hold such beliefs are accused of possessing the Foreign Office mind. I thank God that I possess the Foreign Office mind.

There were other powerful anti-government speeches, by Churchill and Duff Cooper (the only cabinet member to resign), but they hardly dented the government’s huge majority. By 366 votes to 144, the House declared its confidence in the government’s appeasement policy. Thirty Conservative MPs abstained and thirteen remained in their seats. Nicolson, a National Labour ‘rebel’ was among them. The dominance of the National Government and the fragmentation of the Opposition, confirmed at the General Election of 1935, meant that the case of the rebels was not strengthened by their counter-proposals – increased rearmament, grand coalitions, a revivified League, or claiming the high moral ground. Without a proper Opposition, the Commons was barren of new ideas. Those preoccupied with making British foreign policy, tormented by the memories of the horrors of the Great War, were inclined, also on moral grounds, to satisfy Germany’s ‘legitimate grievances’, above all conscious of Britain’s defensive weaknesses and the French lack of will to fight. Also using the tiger metaphor, the Chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper on 23 September that to attempt to take offensive action against Germany … would be to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

The fight against unemployment in Britain continued to the end of the decade. By the winter of 1938-39, the NUWM had changed their tactics from national marches and demonstrations to a series of localised stunts aimed at focusing attention to their demands for winter relief. Their three-point programme called for additional winter unemployment payments of two shillings and sixpence per adult and one shilling per child. They also demanded a national scheme of public works at trade union rates of pay and the opportunity to put their case directly to the ministers concerned. The picture below was taken on 20 December 1938, when two hundred unemployed men made their way to Oxford Street, crowded with Christmas shoppers. They stepped off the pavements and laid down in the roadway bringing the heavy traffic to an abrupt halt. The weather was bitterly cold and snow had been falling as the men covered themselves with posters calling for bread, work and winter relief. Two days later, a hundred men strolled into the Grill Room of the Ritz Hotel, seating themselves at the tables laid for dinner. They followed this by capturing the UAB offices and holding an officer prisoner, flying of a banner from the Monument in the City of London and chaining themselves to the railings of labour exchanges.

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However, in 1939, the threat of war overshadowed domestic problems. Opposition to the ‘appeasement’ policy after the Munich agreement was a lost cause. So too was the League of Nations Union, which was ‘practically dead’ and the National Labour Party was in no better shape. Nicolson devoted his energies to helping refugees from Franco’s Spain and co-operating with Eleanor Rathbone in her work with deprived children in Britain. He also joined the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror and helped the Zionist cause.

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For the Labour movement as a whole, the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’ even before the thirties were properly over. As Harold Nicolson motored home from Westminster to Sissinghurst in Kent on 3 September, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist and shouted: it’s all the fault of the rich! Harold commented in his diary:

The Labour Party will be hard put to it to prevent this war degenerating into class warfare.

Sources:

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920 – 1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishing).

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke (ed.), et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Publishers).

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; part three – Labour’s Slump: 1929-31.   2 comments

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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In response to John Gorman’s request for photographs for his 1980 book (see the list of sources below), Helen Hathaway of the Reading North Labour Party contributed the picture of women supporters of The Daily Herald at the start of the circulation campaign for the election of the 1929 Labour government. Under the editorship of George Lansbury, before the First World War, the newspaper had become uncompromisingly socialist and was a paper for rebels, supporting strikes, opposing wars and providing a platform for suffragettes and syndicalists. But during the war, Lansbury’s pacifist stance meant that it could not compete with the war stories of the right-wing popular newspapers which were avidly sought by the public. From September 1914, the paper appeared only as a weekly. In 1919, there was a resurgence of the paper, financed by the trade unions and Co-operative societies, but it continued to struggle until 1922 when Ernest Bevin led the TUC and Labour Party into joint ownership. ‘Labour has arrived’, proclaimed the poster proudly held by the working-class women lined up for the photograph, ‘heralding’ the advent of the second Labour government, as shown below:

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Elected in 1929 for the first time as the largest party in Parliament, the second Labour Government had succeeded the Conservatives relatively smoothly, largely as a result of the usual ‘wax and wane’ of party popularity with the electorate. The Labour Party was now the second greatest of the political camps in Britain, having clearly displaced the Liberal Party as the main rivals of the Tories to power. Though its professed ‘creed’ was socialism, it had little in common with the socialist parties on the Continent. Its backbone was the trade unions, which were, according to the writer and politician John Buchan, the most English thing in England. They were more radical than socialist and in a sense more conservative than radical. Their object was not to pull things up by the roots but to put down even deeper roots of their own. Their faults lay in occasional blindness of eye and confusion of head, not in any unsoundness of temper or heart. As a Scottish Unionist MP, Buchan recalled that the hundreds of new Labour MPs …

… brought to the House of Commons a refreshing realism, for they spoke as experts on many practical things, and their stalwart vernacular was a joy amid the clipped conventions of parliamentary speech. But larger questions they were apt to judge on too low a plane and with imperfect knowledge. The corrective was to be looked for in the socialist intellectuals, of whom they were inclined to be suspicious, but who applied to policy a wider education and broader sympathies. … as a group they were serious students of public affairs, with a genuine scientific apparatus behind them. It was well for Labour, and well for the country, to have thislaboratory of experiment and thought. 

It had been five years since Labour had carried the ‘Bolshie’ tag and Ramsay MacDonald introduced his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as any of the previous governments to stem the rising tide of unemployment.  But although Labour was the largest party in Parliament, the Labour government of 1929 was still a minority government. Besides, any government, whatever its election programme, has to face the same problems as its predecessor. On taking office, the Labour government floundered in a quagmire of conservative remedies for the worldwide slump. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, the newly-appointed ‘Minister for Unemployment’, J. H. Thomas, had boasted I have the cure as he ‘hob-nobbed’ with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar. He demonstrated a complete lack of imagination and ineptitude but was not aided by the resistance of the Civil Service, the innate conservatism of Snowden at the Exchequer and the world-wide financial and economic crises which beset this administration. In her diary for 21 December 1929, Beatrice Webb recorded her conversation with ‘Jimmy’ Thomas, in which she tried to console the unfortunate minister, who naturally thought he was being scapegoated for the Government’s failure to keep its election promise:

We sat down for a chat together. The poor man was almost hysterical in his outbursts of self-pity; everyone had been against him and the ‘damns’ flowed on indiscriminately. Margaret Bondfield and her d_ insurance bill, the d_ floods, the d_ conspiracy between restless Lloyd George and weathercock W. Churchill to turn out the Labour Government, and the d_ windbags of the Clyde responsible for his not fulfilling the d_ pledge which he had never made, to stop this d_ unemployment. There is honesty and shrewdness of his deprecations of doles and relief work for the unemployed. But he took no counsel, not even with Mosley and Lansbury who had been appointed to help, either about the appointment of his staff or about remedial measures. Then he lost his nerve and with it his strength. Poor Jimmy is egregiously vain and therefore subject to panic when flattery ceases and abuse begins. For years he has looked upon himself as the Future Prime Minister; today the question is whether he will be fit for any position at all in a future Labour Cabinet. …

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

Neither is there any evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 sought to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield (pictured standing on the left below), now Minister of Labour (and first woman minister of any government), did not consider that the continuance of the policy should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes. Oswald Mosley also tried hard to get Thomas, whom he considered a ‘useless minister’, to ‘do something’ about the unemployed. He had a ‘sensible plan’ for increased allowances and organised public works, but the ‘old men’ of the party didn’t want to know about it. So he walked out on it early in 1931 to form the ‘New Party’, taking some of the more dynamic men of the Left like John Strachey. But they soon left him when he took off down the right-hand road to Fascism. However, the scale and widespread nature of unemployment in these years, making it more than a structural problem in the ‘staple’ industries, tended to preclude either the possibility of a radical response to the problem, while at the same time preventing the effective operation of the transference scheme. There were few areas that were not experiencing a significant level of unemployment during these years which actually showed the greatest convergence between regional and national figures in terms of absolute volumes of workless.

 

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Ramsay MacDonald was, by all accounts, including that of René Cutforth, a young journalist at the time, a noble-looking creature, in the manner of some great Highland chieftain. Originally the Labour Government of 1924 had had some qualms about wearing even evening dress when attending Buckingham Palace or in Parliament, remembering the lone cloth cap in the House of Commons of their first independent Labour member, Keir Hardie. MacDonald never subscribed to such qualms, as the picture below shows, and the higher he rose in social circles, the more he was in his element. In fact, he became something of a ‘snob’; at one time he so frequently attended the soirees of Lady Londonderry, wife of the coalowner so hated in MacDonald’s own constituency in South Wales that, and an upper-crust socialite and political hostess, that James Maxton, the ILP MP asked him in the House of Commons whether the Labour anthem was still the ‘Red Flag’ or whether it had been exchanged for ‘The Londonderry Air’. Churchill said of MacDonald that he liked the Tory atmosphere and tradition; the glamour of old England appealed to him. Of course, MacDonald was to die with the curses of those in whose service he had spent his life ringing in his ears for the ‘great betrayal’ of 1931.

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The truth is that, even before taking office and despite its pledges to solve the problem of unemployment within three months, the Labour leadership had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. The proposal of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden (on the right of the steps below) to effect economies by cutting maintenance for the unemployed was to precipitate not just the political crisis which led to the formation of a National Government, but the biggest and most controversial demonstrations witnessed in Britain since the days of the Chartists, the hunger marches of the 1930s. Snowden, according to Churchill, …

 … viewed the Socialist creed with the blistering intellectual contempt of the old Gladstonian radical. To him Toryism was a physical annoyance, and militant socialism a disease brought on by bad conditions or contagion, like rickets or mange. …

Snowden’s rigidity of doctrine was otherwise inpenetrable. Free imports, nomatter what the foreigner may do to us; the Gold Standard, no matter how short we run of gold; austere repayment of of debt, no matter how we have to borrow the money; high progressive direct taxation, even if it brings creative enegies to a standstill; the ‘Free breakfast-table’, even if it is entirely supplied from outside the British jurisdiction! …

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials … here was the High Priest entering the sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of too-long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began. …

... He was a man capable of maintaining the structure of Society while at the same time championing the interests of the masses. …

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Above: Forming the National Government, August 1931 (see full picture below).

Most of the published memoirs, with the possible exception of Churchill’s, still reek of contemporary prejudice, ignorance, and partisan blindness to facts. The historian’s interpretation of the contemporary judgements both of MacDonald and his ministers by others and by MacDonald himself should depend first on the evidence available, and secondly on analysis of this evidence on the basis of fair-minded, non-partisan criteria. The historian, seeking some ‘truer’ perspective, must recall how different the problems of 1925-31 were compared to those of 1945-51, though at both times Labour faced almost insurmountable obstacles. So, before we fast-forward to the failure and fall of the Labour government in 1931, we need to understand why and how it had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. John Buchan, writing in 1935, provides an alternative contemporary perspective to that of the Labour diarists. He took a longer-term perspective of the economic orthodoxy of the Twenties:

The main concern for Britain, as for other nations, was economic – how to keep body and soul together. In its preoccupation with material needs all the world had gone Marxist. The problem was how to pass from the unbridled extravagance of the war to a normal life. We had been living on stimulants, and we must somehow transfer ourselves from dope to diet. There was a brief gleam of prosperity just after peace, when the replacement of stocks required still further expenditure, and then the nation settled itself to a long, thankless toil in the shadows…

The first duty was to cease spending more than we could afford; no easy thing, for our obligatory expenses were almost beyond our earnings. We had to face some  eight thousand millions of war debt, and this meant a scale of taxation which crippled industry and bore crushingly on all but profiteers. … But while our costs had risen our business was declining. We had lost our industrial pre-eminence in the world’s markets … Our exports, visible and invisible, looked like soon ceasing to pay for our necessary imports. The whole nineteenth century fabric of British trade was breaking down. 

With shrinking markets, and the cost of Government, local and central, nearly three times what it had been in 1913, Britain’s economy was failing to pay its way. The fact was that industrial workers were already receiving a higher remuneration than could be justified according to the value of their products. The situation was met by a vigorous effort on the part of industry both to enlarge its range of products and to set in order its older ones. Agriculture had slipped back into a trough, but a second industrial revolution by which a variety of new businesses arose, chiefly making luxury products and based mostly in Southern and Midland England. There were also notable technical advances in production, which while improving industrial efficiency, also led to increasing unemployment. There was also a growing economic nationalism throughout much of the industrialised world, though not yet in Britain, so that the British industrialist, already heavily taxed, and facing rising costs, had to compete in export markets hedged around by tariffs, and in domestic markets against cheap foreign imports, often subsidised.

Added to all of this, at the heart of national economic policy was a banker’s policy. Deflation was the watchword of this, and the international stability of the currency was considered the key to a revival in trade. In April 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill had taken the fateful step of returning to the gold standard at the level of pre-war parity. As a result, the amount of money was curtailed, leading to a drop in internal prices while interest charges and wages remained relatively high. In turn, this added to the costs of production at home, while the price of exported goods automatically increased. This return to orthodox fiscal measures re-established Britain’s role and reputation as the world’s financial centre, but at the cost of its export trade, leading to wage troubles in the exporting industries, especially coal.  Seven difficult years followed this decision as unemployment grew and it became clear that some of Britain’s heavier industries had sunk to a permanently low level of output. Under the futile system of war debts and reparations, the debtor countries could not pay their debts since their creditors had erected colossal tariff walls, and the consequence was that their exports were diverted to Britain, the one free-trade area that remained. But the payments received for these were not used to buy British goods in return, but to buy gold with which to pay off their creditors.

The disaster was already imminent by the time Labour took charge in the summer of 1929 as the whole mechanism of the world’s commerce was out of gear, and the climax began in the autumn of that year with the downfall of America’s swollen prosperity. Historians have since argued about the extent to which the Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression which followed were caused by the First World War, as well as to the extent which it led, in turn, to the Second World War. However, from the perspective of the time, certain facts seemed undeniable. The money system of the world was no longer adequate to deal with the complexities of international trade, made even more complicated by political troubles and economic nationalism as well as by the unbalanced position of gold, and by a lack of trust of politicians and bankers among the general populations.

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

The bleak scene shown below from April 1930 at Ferryhill in the north-east coalfield features the lone figure of George Cole, local miner’s leader and militant trade unionist. The small contingent with banners and rucksacks are the north-east section of the unemployed march to London, on their way to join another thousand from Scotland, Plymouth, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and Kent. The first march of the unemployed in the thirties, it was a small demonstration compared with those to follow over the rest of the decade, but what gave it special significance was that it was the first of its kind to be directed against a Labour government. The march was organised by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), founded in 1921 as part of the British Communist Party’s ‘Class against Class’ policy. The marches, therefore, divided the loyalties of Labour members and supporters. Northampton Labour Party said that it could not support a movement in opposition to the government.

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The marchers arrived in London on May Day, to be greeted by twenty thousand at the entrance to Hyde Park, with another thirty thousand at the meeting inside. That night the weary marchers presented themselves at the Fulham Workhouse, refused to be treated as ‘casuals’, won the right to beds and food and, to the fury of the Workhouse Master, hoisted the red flag over their quarters. Ten months after taking office, the MacDonald government had failed to halt the steadily increasing number of jobless and in fact, unemployment had increased from 1,169,000 when Labour came to power to 1,770,000 by May 1930. After eighteen months in office, the numbers of workless under Labour had risen to two and a half million. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the NUWM, sarcastically remarked that as Minister of the Unemployed, J. H. Thomas is a howling success.

The conditions of working-class life had on the whole been greatly improved since the Great War. Higher wages did not lead to waste, but to higher standards of living. The average household had better food, better clothing, more margin for amusements and wider horizons of opportunities. Small wonder then that they struggled to maintain what they had won. That was for those in employment, of course. For the unemployed, who now (by the end of 1930) reached two million in number, there was a bare subsistence and tragic idleness, a steady loss of technical skill, and a slow souring and dulling of mind. In the heavy industry towns of Northern England and valleys of the South Wales Coalfield, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities. A problem of such magnitude required for its solution not only the energies of the State but the thought and good-will of every private citizen and public body. Owing partly to the work of the Prince of Wales and the National Council of Social Service, of which he was patron, these were forthcoming. People began to develop a  sense of personal and civic duty for the unemployed, especially the miners in the ‘distressed areas’.

By early 1930, the ‘social service movement’ had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the South Wales Coalfield in particular. At Brynmawr, one of the ‘blackspots’ on the northern edge of the Coalfield, over a hundred people took part in a Survey which was begun in 1929, but these were mainly professional and business people since the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Urban District Council refused to co-operate. As a former member of the ‘settlement’ reflected in the 1980s, …

… they felt that they had been slighted: they resented interference and they felt their dignity and authority undermined … the local people were suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town … the Quakers became known as the BQs (Bloody Quakers)!

Another settlement at Maes-yr-Haf in the Rhondda spawned over fifty unemployed clubs throughout the valleys from 1929 and provided an advice centre for the settlements which were established elsewhere, the first of which was at Merthyr Tydfil in 1930. Percy Watkins, Head of the Welsh Section of the National Council of Social Service, saw the settlements as representing the idea that those who had been privileged to enjoy university education should live and ‘settle’ among the workers. This was, in itself, not a new idea. Clement Attlee, the future Labour leader, had done this in the East End of London before the Great War. But what was new was the way in which these ‘settlers’ were to help open up ‘lines of communication’ between the coalfield communities and the outside world, to act as a means of cultural ‘irrigation’, in order to establish ‘an educated democracy’. Watkins and Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet before becoming Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s, combined to offer charitable help for Maes-yr-Haf for it to spread the settlement idea throughout the coalfield. At the beginning of 1930, it had become affiliated to the Educational Settlement Association and it soon became seen as a model of ‘intervention’ in working-class communities.

Some historians have suggested that the movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution, but it was not the level of funding which the government itself provided which was significant, but the way in which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct charitable funds from the Mayors of various cities, the Society of Friends and those poured in by the Carnegie Trust and Pilgrim Trust. The last of these was established by the New York businessman, Edward S. Harkness, who provided a gift of over two million pounds. The trustees included Stanley Baldwin, Lord Macmillan, Sir Josiah Stamp and John Buchan. Although a Labour Government was in power committed to ending unemployment, these men continued to exert considerable influence over the affairs of the depressed areas both in South Wales and the North of England and over the Government’s policy towards the unemployed. It was the duty of the trustees, …

… to apply their resources at key points of the present distress,  … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1931, 2,500 unemployed marched on London and were met by a baton charge of police in Hyde Park. The march was broken up on what, for a time and for some at least, became a very rough occasion (see the photo below, taken later in Hyde Park). They had deposited an enormous petition which they hoped to present to Parliament in the left luggage office at a London terminus. When they went back to pick it up, it had ‘unaccountably’ disappeared and so was never presented.

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However, the numbers involved in such demonstrations were often limited, of necessity perhaps, to a small segment of the unemployed. As the depression worsened, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended upon the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the ‘Courts of Referees’, and matters such as these took up nearly all of the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the NUWM under the leadership of Wal Hannington. But the available evidence does not suggest any accompanying widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington.

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

In early 1931, as the Labour government continued to pursue the traditional conservative remedy for a recession by cutting expenditure and wages, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from the Bank of England, among others. There had been a steady drain of gold from the Bank of England ever since the US loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe, and now the Bank of England asked the New York banks for a loan. They refused this until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. The Cabinet turned to the advice of Sir George May, former Secretary of the Prudential Insurance Company and Sir Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. At this point, few in the government were able to read the signs of the impending crisis. The warnings of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, had little effect upon some of his colleagues, whose financial creed was a blend of mysticism and emotion. During the summer, a creeping sickness was spreading over Europe, and the symptoms were becoming acute, first in Austria, then in Germany and last in Britain.

The crisis came to a head in Britain in the late summer of 1931, beginning with a conference of European Ministers in London in July provided no remedy. At the end of that month, the May Report was published, showing that the Government was overspending by a hundred and twenty million a year. It proposed cutting expenditure by ninety-six million pounds, two-thirds of which was to be made by reducing maintenance for the unemployed by twenty per cent. There followed immediately a heavy withdrawal of foreign balances, but the Bank of England failed in its approach to the United States. Without the US loan, the Government faced the prospect of having to default on its repayments which would result in Britain having to go off the gold standard. The effect of that, the Government believed, would be a drastic reduction in the pound sterling, since the gold standard was viewed as a ‘holy cow’ in international financial circles at that time.

A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only answer, and MacDonald and Snowden made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and school teachers, and to cut unemployment pay by ten per cent. The TUC Economic Committee had warned in March 1931, that the application of such a policy can only intensify the slump by reducing the purchasing power of the community thereby leading to further unemployment. Now Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a trade union delegation to a Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, told his wife Beatrice, the General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cut of unemployment insurance benefits, or salaries, or wages. But although the Opposition said the cuts were too small, half of the Cabinet refused to accept the cut in unemployment pay. There was much to be said for their point of view as they were, after all, a Labour government which had been committed to ending unemployment within three months of taking office. Unemployment had stood at one million then, but now it had reached 2.75 million: all they had been able to do for the unemployed had been to go on paying them ‘the dole’.

So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in and MacDonald resigned on 24 August, together with the rest of the government. The stricken statesman went to the Palace to tender his resignation to the King, who had arrived in Balmoral three days earlier, on the 21st, for his annual Scottish holiday only to have to return to London the next day. It was not for him to have any public opinion on economic policy or any preference among the parties. But as the ‘trustee’ of the nation,  the King felt that a national emergency should be faced by a united front. According to many popular Socialist narratives, ‘what happened next’, almost inevitably, was that MacDonald conspired with a ‘traitorous caucus’ which included Snowden and Thomas, in forming a National Government with the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, the common procedure was would have been for MacDonald to resign, and he was prepared to follow this constitutional precedent, giving way to the Conservatives, but the King’s view was supported by the senior  Ministers, and MacDonald accepted his invitation to form a National Government composed of Conservatives and Liberals as well as some of his own senior colleagues. The next day MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim the appointment to a mixed reception from his former Cabinet members, few of whom were willing to follow him.

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

Contemporary reaction to the Cabinet split and creation of the National Government in August of that year can be seen from two points of view in the following extracts from The Times and The New Statesman:

The country awakens this morning to find Mr MacDonald still Prime Minister, with the prospect of a small Cabinet representative of all three parties. The former Cabinet resigned yesterday afternoon, and a statement issued last night announced that considerable progress had been made towards settling the composition of its successor, which would be a Government of co-operation formed with the specific purposes only of carrying through a very large reduction in expenditure and raising ‘on an equitable basis’ the further funds required to balance the Budget.

All concerned are to be warmly congratulated on this result, so fully in accord with the patriotic spirit which has inspired a week’s most anxious negotiations. The Prime Minister and the colleagues of his own party who have followed him deserve in particular unqualified credit, both for the manner in which they took their political lives in their hands by by facing and forcing the break-up of the late Cabinet, and for their new decisionto translate courage in the Cabinet into courage in the country. The readiness to share the responsibility – honour is perhaps the better word – of carrying through to the end the policy of retrenchment adds enormously to the prospect of its success.

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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In many respects the situation which confronted the Cabinet was like that of August 1914. … In 1914, Mr MacDonald refused to join a War Cabinet: Mr Henderson accepted. Mr MacDonald was denounced as a traitor: Mr Henderson applauded. In leading arguments in ‘The Times’, for instance, Mr MacDonald’s patriotism is extolled, while Mr Henderson is denounced as a man who put party before country. Meanwhile, in Labour circles all over the country Mr MacDonald is being denounced … for betraying his party. … Mr MacDonald’s decision to form a Cabinet in conjunction with the Liberals and the Tories seems to us a mistake, just as it would have been a mistake for him as a pacifist to join a War Cabinet in 1914. For he must inevitably find himself at war with the the whole of organised labour, and …with all those, in all classes, who believe that the policy of reducing  the purchasing power of the consumer to meet a situation of over-production is silly economics. … An effort is being made to represent the whole issue as merely one of a ten per cent reduction in the dole and the refusal to cut it could only be based on cowardly subservience to the electorate. … We oppose it … because it is only the first step, the crucial beginning of a policy of reductions, disatrous, we believe for England and the rest of the world. …

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

On 11 September, a supplementary budget was passed by the House of Commons, which by heavy economies and increased taxes provided a small surplus for that and the forthcoming year. The cuts were duly brought into force by Philip Snowden, who remained as Chancellor. He added sixpence to income tax, ten per cent to the surtax, a penny on a pint of beer, and reduced teachers’ pay by fifteen per cent and Police, Army, Navy and Air Force pay by varying drastic amounts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence.

There was an immediate reaction to the wage cuts, as on 14 September a naval mutiny broke out in Invergordon when the ratings of three ships refused to obey orders to put to sea. According to René Cutforth, it was the ‘politest mutiny ever staged’ since no-one was hurt or even intimidated and respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who started to sing ‘The Red Flag’ were considered to be out of order by the other ratings, who preferred to sing, ‘the more we are together the merrier we shall be’, a popular drinking song. They sent a written representation of their case to the Admiralty, stating that while they refused to serve under the new rates of pay, they were willing to consider ‘a cut which they ‘consider within reason’. Although the incident was barely mentioned in the British press, garbled versions of it appeared in the foreign press, which made it look like a revolutionary rising. If the British Navy was disaffected, it was suggested, then Britain itself must be on the road to ruin.

As a result, there was another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. The government dealt quickly with the situation, reducing the cuts and restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were eventually suspended. But the run on the Bank was so exhausting that the Government which had been formed just a few weeks earlier to safeguard the gold standard was now forced to give it up anyway. Instead of crashing through the floor, however, the pound only fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value which, if anything, improved Britain’s balance of trade. John Buchan commented:

The gold standard proved to have been largely a bogy; it had seemed the only palladium when we were on it, but we found that we did very well without it. The sterling group soon became a force in the world. There was no fall in the purchasing value of the pound at home, and its depreciation in terms of certain foreign currencies was in effect a bonus to our export trade. We had redressed the inequalities of our 1925 ambitions.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact of this event on those now in government could not have been more dramatic, as Paul Adelman pointed out, with a little help from A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1972 book on The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945:

On 21 September 1931 … Britain abandoned the gold standard. Bank rate was then raised to six per cent, and for the moment this brought to an end the long-drawn-out financial crisis. As Taylor comments (in ‘English History, 1914-45):

“A few days before, a managed economy had seemed as wicked as family planning. Now, like contraception, it became a commonplace. This was the end of an age”.

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

In October, the Prime Minister went to the country as the leader of a National Government, and they were returned to power with an immense majority. The General Election of 1931 was a straight fight between the Labour Party and other parties in office led by MacDonald. In an atmosphere of monetary panic, Labour representation in the house had already been cut from 289 to 46. The National Government was returned with 554 seats, while the Labour opposition was reduced to a mere rump of 52, with the Liberals winning just sixteen seats. The country was convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster, and it had only been snatched from the brink by the noble MacDonald. The photo below shows the Transport and General Workers’ Union secretary, Ernest Bevin (on the left), at Gateshead in 1931, with a band of loyal Labour Party supporters. Abolish poverty, abolish slums, wipe out destitution reads the poster on the election van. It was Bevin that was to be wiped out, temporarily, from the parliamentary scene, losing a safe Labour seat to the National Liberal candidate by 12,938 votes.

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In the Labour Party, and in the Labour movement generally, there had never been such an uproar as the one which broke out at the end of the election, and the wound would still rankle just below the surface right into the 1970s. No name was too vile for MacDonald and his ‘apostate crew’. Accused of ‘betraying his class’ and ostracised by his own party, he became a tragic, isolated figure for the rest of his political life. Since he was at heart a warm man who needed sympathy and valued loyalty, this rough handling deeply upset him and was directly responsible for his decline and deterioration as a public figure. René Cutforth praised MacDonald’s patriotism, which he identified as the main motivation for his political decisions:

MacDonald was a Victorian. His loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. When it was seen by him to conflict with his socialism, it was the socialism that lost out. Though for the rest of his life he was quite sure that he had done his duty by the nation and was unjustly put upon, something in him gave way. … 

According to Winston Churchill, Philip Snowden was similarly motivated by his deep love of Britain and his studiously concealed, but intense pride in British greatness. So, these two key questions still remain for historians to answer:

  • Was MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government one of patriotism or pragmatism?

  • How far did it demonstrate the importance of the consensual nature of British politics, even in times of national crisis?

From the 1960s, historians have been able to look at MacDonald’s decision in a slightly longer-term perspective than just the crisis of July-September 1931 and the subsequent October election. Robert Skidelsky’s analysis of the second Labour government, with his emphasis on the distinction between economic radicals and economic conservatives, began this discussion in 1970, although Ralph Miliband had published his Marxist critique of Parliamentary Socialism in 1961. Perhaps Skidelsky had this study in mind when he wrote that previous studies of MacDonald’s second government had tended to reinforce the tendency to view interwar politics in terms of a struggle between socialism and capitalism, between the Labour Party and the ‘Rest’. The real division, between radicals and conservatives, cut right across party lines, with the latter defeating the former. This economic debate was centred on unemployment, ten per cent of which Skidelsky claims was ‘endemic’ in the 1920s. It was often argued that before Keynes’ General Theory (1936) governments were bound to pursue conservative, orthodox, economic policies. Yet, as Skidelsky pointed out …

… most economists and most businessmen at the time rejected the ‘treasury view’, and dissent from orthodoxy increased progressively as traditional policies failed to restore prosperity. By 1929 there existed a substantial body of economic and political support for a radical unemployment policy embracing an expansionist monetary policy and a big programme of government investment. … 

Why then, he asked, did the Labour Party fail to make use of this dissent for the ends of a radical unemployment policy? He argued that the consequences of that failure determined the politics of the following decade and that it was a failure that could have been avoided. Usually, criticism of MacDonald and his colleagues started with their handling of the financial crisis which began in early 1931, rather than with their omissions over the previous two years. But whereas between 1929 and 1931 there were plenty of effective choices open to the Government, in 1931 itself there was virtual unanimity on the need to defend the gold standard. But MacDonald broke with half his Cabinet, not over economic policy, but over primary loyalty:

As Prime Minister he considered his first duty was to the ‘national interest’ as it was almost universally conceived; the Labour Party saw its first duty to its own people. … The real criticism of MacDonald is not that he formed the National Government, but that under his leadership, the Labour Government had drifted into a position which left it so little choice. … the Government rejected Conservative protection, the Liberal national development loan, the Keynesian and Mosleyite amalgams of both, preferring instead the advice of the least progressive sections of the ‘economic establishment’.    

Skidelsky’s ‘neo-Keynesian’ approach was challenged by Ross McKibben in his 1975 Past and Present article, who criticises the narrowness of an interpretation which was chiefly interesting as an explanation of the Labour Party’s apparent economic conservatism, but didn’t properly identify the alternative strategies available to MacDonald. McKibben provided some useful comparative material to support those who argued for a deflationary policy. He argued that the government fell essentially because it failed to agree on a programme of budgetary economies that would satisfy both the Conservatives and the Liberals, the latter party providing the majority which Labour, by itself, was short of in the Commons.  McKibben emphasised that …

The ‘desertion’ of MacDonald caused great bitterness and generated a partisan history usually designed to justify the behaviour of one side or the other in the debacle. … a newer school has sought only to explain why the Labour government did not adopt economic policies which might appear to have been obviously the right ones. Why did it not, for example, attempt to reverse economic contraction by a programme of public works financed by budget deficits, or by tax-cuts, or a policy less untypical of a socialist party – by a redistribution of income that might have raised demand? Why was the government apparently so inflexibly attached to existing monetary policies?

The 1929 Labour government assumed, first, that the problems of the British economy were partly structural, and secondly, that Britain’s place in the international economy almost uniquely influenced its monetary policies. These assumptions were related: structural weakness in the older export-based industries led to falling exports and payment difficulties. On the other hand, the requirements of ‘the City’ led to monetary policies that made internal economic reconstruction difficult. Both these problems weres were powerful disincentives to economic unorthodoxy when it had become obvious that British industry had failed in the Twenties because it was still focused on the old staples, producing goods that people no longer wanted or needed. McKibben further argues that there were practical alternatives available to the Labour government, but these were not ‘drift or reflation’ but rather ‘drift or deflation’. This strategy would not have been such a ‘leap in the dark’, as there was already plenty of evidence from around the world of its efficacy as a remedy:

Until the crisis of July-August 1931, Britain alone of the major countries seriously affected by the depression refused to follow deflationary policies. Her relatively generous social services were not only maintained but somewhat increased in scope; despite the shrinkage of the tax-base, government expenditure continued to rise; no serious attempt was made to balance the budget.

Consequently, when the pressure to abandon drift and adopt deflation became too strong, the government collapsed. Two pressures came together, in fact: the pressure to solve Britain’s internal budgetary problems by deflation which reached a peak when the May Report was published on 31 July, and, almost simultaneously, the pressure created by the European liquidity crisis reaching London, which immediately called into question the exchange rate of the pound. The budgetary crisis and the exchange crisis had been distinct phenomena before this point, but throughout August 1931 they played off each other like thunder and lightning in a perfect storm.

Adelman provided some useful criticisms of Skidelsky’s assertion that the economic failures of the Labour Government before the crisis of 1931 were a necessary consequence of the ‘Utopian ethic’ to which the party was committed. On this, Skidelsky had written:

The Labour Party’s commitment to a nebulous Socialism made it regard the work of the ‘economic radicals’ such as Keynes as mere ‘tinkering’, when in fact it was they who were providing the real choice. It was the failure of the Labour Party to recognise that this was the choice that doomed it to failure and sterility in this crucial period.

In a subsequent article, published in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin in 1970, Skidelsky went further, arguing that the Labour Party’s failure was a failure, not so much of socialism itself, but of Victorian liberalism, the parent ideology from which British socialism sprang and which, in its economic aspect at least, had persisted virtually unchallenged well into the twentieth century. Adelman argued that both Skidelsky’s original thesis, and this later refinement, seemed to exaggerate the influence of ideas, or their absence, as an explanation of economic and political events. Motivation is one of the primary interests of the historian, who cannot explain events without understanding the reasoning behind the people actually involved or connected with them. To deny its importance seems to imply that human action is somehow controlled by impersonal factors like economics or political philosophies, and this would lead on to a deterministic view, and a de-personification of history. Adelman argued the case for the analysis of motives behind MacDonald’s actions, suggesting that the second Labour Government’s failures had rather deeper roots in human psychology:

How are we to explain MacDonald’s conduct? It is probably true that, as his critics aver, he was a vain, ambitious and increasingly out of touch with rank-and-file sentiment  within the party, and this explains his inability to appreciate the depth of feeling over the ten per cent cut. But there is no real evidence … that MacDonald was either in sympathy with or had been planning to become leader of a ‘National Government’ before the events of August 1931 thrust the role upon him. For a generation after this crisis Ramsay MacDonald was branded as a traitor to the Labour movement, but most impartial historians now agree with the spirit of Bassett’s remark that ‘he was moved primarily by his sense of duty’, even though we need not accept his further implication that what was good for MacDonald was also  good for the Labour Party. What gave weight to MacDonald’s actions too was his belief that his leadership of the National Government would be temporary: as he stressed to his colleagues at that last fateful Cabinet meeting, it was to deal with an extraordinary crisis only, and, as had happened in 1918, he would return to the fold later on to lead a reunited party. 

For his Labour colleagues, as MacDonald himself seems to have accepted, the position was different: for them the primary issue was one of party loyalty and not the question of the unemployment cuts (over which the gap between the two groups was very narrow), or a vague ‘national interest’ over whose meaning no one could agree. After all, a majority of the Cabinet had supported all of the cuts, and even the minority must have accepted that they would in any case be imposed by the next Conservative/ Liberal government. For most Labour ministers the major question was, therefore, … how to avoid a major split within the party, and on this issue a majority preferred to resign together rather than follow the Prime Minister into the National Government and accept a major breach in the Cabinet and the party. 

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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The newly-returned National Government not only cut the dole by ten per cent but also introduced the means test. The photograph above shows a protest meeting developing spontaneously among the crowd of disappointed unemployed outside the St Pancras Labour Exchange in London. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unfortunate in the Thirties, whether by accident, intelligence or design, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. The dole had grown out of the old poor law system and the old unemployment benefit system when, back in 1921, it had proved inadequate to cope with the new scale of mass unemployment. The unemployment fund had had to thirty million pounds from the Treasury in order to finance ‘the dole’, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer it, which after 1931 enlarged itself to administer the means test. The unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his household, camping out in his front room and then adjusting his dole accordingly.

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There was not much The Labour Party could do to help the unemployed and defend them against the cruelties imposed by the means test since it had put itself out in the cold in 1931 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Outside Parliament, protests and demonstrations were mostly led by the Communist Party and the NUWM. Labour politicians polished up their propaganda and tried to formulate a clear alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’. For a time its leader was yet another Victorian figure who had been in MacDonald’s cabinet before the split. George Lansbury was a Christian Socialist of real integrity and piety. His line was that all would be well when we had complete Socialism and power as well as office. In the meantime, he encouraged his comrades to sing the ‘Red Flag’. John Strachey wrote Marxist books and articles and gave speeches in which he seemed to hover between Fascism and Communism. On the Left, the Independent Labour Party, a few revolutionary Socialists, retained their seats. The most notable and charismatic of these was James Maxton, with his fringe of black hair falling across his burning eyes and reaching his shoulders, looking as if he was ready at any moment to ‘Man the Barricades’. Another ILP MP, John McGovern, recalled his intervention in the King’s Speech following the 1931 Election:

I happened to be standing beside Lady Astor M.P. , and she said “McGovern, this is a wonderful scene. This is what makes Old England such a great nation.” I replied, “But there are two Englands …” (As the King finished his speech) I called out, “What about the restoration of the cuts in unemployment allowances and the end of the Means Test?!” … 

The return of the National Government led to the Social Service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct State intervention. The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the Central Government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed (but that such work could) more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National funds. The role of the National Council for Social Service as the main agent in this was soon established by its patron, the Prince of Wales. In political, social and economic terms, the year 1931 marked the end of the Victorian régime which had given Britain prosperity. Changed conditions forced it to accept some degree of economic nationalism, and free trade of the nineteenth-century form had departed for good. The corporate effort of total war had led, eventually, to a greater acceptance of the need to seek collectivist solutions to modern problems, like the onset of mass unemployment. Capital came more under state control and direction because it had to seek the support of the State more often. In addition, there was a collectivist stimulus to clearer thinking and Planning. This was to bear greater fruit later in the decade. It was no longer simply a matter of ameliorating the effects and defects of industrialisation, but of transforming industrialism itself.

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

Yet the phrase, ‘the new socialism’ remained a misnomer. Collectivist methods were used, not because they were deduced from a particular creed, but because they happened to meet a particular need. In accordance with its long-held secular practice, Britain and its people remained largely uninterested in political theory, accepting change when there was a compelling case for it, supported by clear evidence. Above all, the English working-class remained deeply patriotic, as did the Scots and the Welsh. In 1937, a Nottinghamshire coal miner recalled his interaction with a Socialist speaker earlier in the decade and how his admiration had turned to annoyance when the speaker had turned to this subject:

“What is this England you are supposed to love? It is only a tiny portion of the earth’s surface.  Why should you be expected to love it, or be prepared to die for it, any more than you would for Russia, China or Greenland?”

I was thunderstruck. “Because it’s England!” I yelled out in a fury.

Didn’t he know that most of the happiness that ever I had came from this love of England that he spoke so contemptuously about? Didn’t they know that in the early winter mornings when the frost glittered on the half frozen fields and the air was so clear and so sharp that it hurt one’s nostrils, or in the hot summer afternoons when the forest of Sherwood was quiet under the heavy heat except for the popping of the bursting broom-pods – that England spoke to you? How she told you the wonderful stories of famous men who fought and ruled and died because of their love for her. Of the simple men who toiled, ploughed, reaped, loved every handful of her brown soil and died still loving her.   

In political terms, then, what was this England, and this Britain? In the Twenties, it was more of a changing landscape than it had ever been. Urgent facts had played havoc with party creeds. At no time previously or since, at least until recently, had the party interest sunk so low. That was due to the fact that British democracy had become essentially plebiscitary since that advent of the universal franchise in 1928. The 1929 ‘flapper election’ was the first to become a real scramble for votes and gamble for votes in the first-past-the-post system, compared with the well-planned binary contests which had previously taken place, leading to the turn-taking between the Conservatives and Liberals. The ‘arrival’ of Labour was one of the disruptive factors in this, but perhaps the major factor was the fact that in a crisis like war or national bankruptcy the ordinary party business meant little. The King’s view that a national emergency should be faced by a united front, which was supported by his ministers and confirmed by the people in the 1931 Election, had proved to be correct. As George Orwell was later to observe, patriotism was a far more potent popular force than socialism could ever become in Britain. The Labour Party has always done best when it has demonstrated its understanding of what appeared to be a ‘natural’ force, and worst when the party’s leadership show contempt for it.

Sources:

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

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

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of Working-Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Press.

Richard Brown (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands of England, 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Posted December 31, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Austerity, Austria, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Germany, History, Humanism, Jews, Labour Party, manufacturing, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Patriotism, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

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

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

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September 1939 – Blitzkrieg & Spheres of Influence: A Narrative of Actions & Reactions…   Leave a comment

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Chronology of The First Week of War; September 1-8:

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

2   Chamberlain’s second statement to the House of Commons; emergency Cabinet meeting issued an ultimatum to be presented on 3rd.

3   Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within nine hours, 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. 112 passengers perished. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet formed, with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

5   The Polish Corridor entirely cut off; the Polish government fled to Lublin and then to Romania. A thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and the Jewish district of Piotrków was torched. The entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland.

6   France invaded Germany in the Saarland; Germans retreated to Siegfried Line. No further action was taken by either France or Britain.

8   The Polish Pomorze Army encircled in the north; Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached Warsaw but was repulsed by the Polish resistance.

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

At the end of June, Hitler’s demand that Poland agrees to the incorporation into his Reich of the City of Danzig, overwhelmingly German, and the territory cutting off East Prussia, produced a crisis. The Poles refused to negotiate and were backed up by Britain and France. They also refused to allow Soviet troops into their country. Again, however, Hitler wrong-footed them the Western Allies. In August, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, despite his previously unwavering antipathy to communism, neatly sidelining the one country he took to be his most serious enemy. Thus guaranteed, on 1 September Germany invaded Poland. When their demands for German withdrawal were ignored, Britain and France declared war. Surprised, but not undaunted, Hitler continued with the invasion. The Danzig corridor, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, was bridged and the land-grab was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. By 29 September, Germany and Soviet Russia had partitioned Poland between them. Apart from a ‘rump’ area of central Poland, ruled from Kraków, the country was annexed either by Germany or the Soviet Union.

The Final Steps to European War:

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At the start of 1939, Hitler had had no plans for war even against Poland. Since the Munich crisis, diplomatic pressure had been put on Poland to consider the return of the Prussian city of Danzig to the Reich, and to discuss possible readjustments to the status of the ‘Polish Corridor’ which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

In March, the Polish Foreign Minister, Josef Beck, had given a firm refusal to these requests. Stung by what he saw as intransigence on the part of the Poles, Hitler ordered the armed forces to prepare for war against Poland. At the end of April, the Polish-German Non-Aggression pact of 1934 was abrogated by Germany, and across the summer months, German forces prepared ‘Plan White’, the planned annihilation of the Polish resistance. But Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary was not so taken aback. Four months previously, he had warned the British Cabinet of the possibility of a deal between Stalin and Hitler. Both the British and French governments now realised that the agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany freed Hitler’s hands for an invasion of Poland – and so it proved.

On 1 September, German troops crossed into Poland and two days later, Britain, in accordance with its treaty obligations with Poland, declared war on Germany. Hitler had expected a local war with Poland, lasting a matter of weeks. Instead, he now faced, at least potentially, a major European war with Britain and France.

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The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, 23 August:

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above: Molotov (seated), Ribbentrop (standing, left) and Stalin at the moment of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in the Kremlin in August 1939. Stalin, as this picture shows, was happy and at ease with the Nazi Foreign Minister.

Laurence Rees (2008) has pointed out that, by the summer of 1939, pragmatism had taken precedence over principle. Hitler wanted the German Army to invade Poland within a matter of days. As he saw it, there were German territories to retrieve – the city of Danzig, West Prussia, and the former German lands around Posen, as well as the rest of Poland’s valuable agricultural lands to conquer. But he knew that any into Poland risked war with Britain and France. Moreover, from the Nazi point of view, a vast question hung over their plan to invade Poland; what would be the reaction of the Soviet Union, Poland’s neighbour to the east? If the Soviet Union formed an alliance with the French and the British, how would the Germans react to encirclement by enemies?

So, that summer, off the back of trade talks that were happening in Berlin, the Germans began to sound out the Soviets about a possible treaty of convenience. By 2 August, the urgency of the Germans was palpable. The economic treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed on 19 August in Berlin. Ribbentrop then pressed the Soviets to allow him to come to Moscow to sign a non-aggression treaty. When the Soviets seemed to dither, Hitler stepped in personally and wrote an appeal to Stalin to allow Ribbentrop to go to Moscow. The Soviets relented and Ribbentrop arrived there on the 23rd. The motivation of the Germans was not difficult to fathom. Hitler’s long-term policy was still to view the Soviet Union as the ultimate enemy. As far as he was concerned, its Slavic people were not ‘worthy’ of owning the rich farmland they currently possessed. His almost messianic vision was that one day soon there would be a new German Empire on that land. But he was not concerned, for now, to pursue visions. This was the time to deal with the urgent, practical problems of neutralising a potential aggressor. The Nazi régime acted with at a speed that impressed even the Soviets, as Molotov testified in a speech in September:

The fact that Mr Ribbentrop acted at a tempo of 650 kilometres an hour called forth the Soviet government’s sincere admiration. His energy and his strength of will were a pledge to the firmness of the friendly relations that had been created with Germany.

Yet whilst it was relatively easy to see what the Germans were getting out of the deal, it was, initially, far less simple to explain the attitude of the Soviets. Unlike the Germans, they had a choice and could have accepted the offer of an alliance with the British and the French. At a cursory glance, that seemed to be the logical course of action, not least because they had signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland in July 1932 and neither of the two western democracies was as vehemently antipathetic to the USSR as the Nazis. In addition, the British had already made peaceful overtures towards Moscow. But Stalin knew that Britain had preferred a policy of appeasement to the Germans to an alliance with the Soviets, and he still felt insulted by Chamberlain’s failure to consult him about the Munich Agreement of a year earlier. Moreover, the fact that it had taken the British until the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939 to realise the potential benefits of a treaty with the Soviet Union did not impress Stalin. Five days earlier, he had made a speech to the 18th Party Congress in Moscow in which he talked of a war being waged by…

aggressor states who in every way infringe upon the interests of the the interests of the non-aggressive states, primarily Britain, France and the USA, while the latter draw back and retreat, making concession after concession to the aggressors. Thus we are witnessing an open redivision of the world and spheres of influence at the expense of the non-aggressive states, without the least attempt at resistance, and even with a certain connivance, on their part. Incredible, but true.

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

The Führer accepts that the eastern part of Poland and Bessarabia as well as Finland, Estonia and Latvia, up to the river Duena, will all fall within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Stalin objected at once to these proposals, insisting that the entire territory of Latvia fall within the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’. The meeting was immediately adjourned until Ribbentrop had contacted Hitler about this request. The Führer was waiting for news of the negotiations at the Berghof, his retreat in the mountains of Bavaria. Herbert Döring, the SS officer who administered the Berghof and witnessed the events of that day, noted the reactions of the commanders meeting there to the news that Ribbentrop was about to sign a non-aggression pact with the Soviets:

The generals were upset, they were looking at each other… It took their breath away that such a thing could be possible. Stalin the Communist, Hitler the National Socialist, that these two would certainly unite. What was behind it, nobody knew.

Suddenly, the call came through from Ribbentrop with the news of Stalin’s demand. Döring recalled:

Hitler was speechless during the phone call, everybody noticed. Stalin had put a pistol to his head. 

Hitler agreed to ‘hand over’ the whole of Latvia to Stalin. The main details of the ‘spheres of influence’ were enshrined in a secret protocol to the pact. Then the conversation in Moscow became more discursive as Stalin revealed his frank views about his ‘dislike and distrust’ of the British:

… they are skilful and stubborn opponents. But the British Army is weak. If England is still ruling the world it is due to the stupidity of other countries which let themselves be cheated. It is ridiculous that only a few hundred British are still able to rule the vast Indian population.

Stalin went on to assert that the British had tried to prevent Soviet-German understanding for many years and that it was a ‘good idea’ to put an end to these ‘shenanigans’. But there was no open discussion in Moscow of the Nazi’s immediate plans to invade Poland, nor what the Soviet response to it was expected to be. The nearest Ribbentrop came to outlining Nazi intentions was when he said:

The government of the German Reich no longer finds acceptable the persecution of the German population in Poland and the Führer is determined to resolve the German-Polish disputes without delay.

The Polish Corridor, which had been intended by the framers of the Versailles Treaty to cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, had long been presented as a ‘casus belli’ by the Nazis, as had the ethnically German Baltic Port of Danzig, but as Hitler had told a conference of generals in May 1939,

Danzig is not the real issue, the real point is for us to open up our ‘Lebensraum’ to the east and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.

Yet Hitler was driven by more than simple practicalities. The forthcoming war over Poland was to be an existential conflict, fulfilling the promises he had made fourteen years before in his political testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the Slavs – Untermenschen  (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of racial hierarchy – and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan civilization. This was to be the world’s first wholly ideological war, and, as Andrew Roberts has written, the reason why the Nazis eventually lost it. By August 1939, Danzig and the Polish Corridor had become the focal point for Nazi propaganda.

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The Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was finally signed in the early hours of 24 August 1939. German and Soviet photographers were allowed into the room to immortalise the unlikely friendship that had blossomed between the two countries. But Stalin’s last words to Ribbentrop were spoken with apparent sincerity:

I assure you that the Soviet Union takes this pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honour that the Soviet Union will not betray its new partner.

Back at the Berghof, the atmosphere grew ever more anxious in the hours before news of the signing of the pact came through. Herbert Döring watched that evening as Hitler and his guests stared at a dramatic sky over the high mountain peaks. He recalled that:

The entire sky was in turmoil. It was blood-red, green, sulphur grey, black as the night, a jagged yellow. Everyone was looking horrified – it was intimidating. … Everyone was watching. Without good nerves one could easily have become frightened.

Döring observed Hitler’s reaction to the remark of one of his guests, a Hungarian woman:

“My Führer, this augers nothing good. It means blood, blood, blood and again blood.” Hitler was totally shocked. … He was almost shaking. He said, “If it has to be, then let it be now.” He was agitated, completely crazed. His hair was wild. His gaze was locked on the distance. Then, when the good news that the pact had been signed finally arrived, Hitler said goodbye, went upstairs and the evening was over.

The reaction in Britain to the rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union might have lacked the drama on the terrace at the Berghof, but it was certainly one of immense surprise. It was a new and incomprehensible chapter in German diplomacy, as one British newsreel declared, asking what has happened to the principles of ‘Mein Kampf’?… what can Russia have in common with Germany? All over the world, Communist parties, who had been campaigning for a ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism, struggled to make sense of the new reality. In Germany, the Nazis were equally non-plussed by the news. SS officer Hans Bernhard heard of the news of the signing of the pact as he waited with his unit to invade Poland. For him, it came as…

… a surprise without doubt. We couldn’t make sense of it. …in German propaganda for years it had been made clear that the Bolsheviks were our main enemy. … (it was) politically unnatural.

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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The German armed forces made meticulous preparations for the Polish war. They committed fifty-two divisions (against Poland’s thirty), organised into five armies surrounding Poland on three sides. They included five Panzer divisions of three hundred tanks each, four light divisions, with fewer tanks and some horses, and four fully motorised divisions, with lorry-borne infantry. These tank and motorised divisions spearheaded the attack, supported by 1,500 aircraft. Altogether, they had 3,600 operational aircraft and much of the ‘Kriegsmarine’, the German navy. Poland had only thirty infantry divisions, eleven cavalry brigades, two mechanised brigades, three hundred medium and light tanks, 1,154 field guns and four hundred combat-ready aircraft, of which only thirty-six were not obsolete. They had a fleet of only four modern destroyers and five submarines. Although these forces comprised fewer than a million men, Poland tried to mobilise its reservists, but that was far from complete when the devastating blow fell at the hands of 630,000 German troops under Bock and 886,000 under Rundstedt.

Polish forces planned to fight a holding action before falling back on the defence of Warsaw. When the campaign opened German forces moved with great speed and power, quickly penetrating the defensive screen and encircling Polish troops. At 17:30 hours on 31 August, Hitler ordered hostilities to commence the next morning, and at 04:45 on Friday, 1 September, German forces activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the German Army High Command (OKH), with Hitler merely putting his imprimatur on the final document.  At this early stage in the war, there was a good deal of genuine mutual respect between Hitler and his generals, so that the Führer did not interfere too closely in the troop dispositions and planning. Neither was he cowed by his generals, as he knew that, had he been a German citizen, he would have been commissioned and have emerged from the Great War in command of a battalion. Moreover, his two Iron Crosses gave him some standing with his generals. Despite being mocked as ‘Corporal Hitler’ by the former Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill, he showed no inferiority complex when dealing directly with soldiers who had outranked him by far in the previous conflict.

According to ‘Plan White’, on either side of a relatively weak and stationary centre, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would envelop Poland and crush its armed forces. Army Group North would smash through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig, unite with the German Third Army in East Prussia and move swiftly capture Warsaw from the north. Meanwhile, an even stronger Army Group South, under von Rundstedt, would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it, push east all the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north. As dawn broke on 1 September, Heinkel bombers, with top speeds of 350kph carrying two thousand kilogram loads, as well as Dorniers and Junkers (Stuka) dive-bombers, began pounding Polish roads, airfields, railway junctions, munitions dumps, mobilisation centres and cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the ship Schleswig Holstein in Danzig harbour started shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. The Stukas had special sirens attached whose screams hugely intensified the terror of those below. Much of the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground, and air superiority was quickly won by the Luftwaffe. The Messerschmitt Me-109 had a top speed of 470kph, and the far slower Polish planes stood little chance, however brave their pilots. Furthermore, Polish anti-aircraft defences, where there were any, were wholly inadequate.

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The strategy of having a weak centre and two powerful flanks was a brilliant one, believed to have derived from the pre-Great War Schlieffen Plan. Whatever the provenance, it worked well, slipping German armies neatly between the Polish ones, enabling them to converge on Warsaw from different angles almost simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not the preponderance in men and arms, but above all the military doctrine of ‘Blitzkrieg’. Poland was a fine testing ground for these tactics. Although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with immensely wide fronts and firm, late-summer ground ideal for tanks. Since the British and French governments had given their guarantee to Poland on 1 April 1939, with the British PM Neville Chamberlain formally promising ‘all support in the power’ of the Allies, Hitler was forced to leave a large proportion of his hundred-division Army on the Siegfried Line or ‘West Wall’, a three-mile-deep series of still-incomplete fortifications along  Germany’s western frontier. The fear of a war on two fronts led the Führer to leave no fewer than forty divisions to protect his back. His best troops, however, along with all his armoured and mobile divisions and almost all his aircraft, he devoted to the attack on Poland.

In charge of the two armoured divisions and two light divisions of Army Group North was General Heinz Guderian, a long-time exponent of the tactics of Blitzkrieg. Wielding his force as a homogeneous entity, by contrast with Army Group South where tanks were split up among different units, Guderian scored amazing successes as he raced ahead of the main body of the infantry. Polish retaliation was further hampered by vast numbers of refugees taking to the roads. once they were bombed and machine-gunned from the air, chaos ensued. It soon became clear to everyone, except the ever hopeful Poles, that the Western Allies were not about to assault the Siegfried Line, even though the French had eighty-five divisions facing the forty German. Fear of massive German air attacks devastating London and Paris partly explained Allied inaction, but even if they had attacked in the west, Poland could not have been saved in time. Although the RAF had reached France by 9 September, the main British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not start to arrive until the next day.

What the Allies did not fully appreciate at this stage was the ever-present fear in Hitler’s calculations that there would be an attack in the west before Poland was defeated. In particular, he thought there might be a secret agreement between the French and Belgian general staffs for a surprise thrust by the French high-speed motorised forces through Belgium and over the German frontier into the industrial zone of the Ruhr. In addition, he suspected that there might also be an agreement between the British and the Dutch for a surprise landing of British troops in Holland in order to attack the German north flank. In the event, it turned out that no such agreements were in place. As the Poles retreated, seven thousand ethnic Germans in Poland were massacred by their Polish neighbours and the retreating troops. The Poles did this on the basis of their fear of betrayal, but the Nazis soon responded in cold blood, and on a far larger scale.

By 5 September, the Polish Corridor was completely cut off. On the night of 6 September, France made a token invasion of Germany, advancing five miles into the Saarland along a fifteen-mile-wide front, capturing a dozen abandoned German villages. The Germans retreated behind the Siegfried Line and waited. As France was still mobilising, no further action was taken and five days later, the French troops returned to their original positions with orders only to undertake reconnaissance over the frontier. This was hardly the all-out support of the Allies, and Hitler did not have to remove a single soldier from the Polish front. Meanwhile, by the eighth, the Polish Pomorze Army was encircled in the north and the German Tenth Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw but was initially repulsed by the fierce Polish resistance.  Despite years of threats by Hitler, the Poles had not built extensive fixed defences, preferring to rely on counter-attacks. This all changed in early September when the city centre of Warsaw witnessed makeshift barricades being thrown up, anti-tank ditches dug and turpentine barrels made ready for ignition. However, at the same time, the Eighth Army had soon broken over and around the Polish Kraków and Lodz armies by the 17th. The Polish Government fled first to Lublin and then to Romania, where they were welcomed at first, but were later interned under pressure from Hitler. Hitler’s plan had been to seize Warsaw before the US Congress met on 21 September, so as to present it and the world with a fait accompli, but that was not quite what was to happen.

On 9 September, Hermann Göring predicted that the Polish Army would never emerge again from the German embrace. Until then, the Germans had operated a textbook attack, but that night General Tadeusz Kutrzebra of the Poznán Army took over the Pomorze Army and crossed the Bzuta river in a brilliant attack against the flank of the German Eighth Army, launching the three-day battle of Kutno which incapacitated an entire German division. Only when the Panzers of the Tenth Army returned from besieging Warsaw were the Poles forced back. According to German propaganda, some Polish cavalry charged German tanks armed only with lances and sabres, but this did not, in fact, happen at all. Nonetheless, as Mellenthin observed:

All the dash and bravery which the Poles frequently displayed could not compensate for a lack of modern arms and serious tactical training.

By contrast, the Wehrmacht training was completely modern and impressively flexible: some troops could even perform in tanks, as infantrymen and artillerymen, while all German NCOs were trained to serve as officers if the occasion demanded. Of course, it helped enormously that the Germans were the aggressors, and so knew when the war was going to start. In fact, they were fighting their fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years, and they were simply better at it than the Allies. Blitzkrieg required extraordinarily close co-operation between the services, and the Germans achieved it triumphantly. It took the Allies half a war to catch up.

But as the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Soviet Union made no more to invade from the east. Consequently, Ribbentrop was concerned about Stalin’s reaction to any German incursion into eastern Poland, the region that adjoined the Soviet Union and that it had just been agreed was within the Soviet sphere of influence. He cabled Schulenberg, the German ambassador in Moscow, on 3 September:

We should naturally, however, for military reasons, have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of influence. Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of influence and, for their part, to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would not only be a relief for us, but also, in the sense of the Moscow agreements, be in the Soviet interest as well.

But the Western Allies had just declared war on Germany because they had agreed by treaty to protect Poland against aggression. If the Red Army moved into eastern Poland, would they now decide to fight the Soviet Union as well? The Soviet leaders were concerned that a pact which, from their point of view, was designed to keep them out of European war might now drag them into it. But there remained strong arguments in favour of military action. The Soviets recognised the material benefits to be gained from annexing a large chunk of the neighbouring country with which they had historical scores to settle. Stalin was still bitter about the war the Bolsheviks had fought with the Poles after the Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles, and before the USSR came into being. The Curzon Line, the proposed border at that time between Poland and its neighbours, was used to agree on the spheres of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Moreover, ethnic Poles were not in a majority in these eastern territories. Around forty per cent of the population were of Polish origin, thirty-four per cent were Ukrainian and nine per cent Belarusian. This, the Soviet propagandists realised, allowed any incursion to be couched as an act of ‘liberation’, freeing the ‘local’ population from Polish domination. A combination of all these factors meant that on 9 September, Molotov finally replied to Ribbentrop’s cable of the 3rd, to say that the Red Army was about to move into the agreed Soviet ‘sphere’ in Poland. At a meeting in Moscow the following day with the German ambassador, Molotov told Schulenburg that the pretext for the invasion would be that the Soviet Union was helping Ukrainians and Belarusians. This argument, he said, …

… was to make the intervention of the Soviet Union plausible and at the same time avoid giving… it the appearance of an aggressor. 

With only three Polish divisions covering the eight-hundred-mile-long eastern border, it came as a complete surprise when at dawn on 17 September, in accordance with the secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that had been agreed on 24 August. The Russians wanted revenge for their defeats at Poland’s hands in 1920, access to the Baltic States and a buffer zone against Germany, and they opportunistically grabbed all three, without any significant resistance. Soviet forces began to cross the frontier in the east against only light resistance, led by Marshal Kovalov in the north on the Belarusian front and Marshal Timoshenko in the south on the Ukrainian front. In a radio broadcast the same day, Molotov justified the Soviet action by the ‘plausible’ argument he had outlined to Schulenberg. Caught between the two great powers, Polish fighting power evaporated. Warsaw surrendered on 27 September. The following day all Polish resistance ceased. The Red Army was initially welcomed in many places and there was confusion in some places as to whether this was an actual invasion at all. Perhaps, some thought, the Soviet troops had really come to ‘help’. Maybe they would just motor through the flat countryside of eastern Poland and confront the Germans, who had already captured most of the west of the country. The photograph below reveals that there was little panic on the streets.

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The total losses of the Red Army in Poland amounted to only 734 killed. Stalin continued to use Polish ‘colonialism’ in the Ukraine and Belorussia as his casus belli, arguing that the Red Army had invaded Poland in order to restore peace and order. The Poles were thus doubly martyred, smashed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, and were not to regain their independence and self-government until November 1989, half a century later. By mid-September, the Germans had already moved into several areas behind Warsaw and had indeed taken Brest-Litovsk and Lvov, but some fighting had broken out between Cossacks and Germans, with two of the former killed in one incident and fifteen Germans in another. The campaign cost 8,082 German lives with 27,278 wounded and the loss of 285 aircraft, whereas seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, with 130,000 soldiers wounded. Mellenthin concluded that:

The operations were of considerable value in “blooding” our troops and teaching them the difference between real war with live ammunition and peacetime manoeuvres.

The whole of western Poland came under German control. On 28 September, Soviet and German representatives met to draw up a demarcation line which gave Warsaw to the Germans and the Baltic states as a sphere of interest to the USSR. Almost at once the German authorities began to break Poland up. Silesia and the Corridor became parts of the Reich, and a central Polish area called the General Government was placed under a Nazi administrator, Hans Frank. Thousands of Polish intellectuals were rounded up and murdered. Peasants were removed from their villages in parts of western Poland and replaced by German settlers. Hitler had been right to calculate that Britain and France would give Poland little help, but he was wrong about localising the conflict. Although Britain and France declared war on 3 September, there were only isolated raids by Allied scouting parties and aircraft. After the defeat of Poland Hitler wanted to wage a winter campaign in the west, but was prevented from doing so by bad weather, and both sides sat through the winter and early spring of a ‘phoney war’.

In eastern Poland, casual abuse of the ‘class enemies’ of the Communist system turned into a widespread and systematic arrest. On 27 September, just ten days after Red Army troops had crossed into Poland – the Soviets came for Boguslava Gryniv’s father. He was a prominent lawyer and head of the regional branch of the Ukrainian National Democratic Party (UNDO), a legally constituted organisation. When there was a knock at their door the Gryniv family were surprised to see a member of the local Soviet authority, as it was a church holiday and they were about to celebrate with a family meal. But they took his father away anyway, leaving the family to pray for him not to be punished and to be returned to them. He was one of the first of many to suffer at the hands of the Soviets in eastern Poland. Altogether, between September 1939 and June 1941, around 110,000 people were arrested during the reign of terror facilitated by the occupation of eastern Poland. Aristocrats, intellectuals, trade unionists, churchmen, politicians, veterans of the 1920-21  Russo-Polish War, anyone who might form the nucleus of new national leadership, were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps from which virtually none emerged.

As in the case of Boguslava Gryniv’s father, individual arrests of members of the intelligentsia and others thought of as a threat to the new régime began from the moment the Red Army arrived in mid-September. Gryniv was sent to the local jail immediately upon arrest, a small cell that usually held drunks and petty criminals. All the most important people who had remained in the town were in this prison. They thought it was simply a ‘misunderstanding’. However, about three weeks later he was taken to Chertkov, where he discovered that all he was accused of was membership of UNDA, a legal organisation before the invasion which was by no means anti-Bolshevik. However, in reality, he was seen as a dangerous member of the previous ‘ruling class’. He disappeared from the prison towards the end of 1939 and fifty years later his family finally learnt that he had been murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

On the same day that Boguslava Gryniv’s father was arrested, the Soviet government’s new best friend, Joachim von Ribbentrop returned to the Kremlin to finalise the exact borders that would exist between them. After tough negotiations lasting until five in the morning, it was agreed that the Germans would get Warsaw and Lublin, and the Russians the rest of eastern Poland and a free hand in the Baltic. The Germans withdrew from towns such as Brest-Litovsk and Bialystock in the new Russian sector, and the fourth partition in Poland’s history was effectively complete. The Soviets had obtained the lands in their ‘sphere’ without meeting any serious opposition and without even making a formal declaration of war on Poland. Molotov would have done well, however, to take note of Hitler’s statement made many years before in Mein Kampf:

Let no one argue that in concluding an alliance with Russia we need not immediately think of war, or, if we did, that we could thoroughly prepare for it. An alliance whose aim does not embrace a plan for war is senseless and worthless. Alliances are concluded only for struggle.

The Germans had faced fierce Polish resistance in the west, but they had completely consolidated their hold on these lands. After a full day of bombing on 25 September, with no prospect of meaningful help from the Western Allies, a full-scale ‘invasion’ from the Russians in the east, and communications cut between Smigly-Rydz and much of his army, and with food and medical supplies running dangerously low, Warsaw capitulated on 28 September. It was then three days before the Germans agreed to help the wounded in the city, by which time it was too late for many of them. Field kitchens were set up only for as long as the newsreel cameras were there. By 5 October, all resistance had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers were taken captive by the Russians, and 693,000 by the Germans. On that day, Hitler travelled to Warsaw in his special train to visit his victorious troops. Take a good look around Warsaw, he told the war correspondents there, … that is how I can deal with any European city.

What was to be called the policy of  Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness) had begun as soon as the Germans had entered Poland. For the master race to have their ‘living space’, large numbers of Slavic and Jewish Untermenschen had to disappear, and during the rest of the war, Poland lost 17.2 per cent of its population. The commander of three Totenkopf (Death’s Head) SS regiments, Theodor Eicke, ordered his men to ‘incarcerate or annihilate’ every enemy of National Socialism they found as they followed the troops into Poland. Since Nazism was a racial ideology, that meant that huge swathes of the Polish people were automatically classed as enemies of the Reich, to whom no mercy could be shown. Fortunately, between ninety and a hundred thousand Polish combatants managed to flee the country via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, eventually making their way to the west to join the Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister in exile, who was in Paris when the war broke out and set up a government in exile in Angers in France.

The Wehrmacht took an active part in the violence, burning down 531 towns and villages, and killing thousands of Polish POWs. The claim made by German soldiers that they had been simple soldiers who had known nothing of the genocide against the Slavs and the Jews, was a lie. The nature of the SS had become immediately apparent upon the invasion of Poland. On 5 September 1939, a thousand civilians were shot by them at Bydgoszcz, and at Piotrków the Jewish district was torched. The next day nineteen Polish officers who had surrendered were shot at Mrocza. Meanwhile, the entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. Even Jewish farmers were forced into ghettos, despite the obvious need for efficient food production in the new eastern satrapy of the Third Reich, early evidence that the Nazis were willing to put their war against the Jews even before their war against the Allies. In Bydgoszcz, they were locked in their synagogue on the Day of Atonement and denied access to lavatories, forcing them to use prayer shawls to clean themselves. Far worse was to come…

(to be continued…)

Posted September 7, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Austria, Austria-Hungary, Axis Powers, Baltic States, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Colonisation, Commemoration, Communism, Demography, Deportation, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Family, First World War, France, Genocide, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Hungary, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Jews, liberal democracy, liberalism, Migration, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Paris, Poland, Population, populism, Racism, Refugees, Respectability, Seasons, Second World War, Security, Siege of Warsaw, Statehood, Technology, terror, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Uncategorized, United Kingdom, USSR, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War Two

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The Conquest of Normandy & The Red Army’s Advance to Warsaw, June-July 1944.   1 comment

After D-Day – The Battle for Normandy:

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The landings of 6th June were, of course, ‘just’ the beginning of the campaign to liberate Western Europe from the occupation of the Third Reich. Having got into the fields behind the beaches, the Americans, in particular, were dismayed to find themselves among the bocage, the thick, high and wide hedgerows that provided ideal cover for defence. From the German perspective, General Blumentritt wrote to a correspondent in 1965, saying that the German soldier had bled to death through wrong politics and dilettante leadership of Hitler. In particular, Normandy had been lost, he claimed, because Hitler ordered a rigid defence of the coasts. That was not possible over two thousand kilometres, especially when considering the Allied mastery of the air, the Allied masses of ‘matérial’, and the weakened German potential after five years of war. General Rundstedt wanted to give up the whole of France south of the Loire in order to  concentrate on fighting a fast-moving tank battle around Paris instead, but he was prevented from doing this by Hitler and Rommel who intended to carry out the defence with all forces on the beach and to use all tank-corps right in front, at the coast.

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Timetables were vital to the Germans, and in reinforcing Normandy as quickly as possible they were severely hampered by the destruction of road and rail routes by the bombing campaigns and by heroic acts of resistance by the French Maquis, who attacked the Germans and destroyed bridges and railways in the path of the Panzers. This led to horrific reprisals, the best known of which were carried out by the fifteen-thousand-strong 2nd SS Das Reich Panzer Division, frustrated by losses and delays as it attempted to drive from Montauban in southern France to repel the invader in Normandy. The 450-mile journey lasted three weeks after they had set out on 8 June, as opposed to the few days it would have taken had they been left unharried. In retaliation for the killing of forty German soldiers in one incident, Das Reich exacted widespread reprisals in the town of Tulle in the Corréze. One woman recalled how…

I came home from shopping on 9 June 1944 to find my husband and son hanging from the balcony of our house. They were just two of a hundred men seized at random and killed in cold blood by the SS. The children and wives were forced to watch while they strung them up to the lamp-posts and balconies outside their own homes. What is there for me to say?

Yet worse was to come the following morning, 10 June, at the small village of Oradour-Sur-Glane, where Major Adolf Dickmann’s unit murdered 642 people, including 190 schoolchildren; the men were shot, the women and children were burnt alive in the church and the village was razed. The village can be visited today, left deserted and destroyed as a memorial and a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. This was featured in a special episode of ITV’s ground-breaking documentary series, The World at War in the 1970s. Yet, as Max Hastings has pointed out…

It is important to remember that if Oradour was an exceptionally dreadful occurrence during the war in the West, it was a trifling sample of what the German Army had been doing on a national scale in the East, since 1941. 

It was, however, a stark reminder, if one were needed, of exactly what the Allied troops were fighting both for and against if one were needed. It also showed the lengths and depths the Nazis were prepared to go in resisting the Allied advance. Hardly surprising then that German resistance around Carentan on 13 June and Caen on 18 June prevented Montgomery from taking either town, although the US VII Corps under Major-General J. Lawton Collins took Cherbourg on 27 June after five days of heavy fighting and the destruction of the harbour by the Germans, which the Allies could not then use until 7 August. The Germans in Caen, which Montgomery called the ‘crucible’ of the battle, held out until 9 July, and the town was little more than rubble when it finally fell. Despite this fierce fighting continuing until more than a month after the initial landings, the London Evening News was not prevented from claiming its capture on the day after D-Day, perhaps an example of how ‘fake news’ was already part of war-time propaganda campaigns. Basil Liddell Hart was proved right in his description of Overlord as having gone according to the plan, but not according to the timetable.

The Coup Attempt Against Hitler:

Years after the war, Dönitz stated that it was the defeat of the German U-Boat which had enabled the success of the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy in July 1944. That was the point at which the German High Command knew they had no chance of winning the war. Some in that High Command, though not the ultra-loyal Dönitz, decided that they had to try to assassinate Hitler. Far from acting out of any kind of democratic conscience, the vast majority of the plotters were simply determined to remove, as they secretly saw him, an incompetent upstart corporal who had by then become the major obstacle to a negotiated peace which was the only objective alternative to accepting, sooner or later, a Soviet occupation of Germany.

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So it was that on Thursday 20 July a two-pound bomb planted by the Swabian aristocratic war hero Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg ripped through one of the conference huts at ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in East Prussia (now Poland), only six feet from where Hitler was studying an air-reconnaissance report through his magnifying glass. Despite extensive minor injuries, he survived. Churchill described the July Plotters as the bravest of the best, but in reality, they were extreme German nationalists, if not Nazis, and very far from the idealist democrats depicted by Hollywood.

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The hope of the Plotters that they could make peace with Britain and America was flawed since the war was now being fought by an Anglo-Russian-American coalition so that it was unthinkable that Britain could enter into negotiations with Germany and/or its axis allies behind her allies’ backs. As one of the senior officials in the German Department of the Foreign Office, Frank Roberts, put it in his autobiography:

If Stalin got the impression we were in contact with the German generals, whose main aim was to protect Germany against Russia, he might well have been tempted to see whether he could not again come to terms with Hitler.

Re-balancing the Record – The Russian Contribution:

Following the collapse of the ‘Eastern Bloc’, historians such as Laurence Rees have been able to re-balance our understanding of the final year of the Second World War. When he was taught the history of the War in the early 1970s, his teachers got around the moral and political complexities of the Soviet Union’s part in the war by the simple expedient of largely ignoring it. My teachers taught us nothing at all about the Second World War; nor even very much about the First World War. At the time, in the depths of the Cold War, that was how most people dealt with the awkward legacy of the West’s relationship with Stalin. The focus was on the heroism of the Western Allies – on Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and D-Day. None of this, of course, is forgotten, and neither should it be. But it is not the whole story. Before the fall of Communism, the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War was, to a large extent, denied a proper place in our culture because it was easier than facing up to a variety of unpalatable truths. The D-Day commemorations we have just been through, important as they were for both the veterans who took part and for the western leaders, reverted to a self-conscious western triumphalism, failing to involve contemporary Russian leaders and almost completely ignoring the ‘Russian’ contribution, however controversial it may remain. Neither has there (yet) been any reference to the role of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe in resisting and ultimately defeating the Reich.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”The Western Allies had agreed to launch Operation Overlord, the long-awaited ‘second front’ in the spring of 1944, following the first Anglo-American Conference in Quebec in August 1943 (pictured right). But because of the slow progress of the Italian Campaign, Churchill had wanted to revisit the whole schedule in October 1943. He had on several previous occasions announced that despite agreeing with the second front in principle, in practice there was always one more operation that needed to take precedence; the Americans had at last run out of patience with him. It was a matter that Roosevelt and the American military leadership, including Eisenhower, did not want to reopen.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”Besides which, there were precious few landing craft in Europe that were not already committed for D-Day. At a meeting on 24 November in Cairo, Churchill had finally seized his opportunity to plead with Roosevelt and the American generals for more resources for the Mediterranean. But, predictably, the Americans would not countenance a delay to Overlord.

Towards the end of the meeting, Roosevelt had reminded Churchill of the relative troop numbers now committed to the overall conflict: very soon more Americans would be involved in the war than troops under British command. On 26 November, Roosevelt and Churchill left for Tehran. In the plane, Churchill had gloomily confided to his doctor, Charles Wilson, that the campaign in Italy had been put ‘in jeopardy’ by the US President’s desire to invade France on the schedule drawn up in Quebec. Wilson (later Lord Moran) had a revealing conversation just before the conference in which Roosevelt’s close advisor, Harry Hopkins, told him that…

The President is convinced that even if he cannot convert Stalin into a good democrat he will be able to come to a working arrangement with him. After all, he had spent his life managing men. And Stalin at bottom could not be so very different from other people. Anyway, he has come to Tehran determined… to come to terms with Stalin, and he is not going to allow anything to interfere with that purpose.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”

Above: The three Allies at the Tehran Conference.

On the Eastern Front – Operation Bagration:

As the soldiers of the Western Allies battled to establish a foothold in Normandy, the Red Army prepared to launch a massive attack on German Army Group Centre in an attempt to recapture Minsk and push the Wehrmacht back out of the Soviet Union. This operation, which had been agreed at Tehran, dwarfed D-Day in scale. The Germans had thirty divisions in the West to face the Allied onslaught following D-Day but concentrated 165 divisions against the Red Army in the East. Over two million Red Army soldiers took part in their June offensive, codenamed Operation Bagration after the Georgian military hero who had fought against Napoleon. Veniamin Fyodorov, a (then) twenty-year-old soldier with the Soviet 77th Guards infantry regiment recalled his experiences in this assault on 22 June, as he watched the initial bombardment from his own side:

For Bagration we were preparing very carefully. Whatever resources the Soviet Union had were concentrated in this direction. Big numbers of artillery, tanks and ammunition. And big numbers of infantry. … When you look ahead, you see bits of earth flying up into the air and you see explosions. As if you light a match. Flashes, flashes. One flash, another flash. And bits of land are thrown up in the air. After the bombardment, planes came, flying low. We felt more cheerful because we had a lot of military equipment. 

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For the Germans, by contrast, the Operation marked the lowest point in their military fortunes on the Eastern Front to date – lower even than Stalingrad in terms of military losses. Seventeen divisions were completely destroyed, with another fifty enduring losses of fifty per cent. And it was Hitler who was largely to blame for this defeat since he no longer trusted his generals to take the initiative on the battlefield as he had done during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. He now gave direct tactical orders to the commanders of the 9th Army who faced Operation Bagration, orders which were increasingly disconnected from the realities of the modern battlefield. On the eve of Bagration, General Jordan, commander of the 9th Army, wrote these words:

… The Army believes that even under the present conditions, it would be possible to stop the enemy offensive, but not under the present directives which require an absolutely rigid defence. … The Army considers the orders establishing “Feste Platze” (Fortified Places) particularly dangerous. The army looks ahead to the coming battle with bitterness, knowing that it is bound by order to tactical measures which it cannot in good conscience accept as correct and which in our earlier victorious campaigns were the cause of enemy defeats.

This sense that the Germans were contributing to their own defeat now pervaded even the most junior ranks. A twenty-two-year-old private with the 9th Army, Heinz Fielder, recalled the demoralising effects of these nonsensical orders received from the division or the army corps:

I remember once that one position had definitely to be taken back again, and the young second lieutenant had refused to attack again because more than half his men had already died and they were all just sacrificed. They attacked again and again until the very last one died and that of course makes you wonder. But those were the men of the General Staff. They had their little flags and they put them on the map and then they say, this absolutely has to be restored, no what the sacrifices are.

Fielder was one of the Germans ordered to defend the Feste Platz of Bobruisk in the wake of the Red Army attack. He recalled:

Everywhere dead bodies are lying. Dead bodies, wounded people, people screaming, medical orderlies, and then there were those who were completely covered, who were not taken out at all, who were buried there straight away by the bunkers and trenches that collapsed. You don’t have any feeling any more for warmth or coldness or light or darkness or thirst or hunger. You don’t need to go to the loo. I can’t explain it. It’s such a tension you’re under … Everything was simply shit. Everything was shit.

Only after the Feste Platz was completely encircled and had been subjected to continuous bombardment was Fielder’s unit, at last, told it could try to escape.

And then the last command arrived. Destroy vehicles, shoot horses, take as much hand ammunition and rations with you as you can carry. Every man for himself. Well, now go on and rescue yourself.

Fielder joined a group of other German soldiers who were trying to fight their way through the Red Army troops ahead of them and reach the retreating German line. He headed West – towards the setting sun, and saw sites which continued to haunt him sixty years later:

There was a private, a young boy, who sat at a very big birch tree … from his tummy his intestines were streaming  and he was crying, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” and everybody just ran past him. I had to stop – but I could not shoot him. And then a young lieutenant from the sappers came. He took off his headgear and gave him the ‘coup de gráce with a 7.65 into the temple. And that’s when I had to cry bitterly. I thought if his mother knew how her boy ended, and instead she gets a letter from the squadron saying, “Your son fell on the field for great Germany”.

In July 1944, the German Army on the Eastern Front lost nearly two hundred thousand men killed or wounded; in August it was nearly three hundred thousand.  In total, German losses as a result of Operation Bagration would be calculated at around 1.5 million. This was an unprecedented defeat for Hitler and his generals and was unparalleled by anything occurring in the same period on the Western Front. By comparison with the Western Allies, the Red Army had made rapid progress against the Wehrmacht, retaking Minsk, capital of Belarus, on 3 July. Fyodor Bubenchikov, a twenty-eight-year-old Red Army officer, remembered that…

… gradually the Germans were losing morale and losing their belief in victory; Germans no longer cried “Heil Hitler!” On the contrary, they were surrendering. They were crying: “Hitler kaputt!”

That summer, Bubenchikov said he felt as if he were “flying”, as did all the Red Army units engaged in the action, from the ordinary soldier to the commander. Operation Bagration, still not known as well in the West as it should be, marked the end of a transformation in the fortunes of the Red Army. The Soviets had managed to increase their manufacture of military equipment and were now out-performing the Germans. In both 1943 and 1944, they produced more tanks and self-propelled guns than their enemy. Added to the increased Soviet output, of course, were the benefits of aid from the Western Allies, the bulk of which came from the USA. Although this remained only a small percentage of the total equipment of the Red Army, it was important because of the superior technology it contributed. For example, the Studebaker US6 truck was used by the Red Army for launching of Katyusha rockets.

The Polish Dimension & Dilemma:

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But elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as the Red Army moved forward at speed, some of the people whose lives had been changed for the worse by this reoccupation of ‘Soviet territory’ were just beginning their new and bitter existence under an army which, for them at least, was far from being one of liberation. In the wake of the attack on German Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, the Red Army moved forward into eastern Poland and mounted the Lwów-Sandomierz assault. This powerful thrust involved over a million Soviet soldiers of the first Ukranian front under Michael Konev. In July 1944, the Red Army approached Lwów, a city they had first seized in September 1939 in agreement with the Nazis. Anna Levitska, then a teenager living in the city recalled:

In 1944, when the Red Army came for a second time, it was, of course, worse, because we already had an idea of what the consequences might be, because of all the arrests there had been in 1939 and 1940. … So of course it was terrifying.

Anna also recalled one old man coming up to her and her family in 1944 saying, this is the second time. It was better the first time. When they asked him why, he replied: Because the first time, they came and they went. But this time when they come, there is no way they will be leaving. Vyacheslav Yablonsky was part of the great Soviet assault on Lwów that summer. But he was in no sense an ordinary soldier: as a member of an élite NKVD squad, he had a very specific role. Together with two dozen other members of the secret police, and a squad of Red Army soldiers, he entered Lwów just before the Germans retreated from the city. Travelling in American Studebaker trucks they plotted a route via the back streets of the city to the Gestapo headquarters. The location was familiar to them since the German Secret police had simply replaced the NKVD in the building, which had been used previously by the Austro-Hungarian intelligence agency.

The task facing Yablonsky and his comrades was straightforward but considered vital. They had to capture the headquarters before the Germans left, and steal intelligence information that their superiors hoped would reveal just who had been collaborating with the Nazis. They arrived just as the Nazis were packing their files into trucks. The Soviet force scaled the wall surrounding the Gestapo HQ, shot the German guards and prevented the trucks from leaving. Hurrying into the building, they made straight for the cellars, where they knew the intelligence files were stored. While the remaining Germans, panic-stricken, sought to escape, the NKVD swiftly made the building secure and started examining the files they had found. They then immediately sought out anyone whom the German documents had named as an informer. Yablonsky also relied on pro-Soviet informers to tell him who had been collaborating with the Germans or was simply ‘anti-Soviet’. Once arrested for making comments against the Soviet occupation, like that of the old man above, the ‘normal’ sentence was fifteen years hard labour. Looking back over sixty years later, he commented:

Now I think it was cruel, but at that time, when I was young, … twenty-three years old, I didn’t. … Now I understand that it’s cruel because I’m older. I don’t think it was a very democratic time. Now you can say anything, but at that time you couldn’t. At that time most things were censored and nobody could say anything bad about the Soviet Union and I’m proud I was part of it and brave enough to go through the war and not let my country down.

Soldiers like Yablonsky believed they were reclaiming Lwów as a part of Soviet territory, which should never be surrendered again. It was members of the underground Polish Home Army who were some of the first to comprehend this dispiriting truth. These were the volunteer soldiers who had remained hidden under the Nazi occupation, waiting for the moment to strike back, and they played an important part in the battle for Lwów. Around three thousand soldiers led by Colonel Wladyslaw Filipowski had supported the Red Army during the fierce fighting that had lasted from 23 to 27 July. But once the battle was won the Soviets arrested the officers and forced the ordinary soldiers to join units of the Red Army. In parallel with the elimination of the underground Polish Home Army, the Soviet authorities immediately sought to re-establish the institutions of control that they had created during their first occupation. Anna Levitska remembered how…

They organised schools according to their own system. It was obligatory that every student belonged to the Young Communists. And, of course, there were no religious classes. Just those lectures on atheism. And studying the history of the Communist Party was obligatory. The fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism – those were the main subjects. We felt betrayed because we had hoped that the West would react differently. … We were even hoping that England and France (would help us), but that didn’t happen.

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On 26 July 1944, while the battle for Lwów still raged, at Perugia in Italy Lieutenant General Anders (above) was presented to King George VI. Wladyslaw Anders was the commander of the Polish II Corps in the British Army. He had successfully negotiated the release of thousands of his fellow Polish soldiers from the Soviet Union. The British monarch had flown to Italy under the pseudonym, ‘General Collingwood’ in order to congratulate Allied forces on their progress there. During dinner, he listened to the regimental band of the II Polish Army Corps and remarked that he found one song particularly attractive. He was told that the song was called, And if I ever have to be born again, then let it happen only in Lwów. But two days later, on 28 July, the Soviets transferred to Chem in Poland a collection of little-known Polish politicians from exile in the Soviet Union. They were to form a puppet government in western Poland, a territory that he had never claimed as belonging to the Soviet Union. This group of collaborators, officially called the Polish Committee of National Liberation, later known as the Lublin Poles after the city they moved to in early August 1945, had declared in a ‘manifesto’ issued in Moscow on 2 July that they were in favour of leftist policies such as nationalisation, as well as a ‘fair’ border with the Soviet Union, which actually meant the ‘Curzon Line’. As far as they, and their Soviet masters were concerned, they were now the ‘de facto’ government of ‘liberated’ Poland. Nikolai Bulganin, a leading member of the Soviet State Committee of Defence, was sent from Moscow to be Stalin’s representative to the puppet Polish government, which effectively reported to him.

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Of course, the imposition on Poland of a régime controlled by Stalin was not something that either the Western Allies or the official Polish government in exile could accept. The situation was further complicated by the presence of four hundred thousand members of the Polish underground, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) who, though disarmed by the Red Army, owed their allegiance to the government in exile in London. Also that July, the Home Army units that had helped the Soviets to capture Vilnius were disbanded, the officers arrested and the men sent off to join collaborating Polish units within the Red Army. It was against this background that the focus of all the various competing parties turned to the fate of the capital, Warsaw, which rose up against the German occupiers in the summer and early autumn of 1944, exposing to the world the tensions and conflicts within the Allied ‘camp’ which Churchill, Roosevelt and their respective propaganda machines tried so hard to hide.

As Andrew Roberts has written, the war had to be won by the Allies, of course, but it also needed to be lost, as it was, comprehensively and personally, by Hitler himself, both in the West and the East. It is doubtful, however, if the death of Hitler in the summer of 1944, would have shortened the war. Before June 1944, Germany had wreaked far more damage on the Allies than they had inflicted on Germany. If Himmler had taken over and not made the many strategic blunders perpetrated by Hitler in the final months, Germany might even have fought on for longer. A negotiated peace would have let the German people off the hook, although it would have saved millions of lives in Europe, including those who fell victim to the Nazis ‘Final Solution’ conducted by Hitler and Eichmann right up to the very final months of the war, drawing vital troops and resources away from the front lines. Besides, to have concluded an armistice on the demonstrable fallacy that the war was begun and carried on by one man’s will, rather than through the wholehearted support and enthusiasm of the German people, would hardly have produced the most durable and profound period of peace Europe has ever known.

The Race Against the Rockets & Operation Cobra:

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Above: The Liberation of Europe, January 1944-March 1945.

On 24 July 1944, Churchill had warned his War Cabinet that Rockets may start any minute, referring to the Germans’ wonder-weapon, the supersonic V-2 missile. Its sister-weapon, the V-1 flying bomb, had been terrorising southern England for six weeks, even though fifty-eight of the ninety-two V-1 launching sites had been damaged. After receiving an encouraging report on the Normandy campaign, Churchill also reported on his trip to Cherbourg, Arromanches and Caen during the previous three days, saying that he…

Saw great many troops – never seen such a happy army – magnificent looking army – only want good weather. Had long talks with M (Montgomery) … frightful bombing of Caen … remarkable clearing of mines in Cherbourg harbour. 

Admiral Cunningham wrote in his diary that Churchill was full of his visit to France and was more inclined to talk than to listen. But, in contrast with Hitler, the British PM was capable of listening to, and even asking for, news and advice which was unpalatable. After the Bomb Plot, Hitler became highly suspicious of the veracity of what his generals told him, suspecting that many more had actually been involved than those discovered, and than in fact had been. By 24 July, the Allies had lost 112,000 men killed, wounded or captured in France, to the Germans’ losses of 114,000, including forty-one thousand taken prisoner. The more competent and aggressive General Günther von Kluge, who had recovered from injuries sustained in Russia, took over from Rundstedt and Rommel on 17 July.

‘Overlord’ having ended, the next phase of the invasion was known as Operation Cobra and was intended to break out from the linked beach-heads and strike south and east into central France. The ‘hinge’ was to be the British Second and Canadian First Armies in the area east of Caen, which kept the main weight of the German Army occupied while bold thrusts were made cross-country by Omar Bradley’s US First Army and General Patton’s US Third Army. The Allied offensive began with the carpet bombing of Saint-Ló and areas to the west of it in which 4,200 tons of high explosive were dropped by Spaatz’s heavy bombers. Despite Hitler giving Kluge some of the Fifteenth Army’s divisions on 27 July, the Americans poured forward through gaps in the German defences created by the bombing, and by the end of the month, Collins’ VII Corps had taken Avranches. This allowed US forces to attack westwards into Brittany and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us.

The Warsaw Conundrum:

Of all the myths that would grow up around the Warsaw Uprising, the most prevalent was that the Poles had been lured into insurrection by direct blandishments and promises of assistance from the Soviets. But although it’s certainly true that radio broadcasts were made at the end of July under Soviet auspices that encouraged the people of Warsaw to believe that liberation was near, it is not true that this was a direct attempt by the Soviet military to agree on a joint attack on the Polish capital with the Home Army. The appeals were much less specific. On 29 July, for instance, Radio Moscow announced that, for Warsaw…

… the hour of action has already arrived… those who have never bowed their heads to the Hitlerite power will again, as in 1939, join the struggle against the Germans, this time for a decisive action.

In addition, a broadcast from a Soviet-authorised radio station the following day announced that Soviet forces were approaching and were coming ‘to bring you freedom’. But this fell far short of a direct instruction to the Home Army to rise up in Warsaw in a coordinated way in order to link up with the advancing Red Army. So far, it was all just encouraging rhetoric. The Home Army in Warsaw, together with the Polish government in exile in London, faced a difficult political dilemma. They knew that if they did nothing, and the Red Army liberated Warsaw before they could rise up, then the Soviets would be in a far stronger position to dictate the terms of a post-war settlement. On the other hand, if the Home Army rose up long before the Soviets arrived, then they would be annihilated by the Germans. The timing of any rising was therefore crucial. Obviously, it was critically important to try to coordinate any rising with the imminent arrival of the Red Army. But the distrust between the two sides was so great that this was the one thing that the Polish government in exile did not feel able to do. On 26 July, the leader of the Poles in London, Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, authorised the Home Army in Warsaw to pronounce the Rising at a time to be determined by you. But this was an instruction which went directly against the advice of the Polish commander-in-chief in London who had argued that:

Insurrection without a fair understanding with the USSR and honest and real cooperation with the Red Army would be politically unjustified and militarily nothing more than an act of despair.

Mikolajczyk knew better than most that the Warsaw Uprising could not succeed without the practical assistance of the Allies, but he decided that it was best to approve the insurrection first and then, effectively as a ‘fait accompli’, to push for cooperation. He ought to have known beforehand that this was a strategy which was doomed to failure with Stalin. Mikolajczyk was only forty-three, though he had been active in the Polish Peasants’ Party since the 1920s. He travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin after authorising the uprising on 30 July before it had been launched. Nonetheless, the commander of the Home Army in Warsaw had already ordered ‘W’ hour, the launch of the uprising, to take place (without notifying the Soviets beforehand) at 5 p.m. on 1 August. He was aware that not only were the Red Army closing on Warsaw but that on 27 July the Germans had called for a hundred thousand Polish civilians to surrender themselves to help build the capital’s defences. The Home Army was, quite naturally, suspicious of this German order and urged people not to come forward. It thus made sense to the leaders of the Polish resistance to start the uprising at this moment. It was a huge gamble, of course. In Moscow, Mikolajczyk urgently needed to obtain an agreement from Stalin that the Red Army would help the insurgents in Warsaw. Unfortunately, both for him personally and the Home Army generally, Stalin did not see it that way. Besides the fact that he did not recognise the government-in-exile, his commanders were trying to break the power of the Home Army in the sections of Poland that the Red Army had ‘liberated’ so far.

Although the Marshal realised that it would be seen as offensive by his Allies for him to refuse to meet the London Poles, he also knew that he was under no obligation to be accommodating when he did meet them. They were treated with great rudeness from the moment of their arrival, snubbed at the airport, and then told that Stalin was ‘too busy’ to see them. Meanwhile, Churchill was giving a relatively upbeat assessment of the situation in the House of Commons. He talked of having done ‘our best’ to get Stalin to receive the Polish PM, pointing out that the Russian Armies… bring the liberation of Poland in their hands while we have several gallant Polish divisions fighting the Germans in our Armies. Now, he said, Let them come together. But a necessary precondition of this togetherness, he went on to say, was the old proviso that there should be a Poland friendly to Russia. Given the gulf between the Polish government in exile, who regarded the Lublin Poles as Stalin’s stooges, and Stalin himself, who had asserted that the London Poles were Nazi collaborators, Churchill’s Commons statement was wishful thinking to say the very least. When Molotov met the London Poles on 31 July he simply asked, Why have you come? He suggested that they should meet with the Lublin Poles instead. They didn’t manage to get an audience with the Soviet leader until the evening of 3 August, by which time, of course, the rising was already in progress and lightly armed Poles were dying on the streets of Warsaw, desperately in need of help.

(to be continued… )

Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

Posted June 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, American History & Politics, Anglo-Saxons, anti-Communist, Austria-Hungary, BBC, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Canada, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Cold War, Commemoration, Communism, Conquest, Conservative Party, democracy, Ethnicity, Europe, France, George VI, Germany, History, Holocaust, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, Monarchy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Paris, Population, Remembrance, Second World War, Technology, terror, tyranny, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, World War Two

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Who was Hereward? Outlaw Legends and the Myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’.   4 comments

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Above: An illustration by Henry Courtney Selous for Charles Kingsley’s 1865 novel, depicting his attack upon Normans on discovering the loss of his family and lands.

The comic-strip, super-hero and ‘super-villain’ version of the events of the Norman Conquest is an important part of British mythology, but it does not match much of the written record, let alone the architectural and archaeological evidence spanning the early middle ages, from the reign of William I to that of Edward I. The legendary story begins with the Norman’s tireless, heroic and ultimately cataclysmic cavalry charges on the Saxon shield wall at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, followed by their terrorising, or harrying of the north with fire and sword. The Saxons and Danes had captured York, pulling down the castle and seizing all the treasure in it. According to a contemporary chronicle, they killed hundreds of Normans and took many of them to their ships. William’s vengeance was swift and merciless, as recorded in his own words:

I fell on the English of the northern shires like a ravaging lion. I ordered that all their homes, tools, goods and corn be burnt. Large herds of cattle and pack-animals were butchered wherever found. I took revenge on many of the English by making them die cruelly of hunger.

The narrative continues with the Norman’s ruthless mopping up the resistance by Hereward the Wake in the soggy Fens of East Anglia, and It ends with the conquest of Wales two hundred years later. But history is usually written by the victors, and it is all too easily to underestimate the precarious hold which William and his few thousand men held over the combined Danish and Saxon insurgents during the first five years of their rule. It was their accompanying land-grab and their tight system of feudal dues, later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, which enabled them to impose control, though this too was resisted by the thanes, among them Hereward in East Anglia.

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A King’s Thegn was one of the nobles who served King Edward the Confessor, carrying out his orders and seeing to it that others obeyed the King. Had it not been for the Conquest, Hereward would have become a King’s Thegn after his father Asketil’s death. One of his uncles was Abbot Brand of Peterborough, and all five uncles were all sons of a rich merchant, Toki of Lincoln. In 1063, Abbot Osketil of Crowland had begun the building of a new Abbey Church, for which he needed to raise plenty of money. One way of doing so was to rent out the Abbey lands to local lords who would pay an annual sum to the monastery, and one of those who agreed to do so was a young man of eighteen named Hereward Askeltison. As the son of a wealthy local Thegn in the service of King Edward, the Abbot thought that he would be a reliable tenant. Hereward agreed to rent a farm at Rippingale near Bourne in Lincolnshire for an annual rent to be agreed with the Abbot at the beginning of each year. At the end of the first year, Hereward and the Abbot quarrelled over the rent. The Abbot also complained to his father, who mentioned the matter to the King. Hereward had already upset many of the local people of South Lincolnshire, causing disturbances and earning himself a reputation as a trouble-maker.

Hereward the Exile:

King Edward gave the young man five days in which to leave the Kingdom or face worse penalties. Thus Hereward was already a disgraced ‘outlaw’ before the Conquest, forced into exile by his own father and king. It was said that he escaped to Northumbria, as far away from Winchester, then still Edward’s capital, as he could get. Whichever route he took, at some point he boarded a ship to Flanders and was shipwrecked on the coast of Guines, between Boulogne and Calais. In order to earn a living, he began a career as a mercenary soldier. After winning a duel with a Breton knight, he married a noble lady from St. Omer, Turfrida. At this time, an early form of Tournament was becoming popular in France and Flanders, in which groups of men, sometimes on foot and increasingly on horseback, fought each other in front of large crowds. Hereward fought at Poitiers and Bruges, winning a reputation as a tough and skilled competitor. This was how he met and fell in love with Turfrida.

Hearing that Lietberg, Bishop and Count of Cambrai needed soldiers, Hereward joined his army and became one of the twelve knights who formed his bodyguard. He took part in small wars in the area between lords such as Baldwin II of Hainault, a grandson of the Count of Flanders, and Arnulf the Viscount of Picquigny. Hereward was noticed by Baldwin II’s uncle, Robert the Frisian. Robert was planning a campaign on behalf of his father, Count Baldwin V, who had decided to capture the area then called Scaldemariland, comprising the islands at the mouth of the River Scheldt. He took forty ships with an army under his personal command, with Hereward as commander of the mercenary soldiers. Hereward also had to train the younger, newly knighted men. Fierce fighting followed the attack and at the first the islanders resisted so stubbornly that Robert had to fall back and call for reinforcements.

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The islanders boasted later that they had captured their enemy’s battle standard or ‘Colours’, which was considered a great achievement. The Count’s son then launched a stronger attack against the islands because the whole area had risen up against him. He was attacked from all sides, from the islands and from the sea. The invaders on the island of Walcheren, attacking its defences, and Hereward, in what became his trademark in war, suggested setting fire to the enemy wagons. He led a force of three hundred men ahead of the main army and they killed many hundreds of men. He then took a great the high ground with a force of a thousand knights and six hundred foot-soldiers, following this by attacking the enemy in the rear, killing the rearguard. That was too much for the islanders who sued for peace, being forced to pay double what the Count had originally demanded in tribute. Hereward and his men were allowed to keep all the plunder they had seized during the fighting. He used part of his share to buy two fine horses, calling his favourite one ‘Swallow’.

Return to England:

Just as his success was being celebrated, Count Baldwin V died and was succeeded by his elder son, also called Baldwin, much to the displeasure of the younger brother, Robert the Frisian. That brought an end to Robert’s Scaldermariland campaign, and of Hereward’s role as a mercenary commander, but his successes had made him quite rich by that time. This was when he heard that England had been conquered by the Normans and, leaving his wife in the care of his two cousins, Siward the Red and Siward the Blond, he decided to return to England to find out what had become of his family. Once there, he found out that both his father, Asketil, and his grandfather Toki had been killed in the fighting, in addition to his younger brother, Toli, so he decided to join those Saxons known by the Normans as ‘Wildmen of the Woods’ who were resisting the invasion. Although the English had at first been prepared to accept William’s rule, they had become increasingly rebellious due to the behaviour of the ‘robber’ barons and their knights. There had been widespread looting and the lands of the thanes who had been killed in the three battles of 1066 had been simply handed over to the Norman barons without any compensation to their Saxon holders. Those left in charge of the kingdom when William returned to Normandy after his coronation as King did nothing to control their men.

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The rebels had taken refuge in woods, marshes and river valleys and Hereward, who had been born in South Lincolnshire, now returned to the area he knew best, the Fens. He first visited his uncle, Brand the Monk, who had succeeded Leofric as Abbot of Peterborough. The Abbot had returned ‘sick at heart’ from the Battle of Hastings and died of his wounds. Brand had angered King William by paying homage to the boy Prince of Wessex, Edgar Aetheling (the Saxon heir latterly recognised by Edward the Confessor), who was proclaimed king by the Witenagemot following Harold’s death and before William reached London and was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. William made him pay a fine of forty marks for this, a huge sum of money in those days, perhaps equivalent to a thousand pounds in today’s money. Hereward had held some of his lands as protector of Peterborough and now renewed his promise to protect the Abbey. But he also found that all his lands, together with those of his father and grandfather, stretching across more than seven shires, had been expropriated. His own lands had been given to a Breton knight called Ogier and several great Norman lords had shared out his family lands, including Bishop Remigius of Dorchester, who had moved his ‘seat’ to Lincoln, where he was building a new Cathedral on land that had once belonged to Hereward’s grandfather, Toki. Others who had helped themselves to his family’s land included Ivo Taillebois, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire, William de Warenne, later Earl of Surrey and a Flanders knight, brother-in-law of de Warenne, Frederick Oosterzele-Scheldewineke, whom Hereward waylaid and killed in Flanders, signalling a start to his rebellion.

The Norman land-grab – Domesday evidence:

The rebellion in East Anglia and Northumbria took place against the backcloth of the Norman land-grab as evidenced in the Domesday Survey of 1086. In Suffolk, Coppinger’s 1905 book chronicling the manorial records helps us to piece together something of the history of each manor, including those that belonged to Hereward’s kinsmen before the Conquest. We find that in pre-Conquest times, the village of Aspall in the west of the county had two small manors, one held by Brictmar in the time of Edward the Confessor, a freeman under commendation to Edric. He held thirty acres, which at Domesday was held by Robert Malet as the tenant of his mother. She was the widow of William Malet, a baronial tenant-in-chief, who accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the few Norman barons proven to be present at Hastings, taking care of Harold’s body after the battle, on William’s command. Legend has it that his William Malet’s mother was English and that he was the uncle of King Harold’s wife Edith, the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, the father of Edith. Despite his obviously divided loyalties, William of Normandy rewarded Malet’s faithfulness. He was soon appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and given the great honour of Eye (Priory), with lands in Suffolk and several other shires. It was, in fact, the largest lordship in East Anglia. He built a motte and bailey at Eye and started a market there. He died in 1071, probably in trying to crush the rebellion of Hereward the Wake, and on his death was one of the twelve greatest landholders in England. His son Robert later became a close advisor to Henry I, and at the time of The Domesday Survey, held 221 manors in Suffolk alone.

William de Goulafriere, who had also accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy, also held three acres in Aspall, valued at fifteen shillings. The nearby large village of Debenham consisted of three Saxon manors, the first held by Edric, a Saxon freeman under commendation to William Malet, with sixteen bordars, twelve ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to the freemen, four acres of meadow, wood enough to support sixty hogs, a rouncy (a cart-horse), four beasts, forty hogs, thirty sheep and forty goats. At the time of Domesday, the manor was held by William de Goulafriere, as sub-tenant to Robert Malet. There were one and a half ploughteams belonging to the freemen, woodland for forty hogs, of which there were twenty, together with six ‘beasts’ (oxen), forty-five sheep and twenty-eight goats. The value of the whole estate had declined from sixty shillings to fifty shillings at the time of Domesday, which shows that the Conquest could well have had a negative effect on the wealthier Saxon manors, possibly due to the amount of woodland which was cut down for building castles. William de Goulafriere also held over the freemen on Malet’s other holding of thirty-six acres, the value of which had declined from ten shillings to six by Domesday. This suggested that he managed the Saxon freemen for Malet, perhaps as an intermediary who understood them better and who respected him as a farmer. He also held Malet’s sixth estate of ten acres, which had half a ploughteam and was valued at two shillings. Winston, an outlying manor of Debenham appears, like the other, larger neighbouring Malet estates, to have had a very independent status as a manor, because it was held in the time of the Confessor by the Abbot of Ely, in demesne.

Like Stigand, Abbot Thurstan was a Saxon, appointed by Harold but, unlike Stigand, he was also honest and hard-working, so William did not replace him, even when he (famously) gave Hereward the Wake sanctuary from William’s soldiers in 1071, helping him to establish his hideout in the Fens. From this base, Hereward began harassing the Normans, killing and robbing them, so that King William himself was forced to offer him a truce after the outlaw thane had almost captured and killed another of his tenants-in-chief, William de Warenne. Hereward then decided to return to Flanders for Turfrida, to bring her back to England with him and also to recruit some of the mercenaries who had fought with him in Scaldemariland. While there he received messages from Abbot Thurstan telling him that his uncle, Brand, was dead and that the sons of Swein Esthrison, King of Denmark, had arrived in the Fens with a raiding army and might be persuaded to support a rising against the Normans. He was also told that King William had appointed a ‘strict French Abbot’ as Abbot of Peterborough, Thurold of Malmesbury, who was on his way to the abbey with an army of Normans from Stamford in Lincolnshire. William was said to have chosen him for his warlike disposition with the clear intention of setting him on Hereward.

Hereward’s ‘Attack’ on Peterborough:

Hereward quickly mustered his men and returned to England, arranging a meeting with the Danes at which he talked them into helping him to upset the Conqueror’s plan by seizing all the treasures of Peterborough to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Normans. Assembling his combined forces of English, Danish and former mercenaries, Hereward advanced to take control of Peterborough, crossing the Fens in large, flat-bottomed boats, using the Wellstream near Outwell, and seeking to gain entry by way of the Bolhythe Gate south of the Abbey. At first, they were resisted by the townsfolk and the monks, who had heard that Hereward and his band of outlaws, including Danes, intended to rob the monastery of its treasures, rather than saving them from the Normans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written at Peterborough, records how…

… in the morning all the outlaws came with many boats and attacked the monastery. The monks fought to keep them out.

They therefore failed to gain entry, but when his men set fire to the gate and the buildings outside the walls, he and his men, including the Danes, were able to break in. Once inside, they set about collecting everything movable of value they could lay their hands on. They tried to remove the Great Crucifix, laden with gold and precious stones, hanging at the entrance to the High Altar, but they could only take the crown from the head of Christ’s figure. Elsewhere they were more successful, taking eleven decorated boxes containing the relics of saints, encrusted with gold, silver and precious stones, twelve jewelled crosses and many other objects of gold and silver, books with jewelled covers, and the huge altar hanging, also embroidered in precious metals and jewels. They stripped the abbey of most of its precious possessions, including an ancient ‘relic’, the arm of St Oswald. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that the outlaws then burnt down the monastery:

Then the rebels set fire to it, and burnt down all the monks’ houses except one, and the whole town… they took so much gold and so many treasures – money, clothes and books – that no one could add them up. They said they did it out of support for the monastery.

They left the area around the monastery, devastated by fire, on hearing that Abbot Thurold and his men were on their way from Stamford. Several senior monks went with them, and none were harmed. Despite the fire, no serious damage was done, and Thurold was able to resume church services within a week of his arrival. However, the Danes held on to the greater portion of the ‘booty’ and refused to assist in further resistance to the Normans. King Swein ordered them to return to Denmark, leaving Hereward and his men to face King William’s wrath. On the journey home, however, they ran into a storm which wrecked most of their ships with the loss of both men and treasure. Hereward and his men returned to their refuge at Ely and held out for several months against all the efforts of the Norman barons, aided by Abbot Thurold, to dislodge them. Hereward’s forces continued to harry the Normans at every opportunity, eve, on one occasion, surrounding Thurold and a company of men, only releasing them on payment of hundreds of pounds ransom, equivalent to thousands in today’s money.

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Ely – Iconic Isle & Impregnable English Stronghold:

At Ely, Hereward became a magnet for rebel Englishmen and Danes, since he himself was of Danish descent. Following his initial disappointment with the Danes who helped him to ‘sack’ Peterborough, he made all those who joined him swear on the tomb of Etheldreda (see the picture below from the Cathedral nave) that they would stick together against the Normans. The Abbey, sixteen miles north of Cambridge, had been founded as a monastery in 673 by St Etheldreda. Destroyed by the Danes in 870, part of it was still standing in King Edward’s reign, though the present building was begun in 1083, after the events described here. Many of Hereward’s supporters who gathered there were his relatives from Lincolnshire, but he was also joined by another Dane, called Thorkell of Harringworth, who had lost his lands in Northamptonshire. Others included the rich landowner Siward of Maldon in Essex, Rahere ‘the Heron’ from Wroxham on the Bure in the Norfolk Broads, Brother Siward of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds and Reginald, Hereward’s standard-bearer. They carried out a series of raids against the Normans, pillaging far and wide and sometimes suffering heavy losses themselves. They reassured many people that all was not yet lost. For a time, William did nothing, leaving the task of dealing with Hereward to the local barons such as William de Warenne from Castle Acre, William Malet from Eye in Suffolk and Richard fitzGilbert from Clare. But following the rising in the North in 1069 in support of Edgar Aetheling, the last Saxon heir to the thrones of Wessex and England, the Conqueror changed his mind.

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Many of the commoners followed their thanes, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. William responded by resorting to terror tactics in his well-known ‘harrying of the North’. Two of the last surviving Saxon Earls from King Edward’s time, the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, soon lost all faith in the new Norman king. They feared that as part of his revenge for the rising, which caused William to burn and destroy large tracts of Yorkshire and Durham, they too would be imprisoned. They escaped from their ‘house arrest’ at the King’s court and hid out for six months in the woods and fields, evading recapture. Hoping to find a ship to flee to Flanders, they arrived at Ely, accompanied by other Saxon nobles and their household troops. These included Bishop Athelwine of Durham and two of Edwin and Morcar’s relatives, Godric of Corby and Tostig of Daventry. They all met up in the Fens near Wisbech and persuaded Hereward to allow them to spend the winter at Ely. They had returned south after the rising when Prince Eadgar and Maerleswein, the English sheriff of Lincolnshire and their supporters, had sought refuge with King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, who had married Eadgar’s sister, Margaret of Wessex, following the family’s flight from the Norman court and their shipwreck at the mouth of the Forth.

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So the remnant of the rebellion against William was now gathered in one place and William could not resist the opportunity to destroy it once and for all. But it was not going to be easy to deal with them since Ely was an island surrounded by the Fens and almost impregnable. The rivers and the deep, almost bottomless meres combined with the marshes surrounding the Isle made it a tremendous obstacle to any army, especially one like the Norman army, whose strength was in its heavy cavalry. Any attempt at the waterborne assault could be easily repelled. The available ways onto the Isle from Earith, Soham or Downham were well known, difficult and easily defended. The rebel defenders had built ramparts of peat surmounted by strong fences from which javelins and other missiles could be launched. King William also realised that a large fighting force within these defences, well stocked with food and water, could hold out almost indefinitely and, commanded by Hereward, a soldier of proven ability, a headlong ground attack was unlikely to succeed without heavy losses.

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William’s Attempts to Lay Siege to the Isle:

Hence, the King decided to mobilise both ground and naval forces on a large scale. The chronicles of the time record how he set his ships to blockade the Isle from the ‘seaward’ or northern side and set a siege on the landward side. The various accounts of the attack are confused, but what took place is clear enough. King William gathered his élite troops and commanders together at the castle in Cambridge and planned an assault which meant crossing the fen at its narrowest point by strengthening the existing causeway. This was a very old track called the Mare’s Way, running from Willingham to an Iron Age earthwork called Belsar’s Hill. There he quickly set up camp, building a palisade along the rampart of the old fort. He then forced all the local people to provide him with materials with which he continued to reinforce the causeway, building a bridge which would enable his army to cross the Old West River onto the Isle.

William also set up an advance post at ‘Devil’s Dyke’, near Reach, and some of his men attempted to cross the West River below where it was joined by the River Cam. In the meantime, Hereward carried out scouting forays, building up stocks of food and weapons, killing or wounding any parties of Normans found away from their base. He fortified the weak spots on the dykes with walls of peat and easily repulsed the Normans, counter-attacking at Reach. He led a small raiding party of seven men against the outpost and killed all the guards there, except for one Richard, son of Osbert, who was the last man standing, while none of the seven attackers was killed. Richard later reported on the action to the King’s War Council, and of how Hereward had gone on to burn down the nearby village of Burwell before retreating as reinforcements were brought up. William moved his troops to a point on the West River not far from the modern hamlet of Aldreth, some way to the east, where the fen was narrower than elsewhere. There he set about building a floating structure loosely described as a bridge supported by sheepskins filled with air, which may have been sabotaged by its local peasant builders. There was a suggestion that the bags were partly filled with sand so that they would gradually sink.

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As soon as it appeared to be ready, and before the defenders could react, a large number of knights and men-at-arms rushed onto the bridge, eager to be the first on the Isle with its promise of rich plunder. The whole construction was so unstable that it collapsed, throwing all the men on it into the river and the surrounding swamp so that they all, save one, drowned. Some hundreds, at least, perished, and William retreated in despair to the former royal manor of Brampton, near Huntingdon, while Hereward, entertaining the sole survivor of the disaster, Deda the knight. He was well looked after and invited to dine in the refectory of Ely monastery, along with Abbot Thurstan, his monks and the various noblemen supporting Hereward. They feasted at great wooden trestle tables in the hall with their arms and armour stacked against the walls, ready for use in action. Their shields hung on the walls behind their seats, marking their places. Deda was therefore allowed to believe that the defenders were well supplied with food from the abbey lands, including its famous eels, as well as fresh water from its wells, and wine from its vineyards. He was then set free so that he could report all this to King William. Deda did exactly that at a meeting of the King’s council, in which he told William all about the Isle of Ely:

Around it are great meres and fens, like a strong wall. In this isle there are many tame cattle, and huge numbers of wild animals; stags, roes, foats and hares… But what am I to say of the kinds of fishes and fowls, both those that fly and those that swim? … I have seen a hundred – no, even three hundred – taken at once – sometimes by bird-lime, sometimes in nets or snares.

Deda’s information almost persuaded William to give up his attack on Ely. But Ivo Taillebois, in a dramatic speech, persuaded the king that he would never live down such an ignominious retreat. This argument won the day, and work began on a new portable bridge guarded by two tall wooden siege towers. These were mounted on huge platforms on wheels and could be used to fire missiles at the opposite bank of the river to drive back the defenders. Hereward, however, had had Deda followed, enabling him to locate the king’s camp at Brampton. Hereward hid his horse Swallow nearby, disguised himself as a seller of pots and oil lamps and infiltrated the camp. He listened carefully to all that was said about the king’s plans, including one to employ a witch to curse the Islanders using a giant eel from the swamp to cast her spells. But then he was identified as the ‘notorious’ outlaw by one of the King’s men and was forced to make a dramatic escape into the marshes where he found his horse and rode back to Ely via Sutton and Witchford, leaving one Norman dead and several others wounded back at the camp.

Meanwhile, the king’s orders were being quickly carried out. He commandeered all the available boats from Cottingham and the surrounding areas so that more men and materials and men could be brought in over the flooded landscape. Great tree trunks were laid down and covered with sticks and stones to form a platform over the marsh on which the siege towers could be erected, and catapults for hurling stones were placed on the towers. But Hereward’s men had disguised themselves as labourers and mingled with the Saxon workmen. When they threw off their disguises to reveal their armour and weapons, their enemies were thrown into confusion and they were able to set fire reeds and willows of the fen as well as to the piles of wood around the siege towers, calling upon God, in English, to come to their aid. The whole structure and towers caught fire and the Normans fled in terror from the roaring flames and choking smoke. The fire spread across the fens for half a kilometre into the swamp of reeds, whipped up by the wind, with the peat below the water level also burning. The soldiers fled headlong into this in order to escape the raging flames, the noise of the crackling willows and the billowing smoke driving them mad with fear. The peat fires would have been almost impossible to extinguish, travelling underground and even underwater and erupting in explosions of steam clouds. Men trying to cross the swamp fell waist deep into burning peat. Hereward and his men, familiar with the perils of the marsh, pursued the fleeing Normans, killing many trapped by the flames, then retreating once more to the Isle.

King William Raises the Stakes:

King William, enraged by his defeat and horror-stricken with his losses, sought his immediate revenge by seizing all the lands of the abbey of Ely, distributed over a wide area, that he could lay his hands on and distributing them among his barons. News of this was carefully leaked to Abbot Thurstan and his monks, who began to have second thoughts about continuing to resist in case they lost everything. William also let it be known that Earl Morcar and other thanes would be treated leniently if they surrendered, but mercilessly if they continued their resistance. Earl Edwin decided to leave his brother and make his way to Scotland to join the Wessex resistance there. On the way, he was betrayed by three of his own men to a squadron of Norman knights. Caught in the open between a river and the sea, he was slaughtered. His betrayers took his head to King William, expecting a reward, but were themselves executed.

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Abbot Thurstan then contacted the King and offered to reveal how he could gain safe passage onto the Isle from another direction. William accepted his offer and made his way across Avering Mere by boat to a spot near the village of Little Thetford, a short distance from the town of Ely, where the river was placid and easily crossed. William took the Abbot’s advice, but it wasn’t an easy journey. His army had to take a winding march through the marshes to the mere, along a path revealed to the King by the monks. The men lost sight of each other in the eerie silence of the marsh and sometimes found themselves walking over the bodies of men and horses that had perished in the fire in the swamp. They also had to cross the many tributaries and streams running through the fens, wading through deep waters almost up to the level of their helmets and all the time harassed by attacks from the Fenlanders. King William commandeered all available flat-bottomed fenland boats, ancestors of the modern punt, to transport horses and catapults as well as materials to build yet another bridge. He had given up the idea of crossing near Aldreth because of the fires still raging in the marshes there.

The Final Norman Attack along Akeman Street:

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Eventually, William reached the area which Thurstan had described to him, near Little Thetford, bringing up the boats carrying the catapults and setting them up on the river bank. From there he began to bombard the defenders. At first, this caused the unstable ground to shake, threatening the attackers with drowning. But the Conqueror’s ‘engineers’ constructed a pontoon bridge over a number of the flat-bottomed boats lashed together and covered in willow branches, reeds and rushes. His bombardment had succeeded in softening up the Resistance and he was able to lead his men across the rapidly improvised pontoon bridge onto the Isle, driving back the remaining defenders with his horsemen. He then swept forward in a ‘pincer’ movement, one wing advancing directly towards Ely along the old Roman road, Akeman Street, while the other swept round through Witchford, where he accepted the surrender of Morcar and the nobles. However, they had left this too late and Morcar, Siward Barn and Bishop Aethelwine were imprisoned. The bishop died shortly afterwards, Morcar remained a prisoner for life and Siward Barn was only released after William’s death. He went int exile in Constantinople where he was said to have joined the Emperor’s Varangian Guard. The other leaders of the Resistance were severely dealt with; some were blinded, others lost hands or feet. The ordinary rank and file were released unharmed.

Hereward had been absent from Ely during the final Norman attack, leading another raiding party with his closest allies. On returning from this, he found that Morcar and the other nobles had surrendered and the King was already at Witchford. In his rage and despair, he threatened to burn down the town but was persuaded by Alwin, son of Sheriff Ordgar, that it was too late to recover the Isle and the Abbey. He and his allies then escaped through the Fens to take refuge in the Bruneswald, the great forest along the Fen edge in Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. There, for some months, he carried on his guerrilla campaign against the Norman King. Nothing very definite is known about his ultimate fate. There are two conflicting narratives, one of which was that he was captured by William’s forces of the seven shires in the Bruneswald, only for him to escape in the company of his gaoler, Robert of Harpole, who then persuaded the King to pardon him in exchange for him entering his king’s service. In that narrative, Hereward agreed and was given back some of his lands. He then lived out his life in retirement and was buried at Crowland next to his first wife, Turfrida, who had become a nun there. However, this narrative rests on two false clues. According to the Domesday Book, there was another thane named Hereward, the son of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva, who held lands in Warwickshire in the service of the Bishop of Worcester and the Count of Mortain. Later chroniclers confused this Hereward with the Fenland outlaw. In addition, a later English rebel, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria, beheaded in 1075 for taking part in a revolt against King William, was also buried at Crowland. So some details of this narrative may be based on cases of mistaken identity.

The alternative narrative, written up in the twelfth century by the poet Geoffrey Gaimar also claims that Hereward was reconciled with William and went with him to the war in Maine where he made another fortune out of booty captured in the war. On his way home, he was ambushed by two dozen Norman knights seeking revenge against him, and died fighting single-handedly against overwhelming odds, killing about half of his assailants. Here, the poet is probably giving his hero a hero’s death within the literary conventions of the time. Peter Rex has argued that the most likely ‘denouement’ is that, after seeing out the winter of 1071 in the Bruneswald, Hereward decided that it was too dangerous for him to remain in England, so that he and his close allies and men slipped away by sea to the Continent. Once there, he probably became a mercenary once more, and either died in battle or lived to return to England in the reign of William Rufus, perhaps living quietly in Norfolk into old age and being buried in Crowland. The evidence for this comes from two East Anglian families, at Terrington near Kings Lynn and Great Barton near Bury St Edmunds, who both claim descent from him.

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The Primary Sources – The Abbey, the Man & the Myth:

The authentic primary evidence we have for the real Hereward comes mainly from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Liber Eliensis. His exile and his lands are also documented in the Domesday Book of 1086. His raid on Peterborough is related by Hugh Candidus in his History of Peterborough Abbey, written in the mid-twelfth century and in the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, copied there in circa 1120. His other adventures are narrated in the Gesta Herewardi; the Book of the Exploits of Hereward, written partly by Leofric the deacon, who claimed to be Hereward’s chaplain, and partly by the monk Richard of Ely, who wrote Book Two of the Liber Eliensis. Both this latter text and the Gesta are based on earlier texts written before 1109 when the Abbacy became a Bishopric, drawing on the first-hand accounts of both the monks of Ely and the Norman soldiers. The epithet ‘the Wake’ which some linguists have claimed to be a synonym of ‘the Alert’ or ‘the Watchful’  was the result of a dubious claim of descent by a lesser Norman noble family named ‘Wake’, who were concerned to enhance their reputation after being given lands in Lincolnshire under King Henry I, whose own legitimacy as king was enhanced by his marriage into the Wessex Royal family.  But neither the Wakes nor the fitzGilberts, the family into which they married, had any connection with Hereward’s family.  In fact, Richard fitzGibbon was one of the Norman knights who fought Hereward’s men at the siege of Ely.

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Ely Cathedral today, with the Abbey’s Great Hall at the end of the North Transept (left).

Although the Abbey was fined heavily for its role in the resistance, and its lands were confiscated, it was only after Thurstan’s death that William appointed a Norman monk in his place. Perhaps William was also mindful of the powerful symbolism of Ely to the Saxons. Then, following the return of its manors in 1081, Simeon was made Abbot, an old but very wise and able churchman, who was related both to William and to Stigand’s successor as Bishop of Winchester. The Abbey’s land in Winston in Suffolk, referred to above, consisted of forty acres, six villeins, four bordars, two ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to freemen, as well as six acres of meadow and woodland for a hundred hogs. There was a church with eight acres, two rouncies, four beasts, twenty hogs and fifty sheep. It was valued at four pounds. At Domesday, the manor of Winston was still held by Abbot Simeon, but with only one ploughteam in demesne and woodland for sixty hogs. Its value had increased to four pounds, ten shillings, and was the only manor showing evidence of becoming wealthier. This prosperity, we are told, had come from additional freemen working the thirty acres of the Abbot’s land. On the elderly abbot’s reinstatement to Ely, William de Goulafriere (who had held the confiscated lands in the meantime) helped the elderly abbot, who was taken up with restoring the Abbey and its treasures, by recruiting and managing the additional freemen from other manors where he had an interest, such as Debenham. It may also be that the unbroken and consolidated tenure of these forty acres in the hands of the Abbots of Ely, together with de Goulafriere, was a major factor in their continued productivity and value, despite a reduction in woodland similar to that in other villages.

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From a ‘See Britain by train’ poster in the National Railway Museum captioned  ‘Where Hereward the Wake made his last stand, Ely Cathedral, rises in majesty.’

Hereward Asketilson, as he should properly be known, became an iconic figure for all those Anglo-Saxons and Danes who resisted the tyranny of the Conqueror, his barons and their ‘Norman Yoke’. As an ‘outlaw’, he no doubt inspired the later legends of outlaws throughout the English countryside in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Gradually, a powerful myth of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ took hold, to be revived at various points of conflict in national and regional history. The initial conquest of England did not end at the Battle of Hastings, but took more than five years to accomplish. The Plantagenet’s attempts to extend the conquest into the other countries and territories of the British Isles over the course of the following two centuries also met with considerable resistance, and were only partially successful. However, in England, by the end of the twelfth century, there was a mixing and melding of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures in which ‘Englishness’ predominated, and not just in the continued use of Saxon tongues. The author of one of the earliest school textbooks, written in Latin in about 1180, made the observation that:

… now that the English and Normans have lived so long together, and have become so mixed together (I speak of freemen only) that we can hardly these days tell apart an Englishman and Norman. 

The monk William of Malmesbury also commented on the extent to which the powerful Norman élite was assimilated by the general Saxon population:

The English at that time (before 1066) wore short clothes reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cut very short, their beards shaven off, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skins covered with punctuated designs (tattoos); they tended to eat until they were stuffed full and drink until they were sick. These last habits they gave to their conquerors; the rest they shared with them.

Secondary Sources:

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Published by the Ely Society, 2012.

The cover picture was supplied by Grantanbrycg, the Cambridge branch of

Regia Angolorum, http://www.regia.org

 

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury Press.

 

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What, When & Where Was Socialism?: Hungary & Europe.   Leave a comment

 

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Thirty Years After the Fall: Is Socialism Dead?

Júlia Tar’s recent piece on the Hungarian government’s online media outlet, Hungary Today, points out that 2019 is the anniversary of not one, but three remarkable events of the 20th century: NATO’s 70th anniversary; Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic’s 20th anniversary since joining NATO, and the thirtieth anniversary of dismantlement of the Iron Curtain and of the Berlin Wall. According to Eugene Megyesy, the former Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister of Hungary and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, publisher of Hungary Today, we might not have learned from these historical events. 1956 was a significant year for Hungary because of its revolt against the Soviet Union and dictatorial communism. The revolt was followed by the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Polish Solidarity movement in the early 1980s. Then,

Hungary opened the Iron Curtain toward Austria, allowing East Germans to flee the oppression of the Utopian socialist system, thereby rendering the Berlin Wall obsolete.

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This was on 11 September 1989 (not June, as stated), when a courageous decision was taken at the urging of leading Socialist reformers in the government like Imre Pozsgay, and in spite of threats of invasion from Berlin. By November, the Berlin Wall had itself been destroyed. In summarising Megyesy’s ‘view’, Tar claims that…

… socialism was always built on the promises of a Utopian system, equality and the ability to solve all social problems (“heaven on earth”).

Eugene Megyesy warns that this is happening again in some countries:

Sadly, there are politicians and bureaucrats in Washington and Brussels, supported by ivory tower academics, media pundits and Hollywood luminaries, who believe socialism is viable.

Megyesy urges today’s generation to look back and think about whether socialism was ever successful. It may have been, but only for a limited period of time. He cites the unsustainability of the capitalism-backed socialistic systems in the Scandinavian countries as an example. In Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, it is even worse and only serves to highlight the gap between the poor and the leaders living in luxury, Megyesy explains. Before socialism, Venezuela was one of the richest countries; now it’s one of the poorest. According to Megyesy, socialism means…

… control over all means of production and the redistribution of wealth by the government.

Definitions and Debates:

But not every ‘socialist’ today would agree with this definition, and especially the idea that public control means control by the central or federal government. Neither does this interpretation match those of the multifarious strands of socialism in western Europe which developed from the middle of the nineteenth century. To define socialism and understand its roots, a longer and broader view is necessary, not just one which draws conclusions based on events since the spread of Stalinism across eastern Europe, or which focuses on recent events in North Korea or Venezuela for evidence of the failings of the Utopian Socialist system. Many of the twentieth century’s ‘dystopias’ may have had their origins among the nineteenth century ‘isms’, as in previous centuries they were often the product of misguided Christian millenarianism, like ‘anti-Semitism’, but that does not mean that we should simply discard the thinking of the philosophers and political economists who developed their detailed critiques of capitalism any more than we should reject two millennia of Christian theology. After all, as Marx himself noted, philosophers only interpret the world: the point is to change it. 

In seeking to change its own world, each new generation must produce its own reinterpretation of the ideas handed down to it from past generations and come up with its own solutions to its own moral dilemmas and social problems. That is, in essence, what socialism means to me. We should neither rely on theories from posterity nor reject them out of hand as if all who came before us were thieves and robbers. We can only learn from the past by giving it a fair hearing, remembering as the novelist J P Hartley famously wrote, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. We are solely responsible for our own ‘country’ in equity

the ‘present’, and for not learning from our own mistakes in its past. In this context, and according to the eminent ‘man of letters’ of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams (1983), ‘Socialist’ emerged as a philosophical description in the early nineteenth century. In that century and beyond, it could be used in two ways, which have had profound effects on the use of the term by radically different political tendencies. Of course, social was the merely descriptive term for a society in its now predominant sense of the system of common life; a social reformer wished to reform this system. But ‘social’ was also …

… an emphatic and distinguishing term, explicitly contrasted with ‘individual’ and ‘individualist’ theories of society.

Naturally, there has always been a great deal of interaction and overlap between these two meanings, but their varying effect can be seen in the beginning in the formation of the term. In the first sense, it was viewed as an extension of ‘liberalism’ as it referred to radical political reform of the social order, in order to develop, extend and secure the main liberal values for all members of society; political freedom, the ending of privileges and formal inequalities, social justice (conceived as ‘equity’ between different individuals and groups). In the second sense, it was seen as the ‘enemy’ of competitive, individualist forms of society, specifically industrial capitalism with its system of wage-labour. Truly social forms depended on practical co-operation and mutuality, which in turn could not be achieved while there was still private (individual) ownership of the means of production. Real freedom could not be achieved, basic equalities could not be ended, social justice (conceived as a just social order rather than simply ‘equity’ between individuals) could not be established unless a society based on private property was replaced by one based on social ownership and control.

H. G. Wells, writing his well-known book in 1922, A Short History of the World, expressed the dichotomy in the following terms:

On the one hand are the individualists, who would protect and enlarge our present freedoms with what we possess, and on the other hand the socialists, who would pool our ownerships and restrain our proprietary acts. In practice one will find every graduation between the extreme individualist, who will scarcely tolerate a tax of any sort to support a government, and the communist, who would deny any possessions at all. The ordinary socialist of today is what is called a collectivist; he would allow a considerable amount of private property, but put such affairs as education, transport, mines, land-owning, most mass production of staple articles, and the like, into the hands of a highly organised state. Nowadays there does seem to be a gradual convergence of reasonable men towards a scientifically studied and planned socialism.  

The resulting controversy among the many groups and tendencies all calling themselves ‘socialist’ has been, long, intricate and frequently bitter. Each main tendency has developed alternative, often derogatory terms for the others. But until circa 1850, the word was too new and too general to have any predominant use. The earliest known use in English is in Hazlitt’s On Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen (1826), in which he recalls a conversation from 1809 in writing those profound and redoubted socialists, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. There is also a contemporary use in the 1827 Owenite Co-operative Magazine. Its first recorded political use in French dates from 1833. However, ‘socialisme’ was first used in 1831 in the more generic meaning, and Owen’s New Moral World also contains a similar use. Given the intense political climate in both France and England in the 1820s and 30s, these references provide a sense of the period in which the word came into ‘common coinage’. It could not have been known at that time which meaning of the word would come through as dominant. It was a period of very rapid developments in political discourse, and until well into the 1840s there were a number of alternative words for ‘socialist’, some of which were in more common usage: co-operative, mutualist, associationist, societarian, phalansterian, agrarian, radical. As late as 1848 Webster’s (AmE) Dictionary defined ‘socialism’ as ‘a new term for agrarianism’. By that time in Europe, especially in France and Germany, and to a lesser extent in Britain, both ‘socialist’ and ‘socialism’ were common terms.

One alternative term, Communist, had begun to be used in France and England by the 1840s, but the sense of the word varied according to particular national contexts. In England in the 1840s, communist had strong religious associations, dating back to the Puritan sects of the seventeenth century. Thus its use was distinct from the secular word ‘socialist’ as used by Robert Owen, which was sometimes avoided for that reason. ‘Communism’ before Marx meant the primitive form practised in the early church when the followers of Jesus ‘held all things in common’. The ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’ of the English Commonwealth similarly wanted to abolish private property and social distinctions altogether. In the nineteenth century, their ideological ‘descendants’ believed this could only happen if a democratic state was to own all property. The French ‘anarchist’ philosopher Proudhon wrote that all property is theft. But the development of political ideas in France and Germany were different; so much so that Engels, in his Preface of 1888, looking back to the Communist Manifesto which he and Marx had written in 1848, observed:

We could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.

For a time, the stresses between employers and employees led to the worldwide dissemination of the very harsh and elementary form of communism which is associated with Karl Marx in particular. However, we need to view Marx’s political economy in its proper context as an integral shift in thinking about how to interpret the new industrial world which had grown up ‘like Topsy’ around the common man. It was only as the nineteenth century developed, according to H. G. Wells, that:

… men began to realise that property was not one simple thing but  a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences … that there is a very great range of things, railways, machinery of various sorts, homes, cultivated gardens, pleasure-boats, for example, which need each to be considered very particularly to determine how far and under what limitations it may come under private ownership, and how far it falls into the public domain and may be administered and let out by the state in the collective interest. 

Socialism and Communism in Europe, 1871-1918:

Across the continent, the relative militancy associated with the word communist was further strengthened by the very visual effect of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted below), though there was a significant argument as to whether the correct term to be derived from the event was Communist or Communard. For at least a ten-year period, the word Syndicalist became at least as important across Europe as a whole. It described the development of industrial trades unionism as a revolutionary force which would overthrow the capitalist system through the use of the General Strike and revolutionary violence in general. The word appeared in French in 1904 and in English in 1907; but it went through varying combinations with anarchism (in its stress on mutuality) and socialism, especially with Guild Socialism and Cooperative movements, emphasising the important interests of the consumer in economic models for the future.

The Commune as Seen by Jacques Tardi (“Le cri du peuple”), 2002.

The decisive distinction between ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ came with the renaming, in 1918, of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party as the All-Russian Communist Party (the ‘majority’ or Bolsheviks). From that time on, a distinction of ‘socialist’ from ‘communist’, often with supporting terms and adjectives such as ‘social democrat’ or ‘democratic socialist’ came into common currency, although it is significant that all ‘communist’ parties, especially in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its ‘satellite’ states, continued to describe themselves as ‘socialist’ and dedicated to ‘socialism’. This is one reason why, in central-eastern Europe, socialism is still viewed by many as synonymous with communism in contrast to the use of the word throughout the rest of Europe. That does not mean, however, that the history of socialist and social democratic parties in southern, western and northern Europe can simply be tarnished with the same brush of the ‘Stalinist’ past, as Medgyesy and other politicians have attempted to do in the run-up to this year’s European Parliament elections. Even Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission and a member of the conservative European People’s Party has been characterised as a ‘socialist’ in the Hungarian press and media.

The First Hungarian Republic, the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ & the Horthy Era, 1918-44:

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The Proclamation of Mihály Károlyi as President of the new Republic of Hungary.

Elsewhere on this site, I have written about the roots and development of liberal democracy in Hungary, and of how both of these have been fractured by various forms of authoritarianism and dictatorship, more recently of a populist variety. Yet even in Hungary, we can trace the origins of socialist movements back to 1907, when a series of strikes and disturbances among both the urban and rural workers. But the promise of electoral reform, for which a crowd of a hundred thousand demonstrated for a second time on ‘Red Thursday’, 10th October 1907, came to nothing when Andrássy’s modest bill expanding the suffrage was rejected by the Hungarian parliament. Seven years later, the Social Democrats, as elsewhere in Europe, supported the patriotic war effort, perhaps hoping for democratic concessions in return. Following the Revolution of November 1918, with the establishment of a republic ruled by a National Council, the Károlyi government embarked on the programme of social and political reforms it had announced. These were badly needed, given the explosive atmosphere in the country. There was no political force in Hungary at the time that would have been able to answer all of the conflicting interests and expectations of these turbulent times. Although the elections to the new national assembly were conducted on the basis of a franchise including half the population, second only those in Scandinavia at that time, the effects of progressive social legislation, including the introduction of unemployment benefit and the eight-hour working day, the abolition of child labour and the extension of insurance schemes, could not yet be felt. The political scene became polarised, involving the appearance of radical movements both on the Right and the Left.

The streets, for the time being, belonged to the political Left. Appeals of moderate Social Democratic ministers to order and patience evoked the contrary effect and served to alienate the disaffected masses from them. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 and led by Béla Kun. He was a former journalist and trades unionist, who had recently returned from captivity in Russia, where he had become convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets to parliamentary democracy.  Communist propaganda also promised an end to all exploitation through the nationalisation of property, as well as international stability through the fraternity of Soviet republics which were prophesied to arise all over Europe. Within a few weeks, this attractive utopia, underpinned by well-designed social demagogy, had earned the Communists a membership of about forty thousand. Their supporters, several times that number, mobilised among the marginalised masses and the younger members of the intelligentsia, susceptible to revolutionary romanticism. By January 1919, a wave of strikes had swept across the country, in the course of which factories, transport and communication installations were occupied; in addition, land seizures and attempts to introduce collective agriculture marked the communist initiative, which also included the demand not only to eradicate all remnants of feudalism, but also the proclamation of a Hungarian Soviet Republic, and a foreign policy seeking the friendship of Soviet Russia instead of the Entente powers.

While the radicals on both the Right and the Left openly challenged the fundamental tenets of the Károlyi government, his Independence Party evaporated around him. Unhappy with the reform projects which Károlyi embraced and seemed too radical for them, most of the Independent ministers left the government, leaving the Social Democrats as the main government party. But they were struggling helplessly to tame their own radical left, who effectively constituted an internal opposition to the government, and gravitated towards the Communists. On 21 March 1919, the Social Democrats accepted the invitation to take sole responsibility for the government, but only to accelerate and conclude negotiations with the imprisoned Communist leaders about forming a united workers’ party. A new government, the Revolutionary General Council, presided over by a Social Democrat but in effect led by Béla Kun, was formed on the same day, with the declared aim of establishing a Leninist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

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Certainly, the measures introduced by the Revolutionary government went beyond anything attempted in Soviet Russia at that time. The counterpart of these measures in the administrative and political reorganisation of the country was the replacement of old local, municipal and county bureaucracies with soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers. A ‘Committee of Public Safety’ was organised to put pressure on the civilian population where it was needed in order to maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat, its head, Tibor Szamuely travelling in his ‘death train’ to trouble spots in order to preside in summary courts, assisted by the notorious ‘Lenin Boys’, created to supplement the ‘Red Guard’, which took over the ordinary functions of the police and gendarmerie. Besides common murders of actual or alleged enemies by the ‘élite detachments, some 120 death sentences were meted out by the tribunals for political reasons.

The great momentum of the changes was partly intended to convince people that the realisation of the ‘socialist utopia’ was imminent. Social policy measures, the expected alleviation of housing shortages through public ownership of accommodation in a country flooded by refugees, the nationalisation of large firms, improved educational opportunities, the more effective supply of food and consumer goods through rationing and supervised distribution met with widespread approval, especially among the urban population. The intellectual élite, who had applauded the democratic reforms of the autumn of 1918, was initially also allured by the attractive goals of the Soviet Republic. They not only included known Marxists like György Lukács, the writer, who became People’s Commissar for Education, but also members of the Nyugati (Western) Circle, who held positions in the Directorate for Literature, and Bartók and Kodály, who became members of the one for music. Gradually, however, these figures became disaffected, as did the intelligentsia and middle classes in general and the leaders of the October 1918 democratic revolution, some of whom emigrated the following summer. By then, the historian Gyula Székfű, who was appointed professor at the University of Budapest, was already at work on his highly influential Three Generations (1920), in which he was hostile not only towards the communist revolution but also towards democracy and liberalism, which he blamed for paving the way for Kun’s régime.

The revolution and the village were unable to come to terms with each other. Despite the steady urbanisation of the previous half-century, Hungary still remained a largely agricultural country, especially after much of its towns were taken away by occupation even before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. Besides being economically unsound the amidst the shortage of raw materials and fuel to supply machinery supposedly more efficient large-scale co-operatives than in smallholdings, the nationalisation scheme embittered not only the smallholders themselves, who actually lost land, but also the landless peasants, domestic servants and the agricultural labourers whose dreams of becoming independent farmers were thwarted by the same urban revolutionaries who had formerly encouraged land seizures. Decrees regarding the compulsory delivery of agricultural surplus and requisitioning further undermined whatever popularity the government still enjoyed in the countryside. It blamed the food shortages on the peasantry, which exacerbated the already existing rift between town and country, and served as a pretext for further central control of the economy. The anti-clerical measures taken by the government also annoyed the traditionally devout peasants, concerned about the security of ‘the family hearth’.

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All of this made the communists more susceptible to counter-revolutionary propaganda, which did not fail to emphasise the foreign (that is, Jewish) character of the revolution (over half of the commissars were indeed of Jewish ethnicity). An ‘Anti-Bolshevik’ Committee was set up in Vienna in April by representatives of nearly all the old parties led by Count István Bethlen, and a counter-revolutionary government was set up at Arad on 5 May, later moving to Szeged. Paradoxically, the Soviet Republic was maintained in power for over four months, despite the increasingly dictatorial means it employed, mainly by the temporary successes it scored on the nationalities’ issue; it collapsed not in the face of internal counter-revolution but when its military position against the allies of the Entente in the region became untenable. The Entente powers, gathered at the Paris Peace Conference, sent General Smuts, the prime minister of South Africa, to Budapest, mainly to obtain reliable first-hand information about the situation there in April 1919. Smuts concluded that Hungary truly had a government of Bolshevik character, which gave weight to the French Prime Minister Clemenceau’s proposal to suppress German revanchist designs as well as the spread of Soviet communism into Western Europe by a cordon sanitaire established out of the new states of Central Europe. Harold Nicolson, the young British diplomat who accompanied Smuts on the train leaving Paris on April Fools’ Day, wrote about these concerns about the Germans turning to Bolshevism in a letter to his wife Vita (pictured below, together in Paris):

They have always got the trump card, i.e. Bolshevism – and they will go the moment they feel it is hopeless for them to get good terms. 

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Small wonder, therefore, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism triggered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. The negotiations were conducted from the wagon-lit of Smuts’ train at the Eastern Station in Budapest, so as not to imply recognition of the régime, encircled by Red Guards with ‘fixed bayonets and scarlet brassards’. They centred on whether or not the Hungarian Bolsheviks would accept the Allies’ armistice terms, which would commit them to accept considerable territorial losses. As they hesitated, Harold decided to explore Budapest, a city he had grown up in before the war. He was alarmed and saddened by what he saw:

‘The whole place is wretched – sad – unkempt.’ He took tea at the Hungaria, Budapest’s leading hotel. Although it had been ‘communised’, it flew ‘a huge Union Jack and Tricoleur’, a gesture of good intent. Red Guards with bayonets patrolled the hall, but in the foyer what remained of Budapest society ‘huddled sadly together with anxious eyes and a complete, ghastly silence’, sipping their lemonade ‘while the band played’. ‘I shudder and feel cold,’ Harold remarked. ‘We leave as soon as possible. Silent eyes search out at us as we go.’

Kun desperately needed allied recognition of his government, but he inserted a clause into Smuts’ draft agreement that the Romanian forces should withdraw to a line east of the neutral zone established by the 1918 Armistice, in effect to evacuate Transylvania. Smuts would not countenance this, however, and the Bolsheviks were ‘silent and sullen’. Nicolson wrote that they looked like convicts standing before the Director of the Prison. Smuts concluded that ‘Béla Kun is just an incident and not worth taking seriously’. This proved to be only too true, as on 10 April, only a day after Harold’s account to Vita, a provisional government was set up in Budapest seeking to reinstate the old ruling Hungarian cliques. On 1 August, Kun fled the capital in the face of invading Romanian armies. He ended his days in Russia, dying in 1936, ironically as the victim of one of Stalin’s innumerable purges. The world revolution that was expected to sweep away the corrupt bourgeois politicians of the peace conference and their allies spluttered to a halt. The Bavarian Soviet Republic, proclaimed on 7 April, hardly survived into May and the communist putsch planned by Kun’s agents in Vienna on 15 June also failed. Meanwhile, General Deniken’s counter-revolutionary offensive in Russia thwarted hopes of help from across the Carpathians.

Facing an ever more turbulent domestic situation marked by widespread peasant unrest and an uprising of the students of the military academy in Budapest, the Revolutionary government, after heated debates, decided to give in to the demands of the Peace Conference, withdrawing Hungarian forces from Slovakia behind the demarcation line at the end of June. Aurél Stromfeld, who as Chief of the General Staff led the Red Army into Slovakia which led to the short-lived Soviet Republic proclaimed there on 16 June, resigned in protest against the ‘capitulation’. Some of his generals now started to join the National Army, organised by the counter-revolutionary government in Szeged, under the command of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the last commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian navy. When the Romanians refused to retreat behind the neutral zone as envisaged, the Red Army launched a surprise offensive along the River Tisza. The initial advance was aborted, however, and ended in a disorderly flight of the Red Army. On 1 August, with the Romanian forces threatening to occupy the Hungarian capital, the commissars handed back power to the Social Democrats on the advice of trade union leaders that the creation of a government acceptable to the Entente powers was the only way to avoid complete foreign occupation. The next day, a government led by the trade unionist leader Gyula Peidl, who had refused to accept the creation of a united workers’ party, took office.

Although it promised to end the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ while at the same time defying a conservative restoration, the new government was still regarded as crypto-Bolshevik not only by conservatives but also by Liberals, peasant democrats and Christian Socialists. It also failed to gain support from the Entente. Assisted by the Romanian army, occupying Budapest, a coup forced the government to resign on 6 August. The government headed by István Friedrich, immediately set about annulling all the measures associated with the Soviet Republic, especially the nationalisation process. It also dismantled all the major social reforms of the democratic revolution, including those associated with individual civil liberties. Revolutionary tribunals were replaced by counter-revolutionary ones, packing prisons with workers, poor peasants and intellectuals, and by the beginning of 1920 it had passed roughly as many death sentences as had the lackeys of the ‘red terror’, the ‘Lenin Boys’. The intellectual élite of the country suffered a serious blow. Bartók and Kodály were prosecuted, Móricz was imprisoned and several dozen left the country, including Lukács, Mannheim and Korda. Horthy’s ‘National Army’, now transferred to Transdanubia, controlled and gave orders to local authorities and its most notorious detachments were instruments of naked terror. In three months, they may have killed as many as two thousand suspected former Soviet members, Red Army soldiers, and ordinary Jews who were in no way associated with the proletarian dictatorship. Besides executions and lynchings, about seventy thousand people were imprisoned or sent to internment camps during these few months.

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Despite the protests of the Social Democrats and other left-wing forces, the occupying Romanian forces were replaced by Horthy’s National Army in Budapest. His speech before the notables of the capital stigmatised it as ‘the sinful city’ that had rejected its glorious past, Holy Crown and national colours for the sake of red rags. This suited an atmosphere in which most of the remaining adherents of the democratic revolution as well as the communist one were neutralised in one way or another. The returning conservatives promised to heal the country’s war-wounds by returning it to order, authority and the mythical ‘Christian-national system of values’. Sir George Clerk, the leader of the Peace Conference’s mission to Budapest in October 1919, abandoned his initial insistence that the Social Democrats and the Liberals should have an important role in a coalition government. As Horthy commanded the only troops capable of maintaining order and was ready to subordinate them to government control, it had to be acceptable to Horthy personally and the military in general. As a result, the cabinet formed by Károly Huszár on 24 November 1919 was one in which the Christian National Unity Party and other conservative-agrarian groups prevailed over those of the Independent Smallholder Party, the Social Democrats and the Liberals. Even though the great powers insisted that voting should take place by universal and secret ballot, the circumstances were unfavourable to fulfilling any illusion of a democratic outcome. Terrorist actions by detachments of the National Army and the recovering extreme right-wing organisations, designed to intimidate the candidates and voters for the Social Democrats, Smallholders and Liberals, led to the former boycotting the elections of January 1920 and withdrawing from the political arena until mid-1922.

On 1 March 1920, the army occupied the square in front of the Parliament building, and, accompanied by his officers, Horthy entered and, according to medieval precedent, was ‘elected’ Regent, with strong Presidential powers. This signalled the end of Hungary’s own short experiment with democratic socialism, following its even briefer experience of home-grown communism. Count Pál Teleki and Count István Bethlen, the dominant political figures of inter-war Hungary, both from Transylvanian aristocratic families, argued that the immediate post-war events had shown that the country was not yet ready to graft full democracy onto the parliamentary system. They advocated a limited ‘conservative democracy’, guided by the landed gentry and the aristocracy, as the proper response of the region to the challenges of the democratic age. They opposed all endeavours aimed at the radical extension of the liberal rights enshrined in the parliamentarism of the dualist. Liberal democracy seemed to them a mechanical application of the majority principle, undermining political responsibility and stability. They despised communism and were suspicious of social democracy because of its antipathy to private property. But they also opposed the right-wing radical and fascist trends epitomised by Gyula Gömbös and other ‘protectors of the race’ who thought that the parliamentary system had outlived its usefulness and ought to be replaced by an authoritarian rule which would facilitate a redistribution of economic functions in favour of the Hungarian Christian middle classes and away from the ‘foreign’ bourgeoisie (in other words, the Jews).

The fundamental character which the political system of the country retained until the German occupation of 1944 had emerged by 1922 as a result of Bethlenite consolidation. Hungary became a parliamentary state with strong elements of authoritarianism and a hegemonistic party structure, in which the institutions inherited from the liberal era were operated in an anti-democratic fashion. The government acknowledged a lawful political opposition, consisting on the left of Social Democrats, bourgeois liberals and, after 1930 a rejuvenated Independent Smallholder Party; and on the right of different groups of Christian Socialists as well as right radicals. One of the most important developments in the intellectual life of the Horthy era was the development of ‘populist’ writers, predominantly young and of peasant origin, who wrote ethnographically-based pieces revealing the economic and intellectual poverty of life in rural Hungary and drawing the attention of the ruling classes to the need for change. In ideological terms, some of them, most notably László Németh, advocated a ‘third way’ for Hungary between East and West, or between Soviet collectivism and capitalist individualism. Some, including Gyula Illyés and Ferenc Erdei, sympathised with socialism. Their top priority was the improvement in the lot of the poor peasantry through a genuine redistribution of land among them. But their willingness to engage with both the extreme Left and the extreme Right, as well as their emphasis on the ‘village’ as the root of ‘Hungarianness’, with its anti-Semitic overtones, led it into conflict with more cosmopolitan democrats and ‘urbanist’ intellectuals. This was symptomatic of a broader and longer-term division among Hungarian progressives which survived the attempts of even the Soviet communists to homogenise Hungarian society as well as the post-1989 transition to democracy and is resurgent in the propaganda of the current right-wing populist era.

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The Second Hungarian Republic & The Eras of Rákosi & Kádár, 1945-1989:

The second Republic of 1945 was equally as brittle as that which followed the First World War, ending in a Soviet-style government which lasted more than forty years. By the time of the elections of November 1945, the communist vanguard, which had numbered only three thousand a year before, had managed to create a mass party of half a million members as a result of an unscrupulous recruiting campaign. Unlike the Social Democrats, they did not mention socialism as being even their strategic goal, and their rhetoric concentrated mainly on the pressing tasks of reconstruction combined with reform. Their avowed programme was essentially the same as the Independence Front; however, they did not refrain from occasionally playing nationalist tunes. Workers and smallholding peasants out of conviction, intellectuals out of idealism, civil servants out of fear and opportunism, all augmented the party ranks; the surviving Jews of Budapest joined out of gratitude to their liberators and their search for a new experience of community. Besides boasting an ever-growing influence on its own, the Communist Party was also able to manipulate the other parties of the Left. The Social Democratic Party, whose 350,000 strong membership possessed a powerful working-class consciousness, found it increasingly difficult to resist the call of the Communists for working-class unity. Together with the National Peasant Party, the Social Democrats chose to join the Communists in the Left-Wing Bloc on 5 March 1946, following the elections of the previous November which was won by the Smallholder Party, who collected fifty-seven per cent of the votes, with both the Social Democrats and the Communists polling seventeen per cent each, and the National Peasant Party a mere seven percent.

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‘Forward to Peace & Socialism!’ The Young Pioneers’ Congress.

The elections themselves, by secret ballot and without a census, were the freest ever to be held in Hungary until 1990. Cardinal Mindszenty, the head of the Hungarian Catholic hierarchy, had condemned the ‘Marxist evil’ in a pastoral letter and called upon the faithful to support the Smallholders. Whatever the voters made of this intervention, the verdict of 4.8 million of them, over ninety per cent of the enfranchised, clearly showed their preference for the return of parliamentary democracy based on support for private property and the market economy over socialism with state management and central economic planning. But then the Smallholders gave in to Soviet pressure for the formation of a ‘grand coalition’ in which the communists were able to preserve the gains they had already secured and to secure a firm base from which they were gradually able to bully their way to power by 1949. After the tribulations of the Rákosi dictatorship, it was not surprising that, in 1956, what was initially a struggle between ‘reform’ communists and orthodox within the party, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, and in the meantime itself triggering off a growing ferment among the intelligentsia, became a national anti-Soviet uprising. The events which began, from 20 October onwards, with meetings and demonstrations at the universities in Budapest and the provinces, culminating with a peaceful demonstration in support of Gomulka’s reforms in Poland on 23rd, became a ‘revolution’ when the crowd successfully laid siege to the radio station and fighting began the next day between Soviet tanks and young working-class ‘guerillas’ whom even the restored Prime Minister referred to as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ at this stage.

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All the insurgents agreed about was their desire to return national sovereignty and to put an end to arbitrary rule. They did not call for a reversal of nationalisation or a return to the pre-1945 order.  As fighting continued, by 28 October, Nagy had dropped the label ‘counter-revolution’ and started to talk about a ‘national democratic movement’, acknowledging the revolutionary bodies created during the previous days. The Hungarian Workers’ (Communist) Party was reformed as the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) and the old coalition parties became active again, including the Social Democrats. After his initial uncertainty, the PM kept pace with developments on the streets, closing the gap between himself and the insurgents step by step. His changes culminated in the formation of a new multi-party cabinet on 2 November, including reform Communist, Social Democrat (Anna Kéthély, below), Smallholder and Peasant Party members.

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However, this consolidation of power by a now avowedly ‘Revolutionary Government’ involved the collapse of the whole system of institutions of the party-state on which the cohesion of the Soviet bloc rested, and this was unacceptable for the Moscow leadership, Khrushchev included. It could not afford to lose a country of Hungary’s strategic location and mineral wealth from among its satellite states. But it was the radicalisation of the revolution in Budapest which made it impossible for a compromise deal to be struck. After announcing the formation of the MSZMP, also declaring himself to be in favour of neutrality and willing to fight in the streets, János Kádár left Parliament on 1 November for the Soviet Embassy. He quickly found himself in Moscow where he became the latest figure selected by the politburo to steer Hungary on a course acceptable to them. Having accepted this assignment, he entered Budapest with his cabinet in Soviet tanks on 7 November.

Although the pockets of armed resistance had been mopped up by 11 November, the most peculiar forms of the revolution, the workers’ councils, started to exert their true impact after 4 November, with an attempt to organise a nationwide network. Initially set up as strike committees, their basic idea was self-management in the factory, owned principally by the workers. On the initiative of the workers’ councils, a massive wave of strikes lasted into January 1957. The intellectuals, rallying mainly in the Writers’ Association, the students’ committees and the Journalists’ Association, founded the Revolutionary Council of the Hungarian Intelligentsia, chaired by composer Zoltán Kodály, which demanded the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and representative government. These movements marked out the Revolution as more than simply a defeated National Uprising. They were clearly socialist in their aims and membership. Kádár, on the other hand, did not have a clear policy to cope with this situation. The government programme which he drafted while still in Moscow, included promises of welfare measures, workers’ self-management and policies to aid the peasantry and small-scale enterprises. But these were clearly not the reasons for his ‘appointment’ by his Moscow patrons. To begin with, he was too busy organising special police forces for the purposes of retaliation and repression to spend time setting out policies. Although he negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, on the previous day the special police squads prevented the creation of a National Workers’ Council and in early December, two hundred members of the movement were arrested on the same day that saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates.

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The revolutionary committees which had been set up were dissolved, and the police shot dead nearly a hundred demonstrators in Sálgotorján, Miskolc and Eger. The ideological justification for these actions and the continuing repression and the impending campaign of retaliation was created at a party conference which identified the causes of the October Uprising as the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction on the one hand and, on the other, the undermining of the party by ‘Nagy circle’ leading to a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of Horthyite fascism… supported by international imperialism. Given the trauma created by the revolution, its repression and the retaliation which followed in 1956-58, it is not surprising that Hungarian society was in the mood for Kádár’s Realsozialismus, based on his personalised creed that the ‘little man’ was interested simply in a decent living, instead of the great political issues of the day. He used the scope created by the ruins of the revolt on which he built his power to buy the complicity of Hungarians by unorthodox methods. In November 1962, Kádár somewhat pompously announced that the foundations of socialism in Hungary had been laid and that the construction of socialism was an all-national task, dependent on co-operation between Communists and non-party members, irrespective of personal convictions. There was to be no ‘class war’; this was what became known as the ‘Kádár doctrine’. These were the foundations of the ‘Hungarian model’, often referred to as ‘Gulyás communism’ in the 1970s, which was a far cry from utopian models. With characteristic persistence, Kádár managed to earn legitimacy, retaining it until it became apparent in the 1980s that Realsozialismus was not a functioning system, but merely ‘the longest path from capitalism to capitalism’.

Conclusion: The End of ‘Class-War’ Socialism?

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

Marx House (Memorial Library) in London.

Marx (before ‘Marxism’) based his theories on a belief that men’s minds are limited by their economic circumstances and that there is a necessary conflict of interests in our present civilization between the prosperous and employing classes of people and the employed masses. With the advance in education necessitated by the mechanical revolution, this great employed majority would become more and more class-conscious and more and more solid in antagonism to the ruling minority. In some way the class-conscious workers would seize power, he prophesied, and inaugurate a new social state. The antagonism, the insurrection, the possible revolution are understandable enough, but it did not follow that a new social state or anything but a socially destructive process would ensue. Marx sought to replace national antagonism by class antagonisms, but it is interesting to see how the two lines of thought, so diverse in spirit, so different in substance as this class-war socialism of the Marxists and the individualistic theory and socialist theory have continued to be part of a common search for more spacious social and political ideas and interpretations. In the long history of socialism in western Europe, as contrasted with the seventy years of Soviet-style Communism, the logic of reality has usually triumphed over the logic of theory.

Sources:

László Kontler (2001), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

H. G. Wells (1922, 1946), A Short History of the World. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

  

Posted April 19, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Austria-Hungary, Baltic States, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Civilization, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Conservative Party, Dark Ages, democracy, Discourse Analysis, Economics, Education, Egalitarianism, English Language, eschatology, Ethnicity, European Union, First World War, France, German Reunification, Germany, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Integration, Ireland, Jews, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marxism, Memorial, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, Oxford, Population, populism, Proletariat, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Remembrance, Revolution, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, USSR, Utopianism

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