Men of Harlech and the Rise of a New Wales?:
By the Spring of 1404, Owain Glyn Dwr had all but gained control of the whole of Wales. The one castle which eluded capture was Harlech. Both strategically and spiritually it was the most important, the key to the gateway in and out of Snowdonia. Once Harlech was theirs, the rebels could truly claim to be in control of the whole of Wales. Harlech was protected on two sides by the sea and by two-metre thick concentric curtain walls, with a barbican gatehouse, almost impossible to take by storm. Owain’s French allies came to his aid with an army of 2,500 men and artillery, especially trebuchets. With these, he laid siege to the castle, while the French stopped any supplies reaching the defenders by sea. After three months of constant bombardment, and with only twenty survivors left inside, Harlech is thought to have fallen on St George’s Day, 23 April 1404. In the Great Hall, Glyn Dwr declared Welsh independence, called his first Welsh Parliament to meet at Machynlleth, and began to establish a fully independent Welsh Church. He even began to plan a full-scale invasion of England, together with Mortimer and Northumberland.
With the capture of Harlech, and certainly by the end of 1404, Glyn Dwr had effectively driven the English out of the whole of Wales. With the military campaigns at an end, he maintained popular momentum by putting an end to feudal payments to the lords and the crown; they could raise enough money from the parliaments they called, attended by delegates from all over Wales – the first and (so far) last Welsh parliaments in Welsh history with the power to raise taxes. From the gentry came Owain’s best leaders like Rhys Gethin and the Tudor brothers, from the clergy came intellectuals who charged his principality with principle. From the ordinary people by the thousand came a loyalty which had enabled him to lead a divided people one-twelfth the size of the English against a dozen royal armies. It was at once an undeniable fact, which became both a myth and a legend, as Gwyn Williams remarked, that..
Owain Glyn Dwr was one Welsh prince who was never betrayed by his own people, not even in the darkest days when many of them could have saved their skins by doing so. There is no parallel in the history of the Welsh.
Glyn Dwr now had a base at Harlech, and a staff of civil servants and diplomats, with contacts in Rome, Avignon, Burgos and Paris. In 1404 he concluded an alliance with France. There was a takeover by professional ‘courtiers’ such that his correspondence became weighty and official. Having summoned his parliament to Machynlleth, in the heart of liberated country, in the shape of four men from every commote in Wales, he required of them to raise money, ratify an alliance with France, the key to survival, and to witness his formal coronation in the presence of envoys from France, Scotland and Castile. He was now Owain, by the grace of God, Prince of Wales, with a great seal and a privy seal, showing a figure with a slightly forked beard, seated and crowned with orb and sceptre. His envoys to France were Gruffudd Young and John Hanmer. A French fleet of sixty ships sailed, but dispersed their efforts along the southern coasts of England.
The following February, Glyn Dwr drew up a tripartite agreement with Sir Edmund Mortimer and the earl of Northumberland, whereby England and Wales were to be divided between the three leaders. Interestingly, Sir Edmund had by this time abandoned the fiction that he was acting on behalf of his nephew, and claimed the English crown for himself. In addition, Mortimer would control the south of England, Percy the north and Glyn Dwr a Wales which would run from the Mersey to the Severn, taking in great tracts of the West Midlands, with a frontier deliberately drawn to include the Six Ashes on the Bridgnorth Road where Merlin had prophesied the Great Eagle would rally the Welsh warriors for the day of deliverance. A second parliament was summoned, this time to Harlech, and this funded an army of ten thousand men to support a rising in the north of England and a small French army of about two thousand men which landed at Milford Haven, forced the (English)men of south Pembrokeshire to buy their peace and marched with the Welsh in a triumphal progress across south Wales to pause at Worcester.
Meanwhile, in England, the close involvement of Sir Edmund in these treasonable conspiracies to invade had repercussions for his nephew, who, with his brother, was still in royal custody. The situation became grave in February 1405, when Lady Despencer, the mistress of Edmund of Langley, the boys’ other uncle, arranged for their abduction from Windsor. It was intended that the boys be taken to Lady Despencer’s estates in south Wales, possibly to become figureheads for the invasion, but they were recaptured at Cheltenham and placed under closer guard.
By this time, the tide was also beginning to turn against Henry’s enemies in both Scotland and France. The allies could get no further and withdrew, with many of the French returning home. Yet in 1406 came the glittering climax for the new Welsh nation and its prince. In return for their support, the French had required the Welsh to transfer their allegiance to the Pope at Avignon. In response, the Welsh required Avignon to recognise the newly created independent Welsh Church. At a great Synod near Machynlleth that Church adopted a sweeping policy designed not just to restore to the new Wales its own form of Catholicism, independent of Rome, but also to re-establish it its own bureaucracy and intelligentsia. The Welsh Church was to be free of Canterbury, with its own metropolitan Archbishopric at St. David’s exercising control over the western English diocese of the Tripartite Indenture as well. Welsh clerics were to be Welsh-speaking, Welsh Church revenues were to be devoted to Welsh needs and two universities were to be created, one in the north and another in the south, to train Welshmen in the service of the new Wales.
But, in the cold light of where real power lay, all this was illusion. The ground beneath the insurrection had already begun to give way. During 1406 Gower, parts of the Tywi valley and Ceredigion crumbled, while Anglesey made its own peace with the king. The Mortimer boys also remained tightly under the control of the English king. In 1406 they were placed in the custody of Richard, Lord Grey of Codnor, and in 1409 made wards of the ‘rightful’ Prince of Wales, Hal, later Henry V. In the same year, Roger, the younger of the two boys died, and Sir Edmund was killed at Harlech, when the castle was retaken for the crown as one of the last outposts of Welsh resistance.
By 1406, the armies of Henry IV had also begun to gain the upper hand in the war in the March. It was the Monmouth-born Prince Hal who had finally begun to recover the marcher lands lost to the Welsh. As Bolingbroke, his father had held extensive lands in the March, acquiring Brecon and Hay by marriage to Mary de Bohun, heiress to the earl of Hereford, and Monmouth, Kidwelly and Iscennen in south Wales which he had inherited from his father. These holdings were what enabled him to strike at the heart of Richard II’s power and popularity in Wales and the March. As a fifteen-year-old, Prince Hal had been injured in the face fighting the Welsh in 1403, and returned with a vengeance in 1405, at first storming through Wales, re-taking towns and villages, but then slowly and deliberately taking back the castles one at a time, re-garrisoning them before moving on to the next objective. He won his first major victory at Usk, where he captured three hundred of Glyn Dwr’s men, slaughtering them all. He also imprisoned Owain’s son Gruffudd, sending him to the Tower of London, where he was tortured mercilessly. Welsh nobles and gentry were publicly executed and parts of their bodies were displayed across Wales as a deterrence. During 1407, the Welsh maintained their position but were now fighting against the odds as resistance in Scotland slackened and France slithered into internal conflict. The royal armies carted great guns from Yorkshire through Bristol in order to mount the final sieges, though Aberystwyth under Rhys the Black beat off a fierce attack. Henry, now strongly Roman Catholic and seeking European help against the Welsh, was able to expel Glyn Dwr’s appointments from St Asaph’s and St David’s.
In 1408 Aberystwyth finally fell, and only Harlech Castle still stood against the English, who had reconquered the rest of the country. In July, a thousand of Hal’s men arrived at its walls, ready to lay siege to it. Cannons were used, almost for the first time, but however hard they pounded, the inner walls never collapsed. In February 1409, it was still going strong, disease and starvation having killed off most of the men inside. When they finally gave up the castle due to starvation, Owain was nowhere to be found. Legend has it that he had slipped out of the castle at night before the siege ended, though his family were captured and sent to the Tower. The last of his northern allies had again been cut down. The Welsh nation, established and visible for four years, vanished back into the woods. Glyn Dwr himself headed for the hills, once more an outlaw. Together with his other son Maredudd and a handful of his best captains, and a handful of Scots and French, Owain was at large throughout 1409, devastating wherever he went; at the end of the year the officers of the north-eastern March were ordered to stop making truces with him. His last big raid came in 1410, when his raiding party swooped into Shropshire, which in 1402 had made its own peace with ‘the land of Wales’. They were beaten back, and Rhys the Black, Philip Scudamore and Rhys Tudor were executed. After that, wrote a chronicler, Glyn Dwr made no great attack. The last direct reference to him was made in 1412, when he led a successful ambush of an English force at Brecon, taking their leader, Davey Gam, captive. Gruffudd Young carried on the fight, and the campaign for the Welsh Church, a little longer, but the Welsh war of independence was effectively over.
No one knows what happened to Glyn Dwr. He simply vanished once more. One suggestion is that he spent his last days in Herefordshire’s ‘Golden Valley’ (Cwm Dwr in Welsh, mistaken for d’or in French), sheltered by his son-in-law John Scudamore. Henry V, the new Welsh-born English king, who had taken Owain’s remaining son into his service, twice offered the rebel leader a pardon, but the old man was too proud to accept. After the death of Sir Edmund in the English siege of Harlech in 1409, Lady Mortimer and her daughters were taken to London and were apparently all dead by 1413. Although there is no evidence to suggest that there was any compliance by the young earl in the treason conducted by his uncle in his name, his position remained difficult, as his claim to the throne of England was strong. There was a real threat of conspiracy to place him on the throne after the death of Henry IV in 1413. The young Henry V therefore showed great magnanimity, and not a little political skill, when in June 1413 he released Edmund from captivity and returned his estates to him. The king was rewarded for this when another conspiracy to place Edmund on the throne was revealed to the king by his former charge. When Henry V embarked for Normandy in August 1415 he was accompanied by Edmund Mortimer, whose retinue included 160 mounted archers. He was active in the siege of Harfleur, but contracted dysentery and was forced to return home, leaving his troops take part in the epic ‘English’ victory of 25 October. In 1417 Henry V mounted a second expedition with the serious intention of conquering Normandy. Edmund again took part with a force of a hundred lancers and three hundred archers. The success of his troops led to Edmund’s appointment as the king’s lieutenant in Normandy.
In the traumatic fifteen years of 1398 to 1413, Wales had been propelled not only into a war of national liberation within itself but into a civil war stretching into England as well. Gwyn Williams assessed its significance in the following terms:
The whole complex of contradictory and often unpleasant attitudes which had characterised Welsh political life since the tenth century assumed permanent and painful form in the minds of most Welsh people. Half-suppressed, for in modern Wales and particularly among people of substance, Owain is still something of an outlaw prince, it has helped to make the Welsh the peculiarly schizophrenic people we are.
Since 1410 most Welsh people most of the time have abandoned any idea of independence as unthinkable. But since 1410 most Welsh people, at some time or other, if only in some secret corner of the mind, have been ‘out with Owain and his barefoot scrubs’. For the Welsh mind is still haunted by its lightning-flash vision of a people that was free.
If we are to view Owain Glyn Dwr as an unsung hero of Welsh history, we must also admit that, ultimately, he was a heroic failure. In this context, we need to ask why and how, forgotten until the late eighteenth century, he could be hailed first as a romantic hero and then in the nineteenth century as a founding father of Welsh nationalism. As Dai Smith has pointed out,
He justified his revolt against the English Crown by reference to rights enjoyed in the past when the Welsh were the original British. He called on ancient genealogies to prove his claim to be Prince of Wales. The fifteen-year struggle did have an anti-English tap-root in a time of severe dislocation, but the revolt was sparked by a personal grievance, fed on the uncertainties of English civil strife, and was never a popular uprising.
Glyn Dwr led a group of patricians with a similar list of grievances which they were intent on settling. He may have had a consciousness of all of Wales in the way that fifteenth-century Europe was beginning to nurture nation-states, and this concept was supported by the clerks and gentlemen who added him in his plans for a Welsh ‘parliament’ at Machynlleth and a Welsh ‘university’ to service the rule. He was, though, not averse to including chunks of English territory and English-speakers in his Wales, and his revolt was more a regional conflagration than a national war for ‘independence’.
On the whole, Dai Smith’s assessment of the significance of the Glyn Dwr rebellion seems to be more convincing to me, in that it assesses the narrative of events against the backcloth of the dynastic struggles of the English kings and the Marcher lords. There is certainly room in this narrative for both the contemporary myths and the lasting legends surrounding the enigmatic leader of the rebellion, which turned into both a civil war and a national war of independence, but that is not the same as mythologising him as a founder or a forerunner of modern Welsh nationalism.
Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers: Lords of the March. Herefords: Logaston Press.
Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin.
Part One: The Men and the Myths, 1398-1403
The Welsh Dynasties:
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, much of Wales was ruled by a succession of resolute Princes of Gwynedd, from the area around Snowdonia which the Anglo-Norman marcher lords had failed to penetrate. The princes strove to bring the whole of Wales under their banner, but they could only achieve this if the messy parochialism of separate territories could be sorted out by instilling in their rulers and sub-rulers the order of hierarchical allegiance demanded by the Anglo-Norman kings of the Welsh princes themselves. The Gwynedd dynasty was willing to pay this price so that, within Wales, they could exert the same feudal pyramid by referring to themselves as Princes of Wales. Through a clever combination of diplomacy and war they came close to achieving this, though not without upsetting other Welsh rulers and causing internecine strife. Wales might have emerged as a semi-feudal kingdom in a feudal Europe had it not been for the growing unease about an English kingdom which was undergoing the same process, combined with the deep mistrust felt by other Welsh princes and lords for the ‘modernising’ tendencies of the Gwynedd dynasty. When Llywelyn the Last was killed in 1282 at Cilmeri, near Builth Wells, far from his northern base, military initiatives designed to unify Wales disappeared for more than a century.
One major source of alarm in the century following Edward I’s establishment of an ‘iron ring’ of fortresses around Snowdonia was those Welshmen who took service with the enemies of the English kings. Outstanding among these was Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri, a descendent of the Gwynedd dynasty, who from 1369 led a Welsh free company of mercenaries in the service of France. Owain Lawgoch, of the Bloody Hand, based his claim on direct dynastic inheritance of the Llywelyns and announced the imminence of his arrival with a French fleet. He sailed from Harfleur on two occasions, and throughout the 1370s there were ripples of support for his name throughout north Wales. The English authorities took these threats seriously and sent one John Lambe to murder him in Mortagne-sur-Mer in 1378, paying him twenty pounds to do the deed. There were repeated security clampdowns in Wales itself, with a coastal watch, the manning of walls and the renewed exclusion of all Welshmen from any office of significance from 1385-6. In the Welsh poetry of the period there is a note of discord and dissatisfaction at the treatment of the Welsh gentry in their own country. Gruffydd Llwyd, for example, wrote a poem bemoaning the lack of honour accorded to Welshmen of merit of the old tradition. Few Welshmen were knighted and even his own patron, Owain Glyn Dwr, who to him seemed so worthy of such reward, had been slighted.
Where the idea of ‘the Return of Arthur’ could find an anchorage in political reality was the March, the borderland, among the Norman baronage which had long Welsh heritage. The Mortimer family could lay claim to such connections, since one of their number had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the second half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the Principality of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry.The poet Iolo Goch, one of his tenants, wrote an ode of loyalty in which he addressed Mortimer as the inheritor of the Arthurian mantle. Here was the Hero Returned who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more poignant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. With the accession of Richard II, some of the Welsh officials, at least in north Wales, returned to favour. Prominent among his supporters were the five sons of Tudur ap Gronw who, from their base in Anglesey commanded an influential set of familial connections in north Wales. Gwilym and Rhys Tudor in particular were favoured by Richard, who was as popular in north Wales as he was in Cheshire. It was at this time that the renaissance of the Welsh language was beginning to meet with judicial resistance. The language was resurgent in the Vale of Glamorgan and the Welsh became town-dwellers, in Oswestry, Brecon, and Monmouth, among others. A chorus of complaint against them burst out not only from these towns, but from merchants on the English side of the March. Nearly every Parliament between 1378 and 1400 demanded action against the impertinent Welsh peasants, and there was even an anti-Welsh riot at the University of Oxford in which the cry went up to ‘kill the Welsh dogs!’
With this reaction, by the end of the fourteenth century, the administration of Wales was returned solidly under the control of the English crown. Wales had been experiencing growing tensions during the last quarter of the fourteenth century. At a time of falling agricultural revenues, the great landlords had become increasingly rapacious, exacting heavy fines and subsidies from their tenants. Despite the popularity of Mortimer and Richard II with the Welsh, the English king, at least, did not reciprocate in his appointments. Between 1372 and 1400, of the sixteen bishops appointed in Wales, only one was Welsh.The Welsh clergy had become increasingly outraged at the exploitation of ecclesiastical revenues by English bishops who had been appointed to the Welsh sees. Racial tensions were also growing among the burgesses of ‘English’ boroughs and their Welsh neighbours, as can be seen in the granting of charters such as that received by the Mortimer borough of St Clears in 1393, guaranteeing that cases involving burgesses should only be heard by English burgesses and true Englishmen (to the west of St Clears, along the southern coast to Pembroke, Englishmen had settled in large numbers since the Norman Conquest of Wales). There was also a significant power vacuum at the head of Welsh society. In 1398, somewhat inexplicably, Richard II exiled the dukes of Norfolk and Hereford, who had engaged in a bitter personal dispute. The banishing of Hereford, better known as Henry Bolingbroke, was an action which ultimately sealed the king’s doom. The crackdown on the over-mighty magnates, coupled with the death of Roger Mortimer (VI), meant that most of the marcher lords had been removed. Richard II’s favourites who had been appointed to the vacant lands were incapable of exercising similar authority to that of the old marcher lords, a factor which was made worse by the division of Mortimer lands by the Crown following Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399.
The Mortimers had ruled the borderlands, the Marcher Lordships, virtually unopposed, and that was enough for the English to stomach. But Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II, by which he became King Henry IV opened an era of instability in the succession in England, interwoven with the repeatedly renewed French wars, which thrust real power into the hands of the aristocracy, not least those in the March, where there were disturbances as factions moved against each other. When Henry IV made his son Prince of Wales, a French knight commented, but I think he must conquer Wales if he will have it…
Resentment soon led to outright rebellion. As heavy communal levies were imposed, Lord Grey of Ruthin reported serious misgovernance and riot beginning in the north-eastern March, and demanded action throughout Wales, particularly against Welsh officials who were kinsmen of the troublemakers. By the spring and summer of 1400, the administration at Caernarfon was nervous. It claimed evidence of letters passing between the Welsh and the Scots which called for rebellion: men in Merioneth were stealing arms and horses; ‘reckless men’ of many areas were meeting to plot sedition. In Anglesey, certainly, the Tudors were planning a protest in their island to tap the widespread dismay of their cohort of cousins.
Who was Owain Glyn Dwr?
On his father’s side, Glyn Dwr was a member of the dynasty of northern Powys and, on his mother’s side, a descendent of the princes of Deheubarth in the south-west. The family had fought for Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in the last war of independence and regained its lands in north-east Wales through a calculated alliance with the Marcher lords of Chirk, Bromfield and Yale. In 1328 it abandoned Welsh law and secured its estate with the English feudal hierarchy. They were therefore rooted in the official Welsh aristocracy. Glyn Dwr’s grandmother was a member of the lesser aristocrat family of Lestrange.
Glyn Dwr himself held the lordships of Glyn Dyfrdwy and Cynllaith Owain near the Dee directly of the king by Welsh barony. He had an income of two hundred pounds a year and a fine, moated mansion at Sycharth with tiled and chimneyed roofs, a deerpark, heronry, fishpond and mill. He was a complete Marcher gentleman and had put in his term (possibly seven years) at the Inns of Court. He must have been knowledgeable in law and married the daughter of Sir David Hanmer, a distinguished lawyer from a cymricised Flintshire family, who had served under Edward III and Richard II. In 1386 Glyn Dwr appeared at the same court of chivalry, together with a throng of baronial youth. He had served in the French wars in the retinues of Henry of Lancaster and the Earl of Arundel. In the Scottish campaign of 1385, according to the poet, he had worn his scarlet flamingo feather and driven the enemy before him like goats, with a broken lance.
In the troubles of 1399-1400, however, Glyn Dwr ran up against a powerful neighbour in Reginald de Grey, lord of Ruthin, an intimate of the new king, Henry IV. They quarreled over common land which de Grey had stolen. Glyn Dwr lost his dispute, and could not get justice from either king or parliament; Welshmen were seen as suspect, due to their support of Richard II – What care we for these barefoot rascals? A proud man, over forty and grey-haired in service, Glyn Dwr was subjected to malicious insults and the conflict turned violent. His response was a traditional one for a Marcher lord – he would avenge his honour with his sword. But he was more than a Marcher.
He was one of the living representatives of the old royal houses of Wales, Powys, an heir to Cadwaladr the Blessed, in a Wales strewn with the rubble of such dynasties. The bards had already reminded him of this heritage, which, in any case, he was himself steeped in. His correspondence suggests that an effort was made to contact the disaffected elsewhere, and when he raised his standard outside Ruthin on 16 September 1400, his followers at once proclaimed him Prince of Wales at his manor of Glyn Dyfrdwy. This was the signal for spontaneous outbreaks in north Wales, which within a matter of weeks had devastated town like Oswestry and engulfed the whole region of north-east Wales. The response to this call was extraordinary and may have startled even Glyn Dwr himself. Supported by the Hanmers and other Norman-Welsh Marchers, together with the Dean of St Asaph, he attacked Ruthin with several hundred men and went on to ravage every town in north-east Wales: Denbigh, Rhuddlan, Flint, Hawarden, Holt, and Welshpool. Rhys and Gwilym Tudor raised a rebellion in Anglesey. Hundreds of people rushed to join and churches followed towns into flame. The lesser clergy in north Wales joined promptly, as did the Cistercians throughout Wales. In Conwy, Strata Florida, Whitland, Llantarnam they rallied to the cause. In the latter of these, the Abbot, John ap Hywel, joined Glyn Dwr’s army as its chaplain and went on to fall in battle. The Franciscans also joined the cause; the friars at Llanfaes were ejected by Henry IV’s forces and their house was ravaged. There was an immediate response from Oxford, too, where Welsh scholars at once dropped their books and picked up arms, flocking home. They entered into ‘treasonous correspondence’ and met to plot the destruction of the kingdom and the English language. There were rumours that Welsh labourers in England were downing tools and heading for home. The English Parliament at once rushed to place anti-Welsh legislation on the books. As Edward I had done more than a century before, they singled out the bards of Wales in particular.
The English ‘marchers’ were utterly unable to cope with the rebellion. The sheer scale and ferocity of the Welsh attacks overwhelmed both the Principality and the March. Henry IV marched a big army in a great arc right across north Wales, burning and looting without mercy. He left the pacification to Henry Hotspur who offered general pardons , except to the ringleaders, in order to soften the heavy communal fines which were to follow. Whole populations scrambled to make peace. Over the winter of 1400-01, Glyn Dwr took to the hills with just seven men. In the Spring, however, the Tudors snatched control of Conwy Castle by a clever trick. The capture of the castle on Good Friday 1401, while the garrison was at prayers, was an act of great bravado which captured the imaginations of many disaffected Welshmen. It was a major propaganda coup, humiliating the English and inspiring the Welsh. Owain’s little band moved quickly into the centre and the south of Wales and once more hundreds ran to join the rebel army at Mynydd Hyddgen in the Pumlumon range, where they won a decisive victory. Carmarthenshire also erupted into revolt and so many rushed to arms that the government panicked that there might be an invasion of England. Another royal army was sent to trudge in futility through south Wales, the Welsh guerilla forces melting into the countryside before it, attacking its baggage trains as it retreated. Meanwhile, a powerful onslaught on Caernarfon drove the King’s Council to consider peace terms.
The key men were coming over to Glyn Dwr’s side, the gentry. There also seems to have been a network of supporters even in the towns. Glyn Dwr’s letters went to men such as Henry Dwnn of Kidwelly, who had served under John of Gaunt in France in 1371-2 and Richard II in Ireland in 1393-4. Dwnn had already had his estates confiscated once, in 1389. His retinue of two hundred men were said to terrorise the district. Many more local magnates like him joined Glyn Dwr’s cause. It was during 1401 that Owain became fully aware of his growing power to attract such support from local populations across Wales. He also addressed letters to the Irish, in Latin, and to the Scots, in French, reminding them of the prophecy that Wales would not be freed without their assistance and urged them to send support. In his letters to south Wales he declared himself as the divinely-appointed liberator who would deliver the Welsh from their oppressors. By the end of 1401 the revolt had spread across western and central Wales, though the English government still controlled large areas in the marches, and the southern lordships were as yet untouched.
Legendary Battles and Sieges:
In June 1401, Glyn Dwr had defeated an English Army at the Battle of Hyddgen near Brecon, and the next June (1402), he personally led a force into mid Wales. To combat this, Sir Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the ten-year old earl, also Edmund, assembled an army of Herefordshire men at Ludlow, later joined by a contingent from Maelienydd. The Mortimer forces met Glyn Dwr in open battle on 22 June 1402 at Bryn Glas near Pilleth, Hay-on-Wye. Many English knights were eager to engage the Welsh forces in open battle for the first time. Although Owain’s men had waged successful guerilla campaigns, they had only once faced the English in open conflict, at Hyddgen. The odds were stacked against them and the English were expecting to slaughter the upstarts. There were about 2,500 English troops and less than a thousand Welshmen. The Welsh wore light armour but were armed with a variety of deadly hand-to-hand combat weapons adapted from farmyard tools. The English knights had polished armour-plate, battle-axes and swords. The Welsh archers, however, had the strategic advantage of the high ground at the top of a steep hill, while the English position down in the valley was hampered by marshland, through which they had had to march in order to take it up. When they saw the Welsh archers taking up their position on the brow of the hill, the English knights decided to charge up it to do battle. They were supposed to be given cover by the long bowmen whom they had recruited from Maelienydd. At a crucial moment in the battle, this contingent lowered their bows, turned around, and fired upon the English infantry below them. Under attack from all sides and immobile in their heavy armour, they provided easy prey for the Welsh peasant foot soldiers, especially once they were down off their horses. By the end of the battle, the English had suffered a heavy defeat, losing more than a thousand men compared with Owain’s losses of just two hundred. It was a total and terrifying slaughter after which the land was said to be a sea of mud and blood. Perhaps the most important result, however, was that Sir Edmund Mortimer was captured and taken to Snowdonia by Glyn Dwr.
Following the disaster at Bryn Glas, the Percies and other relations of the Mortimers began to raise money for the ransom of Sir Edmund, but the king, already suspecting collusion between Mortimer and Glyn Dwr, forbade the payment of the ransom, and instead ordered the confiscation of Sir Edmund’s plate and jewels. Partly as a result of this, Edmund decided to make common cause with his captor, marrying Owain’s daughter, Catherine, at the end of November, then ordering his people to rally to Glyn Dwr. This may have been a ploy to obtain a quicker release, or might have been motivated by the deeper dynastic values and issues already referred to. The marriage echoed that of Ralph (II) Mortimer to Gwladus Ddu, the daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in 1228, and was popular with the Mortimer ‘clan’, which had always been attracted by Cymric lore in relation to the early British kings. The family genealogy and chronicle is preceded by a ‘Brut’, a chronicle of the ancient kings of Britain, drawn up some time after 1376 when John of Gaunt was attempting to secure the royal succession for his heirs. This was used as a means of harnessing legendary ancestry to the rival Mortimer claims. It is also significant that two of the three ‘Round Tables’, tournaments and entertainments with an Arthurian theme, were hosted by the Mortimers. The first, a great four-day event, took place at Kenilworth in 1279 and celebrated the knighting of the three sons of Roger (III) Mortimer.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the death in 1398 of Roger (VI) Mortimer, who enjoyed a considerable degree of support in Shropshire and north Wales, meant that his six-year-old son Edmund was not only heir to the whole Mortimer empire in England and Wales, but was also regarded as heir to the throne. Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399 had dramatically changed this situation. Henry IV’s first Parliament recognised Bolingbroke’s son Henry as heir apparent, and the young Edmund, as a royal ward, was kept under close scrutiny, though treated with respect. Although the Mortimer estates were initially split up, in February 1400 they were taken into the hands of the steward and treasurer of the Great Council in order that their revenues could be used to defray the expenses of the royal household. Edmund and his brother Roger were allowed three hundred marks per year for their maintenance. So, when Sir Edmund, his uncle, decided to switch sides in the war of independence, the young earl’s position became an uncomfortable one, at least in political terms.
By December 1402 Sir Edmund had returned to Maelienydd proclaiming that he had joined Owain to restore Richard II, if alive, or otherwise to place his ‘honoured nephew’, Edmund earl of March, on the throne. In the event of the success of this scheme, Owain’s claims to Wales would be respected. The men of Maelienydd were again called up to join the campaign, and they were soon joined by the earl of Northumberland and his son, Henry (‘Harry’) Hotspur, who had recently had their own rather complex quarrel with the king. Despite the death of Hotspur and a number of leading rebel nobles at the bloody engagement at Shrewsbury on 21 July 1403, Glyn Dwr continued to make headway in south Wales. His forces stormed the towns and liberated Abergavenny, Usk, Caerleon, Newport and Cardiff. In 1402-3 the whole of Wales was at war, and the English were attacked wherever they went. But to gain complete control of the country he had to overcome the biggest and toughest obstacles, the castles. Each castle was garrisoned to deal with local rebellions, equipped and supplied to withstand lengthy sieges. Owain’s men used a variety of ingenious methods to gain control of the castles. At Conwy, the Tudors had used a trick. At Dynefor they ‘sounded out’ the garrison by shouting out all the gruesome things they would inflict on the English if they did not surrender. At Caerphilly they formed a human pyramid to jump over the walls and open the gates. By the middle of 1403 Glyn Dwr had captured most of the castles and was in control of the country. Gwyn Williams (1985) distilled the essence of the war in Wales in the following graphic terms:
The twelve-year war of independence was, for the English, largely a matter of relieving their isolated castles. Expedition after expedition was beaten bootless back. Henry IV, beset by Welsh, Scots, French and rebellious barons, sent in army after army, some of them huge, all of them futile; he never really got to grips with it and the revolt largely wore itself out, in a small country blasted, burned and exhausted beyond the limit of endurance. For the Welsh, it was a Marcher rebellion and a peasants’ revolt which grew into a national guerilla war , its leader apparently flitting so swiftly and mysteriously from one storm centre to the next that in English eyes he grew to be an ogre credited with occult powers, a name to frighten children with. This probably reflects the operation of widely scattered guerilla bands operating in his name.
The sheer tenacity of the war of independence was startling. Few revolts in contemporary Europe lasted more than a few months and no previous Welsh uprising had lasted as long. This one raged for more than a full decade and didn’t really end for fifteen. While guerilla bands lurked and fought throughout the length and breadth of the country, Owain was able to put armies of ten thousand men into the field. Adam of Usk credited him with an irregular force of thirty thousand at the peak of the war. They maintained themselves partly by sheer pillage, while Owain used a combination of fire, sword and blackmail, with whole districts as well as rich men being held to ransom. For their part, the royal armies exacted a terrible vengeance in wholesale arson, looting and confiscations, even as retreating rebels scorched their own earth. Many a town and village was trapped in the grim grip of terror and counter-terror. In February 1404 the people in the hill country above Brecon agreed to submit to the king if he could defeat the rebels in their area; if not, they would remain loyal to Owain. In effect, as well as cause, this was a state of civil war. Most of the English in Wales were viewed as enemies, especially in the towns. Thomas Dyer of Carmarthen lost a thousand pounds in the rebellion. Many Welsh families had split allegiances. Robert, Abbot of Bardsey, declared for Glyn Dwr; his brother, Evan, was killed defending Caernarfon Castle for the king. Even in Owain’s own family, his cousin Hywel tried to murder him.
Yet the English campaigns of 1400 to 1403 were unable to exploit these divisions and did little to dent Owain’s military and diplomatic successes. For this was more than mere rebellion. It had serious international dimensions. During 1402-3 the revolt became enmeshed in baronial conspiracies in England which were to rally the powerful northern Percies against Henry and to cost Archbishop Scrope of York his life. The Civil War had spread to the North of England.
(to be continued…)
Dancing with the Devil Himself:
Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.
Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.
Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue
As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:
From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann.
Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.
On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.
On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.
On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help. It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:
The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age
This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.
Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.
The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.
The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.
A significant birthday:
While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.
Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.
There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.
By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.
Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.
On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews. The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…
…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..
But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:
The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.
Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957
Tom continues the family’s story:
By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives
Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.
My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.
One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.
My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.
For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence. Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.
Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’
Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.
Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.
By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:
Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.
Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).
Every Picture Tells a Story:
Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942. In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.
A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels. Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.
On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.
The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.
My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.
So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.
The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.
One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.
One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.
The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:
To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.
By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.
In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.
By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.
Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?
The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.
In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.
By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.
Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.
In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:
Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.
She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:
The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.
Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.
The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.
Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.
Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.
It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue.
First Sea Lord John Jellicoe, April 1917
Germany is finished.
German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, on the decision made by the Kaiser and the military chiefs allowing unrestricted U-boat warfare.
The U-boat Menace:
Although they had been used in warfare since the eighteenth century, it was during the First World War that the submarine, especially the German U-boat (Unterseeboot), came to play a crucial role. But this did not develop until 1916-17. In 1914 to 15 the number of Allied ships lost to U-boat raids increased from just three to almost four hundred, and this number had increased to 964 in 1916. Debate raged in Germany over whether their submarines should attack civilian ships without warning or conform to prize rules and warn the ship’s crew first. Some amongst the German high command thought that unrestricted submarine war could antagonise America to enter the war; others reasoned it would finish the war early. Those who reasoned the latter were justified by the increase of allied ships lost to 2,439 in 1917, and even in 1918 over a thousand were lost. Even more costly was the loss of British merchant ship tonnage, which reached its peak of 545,282 in April 1917. Before the introduction of the convoy system, the rate of British shipping loss was at a rate of twenty-five per cent, dropping to just one per cent afterwards.
In February 1917 Germany opted to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare. In the next three months they sank over five hundred ships. This action had a major effect on the transportation to Britain of supplies, leading even to the banning of rice being thrown at weddings. New tactical and technical methods were brought in, such as the use of convoys, Q-ships (disguised armed merchant ships) and depth charges, which could sink U-boats while still submerged, or force it to the surface where it could be fired upon, so that by the end of 1917 the Atlantic was safe enough to allow huge numbers of American troops to be transported to Europe. One of the Austro-Hungarian submarine commanders, Georg Ludwig von Trapp, became an Austrian national hero for sinking thirteen ships. His later marriage to his children’s tutor and their escape from the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938 provided the inspiration for the 1960s musical, The Sound of Music.
Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!
In Germany itself, the Royal Navy’s blockade of its ports was starting to ‘bite’ by the winter of 1916-17, with a scarcity of home-grown potatoes leading to turnips and other foods being turned into sustenance. Up to this point the War had been fought by traditional methods, by combatants whose national integration was still intact. But with the coming of the New Year of 1917 a change came over the scene. Ancient constitutions began to crack, old faiths were questioned, and potent, undreamed of historical forces began to be released. Everywhere in the world the sound of the old order beginning to crack was heard but, as yet, it was drowned out by the noise of war.
Nevertheless, in half-conscious anticipation of these permanent fractures, a fumbling movement towards peace began across the continent. The wiser heads in every country were coming to fear that their nations might crumble through sheer weariness, and that absolute victory, even if it were won, might only mean chaos. The first sign of movement came from Germany, but its peace offer of December 1916 was framed in the arrogant terms of one who felt that they had the winning cards. The main German motive was prudential. The Somme had shown them that their military machine was being strained to breaking-point; if it broke all would be over, and at any cost that catastrophe must be averted. If the belligerents consented to come to terms, however, the Germans believed that they would have certain advantages at any peace conference. They had much to lose which they might have difficulty holding on to by fighting on, whereas their renunciation of the war might help them win things considered by them, at least, to be vital to Germany’s future.
Moreover, once Germany’s opponents were entangled in discussion, there was a chance of breaking up their unity and shifting the argument to minor issues. For the German government, it was a matter of life and death that a rift should appear among the Entente powers before they suffered any irremediable disaster. They also had an eye on neutral states, especially the USA, which was interested in promoting negotiations. Finally, there was a tactical motive, since the Kaiser and the high command were contemplating their new and anarchic methods of naval warfare. To justify an all-out war at sea, Germany had to appear as an angel of peace, rudely repulsed in its efforts to secure a truce. Action proceeding from so many mixed motives was likely to result in blunders, and the Allies saw through this strategy. On 30 December, they rejected the German overtures, and the German Chancellor agreed to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which very nearly led to Britain’s defeat in the short-term, but ultimately helped to secure its victory. Writing in April 1935, John Buchan put the German strategy of the winter of 1916-17 into a broader contemporary context:
The effects of the War were so catastrophic and terrible that the historian, looking back, is not inclined to be contemptuous of any effort to end it. But it is clear that the German offer was impossible. There was more hope in the overtures of Austria, whose new Emperor Charles , through the medium of his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon, made secret proposals for a separate peace. They shipwrecked principally upon the opposition of Italy and France, whose reply was that of Lucio’s comrade in ‘Measure for Measure’ – “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”
President Wilson’s re-election as a peace President also strengthened the case for an agreement to end the war and led to his offer of mediation at the end of 1916. He saw the clouds thickening ahead, and knew he would have to justify himself to the American people were he to be forced into a less pacific, more pragmatic, reality. He asked for a definition of war aims,
… that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations with the belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs.
The Allied governments, in spite of certain of a certain irritation among their peoples, had the wit to see Mr Wilson’s purpose. In a remarkable document the American diplomats set out, calmly and clearly, not a set of war aims as such, but a general purpose, which was wholly consistent with the ideals of the USA. More than two years before the Treaty of Versailles, what came to be known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated almost all the principles on which the Paris peace settlement was founded.
Lloyd George’s rarer gift: A sense of political atmosphere…
Alone among the Allies, Britain had now attained a certain unity in the political direction of the war, with a Prime Minister who could draw together and maximise all the powers of the nation as a whole. His pre-War record had revealed his unsurpassed talents as a demagogue, but his Premiership was also beginning to demonstrate his sense of political atmosphere. He might make mistakes in his ultimate judgments, but rarely did so in his initial intuitions; his quick sense of reality made him at heart an opportunist, so that, as Buchan found of him…
This elasticity, combined with his high political courage, had made him even in his bitterest campaigns not wholly repugnant to his opponents, for he was always human and had none of the dogmatic rigidity, the lean spiritual pride of the elder Liberalism.
Lloyd George had now found his proper task, Buchan felt, and was emerging as one of the most formidable figures in the world. Lord Milner, with a strong sense of historical perspective, considered him the greatest War Minister since Chatham. His social, legal and then political campaigning had shown that he was ‘in his element’ when leading in times of strife, including war. He was more than a democrat, a representative of democracy, he was a personification of it, both in its strengths and weaknesses. For his critics who often accused him of inconsistency, Buchan cautioned…
… for a tyrant or an oligarchy may be consistent, but not a free people. He had a democracy’s short memory, and its brittle personal loyalties. Perhaps his supreme merit as a popular leader was his comprehensibility. No mystery surrounded his character or his talents. The qualities and the defects were evident to all, and the plain man found in them something which he could not himself assess – positive merits, positive weaknesses, so that he could give or withhold his confidence as if he were dealing with a familiar. This power of diffusing a personality, of producing a sense of intimacy among millions who have never seen his face or heard his voice, is the greatest of assets for a democratic statesman, and Mr Lloyd George had it not only for Britain but for all the world…
Lacking the normal education of British public servants, he had large gaps in his mental furniture, and consequently was without that traditional sense of proportion which often gives an air of wisdom to mediocrities. He had a unique power of assimilating knowledge, but not an equal power of retaining it. Hence his mental processes were somewhat lacking in continuity; all was atomic and episodic, rather than a steady light. His mind had in it little of the scientific, it was insensitive to guiding principles, and there was no even diffusion of its power through many channels…
The fact that his mind was not a ‘continuum’,… but a thing discrete and perpetually re-made, kept him from lassitude and staleness… His loose hold on principles kept him from formalism, and opportunism is often the right attitude in a crisis… Many of his endowments, such as his parliamentary tact, his subtlety in the management of colleagues, his debating skill, … however invaluable to a statesman in in normal times, were of less account in war. But that one gift he had which is so rare and inexplicable that it may rightly be called genius… He could not be defeated, because his spirit and buoyancy and zeal was insatiable… and that spirit he communicated to the nation.
The machine which he fashioned, the War Cabinet, worked with a synchronised vigour, on the whole, though not always with great precision. Its secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, showed an uncanny foresight and a supreme competence. The special executive duties fell to General Smuts, who was often charged with almost impossible diplomatic missions, and to Lord Milner, who was the ablest living British administrator, with a powerful intellect and devoted to public service. Milner cared little for personal popularity, and possessed none of Lloyd George’s oratorical gifts, which made him a natural ‘foil’ for his Prime Minister. The presence of these two men underlined that the War Cabinet was actually an Imperial Council, especially as it also contained representatives from India and the Dominions. The Prime Minister of Canada pointed out at the time that the establishment of the cabinet turned a new page in the history of the Empire. There was a war purpose in this step, since the whole Empire was in arms. Under the pressure of war, the old individualism of industry was breaking down as the state enlarged its sphere of interest and duty, and on some there broke the vision of a new and wiser world coming to birth while the old world was dying.
Women at War: The Rise of the ‘Business Girl’.
Woman working on a cartridge machine during the First World War
One of the signs of an old world dying and a new one dawning was the impact of the imposition of universal conscription in the previous year on the growth of women’s employment. It determined that the changes involved would go far beyond a limited expansion and upgrading of industrial labour. In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915 was 256,000, a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 this had more than doubled 520,000 and by July 1917 the figure had reached 819,000. In industry as a whole 800,000 more women were in employment in 1918 than in 1914.
By February 1917 the total number of bus conductresses had jumped to around 2,500, and transport in general showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment – from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. There were also big proportionate increases in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finances there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917. In these statistics we can discern what Arthur Marwick referred to as a central phenomenon in the sociology of women’s employment in the twentieth century, the rise of the business girl. By creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of male labour (all men aged 18 to 41 were eligible for call-up from May 1916, except ministers of religion those engaged in the ‘reserved occupations’ of munitions, mining and farming), the war had brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of a category of women employees. They worked as lamplighters and window cleaners as well as doing heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. A simple remedy for when women succumbed to these arduous conditions was, afterwards, well-remembered:
Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then (get them to) drink a bottle of Guinness.
Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these had not been conspicuously successful. In fact, in July 1915 there were actually 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than there had been twelve months earlier. As was the case with domestic service, the war provided a blessed release for women who had had very little alternative employment, if any, available to them beforehand. However, as Marwick has pointed out, we must be careful to see the question of changes in women’s roles and rights in the broader context of social relationships and political change. Many men also preferred a move into the army or reserved occupations to poorly-paid work on the land or in service, and many women found it impossible to hold on to factory jobs once the able-bodied men returned. Nevertheless, the war did bring a new self-confidence to many women, dissipating apathy and silencing the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly, the replacement of militant suffragette activity by determined patriotic endeavour also played its part.
More than this, by 1917 the all-out, total war was generating a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovation. Whatever might or might not have happened to the roles of women in British society had there been no war, and therefore no ‘home front’, only that concentrated experience, as Marwick put it, showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, speaking in January 1918, was already claiming victory in the long campaign for women’s rights:
The great searchlight of war showed things in their true light, and they gave us enfranchisement with open hands.
Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.
John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.
Arthur Marwick (1977), Women at War, 1914-18. London: Croom Helm.
The ‘Gulag’ State…
Despite the strength of world opinion, expressed through the United Nations as well as by individual governments, the Kádár Government was determined to stick to its line that the ‘uprising’ of the previous autumn had, in fact, been counter-revolutionary. In Hungary itself, there wasn’t much room for discussion or debate about this at the beginning of 1957. On 5 January, the government introduced more stringent measures of control, threatening the death penalty for striking or agitating for a strike, as well as for anyone even disrupting normal work. The leaders of the Csepel Central Workers’ Council, the last organ of the revolution and now of resistance, were arrested. Elek Nagy was sentenced to twelve years in prison, József Bácsi to ten. The Csepel militants went back to work, defeated and disorganised. On 17 January, the Writers’ Union, one of the initial intellectual forces behind the uprising, was dissolved by the authorities. Many intellectuals were arrested and served time in prison, while many others had already managed to escape abroad.
The May Day Demonstration…
On 1 May the Kádár government held a mass demonstration in Heroes’ Square in Budapest, a traditional May Day parade, but this year also designed to show the strength of its support from among the general Hungarian population. As photographs of the event confirm, the square was filled with people, at least a hundred thousand. Some party estimates put it at four times that number. György Lítván, former director of the 1956 Institute, who was himself one of the curious onlookers, explained how…
It was a genuine demonstration by many thousands and it was at the same time forced – not in the physical sense, but maybe in some enterprises there was a bit of pressure; on the other hand many people wanted to show their new orientation, their readiness to support the new régime… It was an experience to see how swiftly people could forget their opinions, their attitude of the previous months and very quickly adjust themselves.
Probably for this reason, much of the recent writing on the events of 1956-57 has tended to ignore the rally, though one exception is the work of Békés (et al.) which asserts that by early 1957 a wave of acceptance had swept over the country and that the turnout for the traditional May Day celebrations in Budapest was simply an expression of this, of a continuity which had been broken, not supplanted, by the memory of October and November. The authors conclude that force alone could not account for the change… but that a feeling of political apathy… had developed due to the litany of strikes, speeches, meetings and negotiations, all of which had come to nothing except the creation of a well of frustration. It was those who sought a means of expression for this who swelled the considerable ranks of the political establishment of the Rákosi-Gérő régime, members of the party and its huge bureaucracy as well as other ordinary citizens who either supported the régime of felt no particular apathy toward it. Some of these people…
… had undoubtedly felt terrorized during the revolution because of their status or sympathies, and possibly humiliated or remorseful in its aftermath… Contrary to general opinion in Hungary today, this group represented a not inconsiderable proportion of the overall population.
While these crowds may, genuinely, have celebrated a combination of liberation and victory, that does not mean, as the régime’s sources claim, that the sympathy of the entire country was demonstrated in the event. This is no more credible than the UN Special Committee’s 1957 report on Hungary which claimed that, following the Soviet intervention of 4 November, in the light of the evidence it had received, that it may safely be said that the whole population of Budapest took part in the resistance. The means by which Kádár managed, through a clever combination of stick and carrot, to generate sufficient support to establish a régime which lasted thirty-three years, is well summarised in László Kontler’s recent History of Hungary. For him, the Heroes’ Square May Day demonstration was one of…
…acquiescence, if not sympathy, by the people of a capital which, after the shocks of invasion and destitution, could not but want to believe in the message of tranquility and safety that the concessions transmitted.
Party membership rose from a mere 40,000 in December 1956 to 400,000 a year later. Despite the efforts of Revai, who returned from Moscow in January 1957 and tried to arrange a reversal to ‘orthodoxy’, Kádár received assurances from Khrushchev and was confirmed in his position at the party conference in June through the election of a centralist leadership, including Marosán and others not implicated in the pre-1956 illegalities, like Ferenc Münnich, Gyula Kállai, Jenő Foch and Dezső Nemes. At the same time, the reorganised Patriotic Popular Front, whose new task was to transmit and popularise party priorities to society at large, was chaired by the hardliner, Antal Apró. After the disintegration of the Alliance of Working Youth, the Communist Youth League was set up in March 1957 to take care of the ideological orientation of young people and ensure a supply of future cadres. Purges and voluntary resignations among the officer corps, the confirmation of first Kádár and then Münnich in the premiership, and the approval of his policies in May, all consolidated the restoration of the party at the centre of state power. In addition, the external guarantee was signed on 27 May, by which the Soviet troops were given temporary residence in Hungary. Their number became stabilised at around 80,000 once the Hungarian army was considered politically reliable.
The People’s Court…
Sándór Kopácsi, the deposed Chief of Police, later recorded the harsh system of repression to which he and the other internees of the Budapest gaol were subjected. On the morning of 6 February, 1958, the prisoners were lined up in the corridor. He met Pál Maleter again, whom he hadn’t seen since they had crossed Budapest, singing, on a Soviet half-tank a year previously. From a third cell emerged Zoltán Tildy, the former President of Hungary, and a former Protestant pastor, a minister in Nagy’s government who had negotiated the surrender of parliament to the Soviets. He had been under house arrest throughout almost the whole of the Rákosi years and was now, aged seventy, imprisoned again. They were joined by four other prisoners and then Imre Nagy himself:
He came out of the cell as if he were coming out of a meeting room, his face preoccupied. I found him a bit thinner, but the build was the same: the peasant or the sixty-year-old blacksmith, the village strongman in the most commanding period of his life. The legendary pince-nez straddled his nose as before. For an instant, he turned toward us and his glance passed us in review… He gave each of us a brief, friendly nod. Our presence seemed to reassure him… We were to be tried by the Supreme Court in order to rule out the possibility of an appeal. The judge was Zoltán Rado, a seasoned man, fat and rather friendly…
This turned out to be a rehearsal, however, though Moscow’s order to interrupt the proceedings didn’t arrive until the next day. They were all accused of having fomented a plot aimed at reversing by force the legal order of the Republic of Hungary. In addition, Nagy was accused of high treason, and Maleter and Kopácsi with mutiny. Then József Szilágyi was called forward and, when asked if he acknowledged his guilt, he replied:
In this country, the only guilty one is a traitor named János Kádár Supported by the bayonets of the Soviet imperialists, he has drowned the revolution of his people in blood.
There followed a sharp and bitter exchange between Rado and Szilágyi. Except for Nagy, the prisoners were all then returned to their cells. During the next two days of hearings, the Kremlin changed its mind four times as to what verdicts would be pronounced. Khrushchev found himself in an awkward position, since his policy of reconciliation with Tito was shaky. At the time of its second intervention, the Kremlin was still counting on Tito’s friendship and, to begin with, he got it, but after the kidnapping of Nagy and his entourage from the Yugoslav Embassy, relations between Moscow and Belgrade deteriorated, and they had remained strained in November 1957 when Tito refused to accept the hegemony of the Soviets over the ‘fraternal parties’ at a conference of world Communist parties. When Khrushchev interrupted the Nagy trial and sent Kádár to Belgrade to negotiate with Tito, the latter leader told Kádár:
You have to do it like Gomulka: Fight to get the maximum of independence vis-à-vis the Russians and we’ll support you.
When Kádár told Khrushchev of this ‘duplicity’, he became furious, and his desire to teach Tito a lesson explains why, two years after the Hungarian Uprising had been quelled, and the population pacified, the Russians relentlessly pursued the trials and executions of the Nagy government. However, Kopácsi had saved Kádár’s life at the time of the uprising, and Kádár managed to persuade the Russians that he should not be executed, in exchange for his help in convicting Nagy. First it was Szilágyi’s turn, however. After a brief trial in which Kopácsi was a forced witness, he was sentenced to death, and his hanging was carried out on 24 April in the prison courtyard. He climbed the scaffold, head held high, declaiming, long live free and independent Hungary!
At the trial of the other defendants, the prosecution tried to prove that they had been part of a Nagy conspiracy which had begun in 1955, and that, allied to the forces of reaction, both within the country and outside they had provoked the counter-revolution to re-establish the old regime. They asked for the death sentence against Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes, the young journalist. For Kopácsi, they requested life imprisonment. On 14 June, Nagy spoke to the court:
Twice I tried to save the honour of the word “Socialism” in the Danube River Valley: in 1953 and 1956. The first time I was thwarted by Rákosi, the second time by the armed might of the Soviet Union. Now I must give my life for ideas. I give it willingly. After what you have done with it, it’s not worth anything any more. I know that History will condemn my assassins. There is only one thing that would disgust me: if my name was rehabilitated by those who killed me.
He was followed by Pál Maleter, who said he had respected the oath of a socialist soldier and went with the people through fire and storm. Kopácsi spoke of how he had fought in northern Hungary with the Soviet Army, and that even in October 1956 he never had a Russian uniform in (his) sights. Revolution isn’t simple, he said. Neither is what follows it, whether the revolution is victorious or otherwise. The ‘People’s Court’ condemned to death Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes. Kopácsi was sentenced to life imprisonment, Ferenc Donáth to twelve years, Ferenc Jánosi to eight years, Zoltán Tildy to six and the journalist Miklós Vásárhélyi to five. Imre Nagy refused to enter a plea for clemency, and although Maleter’s and Grimes’ lawyers made appeals on behalf of their clients, both were rejected.
The Graveless Dead…
Cover of the 2008 film about the arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution of Imre Nagy
At 6 a.m. on Monday 16 June, Nagy, Maleter and Gimes were hanged in the yard known as the ‘little dungeon’ at the central prison. Everybody was ordered to keep away from the windows. According to the prison ‘information agency’, the Russians forced Nagy to be present while the others were executed. He stood, tottering, at the entrance to the yard. If the report is correct, this was the second time he had had to witness the execution of an innocent friend. In 1949, Rákosi had forced him to attend the hanging of Rajk, who had been personally promised by Kádár that his life would be spared and who, before dying, cried out, János, you tricked me!
The last words of Nagy and Maleter, spoken from the gallows, were the same: Long live independent and Socialist Hungary! Gimes remained silent. The Soviet authorities were apparently satisfied. Pravda described the verdicts as severe but just. Peking’s major paper carried the headline, Good news from Budapest! When Choi En-lai had visited Hungary some months previously he had complained that not enough people had been hanged. Khrushchev had demonstrated to him and Mao that his hand didn’t tremble when dealing with deviationists.
Serov, the KGB chief, however, felt that leaving Kopácsi and the others alive was a scandal. The day after the executions, he began trying to correct what he viewed as the leniency of the Budapest court. On the direct order of the Hungarian emissary of the KGB, Hungarian Politburo members Antal Apró and Karoly Kiss organised public meetings to gain support for cancelling the verdict and demanding that everyone in the Nagy group be hanged. The two men went to the large metallurgical factory, Ganz Mavag, to prime workers to push for these demands. There would be a vote taken at a general by a show of hands. The result seemed assured, but several former Resistance fighters at the factory prevented the KGB from going too far. General László Gyurkó asked to speak, having been sent by the Partisans’ Union. He briefly described the Resistance background of those who would be the victims of further death sentences. He urged the meeting to reject the idea of interfering in the verdicts already pronounced. The show of hands defeated the proposal, and with it Serov’s hard-line. The workers’ meeting demonstrated that there were different currents of opinion in Budapest, and that there was no widespread support for further retribution.
In September 1958, Sándór Kopácsi was transferred to the central prison where the executions had taken place six weeks earlier. In May 1959, the political prisoners were moved again, this time to Vác prison, fifty kilometres from Budapest, which was full of criminals. Tibor Dery, the elderly writer was thrown into a cell with a murderer who beat him badly in exchange for alcohol and tobacco from the ÁVH captain. Kopácsi intervened to stop this, and Dery survived his detention to become president of the Writers’ Union and write many more works. The police chief then found himself thrown into ‘the hold’ for two weeks before being put on ‘coal duty’, pushing a hundred kilos from a boat on the Danube for ten hours every day. He realised that this was the ÁVH’s way of finishing him off, so he asked to see the prison commandant, who was a Holocaust survivor. Kopácsi was relieved of his duties. The following year, the writers were given an amnesty, but the Imre Nagyists as they were known, were not yet released. A hunger strike went through the prison and the ÁVH imposed a total blackout. Many of the Nagyists were transferred back to Fő utca and threatened with death. Several committed suicide. The Vác prison became an ÁVH hell, with the prisoners deprived of the most elemental rights. Even the guards were beaten. Kopácsi remarked:
It would have been the end of us if our community hadn’t been what it was, a team prepared for any ordeal. It was in prison that I learned to respect strength of character, the last defence of a man in distress… What moved me most… was the ingenuousness and tenacity of the prisoners. Despite the dense network of informers, we manufactured radios that were good enough to bring in the news from Western stations. At any given time there was hardly a cell that didn’t have its own miniature receiver, the size of a coin and lacking for nothing… Thanks to the radios, gipsy music played late into the night in the ears of the poor jailbirds dreaming of the bustling life outside the prison walls.
After seven years in prison, Kopácsi and the other Nagyists finally said goodbye on 25 March, 1963, thanks to the general amnesty decreed by Khrushchev to mark the implementation of the détente he had worked out with President Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous October.
By this time, 1960s, the tone, if not the content, of the comments made from both ‘outside observers’ and exiles towards the régime had also softened somewhat. In 1962, Eric Bourne, the journalist who had written his eye-witness accounts of the uprising, commented in The Christian Science Monitor that…
Few Hungarians these days talk about the uprising… Many – with varying mental reservations – fall in with the régime’s general effort at conciliation and accept the ‘guided’ liberalisation from the top with relief. But it is evident that the liberalisation has its calculated limits and that the régime, which has gone further than any other in Eastern Europe with de-Stalinization, is concerned to keep the process from getting out of hand.
Two ‘émigré’ journalists, the first, Lászlo Tikos, exiled in the USA, and the second, George Pálóczi-Horváth, in Britain and broadcasting on the BBC, made the following optimistic comments:
Hungarians now enjoy greater personal, spiritual and political freedom, an increased measure of national independence and economic well-being, and an end to isolation from the West – all things that the 1956 revolution stood for and that are now more in evidence than at any other time since the Communist take-over. (Tikos)
When we were marching on that revolutionary protest march, if anyone had told us that in five or six years life would be in Hungary as it is now, we would have been very pleased, because it would have accomplished a great deal, if not everything we wanted to achieve. (Pálóczi-Horváth)
As a former political prisoner, however, Sándór Kopácsi continued to receive the attention of the ÁVH and its network of informants. One day at work he casually remarked that on the outside he was surrounded by as many informers as he had been in prison. The remark was reported and the next day he was summoned to the Fő utca ÁVH HQ. He was told that he had broken the rule prohibiting a liberated prisoner from revealing anything he had experienced in prison. The penalty for this was a further ten years in prison, so he denied the report and agreed to sign a statement reiterating his promise not to infringe the regulation. He and his wife met dozens of other spies; on foot, on the tram, in the bus, and even on the doorstep of their apartment. They openly asked him for news about himself and others of his prison comrades he might have been in contact with. There were so many that they decided to invite the least disagreeable of them in for coffee, or got them to take them for country drives if they had cars.
Their daughter Judit’s life was made unbearable, however. From the day her father was imprisoned, she was made the object of official discrimination. At school, she was put on a list of children deemed socially alien. Her mother went to see the principal:
‘Socially alien to whom?’
‘To the workers’ state,’ the principal replied with a straight face.
‘My daughter has nothing but working-class ancestors, on her father’s side as well as her mother’s side, for four generations.’
‘Agreed,’ said the principal. But her father has betrayed the working class.’
Some of the children at the school took advantage of the situation to tease Judit mercilessly, possibly encouraged by the teachers and the parents. The bullying got so bad that, at the age of fourteen to fifteen, she was seriously contemplating suicide. An old social democrat, whom Kopácsi had rescued from the ÁVH in 1952 and who had subsequently escaped as a refugee in 1956, came to the family’s help. He had settled in Quebec and had become a Canadian citizen. He was visiting Hungary, and called on the Kopácsis. He and his wife offered to take charge of Judit, but her father said they could not part from her. Soon afterwards, however, Judit tried to poison herself. Kopácsi wrote to László Sárosi and six weeks later she was on the plane to Quebec. They did not see her for another six years, by which time she was a Canadian citizen. Finally frustrated by their inability to speak freely, Sándor and Ibolya Kopácsi emigrated to join their daughter, then with a family of her own, in 1974. They settled in Toronto, where Sándor ended his working life at Ontario Hydro.
Progress and Reaction…
Later in the year that Kopácsi was released, in June 1963, the United Nations agreed to normalise relations with Hungary following the general amnesty. The US was also seeking to move towards a policy of seeking gradual change in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, some restrictions were slowly relaxed, especially in cultural spheres, and a new economic course continued to be followed. Kádár famously announced, whoever is not against us is with us, allowing a broadening of discussion and debate. Nonetheless, relations between the US, in particular, and Hungary remained strained, and were exacerbated by the actions of Hungarian troops in August 1968, when they took part in the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to remove the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, which had come to power in the Prague Spring. The first full US Ambassador, appointed a year before, noted Kádár’s…
… early endorsement of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely publicised meditator role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.
Even the man who admitted signing the request for the Soviet invasion in 1956 (three days after it happened), András Hegedűs, openly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a result, and although he had been Rákosi’s prime minister, he was fired from his job as a statistician and expelled from the party. In Britain, too, Hungary’s part in the armed intervention led to a setback for developing cultural links. The emerging civic links between Coventry and its twin-town of Kecskemét in the midlands of Hungary had to be ‘put on ice’, and were not fully defrosted again until the Cold War entered its permanent thaw in 1989.
Re-burial and Reconciliation…
As 1989 began, a momentous year in European history, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law allowing citizens to form independent associations, including political parties, thus paving the war for an eventual end to Communist rule. In February, a groundbreaking report prepared by a historical commission of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party officially rejected the interpretation of the 1956 Uprising as a counter-revolution. Instead, it was described as a popular uprising against the existing state power, since under Stalin, the ideal of international communism was turned into a merciless imperial programme. This was followed in June by an important step designed to heal old wounds and come to terms with the events of 1956-58. Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and three others executed in 1958 received a public reburial and state funeral, attended by an estimated 250,000 Hungarians, broadcast nationwide on state-controlled radio and television. The ceremony also paid tribute to the hundreds of others who had died in the retribution meted out by the Kádár Government. The next day, János Kádár died. These developments led to much open public discussion about the events of 1956, for the first time. On the anniversary of the uprising on 23 October 1989, Mátyás Szűrös, the Acting President, proclaimed the new, democratic constitution of a country now called “the Republic of Hungary”, no longer the “Hungarian People’s Republic”, the ‘different’ country I had entered just a week before.
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.
Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.
Sándor Kopácsi (1989), In the Name of the Working Class. London: Fontana.