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Seventy-Five Years Ago: The Holocaust in Hungary; November-December 1944 – Raiders & Rescuers.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Hungarista’ Horror:

Still inspired by the obsession of ultimate German victory, the reign of terror inflicted by the Arrow-Cross Party caused immense suffering to the people of ‘Hungaria United Ancient Lands’, as the new masters chose to call the country, practically confined to the capital and Transdanubia. Adolf Eichmann returned, and the Jewish population were now exposed to being systematically exterminated; despite acts of international and Hungarian solidarity, nearly half of the 200,000 Jews of the capital fell victim to horrible mass murder and few of the fifty thousand driven westwards in labour battalions survived. Among the Hungarian civilian population, in early November, armed Arrow Cross men, supporting the ‘Hungarista’ Szalási government, had begun murdering Jews from Budapest who had been sent to forced labour details in and surrounding the capital, on the roads into the city. In addition, large numbers of women and girls were assembled and systematically robbed, beaten and kicked in public.

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A Child Alone:

‘Daisy’ Birnbaum was just ten years old at the beginning of November 1944 when she wound up – alone – in a feather depot in Budapest. Her mother had had to report to the Óbuda brick factory, so she ‘placed’ Daisy with her uncle Dezső, because her father was away in the forced labour camp. Very soon, however, her uncle and his wife, Aunt Ida, sent her with an unfamiliar woman to the cellar of a pillow and duvet factory owned by one of their female friends. This woman was obviously Christian and she left a small basketful of food with Daisy and told her not to turn on the light since the cellar could be seen into from the street. The tiny windows did indeed look out into the street, showing the pavement under the feet of the people passing by. Her uncle and aunt were supposed to come by the evening, but they did not show up. As she later wrote:

Instead, there were innumerable rats, frolicking among the sacks and in the bales of feather. I was terribly scared and knew that I could not spend another night there. I decided to take my chances … and try to get back to my uncle’s apartment … to learn what had happened.

… My only worry was a possible air raid, because without Christian documents I would not have been permitted to enter the raid shelter, whereas no-one was supposed to be outside during a raid. There was no alarm, but – even worse – I suddenly spied a group of Arrow Cross thugs conducting a roundup, rather far away, but still on the next corner.

There was no way out. I had to continue. As if a miracle, an officer in uniform stepped out from a house. Without giving it a second thought, I walked up to him and asked if I could walk with him, because I was scared of a possible air raid. … I… mumbled something about having to pick up that basket, to give him a reason for my being in the street. He took my hand and told me that he was on a furlough from the front where he would return in a week and that he too had a wife and children in Debrecen, to which he could no longer travel, and therefore he too had been staying with relatives in Pest. By then we reached the group of Arrow Crossers. My new friend simply waved and we were immediately let through. At the next corner he said, “Well, good luck to you” and leaving me, turned into the side street.

I will never know whether he believed that I was really close to my destination, or saw through my ploy and decided to save me. I was ten years old … and, … in that fateful second, albeit rashly, I made one of the smartest decisions of my entire life.

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Daisy, as named on her letter of protection

Meanwhile, Daisy’s mother and other Jewish forced labourers at the brickworks were enduring appalling conditions. In his confidential two-page report to Geneva dated 11 November, the Red Cross delegate Friedrich Born described the Óbuda-Újlak brickworks, from his on-the-spot experiences, as a concentration camp. He said that the conditions beggared description, finding a crowd of five or six thousand starving Jewish prisoners in the open works yard, soaked to the skin and frozen to the marrow, in a totally apathetic and desperate condition. Some who had committed suicide lay on the ground. He asked where the group of people including twelve to fourteen-year-old boys were was being taken, and received a shocking reply from the Arrow-Cross guard: They’re going to be boiled down for soap!

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Vice-consul Lutz, attempting to release Swiss protégés, witnessed similar heart-rending scenes. He was profoundly shaken by the way in which many pleaded to be saved, and he saw the final flickerings of the will to live being snuffed out. Those who pushed forward were beaten with dog-whips until they lay with bleeding faces on the ground. Lutz and his wife, horrified at what they saw, could not help at all and were themselves threatened with weapons. In mid-November, Daisy’s mother returned to Pest and the two of them ended up in what had been a placement centre for housemaids, but whose function had changed to being a ‘refugee’ centre for women and children fleeing from the Germans, the Arrow-Cross and the Russians. Daisy and her mother had false Christian papers with false names that they had memorised, but none of the other new ‘tenants’ asked about the details of these ‘refugees from Nyírbátor’, a village or small town in north-eastern Hungary. A couple of days later, an elderly lady arrived and was assigned a bed and nightstand in the same room. She introduced herself, telling them that she had recently arrived from Nyírbátor, fleeing from the Russians. She also asked if there was a chapel in the building because she wanted to say her prayers. Daisy’s mother,

… with a knowing smile on her face, advised the woman that there was indeed a chapel in the basement, and that we too were from Nyírbátor. The poor woman turned pale, staggered slightly, and had to hold on to the iron rail of her bed. But she pulled herself together and said that my mother looked familiar, that they must have seen each other at home, perhaps in church. Even I found this statement silly, since even I knew that Nyírbátor was a village where, most probably, everybody knew one another. … Soon we were given dinner in the common dining hall, and after the meal, the lady went down to pray in the chapel. She returned shortly before the lights went out. … a soft but audible voice from her bed began to chant, “Shma Yisrael, Adonai elochenu…”

A few days after their arrival, a kindly woman began a conversation with Daisy, asking her questions about Nyírbátor and her family. Her mother had told her always to say that they used to live behind the Reformed Church, that her father was at the front and that they had left in order to escape the Russians. However, when it came to further details, she should always tell the truth about her life, to avoid contradicting herself. So, when the woman asked what she missed most from her old home, she mentioned her dolls’ house:

I supposed she thought it would make me feel good to talk about it and urged me to describe it. Slowly, I began telling her that the house had four rooms, a bedroom, a dining room, a living room and a nursery, describing the furniture … In the end, she exclaimed, “Then, this was like a genuine house.” I responded, “Indeed, I even placed the yellow star over the entrance.” I immediately realised what I had done and wished the earth would open and swallow me up. I was ashamed, and afraid of the danger I had brought upon us. But the woman did not say a word, as if she had not heard the last sentence. … It turned that she too was Jewish…

A week later, they became homeless again; we urgently abandoned the house, because someone denounced the manager, claiming that she was hiding Jews in the building, It took a long time, much after the war, until her mother was able to convince Daisy that the manager of the house was not denounced because of her description of the dolls’ house, complete with its yellow star.       

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As a novel form of murder, the party servicemen carried out group executions on the Danube embankment in the night. Incidents of the slaughter of Jews had occurred in October, but from the end of November, they became daily occurrences. People were murdered in the party houses, in the streets and squares of the city, occasionally in hospitals and flats, as well as on the banks of the Danube. It is almost inconceivable that while all this was happening, trams ran, cinema and places of entertainment opened and sporting events were reported in the papers, while in public parks, half-naked corpses could be seen and people were hanged with abusive placards around their necks. This latest form of group killing went on as long as the circumstances of the Soviet siege of Budapest permitted the banks of the river to be approached. At a cautious estimate, between 3,600 and 4,000 people were shot into the Danube.

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Daisy Birnbaum had a narrow escape from this fate, as recorded in an earlier article in this series. As her book recounts, she was accidentally thrown into a column of about thirty people marching toward the lower embankment of the Danube under the guns of two young Arrow Cross hoodlums. With the exception of her parents, she never mentioned this episode to anyone, but in 1996, when the Historical Atlas of the Holocaust first appeared (published by the Holocaust Memorial Museum of Washington), she found an annotated map showing the two spots on the Danube where the Jews were shot into the Danube (see map above). One was close to the Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), where the exhibit of shoes can be seen today, and the other was in Szent István Park, in the vicinity of the houses under international protection.

The ‘Opposition’:

On 13 November, Edmund Veesenmayer, the ‘agent’ of the Reich in Budapest, reported to Berlin that around 27,000 Jews of both sexes, capable of walking and fit for work, had left on foot. He reckoned to be able to hand over further forty thousand for German purposes and would send them off in daily batches of two to four thousand. After that, it was estimated, 120,000 Jews would be left in Budapest, and their eventual fate would depend on the availability of transport. On 17 November, Danielsson and Angelo Rotta held talks with Szálasi. In a sharp tone, the Papal Nuncio enumerated staggering facts in defence of the Jews who were being forced onto such marches. The Prime Minister and Head of State denied the atrocities but was finally forced to promise to investigate them.

The Cardinal Primate of Hungary, Archbishop Jusztinián Serédi of Esztergom, a member of the upper house of parliament, repeatedly protested to Szálasi about the terror and the constant acts of cruelty. On 20 November, Szálasi – faced with a loud outcry – stopped the deportation of women on foot. If after that a lorry had been sent on an embassy errand and its load had not been confiscated by the Arrow-Cross, it may have helped the Jews of Budapest somewhat as they trudged towards the frontier. On 1 December, however, when Archbishop Serédi raised an objection to the taking of hostages and to the atrocities perpetrated on Jewish citizens, his intervention was brushed aside.

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Meanwhile, the Swedish Embassy had continued to play an important part in gathering together the forced labourers in possession of foreign protective passports or exemptions from the government. Colonel József Herbeck, whose name is preserved in Raoul Wallenberg’s extant notebook, generously arranged the matter. Wallenberg travelled by embassy car round the camps that were digging trenches outside the capital to ‘extricate’ the Jewish forced labourers, the number of whom grew rapidly. These ‘companies’ were under the protection of the Swedish, Swiss, Portuguese and Vatican embassies. Company 701 was attached to the Budapest army corps. Diplomatic notes were also used in the life-saving missions. In a ‘note verbale’ of 26 November to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the Swiss Embassy considered it important that…

… persons holding genuine emigration documents should not be taken to the Buda brickworks, and unauthorised persons should not be admitted to those houses which are under Swiss protection. 

The note made it clear, in diplomatic language, that directions on this subject to the Arrow-Cross Party would be most helpful. By then, however, the Germans needed every able-bodied man and Eichmann’s staff cared nothing for their protected status, simply grabbing them off the streets, with the aid once more of the Hungarian gendarmerie. The Óbuda-Újlak brick-works on Bécsi út served as a mustering point for the November deportation march to Hegyeshalom and the fortifications ordered by the Germans in western Hungary and on the frontier. The Arrow-Cross used several buildings on Teleki tér for the same purpose. From there, the forced labourers were quickly and frequently transported from nearby Józsefváros station. At the station, Veres took photographs from Wallenberg’s car. Meanwhile, Wallenberg himself would extract people one by one from the crowd. Wallenberg’s mobility by car in Budapest, and his appearance on the highway and at Hegyeshalom, also gave courage and endurance to Foreign Service officials charged with rescuing Jews.

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Wallenberg on the Road to Hegyeshalom:

On the road between Budapest and Hegyeshalom, he came to the aid of those forced on the deportation march and extricated holders of the Swedish protective document. In his book, Lévai tells of how, on the way, the Swedish secretary carried sacks and tinned food, unloading medicine for the sick and dying. At Mosonmagyaróvár he set up a first-aid post and a field kitchen. At Hegyeshalom he confronted the Arrow-Cross men, who terrorised even the gendarmesThe appearance on the road of foreign diplomats and their activity in helping Jews and rescuing them were reported to SS Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Sicherheitspolizei and SD in Berlin. He was also informed that escorting units of the Hungarian army had respected letters of protection issued by the Swiss. In his compilation of documentary evidence regarding several actions, Árje Bresslauer has written:

Without the help and, most of all, the personal courage of Raoul Wallenberg we would not have been able to save the lives of so many of our fellow men. The same goes for our own work.

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One woman who constantly took an active part in the humanitarian work of the Swedish Embassy recalls: Swift decision, lightning action, coupled with keen perception and incredible stamina – such was Wallenberg. Likewise, some of the reports in Lévai’s book of Wallenberg’s activities are rather romanticised and exaggerated. The extant documents of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry contain a more believable account of the movements of Wallenberg and Per Anger on the road to Hegyeshalom on the 23rd-24th November. These are based on a memorandum that they themselves wrote for Baron Kemény, the Foreign Minister. It’s clear from their lines that they observed keenly the shocking sight of the deportation march, including the clothing, physical and spiritual conditions of the Jewish men, military labourers and displaced citizens of Budapest, mostly women, as they were led towards the frontier of the Reich. They refer to Gönyü, Mosonmagyaróvár and Hegyeshalom. It was at these sojourns that they were able to gather information on the circumstances of the eight-day November march. They stated that neither in Budapest nor at the hand-over at Hegyeshalom is 100% respect shown to foreign documents. In the context of an objective but no less shocking description of exhausted people reduced almost to a line of animals, they wrote that:

When the Commission tried to distribute among them some of its own provisions for the journey the crowd simply laid siege to them, people fought just to get the little packet of sandwiches. (It) was repeatedly denied permission to send lorries to feed the people, which only two days previously had been officially permissable.

The motorised life-saving on the Hegyeshalom road was in the historic trial of Adolf Eichmann, which took place in Jerusalem in April 1961. When the mass-murderer was called to account the charge stated that this relief operation in the autumn of 1944 had seriously irritated Eichmann, who had planned and organised the march. I’ll kill Wallenberg, this dog of the Jews, he had burst out, and the Foreign Ministry in Berlin had declared that the Swedish Embassy’s intervention in Jewish affairs is in all respects unlawful. On Wallenberg’s commission, Captain Gábor Alapy travelled a Steyr car with diplomatic markings and performed valuable and very risky life-saving work. In his reminiscences, he recalled how in Hegyeshalom they had managed, with Wallenberg’s help, to extricate another group and sent them back to Budapest. Wallenberg’s colleague Dr Iván Székely used an embassy car with Swedish markings in his rescue activity. In this, he went to workplaces and camps in the provinces and brought back to Budapest Jewish men who qualified as Swedish-protected in some way.  He went into several Arrow-Cross houses, and courageously appeared at the Józsefváros station, at Gestapo HQ on Svábhegy and elsewhere on behalf of protégés.

Rescuing the Jews of Budapest:

The rescue of Jews, or persons considered Jews, from deportation, known as ‘lending’ in the Szálasi period, was a hard and complex task. We can read in the registers of survivors made in 1945 that ‘sending them back’ unescorted was occasionally an exercise in futility. For example, Ferenc Weiss, who had been arrested in hiding, suffered imprisonment in the Csillag fortress at Komárom with a group of two hundred Jews. It members had been rescued from the deportation to Hegyeshalom by means of letters of protection, the arrested by the Arrow-Cross on the way back to Budapest. After they had been robbed they were deported as a ‘transport’ of the Sicherheitspolizei. Weiss and his companions reached Dachau camp by train on 28 November.

At dawn on 28 and 29 November, Hungarian Military Police with fixed bayonets appeared at the Jewish forced labourers’ barracks in Budapest and replaced the companies’ commanders. This was a tried and tested procedure, and without hindrance, the MPs escorted the companies of forced labourers, mostly two hundred strong, to be handed over to the SS at Ferencváros station. Among them now were those under Swedish ‘protection’. According to Jenő Lévai, Wallenberg somehow found out about this unexpected action, followed them in his little car and struggled all day to save them. His agents spent the time reading lists of names and identifying holders of Swedish documents torn up by the Arrow-Cross. He himself looked up the names in the embassy Schutz-Pass registers that were taken to the station. Those destined for deportation who were rescued that day were estimated at 411, while the number of ‘genuine Swedes’ came to 283, the remainder being ‘protégés’ of other embassies. This was reported to Theodor Dannecker, the very experienced officer of the Eichmann-Kommando, who had directed the mass transportation. He threatened Wallenberg with having his car smashed into. Wallenberg continued to drive out early in the morning to the Óbuda brick-works, in addition to appearing constantly on the Pest side and at Teleki tér on rescue missions.

By early December, Wallenberg had been in Budapest for six months and had a range of acquaintances and useful connections. His notebook was full of the names, addresses and telephone numbers of embassies and international aid organisations, and sometimes the contact details of those in charge of them, including Veesenmayer, the Reich’s representative, as well as Hungarian government leaders and high-ranking officials, leaders in public administration and the military, but not the names of leaders of the Hungarian churches. These last, with some notable exceptions, were incapable of responsibly assessing the inhuman, even murderous atmosphere in which they lived, which rejected the basic message of Christianity. Despite this, the spreading terror menaced the churches and their leaders in Budapest and the provinces just as it had the Jews.

Among Wallenberg’s new acquaintances were well-known journalists and newspaper leaders. His military contacts were mainly with those concerned with the Jewish forced labourers, some of which were in some way his ‘partners’ in matters to do with life-saving. Of those listed in his notebook, Lt. Col. Ferenczy frequently played a key role. Talks and negotiations with him and his immediate subordinates required a good deal of patience on the part of Wallenberg and his colleagues. He also noted down a number of the members of the Szálasi government. In addition, he listed numerous Jewish leaders and institutions. He included the telephone numbers of hospitals since he considered the assistance of these among his tasks, especially during the reign of the Arrow-Cross. In his memorandum of 1 December, he set out the unvarnished reality of the Arrow-Cross hegemony:

He sees his task rendered more difficult … he has to state with sincere regret that members of staff of the Royal Swedish Embassy and its protégés alike are constantly subjected a variety of atrocities. 

Even in the case of protected Jews, the threat was immediate, and for that reason, new protective passports were being distributed to those who had not yet received them and to persons of Jewish origin to whom Swedish interests are linked. He reported, without reference to previous talks or limits, the embassy has issued altogether 7,500 protective passports in this way.

The Battle for Zugló:

In the Zugló district of Budapest, a number of startling cases of persecution and rescued occurred. In the winter of 1944, several dozen Jews were hidden in the corner building of the Sisters of Social Service, with its tower, everywhere from the cellar to the attic. Raoul Wallenberg saved the convent, led by Margit Schlachta, and those hidden there. He arrived by car during an Arrow-Cross raid in response to a telephone request, accompanied by a man in army uniform. The convent was surrounded by the Arrow-Cross who had established their district headquarters on the opposite side of Thököly út. An eye-witness reported that Wallenberg glanced across at the convent and then hurried into the Arrow-Cross house:

We don’t know what was said in there, because then Wallenberg came out, got in his car and was immediately driven away. But all the Arrow-Cross men left the convent straight away…     

But other holders of Swedish letters of protection in the district were arrested by the Arrow-Cross, taken to the Danube Embankment and shot. The local Arrow-Cross chief László Szelepcsényi ordered the party servicemen to deny ‘the action’ should there be an enquiry from the embassy. In fact, when the embassy official protested on another occasion, Szelepcsényi ordered sanctioned the massacre of a group of Swedish-protected persons with a gesture of dismissal, maintaining his original position that all who held protective documents had succeeded in obtaining such protection either with their wealth or by conspiring with the enemy. The murderous intent of the Arrow-Cross in Zugló was proved by the fact that shortly afterwards, on the night of 28 November, they hung the bodies of ten Jews who had been shot after interrogation under torture in the party house cellar, head downwards on the convent fence. This appalling sight evoked horror in passers-by. Seventeen Jews were taken from a ‘protected house’ to the party house. The armed party servicemen did not regard the Jews being driven to their deaths as human beings and when tried twelve years later, they admitted to between a thousand and twelve hundred murders.

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In Zugló, a mass life-saving action took place under the leadership of Captain László Ocskay, who had been re-activated from the retired list. The veteran First World War officer, aged fifty-one and closely connected to Wallenberg (with whom he had a meeting on 8 December) sheltered his protégés in an area which constituted a battle-ground between the bloodthirsty Arrow-Cross and the opposition facing them. At the request of his Jewish friends, Ocskay undertook the command of a Jewish labour company, whose ‘cover’ activity was the collection of clothing. This was a front for the Veterans’ Commission (HB), an active association of Jews who had fought in the First World War and when Hungary entered the second had begun collecting clothing for those in the labour corps, who served in their own civilian clothes. After the German occupation, its work extended to the Jews carrying out military work designated by the Hungarian and German authorities. Through the use of Captain Ocskay’s connections members of this unit had avoided deportation and were moved from Dohány utca in central Pest to Zugló, to the building of the Pest Israelite Faith Community Boys and Girls School, which had surrendered its premises to the International Red Cross in November in return for a guarantee of protection.

During the new wave of persecution, the manufacture of small items of military equipment, including clothing, the making and mending of boots, the collecting of worn equipment and its renovation offered many people a more or less secure refuge. They hoped that in the workshops in the Jewish school they would escape the fate intended for them, despatch to the death-camps. The workers were mainly those of the wives and female relatives of the forced labourers. Captain Ocskay authorised their employment, and by these means legalised the residence in the Zugló area of many famous Hungarian artists, musicians, dramatists, writers, translators and journalists. Many from the world of sport also found shelter. Members of the world-famous Hungarian water-polo team were forced into hiding, as was the three-times Olympic fencing champion Endre Kabos. In the immediate neighbourhood of Ocskay’s house in central Budapest, a ‘foreign worker’ company was established in early November. A Red Cross depot also moved into Benczúr utca, where a flag and a wooden plaque indicated the presence and ownership of the International Red Cross. In these ways, a base was established for the ‘protected’ Jewish forced labourers who had been extricated from deportation and to legalise the presence and movement of those in hiding or working in the collection and repair of clothing.

The development of tricks and tactics of survival were essential because the Arrow-Cross men spurned all legality and the admonitions of their superiors and engaged in widespread man and woman hunts. They picked people up at will and murdered them, putting several of their victims on public display in the squares and streets in order to intimidate.  At the end of November and in early December the Zugló detachment of the Arrow-Cross made an attempt to settle accounts with the Red Cross refuge in the Jewish School. They stormed the building and swarmed over it, though those living there were able to telephone Ocskay. He appeared after half an hour with a German Army motor-cycle escort which succeeded in driving off the ‘trouble-makers’. After that, a German guard ensured that ‘war-production’ was undisturbed. During these difficult, tragic weeks, fifteen hundred people lived in the school in fear of daily air-raids and Arrow-Cross massacres. Ocskay’s tactics were ultimately successful. Under the Arrow-Cross régime deportations by cattle-truck continued until Budapest was surrounded by the Soviets, but Ocskay’s protégés and members of the Labour Company 101/359, hidden in the ‘war factory’, escaped.

The Establishment of the Ghettoes:

But during Advent, the ‘Hungarista’ authorities continued to be unrestrainable and arrogant. On 10 December, on Szálasi’s orders, designated streets of central Pest, mostly occupied by Jews, became in their entirety Europe’s last Jewish ghetto. The quarter was marked off by wooden barricades and comprised 0.3 square km of the 207 square km of the capital. It was divided into zones, and the four gates were guarded by uniformed police and armed Arrow-Cross men. The Jews forced into the ghetto, officially 52,688, including 5,730 children, at the beginning of 1945, led a miserable existence, struggling to survive and crammed together in 243 apartment houses, including the cellars and wood-stores. Two of the leaders of the ghetto, Miksa Domonkos and Zoltán Rónai, displayed a Swedish Embassy work permit, according to which they had been on the permanent staff there since 30 November and a repatriation section of the Swedish Red Cross. With Wallenberg’s license, they saved numerous lives. On 2 December, Rónai acted successfully on behalf of the Olympic champion Alfréd Hajós, his family and close relations. Hajós later testified how Rónai had appeared in the central ghetto, as a man of authority. He had the Hajós family assembled by roll-call in the courtyard of the apartment house and marched them off with loud words of command:

He fooled the police and the Arrow-Cross guards by turning up unexpectedly and behaving like a policeman. That’s how he pulled off our escape.

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The protection of the international, or ‘foreign’ ghetto, which had already come into being in mid-November, meant a new task for the Hungarian gendarme detachment under Captain Parádi, who had assisted Wallenberg from early November in his confrontations with the Arrow-Cross. Jews holding protective documents or passports or protection from the neutral nations had had to move there, but they had little peace, as they quickly became the targets of Arrow-Cross thefts and murders. Police or gendarme activity resulted in the saving of many lives every evening, but there were also unsuccessful actions. At the end of November, Parádi was unable to get into Józsefváros station to perform a rescue because, on this occasion, the Germans would not let him in. He aided the protection of Jewish orphanages and refuges and also provided protection for Raoul Wallenberg on his ever more hazardous car journeys. Another outstanding personality in the Hungarian resistance was Staff-Captain Zoltán Mikó, who was later shot by the Soviet terror authorities. He placed at Wallenberg’s disposal gendarmes who provided food and medicines. Before Christmas, he deposited certain papers in bank vaults, including documents on the underground resistance organisations in Poland.

The Rescuers:

In the winter of 1944, Per Anger was also involved in various risky affairs. In racing against time to save life hesitation and delay were out of the question. One night the attaché, responding to a call from Wallenberg’s secretary, undertook to see to the rescue of seven people who had been snatched in Buda:

At the time I had a Steyr car, and she and I went in that. I went into the robbers’ den and began talking to the chief. He was the sort of man that it didn’t do to shout at. Instead I behaved very courteously …

The terrifying conversation was not without its psychological elements and was successful. In the end, the Arrow-Cross man handed over the Swedish protégés – absolutely shattered, injured, bleeding and terrified – against an embassy acknowledgement of receipt. Anger continued his report:

I stood them in line. ‘Quick march,’ I gave the order, and out we went past the lads at the door with their sub-machine guns. I don’t know how, but we squeezed all seven into the car and drove off. I remember having to drive in first gear to Wallenberg’s house otherwise the car wouldn’t have stood the weight.

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In stories of Wallenberg’s appearances on the spot and rescue operations, the name of Vilmos Langfelder (above) often crops up in recollections from mid-December on. The situation of the time and the courageous nature of the rescue operations were graphically summarised by Nina Langlet:

We discovered that the Arrow-Cross were out to get us.Wallenberg, my husband and I therefore became persecuted, and could have reckoned on being snatched on the pretext of questioning and shot in the back of the head. We tried not to think about it and did our best to go on working.

Wallenberg’s intimate associate Hugó Wohl related the events of a rescue on the night of 13 December when at two in the morning, they were informed by telephone that there was trouble at the Swedish Red Cross:

I immediately informed Wallenberg at his home in Buda. Half an hour later he appeared in his car, escorted by his driver Vilmos Langfelder, that loyal, decent engineer, who was for weeks his conscientious tool in the hard work of rescuing people day and night.

Wohl went with Wallenberg and on his orders, he and the driver stayed in the car. When he came back he told them what he had done and told Langfelder to take the car a little further and ‘hide with it’ so that they could tell whether the Arrow-Cross would keep their word. He recalled:

The engine started up quietly, and we waited on the corner of Revicky utca. Suddenly we saw a group of men come out, get into a big police car that was standing waiting outside the house, and drive off. On Wallenberg’s orders we began to follow them, hanging as far back as possible, to see if they were taking the protected persons to the international ghetto in Pozsonyi út.

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György Libik refers to the combination of caution and courage shown by the Swedish Secretary when assisting the occupants of a protected house which was being stormed by the Arrow-Cross. Langfelder was out on another mission so that Per Anger took Wallenberg over Andrássy út into Benczúr utca in his DKW at the time of the nocturnal rescue. Wallenberg did not allow Libik near the building, sending him a hundred metres further on:

He asked me to wait outside; there would be nothing I could do to help, but if anything were to happen  I would at least be able to take back word; we shall get nowhere in this by force, only get myself and them in trouble; I was to take it easy, he would sort it out. 

Decades later, the Hungarian resistance activist continued to admire Wallenberg’s intervention, finding it embarrassing that a foreigner, a Swede, could be a more humane person and a better Hungarian than we. The Calvinist minister József Éliás, who made an important contribution to the rescue of the Jews of Budapest, also spoke of Wallenberg’s cautious nature. On one occasion he arrived unannounced to meet the pastor since he did not want to use the telephone in case it was tapped.

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The Swiss and the Swedes under attack:

Vice-consul Carl Lutz wrote in a situation report dated 8 December that he had had to stop his car on a busy bridge. It was immediately surrounded by an unruly, hostile, whistling crowd. He had to endure his country and its embassy being abused. Curses were hurled, including Jew-loving Swiss rubbish, get out of Budapest! The Swiss diplomat Harald Feller also suffered the depravity and blood-lust of the Arrow-Cross. His movements were watched and he was threatened, and on 29 December was stopped on Rákoczi út. The diplomat produced his authority from Lt. General Vitéz Iván Hindy, permitting him to travel without restriction. This official document made no impression as Feller, Baroness Katalin Perényi and an embassy employee were marched off to Arrow-Cross house on Andrássy út amid furious shouts, heated cries of “Jews” and curses. Feller was stripped “to check whether he was a Jew” and beaten up. They were told that they would soon be done for and were locked in an ice-cold larder for five hours and finally taken out into the courtyard and again threatened with being shot. Humiliated and tormented, they were eventually released.

While violence raged unchecked, Gábor Vajna, Minister for the Interior, called on Himmler. The minutes for 10 December show that on most points the head of the SS in the Reich urged one of the leaders of grave atrocities and organised massacres to even harsher measures. Vajna gave a detailed account of the solution of the Jewish question in Hungary. He drew up a list of the Jews still to be found in Hungary:

Approximately 120,000 Jews in the (central) ghetto.

18,000 in the ‘foreign’ ghetto.

There were still protected Jews, against whom – even before they went to Germany – measures had been instituted.

Jews in hiding in the provinces, number unknown.

Jews granted exemption, approximately 1,000.

Half- and quarter- Jews, numbers unknown.

Seventy-eight Jewish labour companies, each 200 strong, were on their way to the Reich.

Vajna pointed out to the head of the SS in the Reich that recently the Germans, especially Veesenmayer, had not been accepting old and young Jews for labour. In contrast, the Szálasi government was working towards the total removal of Jews from the country. According to the record, Himmler agreed that, on his intervention, that a new chapter would open. In February 1946, Vajna lied to a Hungarian court that he had discussed, in Berlin, the transportation of Jews with Swiss and Swedish letters of protection to Sweden and Switzerland. The Hungarian Jews “could be grateful” to him for not letting the Germans take them out of the country.

At the end of December, a howling Arrow-Cross mob drove the Swedish diplomat Yngve Ekmark, together with the female employees Bauer and Nilsson, into the Radetzky Barracks in Buda. For hours they stood facing the wall, to make them give away the whereabouts of ambassador Danielsson’s home. As they did not know, the two women were dragged over to the central Pest ghetto from where Friedrich Born, the International Red Cross representative, released them. Neither were personalities in the churches spared this sort of intimidation. Jews were hunted day and night and faith organisations were raided more and more often. On 27 December, Sára Salkaházi, a member of the Sisters of Social Service, was shot into the Danube together with her three denounced protégés and the religious teacher Vilma Bernovits.

Protecting the Children:

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The survival of children was, of course, a top priority for the rescuers, and deserves more attention from historians. Daisy Birnbaum’s eye-witness accounts provide a useful primary source in this respect. Wallenberg himself kept a watchful eye on the fate of the orphaned, abused Jewish children. His appearance by car and decisive measures that he took to rescue them are gratefully remembered to this day. Eleven-year-old Vera Kardós and her family had been evicted from their Buda home and were crowded with relatives in the starred house at Csáki utca 14. Her father László Kardos and her family had been kidnapped by the Arrow-Cross on 21 October and was never seen again. They had moved the little girl with her mother and uncle, a forced labourer who enjoyed Swedish protection, over the Danube to work at the notorious Óbuda brickworks. They were enabled, however, to return and find refuge in the Swedish protected house at Katona József utca 21. But they were not left in peace there either, for in an Arrow-Cross raid late at night on 30 December all the occupants, 170 in all, were ordered out into the street, made to undress and shot in groups into the Danube. According to the memoir Wallenberg was informed, and after he arrived the killing stopped. Vera and her mother escaped, but her uncle was killed. After that, they huddled together on an iron bed in a Swiss protected house in Hollán utca. Even there, an Arrow-Cross attack and line-up took place, but by that time Vera was in a Red Cross children’s home. Her mother and two other women escaped as the group was marched off, and after that, she had to find a new refuge every evening. Mother and daughter were eventually reunited under Swedish protection when a heating failure caused the children’s home to be evacuated.

Another memoir, that of Naomi Gur, tells us how their large family was split up in December 1944. Her father was taken to a labour camp and one of his friends obtained a Swiss letter of protection, so the five of them were camping on the floor of a crowded flat in a Swiss ‘protected house’. But an identity check by the SS and Arrow-Cross and all of their letters of protection were declared as forgeries. The little girl was left alone in the house as the other four members of the family were taken outside. She rushed weeping into the street and ran along the long column of Jews, calling out and looking for her mother, who was expecting the worst and so told the policeman escorting the column, this little girl’s gone mad: She thinks I’m her mother, but I’m not… Shoo her off! The policeman ‘obliged’ and the girl made her way back to the flat. The next day there was another raid, this time conducted only by the Arrow-Cross who wasted no time on another identity check but drove everybody into the courtyard and from there into the street. The assembled people were led to the Danube bank. Naomi recalled:

There were a lot of people, there was shoving and noise and it was freezing cold. I was standing there all by myself when a tall man appeared wearing a coat with the collar turned up. He was different from the others. He called out for any with Swedish letters of protection to say so. I knew that one of my aunts, Klára, had one, so I went up to him and told him her name.

I meant to say that I was talking about my aunt, but I couldn’t. The man looked at a piece of paper that he was holding , and said “That’s you.” He didn’t ask, just announced, and I answered ‘Yes’. I was a skinny little thing with pigtails, but my aunt was a married woman. The Arrow-Cross man by him asked for my papers. I hadn’t got them any more, but I looked in my bag. Then the Arrow-Cross man’s name must have been called on the loud-hailer, because he went away. First he said to me, ‘Find your papers. I’ll be back’.

As he turned, … Wallenberg almost grabbed me and rushed with me to the car. He pushed in and off we went straight away. 

I later found out that everybody on the riverside that time was either shot into the Danube or deported. … I’m sure that a miracle happened to me. There was a man who risked his life for me. Since then I’ve believed that everybody can do something of value, and that’s what makes life worthwhile.

It’ll always cause me pain that I did nothing to save Wallenberg.

In the final weeks of December, the armed Arrow-Cross mercilessly and pitilessly assaulted even the children’s homes maintained by the Swedish Red Cross. Wallenberg’s colleagues intervened several times in defence of the children and their carers, rescuing them all over the city. At midday on the 23rd, he tried personally to discover the whereabouts of the children that had been taken from the Swedish children’s home at Szent István körút 29 and of the Swedish Red Cross official Ferenc Schiller who had vanished with them. Per Anger, Vilmos Langfelder and the Swedish Secretary himself set off in Wallenberg’s car, with Langfelder driving. They first called in the Castle District in Buda, at the Foreign Ministry and then went on to see Péter Hain at ‘the Majestic’ on Svábhegy. Hain’s deputy, detective superintendent László Koltay met them there. They also went to the Papal Nuncio’s office, then back to the Foreign Ministry and on to the Buda home of Carl Lutz before going via Wallenberg’s home to the Arrow-Cross bases and the National Unit for Accountability HQ. He stepped unhesitatingly into the lions’ den, a risky business nonetheless. What happened was detailed by a colleague:

Afterwards Wallenberg actually confessed to me in the car that Lutz had told him beforehand that … the Arrow-Cross wanted to have action taken against foreign diplomats by the staff at the National Unit for Accountability HQ.

Both the Swedish Embassy and the International Red Cross were firmly opposed to orphaned children in care being moved from suburban children’s homes into the central ghetto. The Spanish Embassy too had a Hungarian organisation for extricating minors, which continued to function. They used their cars for unofficial rescue work, especially that conducted by their chargé d’affaires, Ángel Sanz-Briz (who left Budapest on 29 November) and his Italian assistant Giorgio Perlasca, together with a few courageous Hungarian Jews, the most zealous of whom was the legal advisor, Dr Zoltán Farkas. Perlasca and Farkas discussed what lies should be told to the Arrow-Cross about personal connections with Spain and how the Spanish-protected houses were to be supplied and supervised. In order to deceive the Arrow-Cross, Perlasca, who worked as a food salesman, became Spanish on paper and used the tactic of driving several times each day to see his protégés. In his notes, he wrote that:

To make my visits even more noticeable I go in the big Ford, on which there is, naturally, a Spanish flag. I chat with the officers on duty and give them presents.

In the ‘nick of time’:

Perlasca and his colleagues drove a five-seater American Buick with CD plates. His active assistant in rescue operations, Frenchman Gaston Tourne, regarded that as an essential means not just of transport but also of offsetting personal risk. On 31 December, just after delivering food, the Buick was damaged beyond repair by the blast from a bomb. Perlasca had some luck on his rescue missions and those whom he supported were certain that he would appear in his car in the nick of time and save those that needed help. By the end of 1944, the Arrow-Cross were hunting him too, and he required the protection of the gendarmerie. Four well-armed gendarmes guarded the embassy building and others defended him from possible attacks whether he went on foot or by car.

A certain distance had been developing between Wallenberg and the Swedish embassy organisation by mid-December. Giorgio Perlasca had noted that on 14 December he could scarcely contact the Swedish diplomats. He repeatedly had the same answer to telephone calls, that either there was no-one in the building or that they were terribly busy. He criticised Danielsson severely, as in his view when so many people expected him to free them he could not just run away, but added that doesn’t apply to Wallenberg, who’s been trying to do everything possible and impossible to help the unfortunate. On 24 December, a Sunday, the Arrow-Cross attacked the Jewish boys and girls orphanage, the children’s refuge.  The International Red Cross flag and the sign indicating protection meant nothing to them. They plundered it on the pretext of an identity check. Several, including children, were shot in the rooms, the courtyard and in the street, by way of intimidation. The desperate but inventive Jewish manager ran down the street with a Christmas tree on his shoulder, in order somehow to inform Wallenberg, who had left the embassy for the Déli (Southern) station because he had heard that a deportation train was being dispatched.

The rescue operations were also affected by the fact that from 24 December the Hungarian capital was completely surrounded by Soviet forces. The fighting in the air and on the streets was becoming increasingly intense adding to the many sufferings that afflicted the civilian population both in physical and spiritual terms. At this period, during the siege, air-raids and shelling presented a constant danger to traffic. It cannot be ruled out that the security forces would if given the order, have performed a ‘professional’ liquidation of Wallenberg and Langfelder while they were driving around the capital. One of the driving assistants, Tivadar Jobbágy, became a victory of military activity, though not while driving. From Gábor Forgacs’s memoirs we can read:

On 24 December 1944 I was in the Swedish embassy office at Üllői út 2-4 from half past three to half past five. Then the red Studebaker, driven by Tivadar Jobbágy, took Vilmos Forgács, Hugó Wohl and their wives to the Hazai Bank premises at Harmincad utca 6. As Jobbágy’s wife was pregnant, Langfelder took the car over. The Jobbágyes were staying there with other people in hiding. Nine days later shrapnel penetrated the drawn blind  and Jobbágy, who was standing nearby, received fatal injuries. 

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Some of the children that had been turned out of the orphanage were shot the next day by the Arrow-Cross on the Danube embankment in Lipótváros or Újpest. By this time, they were having to conserve ammunition, so they stood several children one behind the other in order to use fewer bullets. Several of the children were not hit or jumped into the river before being shot and swam down the river to the bank by the Parliament building where they climbed out and survived. On the same day, Christmas Day, the Arrow-Cross attacked the Finnish and Swedish embassies. The rabble that went with them vented their spleen in unrestrained acts of robbery and destruction. One of the embassy drivers turned out to be a traitor to the rescue work, a snivelling, low-down type, as he was described by Nina Langlet. She claimed that he was in touch with the German secret police as an undercover informant. On 25 December, after the Arrow-Cross attack on the Swedish mission, he smiled with satisfaction at the sight of the plundered offices. Her feeling was that he was playing along with the SS and the Arrow-Cross and had stolen property deposited with the embassy.

Christmas Present:

Wallenberg’s Hungarian colleagues expressed their affection and regard for him with a Christmas present. They had made a hand-painted coloured album for him entitled, in German, The Schutzpass in the History of Art, a Collection of Reproductions. When Wallenberg appeared in his storm-coat and boots he was surprised to receive the forty-five-page compilation with lively drawings of the Schutzpass in historical settings. The gift contained nineteen full-page illustrations in colour and, as an endpiece, there was a Christmas elegy by Dr Péter Sugár about the Swedish letter of protection, written in excellent, erudite German. In the final section it expressed the hopes of Wallenberg’s protégés:

Though dark our heaven, the star gleams there above.

Now let us cheer him, the man who has brought peace 

To us, and has defended us.

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There are many records of the last days of 1944 in the archives of the German Embassy in Budapest. On 28 December, counsellor Gerhart Feine, one of the embassy staff sent from Budapest to Szombathely, telegraphed to Berlin. He gave an account of the advance of the Soviet motorised units and the capture of the Danube bend at Esztergom by the enemy. Also, he provided details of the Soviet encirclement of the capital. The military attaché at the embassy informed Berlin of German counter-attacks, their purpose, according to the reports, being to maintain contact with Budapest “in all circumstances”. He stated that the Japanese chargé d’affaires had been trapped in the siege and was delayed and that the whereabouts of the Turkish embassy secretary was, for the time being, unknown. He was also aware that Szálasi’s Foreign Minister, Gábor Vajna, had left the city ‘in good time’.

017Gerhart Feine had received information that the Swedish ambassador had gone into hiding in Budapest, his whereabouts unknown. He had also learnt that Wallenberg had placed himself under the protection of the Waffen SS, in connection with certain actions of the Hungarian police and the Arrow-Cross. Wallenberg and Langfelder were spending most of their nights at Captain Ocskay’s apartment. The company commander who had saved 1,500 Jews in Abonyi utca had German military credentials. On 30 December, Wallenberg took part in an official inspection with Dr Pál Hegedűs in the Jewish Council office in the big ghetto, together with police officers and representatives of the local government. Pál Szalai, who had offered Wallenberg secret and effective assistance in preventing any more Arrow-Cross atrocities, was also present. He proposed that Wallenberg should have food and raw materials delivered to the occupants of the ghetto as well as to the public kitchens of the city. On leaving the ghetto, the two men went to inspect the food stocks accumulated by the Swedish Embassy in the warehouse of the Stühmer chocolate factory. This stock, together with that of the Red Cross, helped to provide the two ghettoes with enough food to survive the siege.

The Hungarian staff of the Swedish Embassy’s humanitarian mission were, by now, almost all on the Pest side of the city and their offices had moved to Üllői út, one of the main roads into the city centre. But Wallenberg had also rented a number and variety of properties, parts of apartment houses, offices and flats in a number of places. In the ‘pressure cooker’ atmosphere created by the Arrow-Cross Terror and the Soviet Siege, the embassy staff were now exposed to even greater danger and, to a greater extent, to the vagueries of a war on two ‘fronts’ within the city. This was further complicated by the contrasting cowardice of the Hungarian political élite and the treachery of the Hungarian military staff as well as the stupid expectation of a miracle in which the Szálasi government persisted to the end and in parallel with Hitler, all of which led to the downfall, pillaging and devastation of Hungary.

Sources:

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

Marianna D. Birnbaum (2015), 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. Budapest: Corvina.

Szabolcs Szita (2012), The Power of Humanity: Raoul Wallenberg and his Aides in Budapest. Budapest: Corvina.

 

Seventy-Five Years Ago – The Second World War, East & West; November-December 1944 – The Battle of the Bulge & Roads to Berlin.   Leave a comment

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Undiplomatic ‘Moves’:

In the month following the Second Quebec Conference of 12th-16th September 1944, there was a storm of protest about the Morgenthau Plan, a repressive measure against Germany which Stalin craved. Although he was not present in person at Quebec, Stalin was informed about the nature and detail of the proposals. On 18 October, the Venona code-breakers had detected a message from an economist at the War Production Board to his Soviet spymasters that outlined the plan. This was that:

The Rühr should be wrested from Germany and handed over to the control of some international council. Chemical, metallurgical and electrical industries must be transported out of Germany.

The US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, was appalled that Morgenthau had been allowed to trespass so blatantly on an area of policy that did not belong to him, and also that the proposed plan would, in his judgment, so clearly result in the Germans resisting more fiercely. With his health failing, Hull resigned in November 1944. The American press was just as antagonistic. Both the New York Times and Washington Post attacked the plan as playing into the hands of the Nazis. And in Germany, the proposals were a gift for Joseph Goebbels, who made a radio broadcast in which he announced:

In the last few days we have learned enough about the enemy’s plans, … The plan proposed by that Jew Morgenthau which would rob eighty million Germans of their industry and turn Germany into a simple potato field.

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Roosevelt was taken aback by the scale of the attack on the Morgenthau Plan, realizing that he had misjudged the mood of his own nation, a rarity for him, and allowed a Nazi propaganda triumph. The Plan for the complete eradication of German industrial production capacity in the Ruhr and the Saar was quietly dropped in the radical form in which it had originally been proposed at Quebec, although the punitive philosophy underpinning it later found expression in the Joint Chiefs of Staff directive 1067, which stated that occupation forces should take no steps looking toward the economic rehabilitation of Germany or designed to maintain or strengthen the German economy. At the same time, Roosevelt, comfortably re-elected on 7 November, confidently replied to Mikolajczyk, the Polish PM in exile, who had accused him of bad faith over the future of his country, that if a mutual agreement was reached on the borders of Poland, then his government would offer no objection. Privately, however, the US President considered the European questions so impossible that he wanted to stay out of them as far as practicable, except for the problems involving Germany. Reading between the lines, Mikolajczyk decided that he had heard and seen enough of the West’s unwillingness to face Stalin down. He resigned on 24 November. Just days after his resignation, Churchill confirmed his support for Roosevelt’s ‘line’. He told the Cabinet that:

No immediate threat of war lay ahead of us once the present war was over and we should be careful of assuming commitments consequent on the formation of a Western bloc that might impose a very heavy military burden on us.

Although his views about the stability of the post-war world were still capable of changing, Churchill felt that, on balance, the Soviet Union would prove a genuinely cooperative member of the international community and he returned from Moscow in an upbeat mood. He wrote to his wife Clementine that he had had …

… very nice talks with the old Bear … I like him the more I see him. Now they respect us and I am sure they wish to work with us.

Over the next few months, however, Stalin’s actions on the eastern front would shatter Churchill’s hopes. On 24 November, the Soviets had established a bridgehead over the Danube and a month later, on Christmas Eve, they were encircling Budapest. Defending Hungary accounted for seven of the eighteen Panzer divisions still available to Hitler on the Eastern Front, a massive but necessary commitment.  Dismantled factory equipment, cattle, and all things moveable were dragged away by the retreating German forces, now mainly interested in entrenching themselves along the western borders of Hungary, leaving it for Szálasi to win time for them. The Leader of the Nation announced total mobilisation, in principle extending to all men between the ages of fourteen and seventy. He rejected appeals from Hungarian ecclesiastical leaders to abandon Budapest after it had been surrounded by the Soviet forces by Christmas 1944. The senseless persistence of the Arrow-Cross and the Germans resulted in a siege of over one and a half months, with heavy bombardment and bitter street warfare, a ‘second Stalingrad’, as recalled in several German war memoirs. The long siege of Budapest and its fall, with an enormous loss of life, occupy an outstanding place in world military history. Only the sieges of Leningrad (St Petersburg), (Volgograd) and the Polish capital Warsaw, similarly reduced to rubble, are comparable to it.

‘Autumn Mist’ in the Ardennes:

Meanwhile, on the Western Front, Allied hopes that the war might be over in 1944, which had been surprisingly widespread earlier in the campaign, were comprehensively extinguished. By mid-November, Eisenhower’s forces found themselves fighting determined German counter-attacks in the Vosges, Moselle and the Scheldt and at Metz and Aachen. Hoping to cross the Rhine before the onset of winter, which in 1944/5 was abnormally cold, the American Allied commander-in-chief unleashed a massive assault on 16 November, supported by the heaviest aerial bombing of the whole war so far, with 2,807 planes dropping 10,097 bombs in ‘Operation Queen’. Even then, the US First and Ninth Armies managed to move forward only a few miles, up to but not across the Rühr river. Then, a month later, just before dawn on Saturday, 16 December 1944, Field Marshal von Rundstedt unleashed the greatest surprise attack of the war since Pearl Harbor. In Operation Herbstnebel (‘Autumn Mist’), seventeen divisions – five Panzer and twelve mechanized infantry – threw themselves forward in a desperate bid to reach first the River Meuse and then the Channel itself. Instead of soft autumnal mists, it was to be winter fog, snow, sleet and heavy rain that wrecked the Allies’ aerial observation, denying any advance warning of the attack. Similarly, Ultra was of little help in the early stages, since all German radio traffic had been strictly ‘verboten’ and orders were only passed to corps commanders by messenger a few days before the attack.

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Suddenly, on 16 December, no fewer than three German Armies comprising 200,000 men spewed forth from the mountains and forests of the Ardennes. Generals Rundstedt and Model had opposed the operation as too ambitious for the Wehrmacht’s resources at that stage, but Hitler believed that he could split the Allied armies north and south of the Ardennes, protect the Rühr, recapture Antwerp, reach the Channel and, he hoped, re-create the victory of 1940, and all from the same starting point. Rundstedt later recalled that:

The morale of the troops taking part was astonishingly high at the start of the offensive. They really believed victory was possible. Unlike the higher commanders, who knew the facts.

The German disagreements over the Ardennes offensive were three-fold and more complex than Rundstedt and others made out after the war. Guderian, who was charged with opposing the Red Army’s coming winter offensive in the east, did not want any offensive in the west, but rather the reinforcement of the Eastern Front, including Hungary. Rundstedt, Model, Manteuffel and other generals in the west wanted a limited Ardennes offensive that knocked the Allies off balance and gave the Germans the chance to rationalize the Western Front and protect the Rühr. Meanwhile, Hitler wanted to throw the remainder of Germany’s reserves into a desperate attempt to capture Antwerp and destroy Eisenhower’s force in the west. As usual, Hitler took the most extreme and thus riskiest path, and as always he got his way. He managed to scrape up a reserve of twenty-five divisions, which he committed to the offensive in the Ardennes. General Model was given charge of the operation and planned it well: when the attack went in against the Americans it was a complete surprise. Eisenhower, for his part, had left the semi-mountainous, heavily wooded Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg relatively undermanned. He did this because he had been receiving reports from Bradley stating that a German attack was only a remote possibility and one from Montgomery on 15 December claiming that the enemy cannot stage major offensive operations. Even on 17 December, after the offensive had begun, Major-General Kenneth Strong, the Assistant Chief of Staff (Intelligence) at SHAEF, produced his Weekly Intelligence Summary No. 39 which offered the blithe assessment that:

The main result must be judged, not by the ground it gains, but by the number of Allied divisions it diverts from the vital sectors of the front.

For all the dédácle of 1940, the Ardennes seemed uninviting for armoured vehicles, and important engagements were being fought to the north and south. With Wehrmarcht movements restricted to night-time, and the Germans instituting elaborate deception plans, the element of surprise was complete. Although four captured German POWs spoke of a big pre-Christmas offensive, they were not believed by Allied intelligence. Only six American divisions of 83,000 men protected the sixty-mile line between Monschau in the north and Echternach in the south, most of them under Major-General Troy Middleton of VIII Corps. They comprised green units such as the 106th Infantry Division that had never seen combat before, and the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions that had been badly mauled in recent fighting and were recuperating.

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The attack took place through knee-high snow, with searchlights bouncing beams off the clouds to provide illumination for the troops. Thirty-two English-speaking German soldiers under the Austrian Colonel Otto Skorzeny were dressed in American uniforms in order to create confusion behind the lines. Two of the best German generals, Dietrich and Monteuffel led the attacks in the north and centre respectively, with the Seventh Army providing flank protection to the south. As the panzers raced for the Meuse and the Allies desperately searched for the troops they needed to rebuild their line, both armies wondered if Hitler had managed to bring off a stunning ‘blitz’ yet again. Yet even the seventeen divisions were not enough to dislodge the vast numbers of Allied troops who had landed in north-west Europe since D-day. The Allies had the men and Hitler didn’t.  Manteuffel later complained of Hitler that:

He was incapable of realising that he no longer commanded the army which he had had in 1939 or 1940. 

Nevertheless, both the US 106th and 28th Divisions were wrecked by the German attack, some units breaking and running to the rear, but the US V Corps in the north and 4th Division in the south managed to hold their positions, squeezing the German thrust into a forty-mile-wide and fifty-five-mile-deep protuberance in the Allied line whose shape on the map gave the engagement its name: the Battle of the Bulge. The Sixth SS Panzer Army failed to make much progress against the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions of Gerow’s V Corps in the north and came close but never made it to a giant fuel dump near the town of Spa. They did, however, commit the war’s worst atrocity against American troops in the west when they machine-gunned eighty-six unarmed prisoners in a field near Malmédy, a day after executing sixteen others. The SS officer responsible, SS-General Wilhelm Mohnke, was never prosecuted for the crime, despite having also been involved in two other such massacres in cold blood earlier in the war.

In the centre, Manteuffel’s Fifth Panther Army surrounded the 106th Division in front of St Vith and forced its eight thousand men to surrender on 19 December, the largest capitulation of American troops since the Civil War. St Vith itself was defended by the 7th Armoured until 21 December, when it fell to Manteuffel. Although the Americans were thinly spread, and caught by surprise, isolated pockets of troops held out long enough to cause Herbstnehel to stumble, providing Eisenhower with enough time to organize a massive counter-attack. By midnight on the second day, sixty thousand men and eleven thousand vehicles were being sent as reinforcements.  Over the following eight days, a further 180,000 men were moved to contain the threat. As the 12th Army Group had been split geographically to the north and south of ‘the bulge’, on 20 December Eisenhower gave Bradley’s US First and Ninth Armies to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, the latter until the Rhine had been crossed. It was a sensible move that nonetheless created lasting resentment. German loudspeakers blared out the following taunt to troops of the US 310th Infantry Regiment:

How would you like to die for Christmas?

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With Ultra starting to become available again after the assault, confirming the Meuse as the German target, the Supreme Commander could make his own dispositions accordingly, and prevent his front being split in two. Patton’s Third Army had the task of breaking through the German Seventh Army in the south. On 22 and 23 December, Patton had succeeded in turning his Army a full ninety degrees from driving eastwards towards the Saar to pushing northwards along a twenty-five-mile front over narrow, icy roads in mid-winter straight up the Bulge’s southern flank. Even Bradley had to admit in his memoirs that Patton’s ‘difficult manoeuvre’ had been one of the most brilliant performances by any commander on either side of World War II. Patton had told him, the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meat-grinder and this time I’ve got hold of the handle. Less brilliant was the laxity of Patton’s radio and telephone communications staff, which allowed Model to know of American intentions and objectives. But Patton seemed to think he had a direct line to God. In the chapel of the Fondation Pescatore in Luxembourg on 23 December, Patton prayed to the Almighty:

You have just got to make up Your mind  whose side You’re on. You must come to my assistance, so that I might dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to Your Prince of Peace.

Whether through divine intervention or human agency, the 101st Airborne Division had already arrived in the nick of time at the town of Bastogne, only hours before the Germans reached its vital crossroads. With eighteen thousand Americans completely surrounded there on 20 December, the commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, General Heinrich von Lüttwitz gave Brigadier-General McAuliffe, a veteran of Overlord and Market Garden, the acting commander of the division, the opportunity to surrender. He refused in characteristic style with the single word ‘nuts!’ Thus, Christmas Day began with a massed German assault on Bastogne, which had to hold out until the US Third Army could come to the rescue from the south. Patton joked that it was…

… a clear, cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans … which is a bit queer, seeing whose birthday it is.

After surviving the spirited attack that broke through the defensive perimeter on Christmas Day, Bastogne was relieved by Patton’s 4th Armored Division on Boxing Day. By then Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army was running short of fuel, and although its 2nd Panzer Division got to within five miles of the town of Dinant on the Meuse, Dietrich had not committed his mechanized infantry. reserves in support of his fellow general’s advance, because such a manoeuvre was not in Hitler’s orders and he had been instructed to obey his instructions to the letter. Contrary to Model’s advice, Hitler had insisted that Dietrich, ‘Hitler’s SS pet’ should deliver the decisive blow, even though he had only advanced a quarter of the distance covered by Manteuffel. The German commanders having wasted this opportunity, an improvement in the weather allowed the Allied planes to harry the Panzer columns with fifteen thousand sorties flown in the first four days after the skies had cleared. Later, when being debriefed by Allied interrogators, Rundstedt put the defeat down to three factors:

First, the unheard-of superiority of your air force, which made all movement in daytime impossible. Secondly, the lack of motor fuel – oil and gas – so that the Panzers and even the Luftwaffe were unable to move. Third, the systematic destruction of all railway communications so that it was impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine. 

Hitler’s Offensive Folly:

By 8 January, the great offensive had petered out. The Allies resumed their advance and gradually forced their way towards the Rhine. After the war was over, Rundstedt strongly objected to this stupid operation in the Ardennes being referred to as ‘the Rundstedt Offensive’, saying that, instead, it should be called ‘the Hitler Offensive’ since it came to him as an order complete to the last detail. According to him, Hitler had even written on the plan in his own handwriting, Not to be Altered. The Führer had been warned by both Rundstedt and Model that the offensive would achieve only a drastic weakening of the Reich’s power to resist the Russians on the Eastern Front, without any concomitant advantage in the west. Nonetheless, he was willing to gamble all, as so often before.  The hopes that many Germans still had that the Red Army could be kept back were thus sacrificed on an offensive in the west, against an enemy far less vicious and rapacious than the one bearing down on their homeland from the east. As the military historian, Max Hastings has concluded:

Only Hitler’s personal folly maintained the Ardennes battle, encouraged by Jodl, who persuaded him that maintaining pressure in the west was dislocating the Anglo-Americans’ offensive plans.

This may well have been the case, at least temporarily, but the greater cost was born by Germany’s defensive plans, and Hitler was no longer able to undertake a major counter-offensive again. The battle of the Bulge cost the Germans 98,024 battlefield casualties, including over twelve thousand killed. They also lost seven hundred tanks and assault guns and sixteen hundred combat aircraft. There were eighty-one thousand Allied casualties, mainly American, including over ten thousand killed. They lost a slightly higher number of tanks and tank-destroyers than the Germans. The great difference was that whereas the Allies could make up their losses in matériel, the Germans no longer could. This had a powerful effect on Allied morale, as a British tank commander fought in the battle testified later:

The Germans were going to be defeated, and not only in their Ardennes adventure but in their whole mad attempt to dominate the world. 

Defeat in the Air and at Sea – The Allied Bombing Campaign:

They were also being defeated in the air. The Royal Air Force had continued with its general area bombing throughout 1944, with its chief of staff, Commander Harris, genuinely believing that this would bring victory soonest. Churchill, Brooke and Portal all complained privately about this, wanting to pursue precision bombing. They could have simply ordered ‘Bomber’ Harris to alter his targeting policy, to the point of sacking him if he refused, but they did not give the order and they didn’t sack him either. In fact, Bomber Command certainly did hit precision targets, most famously hitting the battleship Tirpitz on several occasions between September and November 1944, on the last occasion succeeding in sinking it.

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Above: The North Atlantic & Arctic Convoy System, showing the naval bases & the location of the battleship Tirpitz.

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This final British attack on Tirpitz (right) took place on 12 November. The ship again used her 38 cm guns against the bombers, which approached the battleship at 09:35; Tirpitzs main guns forced the bombers to disperse temporarily, but could not break up the attack. A force of 32 Lancasters from Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons dropped 29 Tallboys on the ship, with two direct hits and one near miss. Several other bombs landed within the anti-torpedo net barrier and caused significant cratering of the seabed; this removed much of the sandbank that had been constructed to prevent the ship from capsizing. One bomb penetrated the ship’s deck between turrets Anton and Bruno but failed to explode. A second hit amidships between the aircraft catapult and the funnel and caused severe damage.

Black and white aerial photograph showing an overturned ship

A very large hole was blown in the ship’s side and bottom; the entire section of belt armour abreast of the bomb hit was completely destroyed. A third bomb may have struck the ship on the port side of turret Caesar. Operation Catechism was undertaken by 29 Royal Air Force heavy bombers that attacked the battleship at its anchorage near the Norwegian city of Tromsø. The ship capsized after being hit by at least two bombs and damaged by the explosions of others, killing between 940 and 1,204 members of the crew; the British suffered no casualties.

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Meanwhile, although the Nazi war machine was still producing as much throughout 1944 as it had the previous year, at the end of January 1945 Albert Speer found that in 1944 Allied bombing had meant that Germany produced thirty-five per cent fewer tanks than he had wanted to build and Germany required, as well as thirty-one per cent fewer aircraft and forty-two per cent fewer lorries. In a sense, these statistics justify the Allies’ CBO (Combined Bomber Offensive) as the Battle of the Bulge had demonstrated what the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe were capable of achieving in counter-attack when they had enough tanks and aircraft. The tragic reality was that area-, as well as precision-bombing, was necessary to halt Speer’s miracle, although by 1944 the RAF should perhaps have switched to concentrating more on factories, which could be targeted with greater accuracy than in 1940.

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The estimation that the entire CBO of 1944 reduced German gross industrial production by only ten per cent seems damning, in view of the sacrifices of Allied airmen, the loss of 21,000 bombers and the deaths by bombing of around 720,000 German, Italian and French civilians in the course of the entire war. Yet the entire campaign took up only seven per cent of Britain’s material war effort, and on those grounds could be justified militarily. Through the development of the Mustang to escort Allied bombers as far as Berlin and back, the British had produced an aircraft which could establish dominance over German skies, shooting down a large number of Messerschmitts flown by experienced Luftwaffe pilots, thereby allowing Allied bombers to destroy Luftwaffe factories, including those producing synthetic oil.

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After D-day, efforts had been made by the Americans, as large numbers of B-24 bombers joined the B-17s, to shift concentration towards attacking German synthetic-oil supplies. Harris had opposed this as well, yet by then the Luftwaffe was somehow surviving on ten thousand tons of high-octane fuel a month when 160,000 had once been required. Harris won, and between October 1944 and the end of the war more than forty per cent of the 344,000 tons of bombs dropped by the RAF on Germany hit cities rather than purely military targets, even though the Allies had already achieved complete aerial superiority and the RAF could bomb their targets in daylight once again. On his seventieth birthday on 30 November, Churchill interrupted Portal’s report to criticise the bombing of Holland: Eight to Nine Hundred German casualties against twenty thousand Dutch – awful thing to do that. This led to a row between Portal and Harris, with Harris spiritedly protecting his policy. Portal wanted Bomber Command to concentrate on oil and transportation targets, which Harris still considered mere ‘panacea targets’. Yet the debate was only ever about the efficacy of the bombing offensive, not its morality, over which neither man had any doubts.

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001Berliners greeted their deprived and dangerous Christmas of 1944 with black humour in the form of joke advice as to how to ‘be practical’ in their choice of presents by giving a coffin; a further piece was to enjoy the war while you can, the peace will be terrible. The constant Allied air raids were bad, but worse was the knowledge that a 6.7 million-strong Red Army was massing on the Reich’s borders from the Baltic to the Adriatic, with their city as the ultimate goal. This was significantly larger than the army with which Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, a great achievement for sure, but one which was aided by the United States’ Lend-Lease Scheme, under which more than five thousand aircraft, seven thousand tanks, many thousands of lorries, fifteen million pairs of boots and prodigious quantities of food, supplies, arms, and ammunition were shipped to the Soviet Union. Valued at $10 billion in total, representing seven per cent of the USSR’s total output, this allowed the Soviets to concentrate production on areas where they were most efficient. So, when they wished each other Prosit Neujahr! for 1945, few Berliners clinked glasses. The irony was not lost on them that, before the war, their ‘liberal’ city had been the most anti-Nazi place in Germany, yet now it faced destruction because of its most prominent resident, who had returned from the Wolfschanze on 20 November.

By contrast, as the year ended in Moscow, it was hailed as ‘The Year of Ten Victories’ by the Soviets, who had an unbroken run of victories since the relief of Leningrad in January 1944. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been liberated from Hitler’s yoke by Christmas, only to fall beneath Soviet rule once more, and this time until 1989. Hitler continued to insist that the bridgehead between Memel and Kurland enclaves must be held by an entire army. Thus his forces were trapped in the Kurland pocket, which the Red Army came to regard as a gigantic POW camp maintained for them by the Wehrmacht, and so did not force it to surrender until the end of the war. Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group North in Latvia put the German in dire ‘straits’ on the Baltic coastline. The much-vaunted new generation of U-boats, supposedly faster, indefinitely submersible and undetectable, did not come on stream in sufficient quantities to maintain the supplies of Swedish iron ore, or to maroon the Allies on the continent without their convoys’ supplies. As the Western Allies advanced slowly to the Rhine, the Soviets burst across the Vistula and then, after clearing Pomerania and Silesia, reached the Oder-Neisse line by the spring. Hitler continued to conduct all operations from a bomb-proof bunker deep beneath the Chancellery in Berlin. His orders were always the same: stand fast, hold on, shoot any waverers and sell your own lives as dearly as possible. The German army’s total losses in 1944 were already immense, adding up to the equivalent of more than a hundred divisions.

Statistical Appendix:

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Sources:

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

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors.  London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

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

Hermann Kinder & Werner Hilgemann, The Penguin Atlas of World History, vol. II. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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

October-December 1939: The Not-so-Phoney War at Sea & in Poland and Finland.   Leave a comment

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Above: HMS Royal Oak at anchor in 1937

The Royal Oak & the Graf Spee; Orkney to Montevideo:

Eighty years ago, On 14 October 1939, HMS Royal Oak was anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland, when she was torpedoed by Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s submarine U-47. It got through a fifty-foot gap in the defences of Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship, of which three hit the ship, capsizing it. After the sinking of HMS Courageous the previous month, this was an almost equally spectacular symbolic success for the Kriegsmarine. Of Royal Oaks complement of 1,234 men and boys, 835 were killed, 810 in only thirteen minutes that night, the others dying later of their wounds.  While the loss of the outdated ship, the first of the five Royal Navy battleships and battlecruisers sunk in the Second World War, did little to affect the numerical superiority enjoyed by the British navy and its Allies, the sinking had a considerable effect on wartime morale. The raid made an immediate celebrity and war hero out of Günther Prien, who became the first German submarine officer to be awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Before the sinking of Royal Oak, the Royal Navy had considered the naval base at Scapa Flow impregnable to submarine attack, and U-47s raid demonstrated that the German Navy was capable of bringing the war to British home waters. The shock resulted in rapid changes to dockland security and the construction of the Churchill Barriers around Scapa Flow.

002 (2)One task of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles; this could be done by low-flying Heinkel He-IIIS and by E-boats (motor torpedo boats, shown in the painting on the right) and destroyers. Lacking a large surface fleet, the German Navy used small vessels for fast hit-and-run attacks.

By the end of November, these had sunk twenty-nine British ships, including the destroyer HMS Gipsy and had also put the brand-new cruiser HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Through the immense bravery of bomb-disposal experts Lieutenant-Commanders R C Lewis and J. G. D. Ouvry, who removed the two detonators, one of which was ticking audibly, from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, the secrets of the steel-hull activated device were discovered. Within a month, Admiralty scientists had discovered ways of counteracting the mines by fitting electric cables around ships’ hulls, to create a negative magnetic, or ‘degaussed’ field. Soon afterwards a means of blowing up the mines, using wooden-hulled trawlers towing buoyant electrical cables, was also invented.

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The map above shows the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, from 1939 to 1941, with the green line showing the areas of severe U-boat impact. While in the U-boat Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon and it also had three purpose-built ‘pocket-battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, launched early in the war, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, as in the First World War, Germany was once again made use of its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. Its formidable capital ships were used as raiders against British commerce. Tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British resources. It was the spotting, disabling and forced scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee that was the RN’s greatest victory during the so-called Phoney War. Operating off South American coast, Captain Hans Lansdorff’s ship had enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war, sinking ten ships totalling more than fifty thousand tons. The term ‘pocket’ battleship is somewhat misleading, however, since although a limit of ten thousand tons had been imposed on German warships by the Treaty of Versailles, once the Graf Spee was loaded up with her six eight-inch, eight 5.9-inch and six 4.1-inch guns, as well as ammunition and stores, she weighed more than half as much again.

In the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December, off the coast of Uruguay, the German ship took on the eight-inch guns of the cruiser HMS Exeter, along with the six-inch guns of the light cruisers HMS Ajax and the New Zealander-crewed HMS Achilles, badly damaging the first two ships. However, she was eventually outfought by the three British cruisers and was forced into the harbour of Montevideo, capital of neutral Uruguay, on 15 December by the pounding she had received. Langsdorff then magnanimously released the Allied sailors he captured from ships he had sunk, who reported they had been well-treated. Then, mistakenly trusting to BBC radio broadcasts about the imminent arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, and unable to hire a small plane to see whether this was in fact so, Langsdorff then sailed the Graf Spee to the entrance of Montevideo  harbour just before dusk on Sunday, 17 December and scuttled her. The explosions were watched by over twenty thousand spectators on the shore and heard on the radio by millions around the world. In fact, only the cruiser HMS Cumberland had managed to reach Montevideo; the BBC had patriotically participated in releasing a giant ‘fake news’ story. Five days later, Langsdorff shot himself.

Back to Europe: Poland, the Baltic States & Finland:

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Meanwhile, in Poland, by 5 October, resistance to the Nazi-Soviet Pact forces had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers taken captive by Soviets, 619,000 by Germans; up to 100,000 escaped via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania to join Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister in exile in Angers, France. Seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, and 130,000 soldiers lay wounded. A hundred thousand Poles in the Russian ‘sector’ were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, from which hardly any returned. Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw by special train to visit victorious troops. Then, on 10 October, Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from northern Sweden to Germany and establishing U-boat stations along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for an invasion in January 1940. At that point, Hitler did not want to divert troops from the attack he was planning in the west and was persuaded to do so only by signs that the Allies were planning to invade Norway themselves, possibly using aid for Finland as a cloak for their actions.

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

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Britain was at War:

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

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

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

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

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

Appendices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documents:

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

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

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

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

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

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

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

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

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

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

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

The Final Steps to European War:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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The Halt in the Holocaust in Hungary & The Second Stage of the ‘Shoah’, August – November 1944: Part II.   Leave a comment

Raoul Wallenberg’s Protective Passports:

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After a month in the Hungarian capital, the Secretary of the Swedish Embassy there, Raoul Wallenberg, had to decide quickly on the form of Schutz Pass, or ‘protective passport’ (‘SP’) he would use in his humanitarian relief work with the Jews of Budapest. He attached a specimen to his report to Stockholm of 16 August. It was an important part of his assignment to provide 1,500 Hungarians with temporary passports as protective documents. These could be persons with very close family links with Sweden, or who had been for a long time closely connected to Swedish commercial life, a number that rose later to 4,500. The issue of the new Swedish protective document came with a structure:  a long-term Swedish connection had to be proved documentarily, while the Schutzbrief issued by Langlet had no such condition attached. Wallenberg quickly perceived the scope of humanitarian action. He was a good organiser and had numerous Hungarian colleagues in the accomplishment of tasks. He soon appreciated the unreliability of the Hungarian political élite and its tendency to vacillate, experiencing the many ways in which responsibility could be evaded. Most of his Hungarian acquaintances were ashamed of what was happening to the Jews but insisted that the brutality was exclusively the work of the Germans. Unlike them, he saw clearly what could be described as the Hungarian hara-kiri, and stressed the responsibility of Hungarians, making it clear that anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Hungary. He pointed out that Jews on forced labour were not allowed to take shelter during air-raids, leading him to the conclusion that the Christian population evinced only a very luke-warm sympathy, and that it would be very difficult for the Jews to avoid their doom by flight.

The Swedish protective passport in Hungarian and German, with the holder’s photograph, was not acknowledged in international law and had no force. Nonetheless, its influence could not be underestimated. In the summer of 1944, it commanded a certain respect and carried a message. In the presence of immediate lethal danger, many saw in it the chance of escape, of organised defence and the embodiment of their hopes of survival. In August more and more groups of Jews in fear of deportation came to him. The news of his protective passport spread like wildfire and long queues waited on Gellérthegy outside the Humanitarian Section of the Swedish Embassy. From 16 August, a further building was rented and applicants were received from 4 p.m., with questionnaires filled in and six photographs. These were the conditions imposed by the Hungarian government for asylum documents. On the 22nd, the Ministry produced an order on the subject of the exemption of individuals from the regulations relating to Jews. By mid-September, the strength of Wallenberg’s Hungarian apparatus was approaching a hundred. He provided extra accommodation for them at Gellérthegy and also on Naphegy, where ten rooms and a cellar were rented, and round-the-clock shift-work was instituted.

The taking on of colleagues, the formation of an effective organisation and the thorough checking of the data submitted in applications for the Swedish document all took time. The apparatus required for this grew constantly. On 29 September, he reported to the Swedish Foreign Ministry that the entire staff including families number about three hundred persons and are exempt from wearing stars and forced labour. By that time 2,700 letters of protection had been issued and the numbers of those who had gained exemptions from wearing stars exceeded the original 4,500 by a further 1,100. For the first four months of the humanitarian action, it would have been impossible for the Swedish passport of protection to be handed out as a gift to those who did not have clear Swedish connections. That came later when the Arrow Cross reign of terror meant that people were in fear for their lives in an imminent sense. Then, resourceful Jews would copy names (similar to their own) and addresses from the Swedish telephone directories held in the Budapest head post office and send a ‘reply paid’ telegram. Kind-hearted Swedes, realising that the sender was pleading for his or her life, would then confirm the ‘relationship’ by return telegram. Wallenberg’s biographer, Jenő Lévai, has concluded that very many obtained protective passports and escaped through letters or reply telegrams from complete strangers.

The embassy’s work offered reasonable security against the constant threat of deportation. Those employed on humanitarian work received a legitimising card from the Embassy of the Kingdom of Sweden in Budapest and a special personal card from the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior. This exempted them from wearing the yellow Star of David and from the ever-more widespread duties of forced labour within the army. Wallenberg had essentially established a system of dual nationality, and this repeatedly aroused the suspicion of both the SS and the Hungarian authorities. According to a German Embassy note of 29 September, the director of the Budapest political section of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry was thinking that the Swedish Embassy should be called to order in a responsible, clear and sharp tone.

By mid-October, Vilmos Langfelder’s family had come under the protection of the Swedish Embassy and he moved to the central office of the Humanitarian Section at Űllői út on the Pest side of the city. Langfelder probably came into contact with Wallenberg because of his knowledge of German and his ability to drive. Within a short time, he had become the Swedish diplomat’s close associate as his chauffeur. His SP had been issued on 20 August, when he had belonged to a forced labour unit under Swedish protection. Langfelder took charge of Elek Kelecsényi’s Steyr car for the purpose of life-saving work. According to Lévai, Wallenberg sent out an Instruction which set out what had to be done to save holders of Swedish protective documents from the clutches of armed bandits, potentially a lethal undertaking. This summed up the dramatic essence of the immediate life-saving work:

Members of this section must be on constant duty day and night. There are no days off. If anyone is arrested, let them hope for much help, and if they do good work let them not expect thanks.

Langfelder frequently found himself driving Wallenberg, at night, to someplace where people needed his protection. Among the couriers and agents, disappearances were frequent, especially when they went into one of the Arrow Cross houses to inquire about a missing person, exposing themselves to a world of pain and indescribable horrors. Increasingly, abductions and murders were carried out in broad daylight. László Hollós and Ödön Ullman were on their way to inform Wallenberg of an Arrow Cross assault on a hospital when they were arrested and murdered.  In the countryside, the role of the Hungarian actress Vali Rácz has also been recognised by Israel. She hid many families from Budapest in her home in the countryside after the initial deportations but was denounced to the invading Red Army for fraternising with German soldiers (in order to protect her ‘guests’) and almost shot as a collaborator. A Red Army Colonel intervened to stop this and she was exonerated. There were also some members of the army and police who saved people (Pál Szalai, Károly Szabó, and other officers who took Jews out from camps with fake papers) as well as some local church institutions and personalities.

Rudolph Kasztner also deserves special attention because of his enduring negotiations with Eichmann to prevent deportations to Auschwitz, succeeding only minimally, by sending Jews to still horrific labour battalions in Austria and ultimately saving 1,680 Jews on what became known as ‘Kastner’s train’, which by the beginning of August had left Bergen-Belsen with its human ‘cargo’ bound for Palestine.

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Those left in the ‘Jewish houses’ and the ghettoes were increasingly targeted for forced labour gangs. They were lined up in the streets, marched off, ceaselessly shouted at, trudging off to Óbuda in broad daylight. Klára Tüdős’ recollection draws a concise picture for posterity:

Dreadful rumours circulated about Jews interned at brick-works and cattle-trucks with barbed wire on them, and as dawn broke processions of people wearing stars would set off in the streets of Pest. These things are mixed up inside me together with the wailing of sirens, like a delirious dream.

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The Extreme Right’s Reign of Terror begins:

The coming to power of Ferenc Szálasi and his followers on 15 October through the armed intervention of the SS was the nadir of the Horthy régime, its bloodstained final act. Under the Arrow Cross Party, terror became the tool of the totalitarianism of the extreme Right. Its ranks were swelled in particular by the lumpen elements of the underworld and misguided youth that could recognise the chance for unrestrained robbery and violence. On 15 October, Daisy Lászlo’s father, the tallest man in the apartment block, removed the yellow star from the front door. By the afternoon, however, he realised that with this act he had risked his life again. Since he was aware of the politics of the janitor’s wife, he secretly left the house in the dark, but before the doors would have been locked. She must have said something to the Arrow Cross thugs, however, because the following evening a heavily intoxicated young man, wearing the party uniform, kept banging on the Lászlo family’s door, looking for Mr Lászlo. The story continues below, in Daisy’s own words:

He searched every room, causing terrible alarm among the families placed there because he pushed and shoved everybody, shouted and took whatever he laid his eyes on. He was brandishing his revolver, and we were scared that he would start shooting. There was a large table in the entrance hall of the apartment, around which we took our meals, mostly together. He dragged off the tablecloth and packed in it the stuff he had collected from the various rooms. It seemed that he had forgotten why he had come and we were hoping that he would take the bundle and leave. He was proceeding toward the front door when he changed his mind, returned and demanded a drink. Jews were not permitted to purchase alcohol, but somebody must have had something stashed away, because after a short discussion, a bottle appeared on the table. While he was sipping from the bottle, he … informed us that he was an actor. He jumped on the dining room table, and began reciting Petőfi’s poem, ‘The Lunatic’. 

He got totally carried away, stomping with his feet, his face distorted; he seemed in a trance. I do not know how much of the poem he had recited, whether he knew it by heart, or made mistakes, but when he finished there was a thunderous applause and … bows on the table, surrounded by his terrified public. … He told us that he would go home … but would return the following day and continue the recital. He threw the bundle over his shoulder and staggered out the front door. … stumbling toward the street corner. He did not return, neither the following day, nor ever. We did not know what had happened to him, but for days we feared that he would reappear. 

After Szálasi and his men took over the government a rapid series of changes of personnel took place in the organisations providing the protection of the regime. New organisations were formed including, on 17 October, the State Security Police, the Hungarian Gestapo, was re-formed. Its activity extended to all opponents of the Germans and the Arrow Cross, irrespective of rank or status. On the 26th, the ‘National Unit for Accountability’ came into being, responsible for extinguishing the lives of many civilians. In the implementation of its laws, decrees and orders, the régime could rely on the gendarmerie, the police and the armed formations of the Arrow Cross Party. In what followed, those that belonged to the service slaughtered a large number of army deserters, Jewish forced labourers and people arrested during raids, increasingly and frequently on the spot. Apart from the scale of the violence, the deluge of accompanying decrees, renewed orders and contradictory instructions increased the turmoil. A wholesale breakdown occurred in the army, the police and public administration. From 28 October, Arrow Cross members received regular payments from the state to carry out robbery and murder on a grand scale. They not only had the right to bear arms but also formed the local detective, investigative, interrogation and enquiry squads. They could act on their own authority to create the ever more tragic and corrupt conditions which they considered ‘order’. In the practice of totalitarian dictatorship, the paramilitary members of the Party knew no bounds.

A typical element of the Hungarista programme was the widespread persecution and terrorising of the Jews. Following the assumption of power, party terrorists attacked starred houses in Budapest and Jewish forced labour barracks. For example, one of Daisy’s schoolfriends, Marika, lived with her mother in what became a ‘Jewish house’ after 19 March. Marika’s biological father was not Jewish but he refused to marry Marika’s Jewish mother because he was a close crony of Miklós Horthy, entitled as vitéz (‘man of valour’), a title he would have lost if he had been known to have married a ‘Jewess’. In June, Marika had been sent to a summer camp in Balatonboglár, run by Sisters in the Catholic Church. She was given a fictitious name and false papers, along with two other girls. One night they were awakened by gendarmes and pulled out of bed. She was so traumatised by this that thereafter she frequently peed herself. She ‘escaped’ and left for Budapest on foot, where she eventually returned to her house where she fell into the arms of her mother, kissed and cried, and ate sausage in the pantry. Her return lasted until 15 October, when her mother greeted Horthy’s abortive proclamation by opening a bottle of champagne. Happiness lasted a very short time. Marika’s mother helped to forge documents, while her mother was placed in one of the ‘protected houses’. Once, when Marika was visiting her with her aunt Duncy, Arrow Cross soldiers raided the area. Her aunt yelled at one of them, outraged that he had dared to ask for her papers.

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Meanwhile, Marika’s mother became seriously ill with meningitis, and her sister arranged for her to be taken (with false papers) to the Szent István Kórház. Marika could still visit her there, where she eventually died. One night her uncle urged them to leave their new house in Benczúr utca, and they found refuge in the cellar of a nearby pharmacy owned by a relative. Next day the Arrow Cross raided the house, ordered everyone in it down to the courtyard and shot them all dead. When the siege of Budapest began, Marika, her aunt and her grandmother did not dare go down to the air-raid shelter. By that time, they were living in hiding alongside Polish and Czech refugees. One day the Arrow Cross soldiers marched the refugees down to the bank of the Danube and shot them into the river. Daisy herself narrowly escaped a similar fate during that autumn, when she spent several days wandering alone, stealing her food from outside grocery stores. She found herself in Szent István Park and was thrown into a column of thirty people being marched towards the lower embankment of the Danube under the guns of two young Arrow Cross hoodlums. She recalled:

We progressed silently, adults and children, without anyone protesting or crying. But when we reached the small underpass, and I was hit by the familiar stench of urine, without thinking about the consequences, I simply turned right and left the group.

Nothing happened and no one called out. I turned around the corner … Only after the Liberation did I hear that Jews had been shot into the Danube from the lower embankment of the Pest side … I never mentioned this episode to anyone fearing that people would think I had made it up out of a need to create a heroic story; that I was ashamed that while so many from our family had been murdered, I had not come close enough to death.    

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Another of Daisy’s friends, Vera S, had already lost her relatives in the countryside to Auschwitz in the summer, but she still lived in Budapest with her parents and grandparents, where their apartment building had become a ‘Jewish house’ and their apartment filled up with strangers. The residents were ordered down into the courtyard several times and were threatened with deportation. On one such occasion, when they were permitted to return to their apartment, they found the rooms ransacked and most of their belongings missing, even Vera’s dolls were gone. Then, shortly after 15 October, the men in the house were rounded up. Running to the balcony, Vera and her mother tried to see where the group was being taken, but Vera’s father, looking up and fearing for their safety, motioned with his hand, urging them to go back inside. That was the last time they saw him. A postcard arrived from Valkó, where they had been taken on foot. From there, Vera’s father was deported to a concentration camp. They knew nothing more of his fate.

Shortly after that, Vera’s mother had to report to the Óbuda brick factory and the children were placed in a Jewish orphanage. Vera escaped and rejoined her brother when their grandparents found shelter in a Swedish ‘protected house’. Their mother escaped from the brick factory, bought false papers from their former janitor, and went into hiding. The following day, the Arrow Cross took the orphans from the ghetto and shot them all into the Danube. Thereafter, Vera and her brother stayed with their grandparents where they lived with twenty other surviving children, in one room. These children knew nothing of their parents and were starving. One day, Vera’s mother arrived at the ‘protected house’ but Vera couldn’t recognise her because she had dyed her hair to fit her false papers. Vera later recalled:

She said that when the Russians fully surround the city, and we will have to die, she will return that we should die together. She did come back, but fortunately we did not die.

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On 30 October, German soldiers arrived in the house on the Pest side of the Danube where Iván lived with his family. They entered their apartment in the company of Miki, the janitor’s son who was wearing his Arrow Cross uniform. Although Miki had been Iván’s friend and playmate for the past decade, that did not prevent him from handing him over to the Nazis. Requiring additional labourers, the Germans had the help of the Arrow Cross in collecting men over sixty and boys under sixteen from the surrounding ‘starred houses’. By then Iván’s father had been away for years in a forced labour camp, and after their paint shop had been closed under anti-Jewish legislation, his mother had supported their two boys, her mother and herself by making artificial flower arrangements. Iván and his group of conscripted labourers were taken to Lepsény in western Hungary where they were made by the Wehrmacht to organise a military depot next to the local railroad station. They worked there throughout November, emptying trains that carried military supplies and filling military trucks with winter clothing for soldiers. Iván later learned that his brother Ervin, who had a weaker constitution, had also been sent to Transdanubia and had died while digging ditches. He was buried in a mass grave near Győr. Iván was the only survivor from those who were taken from his apartment house.

Ágnes B, another of Daisy’s friends was just ten years old when her father was drafted as a forced labourer. Soon after 15 October, Arrow Cross soldiers came to their apartment house, where they lived with her mother’s sister’s family. They rounded up all the women under forty, including her mother, who did not resist, despite being only weeks away from her fortieth birthday. Ági recalled her leaving:

My mother put on a fur-lined coat because it had been very cold. I followed her across the yard until the gate and I watched as she joined the group of Jewish women. She wrote one card from the road to Austria, telling me that they had been placed in a pigsty overnight. I never saw her again…

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Life for all the remaining Jews in Budapest became increasingly difficult, but the access to Swiss and Swedish protection documents could provide some amelioration. Daisy’s friend’s mother was able to procure copies of the ‘protection documents’ Wallenberg had been handing out, but it was too late to use them because the Germans occupied their house and transported both sets of grandparents to the ghetto. Kati was sent to live with distant relatives, where she got false papers and a new name to learn, along with the names of her seven new ‘sisters and brothers’. She was with relatives, but still felt ‘terribly alone’. Although she looked ‘Aryan’ (see the picture below), she was not allowed out on the street. Another friend, Tomi, was twelve in 1944, by which time his entirely assimilated family had decided to convert to Catholicism, mainly to avoid the increasing restrictions placed upon Jews. In June, they had been forced to leave their apartment on the first floor of a Rózsadomb villa and moved to a ‘Jewish house’. By this time, Tomi’s father was in a forced labour camp and after 15 October, all three had to report to the brick family of Óbuda, from where they were supposed to be deported. Tomi’s father was able to provide them with Swiss protection documents and, therefore, three days later, they were moved to the overcrowded ghetto.

Wallenberg’s Responses and Reports:

The sudden turn of events took the Swedish embassy organisation by surprise, as it did the humanitarian activists too. Wallenberg himself had been expecting Hungary to pull out of the war, which had been much talked about in Budapest social circles as the government’s intention. He was also calculating when the Red Army would reach Budapest, and was thinking of going back to Stockholm a few days before it happened. Up to 15 October, the Swedish Embassy had received eight thousand applications and 3,500 had been granted the SP. A week after Szálasi’s rise to power Wallenberg reported that armed bandits have attacked those in possession of protective passports and torn them up. The Hungarian staff had reacted to this unexpected turn of events by going into hiding, as he noted:

The events have had a catastrophic effect on the section, the entire staff has absented itself, and a car which was placed at our disposal free of charge, together with the keys of various locked places and cupboards etc., have vanished.

In order to put some spirit and courage back into his dismayed colleagues, Wallenberg cycled through the bandit-infested streets in order to pick up the threads of his work again, a procedure which was fraught with risks. Instead of the peace that many had yearned and hoped for a fresh wave of destruction began. On 16 October the head of the Arrow Cross Party staff decreed that Jews were not to leave their homes until further notice. Buildings designated by stars of David were to be kept shut day and night. Until further notice, only non-Jews might go in and out. Non-Jews were not allowed to visit Jews. On 18 October, one of his Swedish officers reported that the new government had introduced strict anti-Jewish regulations and that the entire Jewish staff of the Embassy was in mortal danger. A crowd of Jews seeking revenge was besieging the embassy, which was incapable of accommodating them.

In the course of renewed the renewed persecutions, the previous forms of protection lost their usefulness. Beginning on 20 October, armed Arrow Cross men lined up tens of thousands of men aged between sixteen and sixty, on two trotting-tracks, dividing them into labour-companies and took them off. The one suburban sports ground, in Zugló, became the mustering place for Jewish women, as directed on posters. The assigned Jews of the city were made to work on fortifications, digging defensive ditches. Renewed talks with the black-uniformed, green-shirted Arrow Cross leaders were required, as were new methods of saving people. Wallenberg quickly made contact with Szálasi’s Foreign Minister, Baron Gábor Kemény. In matters of the “Jewish Question” and other ‘Jew-related’ topics he later had to deal with the Foreign Ministry. On 21st, he reached an agreement with Kemény that the Hungarian authorities would give the staff of the Royal Swedish Embassy and members of their families exceptional treatment. They were exempted from wearing the yellow star; from all kinds of forced labour; they were not obliged to live in starred houses, and allowed to go out onto the streets without curfew. This rapid agreement gave hope to several hundred people by officially extending the scope of Swedish protection. It also gave Wallenberg the room to prevent the complete destruction of the Budapest Jews.

This became known, along with the change of régime in Budapest, on 24 October in Bern, Washington and New York (World Jewish Congress), at the Red Cross International Council centre in Geneva and elsewhere. However, the Szálasi government quickly realised its mistake, and drastically reduced the scope of the exemption by the end of October. On 29th, it restricted the circle of those exempted by a ‘variation of decree’. For his part, Wallenberg worked at adding to the exemption that had been obtained and at retaining the greater and lesser fruits of the talks. Protection from the embassy was, in reality, frequently nothing more than a thread of hope. The ‘protected’ houses offered an unstable, relative refuge. Security and day-to-day survival were unpredictable and depended on luck and the movements and whims of the armed Arrow Cross men. Exactly a year later, on 24 October 1945, Béla Zsedenyi, President of the Provisional National Assembly, meeting in Debrecen, thanked King Gustav V of Sweden, the Swedish people and the Swedish diplomatic mission in the name of the Hungarian nation for their help in the humanitarian activity in 1944. He described the defensive stand taken by embassy secretary Wallenberg as “invaluable service”, emphasising that…

… he had taken a selfless and heroic part of decisive significance in warding off the acts of mass muder planned against innocent and defenceless citizens, and by his resolve had succeeded in saving the good name of the Hungarian people from further stain.

By that time, Wallenberg had disappeared at the end of a bitter winter during which he and his staff at the Swedish Embassy Annex had succeeded in saving the lives of thousands more, enabling them to survive the war and the terror in Budapest.

Return to Auschwitz:

Those already deported from the Hungarian countryside to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau had no means of protection, of course, and continued to face ‘extermination’ in the camps. Daisy Lászlo’s Uncle Samu and his family had been deported to Auschwitz from Dunaszerdahely in the summer. His wife, Aunt Berta was his second cousin, a fact which was constantly mentioned on the fringes of family visits and gatherings because both of their boys had disabilities. The older son, Nándi, had a speech impediment, and the younger one, Ármin, was almost totally deaf. All that was learnt of the family in 1945 was that they were among the hundreds of thousands of victims, but neither the place nor the time of their deaths was known. In 2010, an Israeli relative found the story of Ármin’s last months among the files of the International Tracing Service in Germany. This showed that on 25 October, he was transferred from Dachau back to Auschwitz.

During the last months of the war, thousands of Jews were returned to Auschwitz for extermination because they were considered too weak to work. As is shown below, Ármin’s physical description (including height, eye colour, the shape of mouth and ears) accompanied the transfer. His mother’s maiden name, his permanent domicile were also recorded. His signature at the bottom of this document led Daisy to believe that Ármin’s had been a special case, perhaps because of his deafness. However, she then found out that during the autumn of 1944, over five hundred inmates were returned to Auschwitz within a few weeks, accompanied by the exact same documents. Clearly, the Nazi coup in Budapest had had indirect effects in quickening the death machine of Auschwitz.

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Sources:

Andrew J Chandler (2012), As the Land Remembers Them. Kecskemét: self-published, http://www.chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com.

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

Nóra Szekér, Domokos Szent-Iványi and His Book, Part I, in Hungarian Review, Volume IV, No. 6. Budapest, November 2013

Domokos Szent-Iványi, The Hungarian Independence Movement, Excerpts, Descent into the Maelstrom, Hungarian Review, loc.cit.

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-1946. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

James C Bennett & Michael J Lotus, America, England, Europe – Why do we differ? Hungarian Review, loc.cit.

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

István Lázár, (1989), The History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

Szabolcs Szita (2012), The Power of Humanity. Budapest: Corvina.

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Marianna D. Birnbaum & Judith Flesch Rose (ed.)(2016), 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. Budapest: Corvina.

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The Halt in the Holocaust in Hungary & The Second Stage of the ‘Shoah’, August – November 1944: Part I.   Leave a comment

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The Eden Memorandum on Migration to Palestine:

The National Archives in London has recently released a secret document from 8 August 1944, a Memorandum prepared for the War Cabinet by Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, of an “offer” from Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, that, provided the United Kingdom and the United States governments could find sufficient accommodation, the Hungarian government would be prepared to allow all Jewish children under ten years of age, with visas for other countries, and all adults and children with Palestine immigration certificates, to leave Hungary. Horthy also announced that there would be no further transportations of Jews to Poland, i.e. to Auschwitz. This document, and the attached correspondence between Washington and Whitehall, is significant in that it clarifies the controversy about if, when and how Horthy acted to bring the deportations to an end, and to enable the remaining Jews (mainly trapped in Budapest, many of them refugees from other countries) to seek asylum elsewhere. The matter was discussed at the War Cabinet Committee on Refugees meeting on 4 June, although Eden himself was not present. The Government faced a dilemma, since refusing to accept this offer would result in a hostile public reaction both in the United States and Britain, but accepting it would be ‘risking civil war in Palestine owing to the inroad of Jews from Hungary into the Levant.’  Despite the obvious urgency of the situation, the Cabinet reached a ‘no-decision’. The proposal of the International Red Cross for the almost immediate removal of 41,000 Jews from Hungary to Romania alarmed the meeting, which was generally against joining the US in accepting. The Secretary of State for the Colonies argued that the British Empire would be signing a blank cheque which we could not honour.

Although both Foreign Office and Home Office secretaries argued that the offer should be accepted in concert with the USA, they felt that in doing so the US Government must accept that the British authorities should not be forced to deliver the impossible in terms of accommodating the refugees, and it was eventually agreed to extend the transit camp originally established for Yugoslav refugees, especially to contain a potential sudden influx of immigrants to Palestine. There had even been suspicions expressed within the Cabinet that Hitler himself had inspired Horthy’s offer in order to create fundamental difficulties for the Allies in the Near East by allowing an exodus of Jews. Certainly, at this point, we know that the Regency in Budapest was incapable of acting independently from the occupying Nazi forces and Hitler’s all-powerful agent in the capital, Veesenmayer. It was not until the end of the month that the Romanians defected from the Axis camp and it became possible for a more independent Hungarian government to be formed again, so the Allies were rightly cautious about any overtures from Budapest at this stage.

Colonel Koszorús’ Unparalleled Action:

However, not to accept the offer would give the Nazis and the pro-Nazi Hungarian government a propaganda coup, and Eden agreed that the acceptance of the offer should be widely publicised and that the Dominion governments should be asked to help in receiving some of the refugees. He also suggested that it might be necessary to establish a transit camp in Syria in order to prevent the situation in Palestine from becoming ‘acute’. In a flurry of telegrams, the US Government agreed to wait before accepting the offer until after the full British War Cabinet on 8th, although before writing his Cabinet memorandum, Eden had already sent a third telegram to Washington signalling the British Government’s acceptance, subject to the detailed terms of transport and accommodation being agreed by the two governments. What effect this agreement had in Hungary we do not yet know, neither can we say that the deportations had been ended by this time, whatever the Regent’s intentions might have been. Horthy had originally ordered their suspension on 6 July, but a further 45,000 Jews from Transdanubia and the County of Pest had continued to be deported after that date. The most effective action to shield the Jews of Budapest had been taken on the initiative of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús in July, having important consequences for the survival of the Regency into the later summer and autumn:

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Holocaust, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust himself and a liberal Democrat who served as Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recognised Colonel Ferenc Koszorús:

‘Colonel Koszorús’ unparalleled action (in July 1944) was the only case in which Axis powers used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by three and a half months. This hiatus allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest, thus sparing them from certain execution. It also permitted the famous Raoul Wallenberg , who arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission…’

(Hon. Tom Lantos, ‘Ferenc Koszurús: A Hero of the Hungarian Holocaust’, Congressional Record, 26 May 1994.)

We know that the Sztójay Government had rescheduled the deportation of the Budapest Jews for 27 August, but the Romanians switched sides on 23rd, and it was Himmler who cancelled any further deportations on 27th.

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Raids on the Roma & Horthy’s ‘Hiatus’:

Throughout August and September, the horrors of ‘all-out’ warfare had continued within Hungary and its occupied territories, with massacres by government troops and continued forced marches. These were also experienced increasingly by the Roma communities (pictured above). In August and September, the remaining Roma were subjected to raids on their villages, pressing the men into forced labour companies. The first massacre of gipsies took place on 5 October in Doboz, Békés County, where twenty Roma, including women and children, were killed by hand grenades and machine-guns of the Hungarian first armoured division’s military police, acting together with the local gendarmes. Later that month, the Roma were ordered not to leave their permanent residences. At the same time, there were some signs of hopes for peace that late summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann’s SS, and this led to a ‘hiatus’ in the anti-Jewish campaign. 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’.

In spite of the change to a more ‘neutral’ government under General Lakatos, Hungarian troops occupied parts of Southern Transylvania, Romania, and massacred hundreds of Jews, starting on 4 September. Soviet units then reached the borders established by Trianon later that month and then moved across these into Szeged, where Horthy had begun his journey to power twenty-five years earlier. His failure as an Axis ally was now complete as a gigantic tank battle took place around Debrecen in early October. By mid-October, the Soviet Red Army entered the outskirts of Pest and Horthy, finally, tried desperately to agree on an armistice. Throughout the short period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours had abounded in Budapest 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. 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 cabled a draft armistice agreement from Moscow requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. Horthy’s hesitation over this gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.

On Sunday morning, 15 October, 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 Buda 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.

Rudolph (Rézső) 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 described 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 signalling 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.

Victims, Survivors and Heroes:

childhood-memories 

Tom Leimdorfer, pictured here as a young child during the war, has narrated the effect of the events of 15 October on his family’s struggle to survive in Budapest, and especially in terms of their decision to go into hiding:

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.

 

After the Arrow Cross coup d’état on 15 October, tens of thousands of Jews of Budapest were sent on foot to the Austrian border in death marches, and most of the remaining forced labourers under Hungarian Army command were deported to Bergen-Belsen. One of these forced labourers was the poet, Miklós Radnóti.

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On the same day the War Cabinet met in London, 8 August to discuss the proposed evacuation of Jewish children from Budapest, Miklós Radnóti wrote the following from his work camp in the mountains above Zagubica in Yugoslavia:

ROOT 

Root, now, gushes with its power, 

rain to drink and earth to grow,

and its dream is white as snow.

Earthed, it heaves above the earthly,

crafty in its clamberings,

arm clamped like a cable’s strings.

On its wrists pale worms are sleeping,

and its ankles worms caress;

world is but  wormeatenness.

Root, though, for the world cares nothing,

thrives and labours there below,

labours for the leafthick bough;

marvels at the bough it nurses,

liquors succulent and sweet,

feeds celestially sweet.

Root is what I am, rootpoet,

here at home among the worms,

finding here the poem’s terms.

I the root was once the flower,

under these dim tons my bower,

comes the shearing of the thread,

deathsaw wailing overhead.

Radnóti’s words continued to be prophetic. The death saw continued to ‘wail overhead’ for many caught up in the Hungarian holocaust. Miklós Radnóti himself was one of these, and one of Hungary’s greatest poets of the twentieth century. Born in Budapest in 1909, from its very beginning, Radnóti’s life was overshadowed by tragedy. At his birth, both his mother and twin brother died. The ‘Numerus Clausus Act’ of September 1920, the first anti-Semitic law in Europe, required that the number of Jews in Hungarian universities be reduced to six per cent. Barred from the University of Budapest, Radnóti enrolled at Szeged University, where he read French and Hungarian literature and was awarded a PhD in 1934. In response to the country’s shift to the right, there were a number of groups arising on the centre-left, liberal, populist and social democratic. Continuing in the liberal tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century Hungarian poets, Radnóti was among the young people in favour of social change. He joined the Art Forum of Szeged Youth, a populist movement addressing the plight of Hungarian peasants, supporting agrarian reform. Drawing on Hungarian folklore, they identified with the national poet Sándor Petőfi and musicians like Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.  Inspired by the left-wing idealism common among writers and artists of the time, both inside Hungary and from outside, Radnóti cherished the values he developed in this group for the rest of his life. He also insisted on his identity as a Catholic and a Hungarian poet for the rest of his life, though his country branded him as a Jew. Once identified as such, regardless of his own detentions, he was effectively sentenced to death.

Despite his darkest premonitions, Radnóti’s work also continued to flourish, especially after his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Fanni Gyarmati, who had been the central focus of his love poems since the late twenties. By the late thirties, he was widely recognised in literary circles. However, within three years, from 1938-41, three sequences of anti-Jewish laws were introduced. The first two defined who was Jewish and regulated the percentage of Jewish participation in various economic activities. The third created a forced labour system that became responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, including that of Radnóti himself. Following the Nazi blitzkrieg on Poland, he anticipated the full-scale destruction of Hungary, and became sick in the stomach, ridden by insomnia and near to collapse. Nevertheless, he recovered sufficiently to produce work of great innovation in the lyrical tradition, combining the classical forms of the ancients with modern sensibilities. In 1938 he published a collection of poems, Steep Road, and in 1940, three more collections, including a volume of prose writing, a selection of translations and his own Selected Poetry. Two more volumes followed in his lifetime.

He was caught up in the whirlwind of the Hungarian Holocaust which followed the Nazi takeover of the country in March 1944. He suffered unspeakable deprivation and died a horrifying, anonymous death. Taken by a freight train from Hungary to Yugoslavia in May 1944, he was shot and buried in a mass grave with twenty-one other forced labourers, on an unknown date between the sixth and tenth of November. He left behind poems of the utmost beauty and rarity that both express and illuminate Hungarian culture. Many of them convey moods and perceptions untainted by the horrors, while others offer first-hand accounts of the wholesale murder. Taken as a whole, they reveal the wide range of Radnóti’s imagination and the obligation he felt to give testimony to an existence engulfed by catastrophe. As well as being masterworks in the annals of the poetry of the last century, they are also documents of destruction. Through them, Radnóti subverted the horror of the Holocaust, in helping us to understand it.

Much of what he started, however, he was unable to finish, as from 1940 he was called up three times into slave labour units. He was worked to exhaustion in coalfields, sugar plants and ammunition factories during his first two call-ups and in his last, he was taken to the copper mines in Bor, Yugoslavia. However, under pressure from Soviet and Partisan forces, the German Army was forced to evacuate the Balkans. Radnóti’s squad was force-marched back to Hungary, to be transferred from there to slave-labour camps in Germany. Cold weather, exhaustion, hunger, savage beatings and killings meant that of marching column which contained 3,600 men on leaving Bor, only eight hundred crossed the Hungarian border. Marching on through Western Hungary in November, Radnóti began to lose his strength. His feet were covered with open blisters, such that he could no longer walk. It was probably on 8 November that the squad reached a brickyard in a town near Győr, where they spent the night. Next day three NCOs of the Hungarian Armed Forces separated Radnóti and twenty-one others from the column. Crowding them onto two borrowed carts, they took them first to a hospital, then to a school housing refugees. Neither had room for them, so the soldiers took them to the dam near Abda, where they were ordered to dig a ditch. The guards then shot them one by one into the ditch.

When his body was exhumed a year and a half later, his last poems, stained by dirt and blood, were found in the pocket of his raincoat. Within a few years of the end of the war, his poems, including these resurrected ones, became well-known to Hungarians, exalting and moving millions of them in the continuing gloom which followed. Radnóti’s place among the Hungarian masters was confirmed. Until now, they have not been so well-known outside Hungary, but Ozsváth and Turner’s recent volume seeks to call the attention of the English-speaking world to them, giving them the means to resound… and communicate the vital, immediate sense which characterizes the original. Radnóti’s last volume of poetry, Foamy Sky, was published posthumously in 1946, a volume which did not then contain the last five poems. Only after his body was exhumed were these five poems found, inscribed in the small camp notebook (pages of which are shown below) he had obtained in Bor. Two years later, the entire and complete volume was re-published. Since then it has been re-published many times in Hungary, but never in English, until now. Ozsváth concludes:

…the unforgettable formal music of his poems not only preserves his most personal perceptions but also echoes the lives and culture of all those who were murdered in the Holocaust.  And while they give account of the darkest hours of history, they also demonstrate the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over death.

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013The Swiss & Swedish Missions:

Meanwhile, the remaining Jewish population of Budapest were living at the same subsistence level as the general population, despite the claims of the political far right that they were having a cushy time. As a result of the persistent removals of rights, men away on compulsory forced labour, and the deaths of many in the process, mass impoverishment and demoralisation were more and more in evidence. Applications to officialdom from widows who had lost husbands went unanswered. The Jews’ yellow ration cards bought less food of inferior quality in the shops.

The Swedish and Swiss embassies and their diplomats Wallenberg, Anger and Lutz did all they could to ameliorate these conditions and to protect the Jews against recurrent threats of deportation, providing safe houses, exemptions from wearing yellow stars and from forced labour in the army. Wallenberg was appaled at the helplessness of the Jews crammed into the starred houses. Those in need were quickly given financial assistance. A wide range of Jews doing forced labour, who were reduced to rags, were helped and enabled to obtain shoes and clothing. A separate purchasing section of the Swedish Embassy was set up for this purpose.

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Wallenberg had arrived in Budapest on 9 July with a brief as embassy secretary of assessing and reporting on conditions in Hungary with a view to the organisation of further ‘humanitarian’ action. The director of the American War Refugee Bureau (WRB) and of OSS, Iver C Olsen, had chosen him for the mission in Hungary. He also had the backing of the US ambassador in Stockholm and the Swedish Foreign Ministry. He was charged with a number of tasks: in addition to reporting on the situation in the country, he was to build up and run a Swedish relief organisation, and to support persecuted Jews and registered persons in Budapest with a view to their rescue. He was to collaborate closely with the International Red Cross, thereby to organise escape routes in various directions. In this matter, from mid-July, he called on the services of Carl Lutz at the Swiss Consulate, from whom he learnt of the talks between the officials of the ‘Reich’ and the Hungarian authorities, and of the purpose and text of the Swiss protective documents.

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Carl Lutz, Switzerland’s Vice-Consul, worked from the US Legation, declaring seventy-two buildings in Budapest as annexes of the Swiss Legation, thereby saving over sixty thousand Jews. On 24 July, Lutz moved the Emigration Section to a building in the old business quarter of Pest. It was granted extra-territorial status, and the series of numbered emigration documents prepared in its offices was called a ‘collective passport’. This originally contained the names of 7,800 ’emigrating’ Hungarian Jews. From October, Swiss protective letters (Schutzbrief) in Hungarian and German were also issued. With the assistance of Zionist members of the opposition, these were steadily circulated to the nominated Jewish families, who also received certificates like the one pictured below which they could display on doors and in windows to declare their protection by the Swiss Consulate. When Szálasi came to power, these were mostly of symbolic value. Lutz’s wife, Gertrud Frankhauser was also devoted to this humanitarian work, and both of them were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem later in their lives.

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Above: Daisy Lászlo, as named on her letter of protection
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(to be continued)

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