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You Only Live Twice – Cool Britannia to Cold Brexit: The United Kingdom, 1999-2019. Part Two: Identity, Immigration & Islam.   Leave a comment

 

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British Identity at the Beginning of the New Millennium:

As Simon Schama pointed out in 2002, it was a fact that even though only half of the British-Caribbean population and a third of the British-Asian population were born in Britain, they continued to constitute only a small proportion of the total population. It was also true that any honest reckoning of the post-imperial account needed to take account of the appeal of separatist fundamentalism in Muslim communities. At the end of the last century, an opinion poll found that fifty per cent of British-born Caribbean men and twenty per cent of British-born Asian men had, or once had, white partners. In 2000, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown found that, when polled, eighty-eight per cent of white Britons between the ages of eighteen and thirty had no objection to inter-racial marriage; eighty-four per cent of West Indians and East Asians and fifty per cent of those from Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds felt the same way. Schama commented:

The colouring of Britain exposes the disintegrationalist argument for the pallid, defensive thing that it is. British history has not just been some sort of brutal mistake or conspiracy that has meant the steamrollering of Englishness over subject nations. It has been the shaking loose of peoples from their roots. A Jewish intellectual expressing impatience with the harping on ‘roots’ once told me that “trees have roots; Jews have legs”. The same could be said of Britons who have shared the fate of empire, whether in Bombay or Bolton, who have encountered each other in streets, front rooms, kitchens and bedrooms.

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Britain, the European Union, NATO & the Commonwealth, 2000

Until the Summer of 2001, this ‘integrationist’ view of British history and contemporary society was the broadly accepted orthodoxy among intellectuals and politicians, if not more popularly. At that point, however, partly as a result of riots in the north of England involving ethnic minorities, including young Muslim men, and partly because of events in New York and Washington, the existence of parallel communities began to be discussed more widely and the concept of ‘multiculturalism’ began to become subject to fundamental criticism on both the right and left of the political spectrum. In the ‘noughties’, the dissenters from the multicultural consensus began to be found everywhere along the continuum. In the eighties and nineties, there were critics who warned that the emphasis on mutual tolerance and equality between cultures ran the risk of encouraging separate development, rather than fostering a deeper sense of mutual understanding through interaction and integration between cultures. The ‘live and let live’ outlook which dominated ‘race relations’ quangos in the 1960s and ’70s had already begun to be replaced by a more active interculturalism, particularly in communities where that outlook had proven to be ineffective in countering the internecine conflicts of the 1980s. Good examples of this development can be found in the ‘Education for Mutual Understanding’ and ‘Inter-Cultural’ Educational projects in Northern Ireland and the North and West Midlands of England in which this author was involved and has written about elsewhere on this site.

Politicians also began to break with the multicultural consensus, and their views began to have an impact because while commentators on the right were expected to have ‘nativist’ if not ‘racist’ tendencies in the ‘Powellite’ tradition, those from the left could generally be seen as having less easily assailable motives.

Flickr - boellstiftung - Trevor Phillips.jpgTrevor Phillips (pictured left), whom I had known as the first black President of the National Union of Students in 1979 before, in 2003, he became the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, opened up territory in discussion and debate that others had not dared to ‘trespass’ into. His realisation that the race-relations ‘industry’ was part of the problem, and that partly as a result of talking up diversity the country was ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ was an insight that others began to share.

Simon Schama also argued that Britain should not have to choose between its own multi-cultural, global identity and its place in Europe. Interestingly, he put the blame for this pressure at least partly on the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, suggesting that…

 … the increasing compulsion to make the choice that General de Gaulle imposed on us between our European and our extra-European identity seems to order an impoverishment of our culture. It is precisely the the roving, unstable, complicated, migratory character of our history that ought to be seen as a gift for Europe. It is a past, after all, that uniquely in European history combines a passion for social justice with a tenacious attachment to bloody-minded liberty, a past designed to subvert, not reinforce, the streamlined authority of global bureaucracies and corporations. Our place at the European table ought to make room for that peculiarity or we should not bother showing up for dinner. What, after all, is the alternative? To surrender that ungainly, eccentric thing, British history, with all its warts and disfigurements, to the economic beauty parlour that is Brussels will mean a loss. But properly smartened up, we will of course be fully entitled to the gold-card benefits of the inward-looking club… Nor should Britain rush towards a re-branded future that presupposes the shame-faced repudiation of the past. For our history is not the captivity of our future; it is, in fact, the condition of our maturity.  

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‘Globalisation’

Fourteen years later, this was exactly the choice facing the British people, though now it was not De Gaulle or even the Brussels ‘Eurocrats’ who were asking the question, but the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his ‘Brexiteer’ Conservatives in his cabinet and on the back benches. The people themselves had not asked to be asked, but when they answered at the 2016 Referendum, they decided, by a very narrow majority, that they preferred the vision (some would say ‘unicorn’) of a ‘global’ Britain to the ‘gold-card benefits’ available at the European table it was already sitting at. Their ‘tenacious attachment’ to ‘bloody-minded liberty’ led to them expressing their desire to detach themselves from the European Union, though it is still not clear whether they want to remain semi-detached or move to a detached property at the very end of the street which as yet has not yet been planned, let alone built. All we have is a glossy prospectus which may or may not be delivered or even deliverable.

An internet poster from the 2016 Referendum Campaign

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Looking back to 2002, the same year in which Simon Schama published his BBC series book, The Fate of Empire, the latest census for England and Wales was published. Enumerated and compiled the previous year, it showed the extent to which the countries had changed in the decade since the last census was taken. Douglas Murray, in the first chapter of his recent book, The Strange Death of Europe, first published in 2017, challenges us to imagine ourselves back in 2002 speculating about what England and Wales might look like in the 2011 Census. Imagine, he asks us, that someone in our company had projected:

“White Britons will become a minority in their own capital city by the end of this decade and the Muslim population will double in the next ten years.”

How would we have reacted in 2002? Would we have used words like ‘alarmist’, ‘scaremongering’, ‘racist’, ‘Islamophobic’? In 2002, a Times journalist made far less startling statements about likely future immigration, which were denounced by David Blunkett, then Home Secretary (using parliamentary privilege) as bordering on fascism. Yet, however much abuse they received for saying or writing it, anyone offering this analysis would have been proved absolutely right at the end of 2012, when the 2011 Census was published. It proved that only 44.9 per cent of London residents identified themselves as ‘white British’. It also revealed far more significant changes, showing that the number of people living in England and Wales who had been born ‘overseas’ had risen by nearly three million since 2001. In addition, nearly three million people in England and Wales were living in households where not one adult spoke English or Welsh as their main language.

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These were very major ethnic and linguistic changes, but there were equally striking findings of changing religious beliefs. The Census statistics showed that adherence to every faith except Christianity was on the rise. Since the previous census, the number of people identifying themselves as Christian had declined from seventy-two per cent to fifty-nine. The number of Christians in England and Wales dropped by more than four million, from thirty-seven million to thirty-three. While the Churches witnessed this collapse in their members and attendees, mass migration assisted a near doubling of worshippers of Islam. Between 2001 and 2011 the number of Muslims in England and Wales rose from 1.5 million to 2.7 million. While these were the official figures, it is possible that they are an underestimate, because many newly-arrived immigrants might not have filled in the forms at the beginning of April 2011 when the Census was taken, not yet having a registered permanent residence. The two local authorities whose populations were growing fastest in England, by twenty per cent in the previous ten years, were Tower Hamlets and Newham in London, and these were also among the areas with the largest non-response to the census, with around one in five households failing to return the forms.

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Yet the results of the census clearly revealed that mass migration was in the process of altering England completely. In twenty-three of London’s thirty-three boroughs (see map above) ‘white Britons’ were now in a minority. A spokesman for the Office of National Statistics regarded this demonstrating ‘diversity’, which it certainly did, but by no means all commentators regarded this as something positive or even neutral. When politicians of all the main parties addressed the census results they greeted them in positive terms. This had been the ‘orthodox’ political view since in 2007 the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, had spoken with pride about the fact that thirty-five per cent of the people working in London had been born in a foreign country. For years a sense of excitement and optimism about these changes in London and the wider country seemed the only appropriate tone to strike. This was bolstered by the sense that what had happened in the first decade of the twenty-first century was simply a continuation of what had worked well for Britain in the previous three decades. This soon turned out to be a politically-correct pretence, though what was new in this decade was not so much growth in immigration from Commonwealth countries and the Middle East, or from wartorn former Yugoslavia, but the impact of white European migrants from the new EU countries, under the terms of the accession treaties and the ‘freedom of movement’ regulations of the single market. As I noted in the previous article, the British government could have delayed the implementation of these provisions but chose not to.

Questions about the Quality & Quantity of Migration:

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Besides the linguistic and cultural factors already dealt with, there were important economic differences between the earlier and the more recent migrations of Eastern Europeans. After 2004, young, educated Polish, Czech and Hungarian people had moved to Britain to earn money to earn money to send home or to take home with them in order to acquire good homes, marry and have children in their rapidly developing countries. And for Britain, as the host country, the economic growth of the 2000s was fuelled by the influx of energetic and talented people who, in the process, were also denying their own country their skills for a period. But the UK government had seriously underestimated the number of these workers who wanted to come to Britain. Ministers suggested that the number arriving would be around 26,000 over the first two years. This turned out to be wildly wrong, and in 2006 a Home Office minister was forced to admit that since EU expansion in 2004, 427,000 people from Poland and seven other new EU nations had applied to work in Britain. If the self-employed were included, he added, then the number might be as high as 600,000. There were also at least an additional 36,000 spouses and children who had arrived, and 27,000 child benefit applications had been received. These were very large numbers indeed, even if most of these turned out to be temporary migrants.

It has to be remembered, of course, that inward migration was partially offset by the outflow of around sixty thousand British people each year, mainly permanent emigrants to Australia, the United States, France and Spain. By the winter of 2006-07, one policy institute reckoned that there were 5.5 million British people living permanently overseas, nearly ten per cent of Britons, or more than the population of Scotland. In addition, another half a million were living abroad for a significant part of the year. Aside from Europe, the Middle East and Asia were seeing rising ‘colonies’ of expatriate British. A worrying proportion of them were graduates; Britain was believed to be losing one in six of its graduates to emigration. Many others were retired or better-off people looking for a life in the sun, just as many of the newcomers to Britain were young, ambitious and keen to work. Government ministers tended to emphasise these benign effects of immigration, but their critics looked around and asked where all the extra people would go, where they would live, and where their children would go to school, not to mention where the extra hospital beds, road space and local services would come from, and how these would be paid for.

Members of the campaign group Citizens UK hold a ‘refugees welcome’ event outside Lunar House in Croydon. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

A secondary issue to that of ‘numbers’ was the system for asylum seekers. In 2000, there were thirty thousand failed asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, a third of those who had applied in 1999, when only 7,645 had been removed from the country. It was decided that it was impossible to remove more, and that to try to do so would prove divisive politically and financially costly. Added to this was the extent of illegal immigration, which had caught the ‘eye’ of the British public. There were already criminal gangs of Albanians, Kosovars and Albanians, operating from outside the EU, who were undermining the legal migration streams from Central-Eastern Europe in the eyes of many. The social service bill for these ‘illegal’ migrants became a serious burden for the Department of Social Security. Towns like Slough protested to the national government about the extra cost in housing, education and other services.

In addition, there was the sheer scale of the migration and the inability of the Home Office’s immigration and nationality department to regulate what was happening, to prevent illegal migrants from entering Britain, to spot those abusing the asylum system in order to settle in Britain and the failure to apprehend and deport people. Large articulated lorries filled with migrants, who had paid over their life savings to be taken to Britain, rumbled through the Channel Tunnel and the ferry ports. A Red Cross camp at Sangatte, near the French entrance to the ‘Chunnel’ (the photo below shows the Folkestone entrance), was blamed by Britain for exacerbating the problem. By the end of 2002, an estimated 67,000 had passed through the camp to Britain. The then Home Secretary, David Blunkett finally agreed on a deal with the French to close the camp down, but by then many African, Asian and Balkan migrants, believing the British immigration and benefits systems to be easier than those of other EU countries, had simply moved across the continent and waited patiently for their chance to board a lorry to Britain.

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Successive Home Secretaries from Blunkett to Reid tried to deal with the trade, the latter confessing that his department was “not fit for purpose”. He promised to clear a backlog of 280,000 failed asylum claims, whose seekers were still in the country after five years. The historic Home Office was split up, creating a separate immigration and nationality service. Meanwhile, many illegal immigrants had succeeded in bypassing the asylum system entirely. In July 2005, the Home Office produced its own estimate of the number of these had been four years earlier. It reckoned that this was between 310,000 and 570,000, or up to one per cent of the total population. A year later, unofficial estimates pushed this number up to 800,000. The truth was that no-one really knew, but official figures showed the number applying for asylum were now falling, with the former Yugoslavia returning to relative peace.  Thousands of refugees were also being returned to Iraq, though the signs were already apparent that further wars in the Middle East and the impact of global warming on sub-Saharan Africa would soon send more disparate groups across the continents.

Britain’s Toxic Politics of Immigration:

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To begin with, the arrival of workers from the ten countries who joined the EU in 2004 was a different issue, though it involved an influx of roughly the same size. By the government’s own figures, annual net inward migration had reached 185,000 and had averaged 166,000 over the previous seven years. This was significantly more than the average net inflow of fifty thousand New Commonwealth immigrants which Enoch Powell (pictured above) had referred to as ‘literally mad’ in his 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, though he had been criticising the immigration of East African Asians, of course. But although Powell’s speech was partly about race, colour and identity, it was also about numbers of immigrants and the practical concerns of his Wolverhampton constituents in finding hospital and school places in an overstretched public sector. It seems not unreasonable, and not at all racist, to suggest that it is a duty of central government to predict and provide for the number of newcomers it permits to settle in the country. In 2006, the Projections based on many different assumptions suggested that the UK population would grow by more than seven million by 2031. Of that, eighty per cent would be due to immigration. The organisation, Migration Watch UK, set up to campaign for tighter immigration controls, said this was equivalent to requiring the building of a new town the size of Cambridge each year, or five new cities the size of Birmingham over the predicted quarter century.

But such characterisations were surely caricatures of the situation since many of these new Eastern European migrants did not intend to settle permanently in the UK and could be expected to return to their countries of origin in due course. However, the massive underestimations of the scale of the inward migration were, of course, predictable to anybody with any knowledge of the history of post-war migration, replete with vast underestimates of the numbers expected. But it did also demonstrate that immigration control was simply not a priority for New Labour, especially in its early manifestations. It gave the impression that it regarded all immigration control, and even discussion of it, as inherently ‘racist’ (even the restriction of white European migration), which made any internal or external opposition hard to voice. The public response to the massive upsurge in immigration and to the swift transformation of parts of Britain it had not really reached before, was exceptionally tolerant. There were no significant or sustained outbreaks of racist abuse or violence before 2016, and the only racist political party, the British National Party (BNP) was subsequently destroyed, especially in London.

Official portrait of Dame Margaret Hodge crop 2.jpgIn April 2006, Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking since 1996 (pictured right), commented in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph that eight out of ten white working-class voters in her constituency might be tempted to vote for the British National Party (BNP) in the local elections on 4 May 2006 because “no one else is listening to them” about their concerns over unemployment, high house prices and the housing of asylum seekers in the area. She said the Labour Party must promote…

“… very, very strongly the benefits of the new, rich multi-racial society which is part of this part of London for me”.

There was widespread media coverage of her remarks, and Hodge was strongly criticised for giving the BNP publicity. The BNP went on to gain 11 seats in the local election out of a total of 51, making them the second largest party on the local council. It was reported that Labour activists accused Hodge of generating hundreds of extra votes for the BNP and that local members began to privately discuss the possibility of a move to deselect her. The GMB wrote to Hodge in May 2006, demanding her resignation. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, later accused Hodge of “magnifying the propaganda of the BNP” after she said that British residents should get priority in council house allocations. In November 2009, the Leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, announced that he intended to contest Barking at the 2010 general election. In spite of the unions’ position, Hodge was returned as Member for Barking in 2010, doubling her majority to over 16,000, whilst Griffin came third behind the Conservatives. The BNP lost all of its seats on Barking and Dagenham Council. Following the same general election in 2010, which saw New Labour defeated under Gordon Brown’s leadership.

Opinion polls and the simple, anecdotal evidence of living in the country showed that most people continued to feel zero personal animosity towards immigrants or people of different ethnic backgrounds. But poll after poll did show that a majority were deeply worried about what ‘all this’ migration meant for the country and its future. But even the mildest attempts to put these issues on the political agenda, such as the concerns raised by Margaret Hodge (and the 2005 Conservative election campaign poster suggesting ‘limits’ on immigration) were often met with condemnation by the ruling political class, with the result that there was still no serious public discussion of them. Perhaps successive governments of all hues had spent decades putting off any real debate on immigration because they suspected that the public disagreed with them and that it was a matter they had lost control over anyway.

Perhaps it was because of this lack of control that the principal reaction to the developing reality began to be to turn on those who expressed any concern about it, even when they reflected the views of the general public. This was done through charges of ‘racism’ and ‘bigotry’, such as the accidental ‘caught-on-mike’ remark made by Gordon Brown while getting into his car in the 2010 election campaign, when confronted by one of his own Labour councillors in a northern English town about the sheer numbers of migrants. It is said to have represented a major turning point in the campaign. A series of deflecting tactics became a replacement for action in the wake of the 2011 census, including the demand that the public should ‘just get over it’, which came back to haunt David Cameron’s ministers in the wake of the 2016 Referendum. In his Daily Telegraph column of December 2012, titled Let’s not dwell on immigration but sow the seeds of integration, Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, responded to the census results by writing…

We need to stop moaning about the dam-burst. It’s happened. There is nothing we can now do except make the process of absorption as eupeptic as possible … 

The Mayor, who as an MP and member of David Cameron’s front-bench team later became a key leader of the ‘Leave’ campaign and an ardent Brexiteer, may well have been right in making this statement, saying what any practical politician in charge of a multi-cultural metropolis would have to say. But there is something cold about the tone of his remark, not least the absence of any sense that there were other people out there in the capital city not willing simply to ‘get over it’, who disliked the alteration of their society and never asked for it. It did not seem to have occurred to Johnson that there were those who might be nursing a sense of righteous indignation that about the fact that for years all the main parties had taken decisions that were so at variance with the opinions of their electors, or that there was something profoundly disenfranchising about such decisions, especially when addressed to a majority of the voting public.

In the same month as Johnson’s admonition, a poll by YouGov found two-thirds of the British public believed that immigration over the previous decade had been ‘a bad thing for Britain’. Only eleven per cent thought it had been ‘a good thing’. This included majorities among voters for every one of the three main parties. Poll after poll conducted over the next five years showed the same result. As well as routinely prioritising immigration as their top concern, a majority of voters in Britain regularly described immigration as having a negative impact on their public services and housing through overcrowding, as well as harming the nation’s identity. By 2012 the leaders of every one of the major parties in Britain had conceded that immigration was too high, but even whilst doing so all had also insisted that the public should ‘get over it’. None had any clear or successful policy on how to change course. Public opinion surveys suggest that a failure to do anything about immigration even while talking about it is one of the key areas of the breakdown in trust between the electorate and their political representatives.

At the same time, the coalition government of 2010-15 was fearful of the attribution of base motives if it got ‘tough on immigrants’. The Conservative leadership was trying to reposition itself as more socially ‘liberal’ under David Cameron. Nevertheless, at the election, they had promised to cut immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands per year, but they never succeeded in getting near that target. To show that she meant ‘business’, however, in 2013, Theresa May’s Home Office organised a number of vans with advertising hoardings to drive around six London boroughs where many illegal immigrants and asylum seekers lived. The posters on the hoardings read, In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest, followed by a government helpline number. The posters became politically toxic immediately. The Labour Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, described them as “divisive and disgraceful” and the campaign group Liberty branded them “racist and illegal”.

After some months it was revealed that the pilot scheme had successfully persuaded only eleven illegal immigrants to leave the country voluntarily. Theresa May admitted that the scheme had been a mistake and too “blunt”. Indeed, it was a ‘stunt’ designed to reassure the ‘native’ population that their government was getting tough, and it was not repeated, but the overall ‘hostile environment’ policy it was part of continued into the next majority Conservative government, leading to the illegal deportation of hundreds of ‘Windrush generation’ migrants from the Caribbean who had settled in Britain before 1968 and therefore lacked passports and papers identifying them as British subjects. The Tories repeated their promise on immigration more recently, in both David Cameron’s majority government of 2015 and Theresa May’s minority one of 2017, but are still failing to get levels down to tens of thousands. In fact, under Cameron, net immigration reached a record level of 330,000 per year, numbers which would fill a city the size of Coventry.

The movement of people, even before the European migration crisis of 2015, was of an entirely different quantity, quality and consistency from anything that the British Isles had experienced before, even in the postwar period. Yet the ‘nation of immigrants’ myth continued to be used to cover over the vast changes in recent years to pretend that history can be used to provide precedents for what has happened since the turn of the millennium. The 2011 Census could have provided an opportunity to address the recent transformation of British society but like other opportunities in the second half of the twentieth century to discuss immigration, it was missed. If the fact that ‘white Britons’ now comprised a minority of the London population was seen as a demonstration of ‘diversity’ then the census had shown that some London boroughs were already lacking in ‘diversity’, not because there weren’t enough people of immigrant origin but because there weren’t enough ‘white Britons’ still around to make those boroughs diverse.

Brexit – The Death of Diversity:

Since the 2011 Census, net migration into Britain has continued to be far in excess of three hundred thousand per year. The rising population of the United Kingdom is now almost entirely due to inward migration, and to higher birthrates among the predominantly young migrant population. In 2014 women who were born overseas accounted for twenty-seven per cent of all live births in England and Wales, and a third of all newborn babies had at least one overseas-born parent, a figure that had doubled since the 1990s. However, since the 2016 Brexit vote, statistics have shown that many recent migrants to Britain from the EU have been returning to their home countries so that it is difficult to know, as yet, how many of these children will grow up in Britain, or for how long. On the basis of current population trends, and without any further rise in net inward migration, the most modest estimate by the ONS of the future British population is that it will rise from its current level of sixty-five million to seventy million within a decade, seventy-seven million by 2050 and to more than eighty million by 2060. But if the post-2011 levels were to continue, the UK population would go above eighty million as early as 2040 and to ninety million by 2060. In this context, Douglas Murray asks the following rhetoric questions of the leaders of the mainstream political parties:

All these years on, despite the name-calling and the insults and the ignoring of their concerns, were your derided average white voters not correct when they said that they were losing their country? Irrespective of whether you think that they should have thought this, let alone whether they should have said this, said it differently or accepted the change more readily, it should at some stage cause people to pause and reflect that the voices almost everybody wanted to demonise and dismiss were in the final analysis the voices whose predictions were nearest to being right.

An Ipsos poll published in July 2016 surveyed public attitudes towards immigration across Europe. It revealed just how few people thought that immigration has had a beneficial impact on their societies. To the question, Would you say that immigration has generally had a positive or negative impact on your country? very low percentages of people in each country thought that it had had a positive effect. Britain had a comparatively positive attitude, with thirty-six per cent of people saying that they thought it had had a very or fairly positive impact. Meanwhile, on twenty-four per cent of Swedes felt the same way and just eighteen per cent of Germans. In Italy, France and Belgium only ten to eleven per cent of the population thought that it had made even a fairly positive impact on their countries. Despite the Referendum result, the British result may well have been higher because Britain had not experienced the same level of immigration from outside the EU as had happened in the inter-continental migration crisis of the previous summer.

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Indeed, the issue of immigration as it affected the 2016 Referendum in Britain was largely about the numbers of Eastern European migrants arriving in the country, rather than about illegal immigrants from outside the EU, or asylum seekers. Inevitably, all three issues became confused in the public mind, something that UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) used to good effect in its campaigning posters. The original version of the poster above, featuring UKIP leader Nigel Farage, caused considerable controversy by using pictures from the 2015 Crisis in Central-Eastern Europe to suggest that Europe was at ‘Breaking Point’ and that once in the EU, refugees and migrants would be able to enter Britain and settle there. This was untrue, as the UK is not in the ‘Schengen’ area. Campaigners against ‘Brexit’ pointed out the facts of the situation in the adapted internet poster. In addition, during the campaign, Eastern European leaders, including the Poles and the Hungarians, complained about the misrepresentation of their citizens as ‘immigrants’ like many of those who had recently crossed the EU’s Balkan borders in order to get to Germany or Sweden. As far as they were concerned, they were temporary internal migrants within the EU’s arrangements for ‘freedom of movement’ between member states. Naturally, because this was largely a one-way movement in numeric terms, this distinction was lost on many voters, however, as ‘immigration’ became the dominant factor in their backing of Brexit by a margin of 52% to 48%.

In Britain, the issue of Calais remained the foremost one in discussion in the autumn of 2016. The British government announced that it was going to have to build a further security wall near to the large migrant camp there. The one-kilometre wall was designed to further protect the entry point to Britain, and specifically to prevent migrants from trying to climb onto passing lorries on their way to the UK. Given that there were fewer than 6,500 people in the camp most of the time, a solution to Calais always seemed straightforward. All that was needed, argued activists and politicians, was a one-time generous offer and the camp could be cleared. But the reality was that once the camp was cleared it would simply be filled again. For 6,500 was an average day’s migration to Italy alone.

Blue: Schengen Area Green: Countries with open borders Ochre: Legally obliged to join

In the meantime, while the British and French governments argued over who was responsible for the situation at Calais, both day and night migrants threw missiles at cars, trucks and lorries heading to Britain in the hope that the vehicles would stop and they could climb aboard as stowaways for the journey across the Channel. The migrants who ended up in Calais had already broken all the EU’s rules on asylum in order to get there. They had not applied for asylum in their first country of entry, Greece, nor even in Hungary. Instead, they had pushed on through the national borders of the ‘Schengen’ free passage area (see map above right) until they reached the north of France. If they were cold, poor or just worse off, they were seen as having the right to come into a Europe which could no longer be bothered to turn anyone away.

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Migrants/ Asylum Seekers arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos.

The Disintegration of Multiculturalism, ‘Parallel Development’ & the Populist Reaction in Britain:

After the 9/11 attacks on the USA, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 7/7 London bombings, there was no bigger cultural challenge to the British sense of proportion and fairness than the threat of ‘militant Islam’. There were plenty of angry young Muslim men prepared to listen to fanatical ‘imams’ and to act on their narrow-minded and bloodthirsty interpretations of ‘Jihad’. Their views, at odds with those of the well-established South Asian Muslim communities referred to above, were those of the ultra-conservative ‘Wahhabi’ Arabs and Iranian mullahs who insisted, for example, on women being fully veiled. But some English politicians, like Norman Tebbit, felt justified in asking whether Muslim communities throughout Britain really wanted to fully integrate. Would they, in Tebbit’s notorious ‘test’, support the English Cricket team when it played against Pakistan?

Britain did not have as high a proportion of Muslims as France, and not many, outside London and parts of the South East, of Arab and North African origin. But the large urban centres of the Home Counties, the English Midlands and the North of England had third generation Muslim communities of hundreds of thousands. They felt like they were being watched in a new way and were perhaps right to feel more than a little uneasy. In the old industrial towns on either side of the Pennines and in areas of West London there were such strong concentrations of Muslims that the word ‘ghetto’ was being used by ministers and civil servants, not just, as in the seventies and eighties, by rightwing organisations and politicians. White working-class people had long been moving, quietly, to more semi-rural commuter towns in the Home Counties and on the South Coast.

But those involved in this ‘white flight’, as it became known, were a minority if polling was an accurate guide. Only a quarter of Britons said that they would prefer to live in white-only areas. Yet even this measure of ‘multiculturalism’, defined as ‘live and let live’, was being questioned. How much should the new Britons ‘integrate’ or ‘assimilate’, and how much was the retention of traditions a matter of their rights to a distinctive cultural identity? After all, Britain had a long heritage of allowing newcomers to integrate on their own terms, retaining and contributing elements of their own culture. Speaking in December 2006, Blair cited forced marriages, the importation of ‘sharia’ law and the ban on women entering certain mosques as being on the wrong side of this line. In the same speech he used new, harder language. He claimed that, after the London bombings, …

“… for the first time in a generation there is an unease, an anxiety, even at points a resentment that outr very openness, our willingness to welcome difference, our pride in being home to many cultures, is being used against us … Our tolerance is what makes is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here. We don’t want the hate-mongers … If you come here lawfully, we welcome you. If you are permitted to stay here permanently, you become an equal member of our community and become one of us.”

His speech was not just about security and the struggle against terrorism. He was defining the duty to integrate. Britain’s strong economic growth over the previous two decades, despite its weaker manufacturing base, was partly the product of its long tradition of hospitality. The question now was whether the country was becoming so overcrowded that this tradition of tolerance was finally eroding. England, in particular, had the highest population density of any major country in the Western world. It would require wisdom and frankness from politicians together with watchfulness and efficiency from Whitehall to keep the ship on an even keel. Without these qualities and trust from the people, how can we hope for meaningful reconciliation between Muslim, Christian, Jew and Humanist?; between newcomers, sojourners, old-timers and exiles?; between white Europeans, black Africans, South Asians and West Indians?

Map showing the location of Rotherham in South Yorkshire

In January 2011, a gang of nine Muslim men, seven of Pakistani heritage and two from North Africa, were convicted and sentenced at the Old Bailey in London for the sex trafficking of children between the ages of eleven and fifteen. One of the victims sold into a form of modern-day slavery was a girl of eleven who was branded with the initial of her ‘owner’ and abuser: ‘M’ for Mohammed. The court heard that he had branded her to make her his property and to ensure others knew about it. This did not happen in a Saudi or Pakistani backwater, nor even in one of the northern English towns that so much of the country had forgotten about until similar crimes involving Pakistani heritage men were brought to light. This happened in Oxfordshire between 2004 and 2012. Nobody could argue that gang rape and child abuse are the preserve of immigrants, but these court cases and the official investigations into particular types of child-rape gangs, especially in the case of Rotherham, have identified specific cultural attitudes towards women, especially non-Muslim women, that are similar to those held by men in parts of Pakistan. These have sometimes been extended into intolerant attitudes toward other religions, ethnic groups and sexual minorities. They are cultural attitudes which are anathema to the teachings of the Qu’ran and mainstream Imams, but fears of being accused of ‘racism’ for pointing out such factual connections had been at least partly responsible for these cases taking years to come to light.

British Muslims and members of the British-Pakistani community condemned both the abuse and that it had been covered up. Nazir Afzal (pictured right), Chief Crown Prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for North West England from 2011–2015, himself a Muslim, made the decision in 2011 to prosecute the Rochdale child sex abuse ring after the CPS had turned the case down. Responding to the Jay report, he argued that the abuse had no basis in Islam:

“Islam says that alcohol, drugs, rape and abuse are all forbidden, yet these men were surrounded by all of these things. … It is not the abusers’ race that defines them. It is their attitude toward women that defines them.” 

Below left: The front page of The Times, 24 September 2012.

Even then, however, in the Oxfordshire case, the gangs were described as ‘Asian’ by the media, rather than as men of Pakistani and Arabic origin. In addition, the fact that their victims were chosen because they were not Muslim was rarely mentioned in court or dwelt upon by the press. But despite sections of the media beginning focus on Pakistani men preying on young white girls, a 2013 report by the UK Muslim Women’s Network found that British Asian girls were also being abused across the country in situations that mirrored the abuse in Rotherham. The unfunded small-scale report found 35 cases of young Muslim girls of Pakistani-heritage being raped and passed around for sex by multiple men. In the report, one local Pakistani women’s group described how Pakistani-heritage girls were targeted by taxi drivers and on occasion by older men lying in wait outside school gates at dinner times and after school. They also cited cases in Rotherham where Pakistani landlords had befriended Pakistani women and girls on their own for purposes of sex, then passed on their name to other men who had then contacted them for sex. The Jay Report, published in 2014, acknowledged that the 2013 report of abuse of Asian girls was ‘virtually identical’ to the abuse that occurred in Rotherham, and also acknowledged that British Asian girls were unlikely to report their abuse due to the repercussions on their family. Asian girls were ‘too afraid to go to the law’ and were being blackmailed into having sex with different men while others were forced at knife-point to perform sexual acts on men. Support workers described how one teenage girl had been gang-raped at a party:

“When she got there, there was no party, there were no other female members present. What she found was that there were five adults, their ages ranging between their mid-twenties going on to the late-forties and the five men systematically, routinely, raped her. And the young man who was supposed to be her boyfriend stood back and watched”.

Groups would photograph the abuse and threaten to publish it to their fathers, brothers, and in the mosques, if their victims went to the police.

In June 2013, the polling company ComRes carried out a poll for BBC Radio 1 asking a thousand young British people about their attitudes towards the world’s major religions. The results were released three months later and showed that of those polled, twenty-seven per cent said that they did not trust Muslims (compared with 15% saying the same of Jews, 13% of Buddhists, and 12% of Christians). More significantly, perhaps, forty-four per cent said that they thought Muslims did not share the same views or values as the rest of the population. The BBC and other media in Britain then set to work to try to discover how Britain could address the fact that so many young people thought this way. Part of the answer may have had something to do with the timing of the poll, the fieldwork being carried out between 7-17 June. It had only been a few weeks before this that Drummer Lee Rigby, a young soldier on leave from Afghanistan, had been hit by a car in broad daylight outside an army barracks in South London, dragged into the middle of the road and hacked to death with machetes. The two murderers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were Muslims of African origin who were carrying letters claiming justification for killing “Allah’s enemies”. It’s therefore reasonable to suppose that, rather than making assumptions about a religious minority without any evidence, those who were asked their opinions connected Muslims with a difference in basic values because they had been very recently associated with an act of extreme violence on the streets of London.

Unfortunately, attempts to provide a more balanced view and to separate these acts of terrorism from Islam have been dwarfed by the growing public perception of a problem which will not simply go away through the repetition of ‘mantras’. The internet has provided multiple and diverse sources of information, but the simple passage of the various events related above, and the many others available examples, have meant that the public have been able to make their own judgements about Islam, and they are certainly not as favourable as they were at the start of the current century. By 2015, one poll showed that only thirty per cent of the general public in Britain think that the values of Islam are ‘compatible’ with the values of British society. The passage of terrorist events on the streets of Europe continued through 2016 and 2017. On 22 March 2017, a 52-year-old British born convert to Islam, Khalid Masood, ploughed his car across Westminster Bridge, killing two tourists, one American and the other Romanian, and two British nationals. Dozens more were injured as they scattered, some falling into the River Thames below. Crashing into the railings at the side of Parliament, Masood then ran out of the hired vehicle and through the gates of the palace, where he stabbed the duty policeman, PC Keith Palmer, who died a few minutes later. Masood was then shot dead by armed police, his last phone messages revealing that he believed he was “waging jihad.” Two weeks later, at an inter-faith ‘Service of Hope’ at Westminster Abbey, its Dean, the Very Reverend John Hall, spoke for a nation he described as ‘bewildered’:

What could possibly motivate a man to hire a car and take it from Birmingham to Brighton to London, and then drive it fast at people he had never met, couldn’t possibly know, against whom he had no personal grudge, no reason to hate them and then run at the gates of the Palace of Westminster to cause another death? It seems that we shall never know.

Then on 22 May thousands of young women and girls were leaving a concert by the US pop singer Ariana Grande at Manchester Arena. Waiting for them as they streamed out was Salman Abedi, a twenty-two-year-old British-born man, whose Libyan parents had arrived in the UK in the early nineties after fleeing from the Gadaffi régime. In the underground foyer, Abedi detonated a bomb he was carrying which was packed with nuts, bolts and other shrapnel. Twenty-two people, children and parents who had arrived to pick them up, were killed instantly. Hundreds more were injured, many of them suffering life-changing wounds. Then, in what began to seem like a remorseless series of events, on 3 June three men drove a van into pedestrians crossing London Bridge. They leapt out of it and began slashing at the throats of pedestrians, appearing to be targeting women in particular. They then ran through Borough Market area shouting “this is for Allah”. Eight people were murdered and many more seriously injured before armed police shot the three men dead. Two of the three, all of whom were aged twenty to thirty, were born in Morocco. The oldest of them, Rachid Redouane, had entered Britain using a false name, claiming to be a Libyan and was actually five years older than he had pretended. He had been refused asylum and absconded. Khurram Butt had been born in Pakistan and had arrived in the UK as a ‘child refugee’ in 1998, his family having moved to the UK to claim asylum from ‘political oppression’, although Pakistan was not on the UNHCR list.

On the evening of 19 June, at end of the Muslim sabbath, in what appeared to be a ‘reprisal’, a forty-seven-year-old father or four from Cardiff drove a van into crowds of worshippers outside Finsbury Park mosque who were crossing the road to go to the nearby Muslim Welfare House. One man, who had collapsed on the road and was being given emergency aid, was run over and died at the scene. Almost a dozen more were injured. Up to this point, all the Islamist terror attacks, from 7/7/2005 onwards, had been planned and carried out by ‘home-grown’ terrorists. Even the asylum seekers involved in the June attack in London had been in the country since well before the 2015 migration crisis. But in mid-September, an eighteen-year-old Iraqi who arrived in the UK illegally in 2015, and had been living with British foster parents ever since, left a crudely-manufactured bomb on the London Underground District line during the rush hour when the carriages were also crowded with schoolchildren. The detonator exploded but failed to ignite the home-made device itself, leading to flash burns to the dozens of people in the carriage. A more serious blast would have led to those dozens being taken away in body bags, and many more injured in the stampede which would have followed at the station exit with its steep steps. As it was, the passengers remained calm during their evacuation, but the subsequent emphasis on the ubiquitous Blitz slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On!’

Conclusion: Brexit at its ‘Best’.

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Of course, it would have been difficult to predict and prevent these attacks, either by erecting physical barriers or by identifying individuals who might be at risk from ‘radicalisation’, much of which takes place online. Most of the attackers had been born and radicalised in the UK, so no reinforcements at the borders, either in Calais or Kent would have kept them from enacting their atrocities. But the need for secure borders is not simple a symbolic or psychological reinforcement for the British people if it is combined with a workable and efficient asylum policy. We are repeatedly told that one of the two main reasons for the 2016 referendum decision for Britain to leave the EU was in order to take back control of its borders and immigration policy, though it was never demonstrated how exactly it had lost control of these, or at least how its EU membership had made it lose control over them.

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There are already signs that, as much due to the fall in the value of the pound since Brexit as to Brexit itself, many Eastern European migrants are returning to their home countries, but the vast majority of them had already declared that they did not intend to settle permanently in the UK. The fact that so many came from 2004 onwards was entirely down to the decision of the British government not to delay or derogate the operation of the accession treaties. But the reality remains that, even if they were to be replaced by other European ‘immigrants’ in future, the UK would still need to control, as ever, the immigration of people from outside the EU, including asylum seekers, and that returning failed or bogus applicants would become more difficult. So, too, would the sharing of intelligence information about the potential threats of terrorists attempting to enter Britain as bogus refugees. Other than these considerations, the home-grown threat from Islamist terrorists is likely to be unaffected by Brexit one way or another, and can only be dealt with by anti-radicalisation strategies, especially through education and more active inter-cultural community relations aimed at full integration, not ‘parallel’ development.

‘Populism’

Since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump, it seems that journalists just cannot get enough of Populism. In 1998, the Guardian published about three hundred articles that contained the term. In 2015, it was used in about a thousand articles, and one year later this number had doubled to almost two thousand. Populist parties across Europe have tripled their vote in Europe over the past twenty years and more than a quarter of Europeans voted populist in their last elections. So, in deciding to leave the EU, the British are, ironically, becoming more like their continental cousins in supporting populist causes and parties. In a recent article in The Guardian Weekly, (30 November 2018), Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for The Irish Times, points out that for many pro-Brexit journalists and politicians Brexit takes the form of a populist ‘Britain alone’ crusade (see the picture and text below) which has been endemic in Britain’s political discourse about Europe since it joined ‘the common market’ in 1973:

Europe’s role in this weird psychodrama is entirely pre-scripted. It doesn’t greatly matter what the European Union is or what it is doing – its function in the plot is to be a more insiduous form of nazism. This is important to grasp, because one of the key arguments in mainstream pro-Brexit political and journalistic discourse would be that Britain had to leave because the Europe it had joined was not the Europe it found itself part of in 2016…

… The idea of Europe as a soft-Nazi superstate was vividly present in 1975, even when the still-emerging EU had a much weaker, less evolved and less intrusive form…

Yet what brings these disparate modes together is the lure of self-pity, the weird need to dream England into a state of awful oppression… Hostility to the EU thus opens the way to a bizarre logic in which a Nazi invasion would have been, relatively speaking, welcome…

It was a masochistic rhetoric that would return in full force as the Brexit negotiations failed to produce the promised miracles.

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Certainly, the rejection of Mrs May’s deal in the House of Commons by large numbers of ‘Brexiteer’ MPs from her own Conservative Party was largely, by their own admission, because they felt they could not trust the assurances given by the Presidents of the Council and Commission of the European Union who were, some MPs stated, trying to trick them into accepting provisions which would tie the UK indefinitely to EU regulations. It is undoubtedly true that the British people mostly don’t want to spend any more time arguing about Brexit. But when ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ are united only in disliking Mrs May’s solution, that offers no way forward. The Brexiteers can only offer a “managed no deal” as an alternative, which means just strapping on seat belts as your car heads for the cliff edge. Brexit has turned out to be an economic and political disaster already, fuelling, not healing the divisions in British society which have opened up over the last twenty years, and have widened into a chasm in the last six years since the triumph of the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. The extent of this folly has grown clearer with each turn of the page. But the ending is not fully written.

Sources (for both parts):

The Guardian Weekly,  30 November 2018. London.

Douglas Murray (2018), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain III: 1776-2000, The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

Andrew Marr (2009), A History of Modern Britain. London: Pan Macmillan.

John Morrill (ed.), (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

 

Posted January 16, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Africa, Arabs, Assimilation, asylum seekers, Australia, Balkan Crises, BBC, Brexit, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Caribbean, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Colonisation, Commonwealth, Compromise, decolonisation, democracy, Demography, devolution, Discourse Analysis, Education, Empire, English Language, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Factories, Germany, History, Home Counties, Humanitarianism, Hungary, Immigration, India, Integration, Iraq, Ireland, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, Midlands, Migration, multiculturalism, multilingualism, Mythology, New Labour, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Refugees, Respectability, Satire, Second World War, terror, terrorism, United Kingdom, United Nations, West Midlands, World War Two, xenophobia

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

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

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

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

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

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

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

Posted December 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Australia, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Empire, Europe, Falklands, Family, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Genocide, George V, Germany, Great War, Gulf War, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, liberal democracy, Literature, Memorial, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Technology, terror, theology, USA, USSR, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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

Former Yugoslavia in Crisis: Views from Beyond the Borders:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bosnian war header.no.png

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

Who killed Sarajevo?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Christmases and two Cities under Siege:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcript of report on 9.40 news, 27.12.92

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

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

The old was the only patient still fit enough to chop wood for the furnace. A couple of hours later, he was shot dead by a Bosnian government sniper from close range. The bullet entered his head exactly between the eyes; a copybook killing. There can have been no mistake about it, no thought that he might have been a Serb soldier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are they doing to my lovely Sarajevo?

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

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

Transcript of interview with Dr Radovan Karadzic, 8.1.93.

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

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

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

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

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

RK: They are not acting as true Serbs.

JS: So they become legitimate targets too?

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

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

Interview with Nikola Koljevic, 8.1.93:

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

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

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

Transcript of interview with woman in Sarajevo, 14.1.93:

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

(sound of shell explosion, not far away).

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

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

War Crimes and Punishment of the Perpetrators:                                                   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Sources:

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

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosnian_War

The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956 – Suez & Hungary – part seven   1 comment

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5-14 November: Repression, Resistance and Refuge.

By Monday 5th November, the rising had been all but crushed by the sudden invasion and occupation of the country and its capital, but it took several months for the new régime under János Kádár to re-impose the hard-line centralised control the Soviets wanted. For the first week of this, bitter and intense fighting scarred the streets of Budapest. The 200,000-strong Soviet forces easily disarmed most of the Hungarian military. The Molotov cocktail was the street fighters’ only effective weapon against tanks. Nearly seven hundred Soviet soldiers and officers were killed and over 1,500 were wounded. George Mikes, a Hungarian exile in London, reporting for the BBC, joined the street fighters:

We have almost no weapons. People are running up to the tanks, throwing in hand-grenades and closing the windows. The Hungarian people are not afraid of death. We have just heard a rumour that American troops will get here within an hour or two.

Desperate radio appeals continued to be broadcast intermittently from ‘pirate’ radio stations:

Civilised peoples of the world! Our ship is sinking. Light is fading. The shadows grow darker over the soil of Hungary. Extend us your aid.

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But no aid came, only expressions of sympathy. US officials met several times to consider their response. President Eisenhower sent a message to Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, urging the withdrawal of Soviet troops and stating that the Soviet Union should  allow the Hungarian people to enjoy the right to a government of their choice. Bulganin replied that the situation was not a matter which should concern the USA. The US restricted American travel to Hungary, and Radio Free Europe continued to broadcast appeals to the Soviet troops. Despite the appeals for American intervention, US action was primarily limited to speeches, pressure for UN action, public diplomacy (through the issue of a ‘White Book’), radio appeals and distribution of newsreels of the the bloodshed. Aside from their preoccupation with the Suez Crisis and the elections, US officials were unwilling to give up even the small improvements in superpower relations that had occurred since the death of Stalin by pressing the Soviet leadership too hard. Part of the US reaction to the crisis was designed to play down the role it had played in inciting the rebellion, so it looked less like it had abandoned it.

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Tom Leimdorfer recalls the fear and terror engendered by the occupation of Budapest by the Soviet tanks on the third day, 6 November:

On Tuesday there was an eerie quiet on the street outside. Then the shop opened and a few people went down to get bread. I said to Mami that I would get some too and ran down to join the queue. A couple of minutes later a Soviet tank turned into the street from Kossuth Square (outside the Parliament), its turret pointing straight towards us. It then raised the turret and fired a shell right above our heads at the building behind us. I rushed inside as fast as my legs could carry me to meet Mami rushing down the stairs towards me, embracing me. This was enough for her. After a phone call to Gyuri Schustek, we packed a couple of suitcases and waited till all was quiet at dusk. Then we went downstairs and surveyed the road anxiously from the Parliament Square end to Margit (Margaret) Bridge, walked slowly towards the bridge, rushed across the main boulevard and then kept close to the walls of houses till we got to the safety of our friends’ flat in Szent István (Saint Stephen) Park. There we stayed till the 7th  December, the day before we took the train to the border. 

On the following day, 7th, János Kádár entered Budapest in a Soviet armoured car with an entourage of tanks. Meanwhile, Tom and his mother settled into their new abode, which was to provide them with relative safety for the next month:

The Schustek family’s flat on the top floor of a tenement in Szent István Park was a relative haven of calm. It was only one kilometer away from our home and the shelling could be clearly heard, but it was as safe as anywhere in Budapest. It was tucked away from the main road leading to the bridge and the boulevard, in the corner of the five storey tenements bordering a small square leading to the bank of the Danube. No tanks would go down there, no freedom fighters. The flat was on the top floor; a dangerous location in places where the fighting was intense.

Our friends welcomed us with open arms and immediately re-arranged the flat to make us comfortable. Six of us lived there for the next five weeks: Gyuri Schustek, his two children Ferkó and Marika, their grandmother Sári, my mother and I. Ferkó was 16 at the time, two years older than me, and we shared a room, which was also the main living room. Marika was three months short of her twelfth birthday and she slept in the small room with her grandmother, but spent the day with Ferkó and me. Mami went to share the main bedroom with Gyuri bácsi and somehow it seemed just natural. Their room opened to the large balcony which looked across the park and the Danube to the central section of Margaret Island (Margitsziget).

We were all totally traumatised for the first few days. Fresh from the euphoria of what briefly seemed like a victorious revolution, we knew the country was facing the horrors of repression and dictatorship again. We were desperate for news. The state radio station soon reverted to the old propaganda phrases, referring to a ‘counter-revolution’ instigated by fascist elements. What first confused us, was that the newly proclaimed head of the government was János Kádár, who few days before had been a loyal member of the revolutionary government formed by Imre Nagy. He had also been a victim of Rákosi’s worst years as a dictator, spending years in prison. We could not make out how he could have betrayed Nagy and the country by forming a new government backed by a brutal Soviet invasion… There were news and rumours of summary executions of some revolutionary leaders.

We could hear sound of shelling for some days, distant sound of gunfire on the Buda side for a few days more. As these died out, an eerie calm descended on the city. No traffic, no buses or trams, few people venturing out anywhere. We heard from the Hungarian service of the BBC that there was a general strike. The state radio was urging people to return to work, but this was largely ignored. The phones were working and friends and family were pleased to know that we were safe. We heard that my grandparents had to evacuate their flat in a hurry when freedom fighters placed themselves on the roof of their block. Soon after, a shell demolished the top floor and they found refuge with their daughter’s (my aunt Juci’s) family, who lived in a quiet street. My second cousins Kati, Marika and their parents lived near the Buda Castle where there had been intense fighting, but they were alright. Nobody knew what the future would bring.

As fighting between the Soviet troops and the Hungarian resistance continued, President Eisenhower announced that the United States would take up to nine thousand refugees. On 9 November, the UN General Assembly, which had continued to meet in special session since the 4th, adopted an additional series of resolutions on the situation in Hungary. The first, sponsored by Cuba, Ireland, Italy, Pakistan and Peru, called for the Soviet withdrawal from the country, for free elections there and a UN investigation of the situation. The second, sponsored by the United States, focused on the short-term needs of the Hungarians, including the refugees. It called on the Soviet and Hungarian authorities to cooperate with agencies providing humanitarian aid, and requested that the Secretary-General direct the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to consult with governments and international agencies on emergency aid. On 10 November, the General Assembly agreed to place the Hungarian question on the agenda of its eleventh regular session. The US provided a million dollars to the UNHCR.

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Nevertheless, news of the Suez Crisis, coinciding with American elections, helped bring home the hopelessness of Hungary’s situation to the citizens of Budapest. The West continued to be preoccupied; Hungary did not matter so much. Moreover, Britain and France had given the Soviets the perfect excuse for re-occupying the country in order to ensure that it stayed within the Soviet sphere of influence. Eventually, UN peacekeepers arrived in Suez, but no UN peacekeepers came to the streets of Budapest. The city became one vast prison camp in which the internees spent long hours listening to the radio and playing cards:

In order to get relief from the news, or often the lack of it, we started to play endless card games. Ferkó and I played a good deal of chess too, but most of the time we had family games of rummy or canasta. The latter was a favourite of Sári néni and she taught it to us with all the patience of a grandmother.  Even young Marika soon played her own hand, but then she was a very bright and lively eleven year old. Mami and Gyuri bácsi went about getting us food from the shops when they opened and making contact with their friends and colleagues to try to gauge what was really happening. Although the mood was often sombre, we did notice that they also started to joke and smile more. It was partly to lift our spirits, but something else was happening too. They were finding happiness in each other’s arms at this time of crisis.

Of course, the two families were always close. My father and Gyuri were students together, the two couples kept going out together while courting, they got married within weeks of each other (both going to Venice for honeymoon) in 1938. Gyuri and Lonci lived in Romania (Transylvania) during the early years of the war and Ferkó was born there, but Marika was born in Budapest after the war. Then Gyuri was in prison for eighteen months during the dark years of communism and soon after he was released, his wife Lonci (Ilona) néni died of cancer in 1954. So there we were, two war torn, residual families sheltering from the latest storm and gradually beginning to feel like one family.

When the curfew was lifted and eventually we ventured out, we saw a drab eerie almost dead city. People walking the streets kept eyes down, did not look at each other. The contrast with the euphoria of those few days of apparent freedom could not have been be greater. There were wrecked vehicles, bombed out buildings everywhere. Many workers (including the steel works of ‘Red’ Csepel) were still on strike in spite of government instructions of return to work.

 

Fighting continued until around 12th November in Budapest. On 4 November, a delegation from the district’s Revolutionary Committee had made an unusual agreement with the invading Soviet forces whereby the Committee and the National Guard would be responsible for maintaining order. The agreement held for three days, during which time the Soviets didn’t advance into the district. On the 8th, however, the Soviets took control after heavy fighting. But although the insurgents had lost control of the streets, the factories were still in the hands of workers’ councils. In addition, the Revolutionary  Committee continued to exist, and on 12th November there was a meeting between some of its members and the re-emerging Stalinist district authority apparatus, at which the conditions for resuming normal life were discussed. The uneasy ‘partnership’ did not last long, however, as on the same day the Committee members were arrested. Two years later, their leader, Pál Kósa, and six others were condemned to death and executed.

Armed resistance in Hungary outside Budapest ended on the 14th when Soviet forces recaptured Csepel Island. Also on that day, The Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest was formed at the United Electric Factory in the Újpest district of Budapest.  It was founded as a body which aimed to represent all the workers’ councils across the city. This endeavour reveals that, for a time, not only was there continued nonviolent resistance in the form of the ‘general strike’, but also that a state of dual power continued to exist for some time after the Soviet reoccupation of the city. The meeting called to set up the Council could not, however, take place at the Town Hall as planned, due to the arrest of the members of the Újpest Revolutionary Committee, which had continued to meet there. The Town Hall was surrounded by Soviet tanks when the workers’ delegates arrived, so it had to be transferred to  United Electric, where it took place on 14 November. It decided to set up a Council and to send a delegation to negotiate with Kádár, though it withheld formal recognition of his legitimacy and that of his government.

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Sándor Bali, a tool fitter and thirteenth child of a peasant family, became a leading figure in the discussions. He had had six years of schooling before working in a Telecommunications factory after the war, becoming Chairman of its Trade Union Committee. Since the end of October he had chaired the XIth District Workers’ Council. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1946. At the meeting, Bali argued that, while not accepting the legitimacy of the Kádár government in principle, they must build an organisation, backed by the general strike, capable of confronting Kádár’s government. This plan was backed by the other delegates, and so a Central Workers’ Council was established. The main aim was to make the factories truly collective, under workers’ control. It sent negotiators to talk with Kádár, but abandoned the idea of continuing the strike, which had, in effect, been general and continuing since 4 November. Bali argued that, in order to consolidate the factory councils, the workers needed to return to the shop floors. The founding resolution of the Council proclaimed:

We declare our firm commitment to the principles of socialism. We consider the means of production to be social property and we are ready at any time to fight to defend them.

The delegates also demanded the reinstatement of Imre Nagy as Premier; that the newly formed security services should be recruited from young revolutionaries and members of the army and police, rather than from ÁVH members; that detained freedom fighters be released; that Soviet troops be withdrawn from the country as soon as possible; that all political parties withdraw from the factories and that those arrested over the past ten days would be released.

Kádár’s response over several issues was conciliatory, though he was intransigent about the continuation of the work stoppage. Bali and the other members of the envisaged three sorts of workers’ organisations: councils, controlling the country’s economic life, trade unions defending workers’ interests; and political parties, which would be socialist. Bali commented:

We don’t want to commit the same mistake as the Party made in the past, when it was at one and the same time master of the country and of the factories, and the only organisation representing the interests of the workers. If we make the same mistake then we’ll be back where we started.

Of course, if the Council attempted to seize power from the Kádár government and the Soviet forces behind it, it could quickly find itself in serious conflict, but it did not call for ‘all power to the workers’ councils’, echoing the call in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. However, neither Kádár nor the Soviet officials attempted to destroy the Council, nor the factory councils in the way they had the Revolutionary Committee of the street fighters. From 15 November onwards the Central Workers’ Council had regular contact both with the Soviet officials on the ground and negotiated with the Kádár government in parliament. It moved from United Electric in Újpest to the city-centre building of the the Municipal Tramway Authority.

The hope of the Workers’ Council leaders was that the strength of the workers’ councils in the factories would be enough to get certain demands accepted. In the end that turned out to be an illusion, but at the start there appeared to be positive signs. One was the fact that Kádár was willing to negotiate, or at least discuss matters, with the KMT (Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council). He appeared to be prepared to consider any and all of the Council’s demands, and an upbeat report of the first meeting appeared in Népszabadság the following day, 15 November, though the bulk of the article was given over to Kádár’s views, with little or no attention paid to those of the delegates. The sticking point was the continuation of the work stoppage, which Kádár insisted must stop before progress could be made on the other issues. It was clearly the top priority of the government to get the workers back to work. For the workers themselves, the ‘strike’ represented a dilemma since it was seriously harming the economy which they were in favour of keeping it in public hands, albeit under a more democratic form of socialism. It was therefore in danger of destroying what they called ‘the public good’. Workers ‘on strike’ could still pick up their wages at the factories, a paradoxical situation which could clearly not continue. There was also a belief that if they could demonstrate that normal production was resuming, the government and the Soviets would be less inclined to resist certain demands.

By 14 November, the fighting was over. The picture below was taken towards the end of the Battle for Budapest. It shows the ruined streets near to the Kilián barracks, and the remains of a tank, just before the rising was finally crushed.

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Time Magazine reported:

The steel-shod Russian jackboot heeled down on Hungary this week, stamping and grinding out the young democracy.

Approximately 2,500 Hungarians had been killed in the conflict in Budapest, with a further nineteen thousand wounded, and at least three thousand had been killed across the country as a whole. On the 15th, the Austrian Government was reporting that, already, more than twenty-five thousand refugees had entered Austria in the course of the previous week, and asked for help in relocating these people to third countries, as well as for financial and practical assistance.

By this time, as the historian László Kontler has recently written, János Kádár had become the most hated man in Hungary. His betrayal might well have been grounded upon a realistic appraisal of the international situation and the options they held for Hungary, deciding to intervene in order to spare it from still worse to come. Yet no-one, not even the members of the Workers’ Council, saw this as a legitimate argument at the time, though they recognised his authority de facto in order to negotiate with him. Otherwise, the new government was completely isolated in a hostile country conquered by foreign arms. Although the pockets of armed resistance had been mopped up by 10-11 November, the workers’ councils started to make an impact only after 4 November, and their success in organising in the capital was swiftly followed by an attempt to set up a nationwide network. Added to this, the intellectuals completely rejected the Kádár government, angrily demanding the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and representative government. The Pope, acting on the initiative of Cardinal Mindszenty, who had taken refuge in the American embassy, forbade the clergy to have any contact with the puppet government. After all, the true government, in the form of Imre Nagy and some of his ministers, was still taking refuge in the Yugoslav embassy, while mass arrests and deportations to the Soviet Union were well underway.

(to be continued…)

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RIP Imre Pozsgay: Driving Force of the Hungarian Revolution of 1989   Leave a comment

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In April 1990, the BBC’s international correspondent, John Simpson, wrote an introduction to his ‘eye-witness accounts of the Revolutions that shook the world’ over the previous twelve months, from Peking to ‘Eastern’ Europe as it was known then. In it, he published the photograph and caption below from June 1989:

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Although Miklós Neméth and Gyula Horn are perhaps more familiar names as Prime Ministers during this period and through to the later 1990s in Horn’s case, Pozsgay was undoubtedly the leading architect of the Reform movement within the leadership in the Spring and Summer of 1989, securing both the bloodless removal of János Kádár from power and the opening of the border to Austria to the East German refugees, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall later that Autumn. By the time President Bush visited in July 1989, just before I arrived for my second visit (my first had been in October 1988 with a group of Quakers from Britain led by a 1956 exile), Hungary had effectively ceased to be either a Communist country or a Soviet ‘satellite state’. Senior citizens, including Pozsgay, had been talking seriously of joining the European Community and NATO. During my third visit, in October 1989, the country had indeed changed both its name and its constitution. By the time I came to Hungary for the fourth time, this time to marry and live here, in the early Spring of 1990, the country was getting ready for its first free elections since November 1945. Here, Simpson takes up the story:

When the final round of elections came, in April 1990, the reformed Communists won only 8 per cent of the seats, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office.  A centre-right government came to power. As in 1918, Hungary had emerged from an empire and found itself on its own; though this time, unlike the violence and destruction which followed the abortive Communist Republic of Béla Kun in 1919, the transition was peaceable and relaxed. Hungary’s economy and environment had been horribly damaged by thirty-three years of Marxism-Leninism; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. There are dozens of men and women, maybe more, who had a part in encouraging the revolutions that will be described in this book. But the stout figure who stays at home and cooks for his family while he tries to work out what to do next, is one of the more important of them. 

I left Hungary that Easter to travel to Dublin for my second IATEFL (International Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference. The tricoleur flags and bunting were out on the streets and fine buildings of the Irish capital for the 74th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. My only previous visit there had been in the summer of 1966 shortly after the (then) Official IRA had blown up Nelson’s Column as an act of confirmation of Ireland’s breaking free of the British Empire. This weekend in 2016 marks the hundredth anniversary of the Rising, and major acts of commemoration and celebration are planned. Those who struck a blow for freedom during a time when the British Empire was at war – Pearse, Connolly among them – are not remembered by all Irish people as heroes and, at least until their ‘martyrdom’ at the hands of the British state, they were not celebrated as by many of their contemporary compatriots. In Hungary, those who led a non-violent revolution, perhaps therefore more worthy of commemoration, could never give their contemporary compatriots enough to make them forget that they were Communists. However, without their contribution, the events of 1989-90 might not have provided so peaceful a transition and, as the wars in the Balkans and the Ukraine have demonstrated, the anti-heroes of violent nationalism might have, instead, caused the civil strife we now see across the Middle East, five years after the Arab Spring. Hungary’s softer nationalists may never give Imre Pozsgay a statue in Kossúth tér, outside Parliament, like the 1956 rebel Communist leader, Imre Nagy, but he should be remembered by internationalists across the continent as one of a small group of leaders who helped to reunite the continent in peace, freely giving up power in order to do so. In keeping with the Easter theme, their role was, though not as sacrificial as that of the 1916 ‘rebels’, certainly a bravely vicarious and patriotic one.

RIP, Imre.

Source: John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

Britain’s Refugee Record: Myth or Reality?   Leave a comment

Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.

Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.

Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:

Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.  

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Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War

Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a  White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.

Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:

We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.

Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.

To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian  officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they  caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.

Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.

In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames? 

Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.

The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:

Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.

Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.

In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.

However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.

In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:

In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.

Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:

The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.

At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:

It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.

The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…

…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.

Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.

It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:

A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”

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Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

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In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.

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The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

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

 

The Bombing of Baghdad, January 1991   1 comment

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In January 1991, John Simpson, BBC correspondent, found himself living and working from the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, just a hundred feet over Saddam Hussein’s bunker. Both he and the Coalition forces knew this: the European company which had built much of his bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The American embassy, before it had closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed by the bombing. Of the big American news corporations who had been present in Iraq’s capital, only CNN remained.

Simpson admitted that his reasons for remaining were complex. Certainly, there was a sense of duty and a commitment to the BBC’s role as a world-wide public service broadcaster. As its ‘Foreign Affairs’ editor, he wanted the Corporation to have proper news coverage of what was about to happen. He had not been ‘sent’ to Baghdad, but had chosen to go, and therefore didn’t feel it right to leave the city and leave the job to someone else. In addition, he was too interested to turn his back on what would be the greatest bombardment in human history. He had also undertaken to write a book on the crisis, and couldn’t therefore simply walk away from the final chapter. Although he enjoyed the sense of danger and excitement, he knew he would have to survive to be able to write the chapter. When he returned to London later the same year, he was interviewed on the popular radio programme, Desert Island Discs, admitting to its host Sue Lawley that he didn’t risk his life just to write the book, but because he was, indeed, a bit of a chancer. He thought he would probably survive, and then the benefits of seeing the war at first hand would be considerable in every way. Whatever his mix of motives for staying, the fact that he did has provided historians with a series of important eye-witness accounts of the Bombing of Baghdad, on radio, TV and in print.

Even on the eve of the day the bombing began, 16 January, ordinary Iraqis were sure that there would be no war. Nobody wants it, he was told. That night, Simpson produced what he considered to be the best report he had ever done. Despite what he had been told, it showed people taping up their windows and finished with the first air-raid sirens of the war. It was sent to London by satellite. The satellite revolution which had occurred over the previous decade had not simply speeded up the delivery of film reports for almost immediate broadcast, it had also meant that government control of what was shown on TV was almost impossible. Mrs Thatcher was unable, even had she wanted to, to control the images coming out of Baghdad as she had controlled those coming out of the South Atlantic in 1982.

That same evening, the French and American broadcasting organisations with teams in the Al-Rashid Hotel got in touch with them to tell them that the bombing would start that night. The BBC crew, which included two other hardened reporters, Eamonn Matthews and Bob Simpson, heard nothing from their bosses. They had apparently changed their minds and decided that the crew should leave Baghdad. Simpson’s orders came from one of the most senior figures in the Corporation, whom the journalist told that he would then need to get a new foreign affairs editor. They finally agreed that if Simpson chose to ignore the BBC instructions, he would not face disciplinary action on his return. However, the other members of the crew were told that if they stayed on in defiance of the instruction, they would be regarded as having resigned from the Corporation. The severance would be immediate, without payment to themselves or, should they be killed, to their widows. Four of the team, including the whole technical crew, decided they had to obey. Simpson, Matthews and Simpson were faced the prospect of staying on without a camera team and a picture mixer.

in the event, they soon found two cameramen, both of whom had been sacked for questioning their offices’ instructions to return home immediately. Anthony Wood had been working for TV-AM in the UK, and Nick Della Cassa for CBS. In addition to a hand-held video camera and Nick’s American NTSC equipment, the ‘new’ crew also had a satellite phone. It soon became obvious that CNN had done a separate deal with the Iraqis, who had agreed to let them have use of a government communications system, a two-way telephone line called a ‘four-wire’, which ran in a protected culvert to the Jordanian border. It was immune to the general telecommunications jamming which the Americans carried out. In return, anything Saddam Hussein wanted the world to know or see could be said or shown via CNN. Later, ex-President George Bush was deeply critical of CNN, the BBC and other broadcasters who worked in Baghdad during the war. As John Simpson himself pointed out, however…

even in wartime, broadcasters in a free society are not a co-opted branch of the military; their function is not and shouldn’t be to keep up morale at home, nor to spread deliberate propaganda abroad. In the Second World War the BBC, with Churchill’s full agreement, broadcast as much of the truth as the proper demands of national security would allow; so that often the first news of  British reverses was broadcast, not by Germans or Japanese or Italian radio, but by ourselves.

‘We always listened to the BBC,’ said one of the tens of thousands of letters the BBC received from its European well-wishers after the War was over, ‘because we knew that if you were honest about the bad things that happened to you, we could trust you to tell us about your victories.’

If you are fighting in a good cause against those who wish to suppress truth and honesty,  – whether they are Nazis or the Iraqi government – it is the worst thing possible to suppress truth and honesty yourself. The results of the BBC’s approach in the Second World War were of course remarkable. Not only did the civil population of Germany and the occupied countries listen to the BBC in preference to their own broadcasters, but the BBC’s international reputation for honesty and unbiased reporting was established for the rest of the twentieth century.

I doubt if CNN’s behaviour during the Gulf War will win it that kind of praise. Yet the Gulf War was the making of CNN… CNN denies strongly that it persuaded the Iraqis to throw everyone else out soon after the war began, and that it tried to stop them being invited back some time later… though CNN has also denied, rather unconvincingly, that it used the Iraqi four-wire communication system. What we do know is that by establishing its pre-eminence in Baghdad, CNN became the television news leader in America.   

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In the early hours of 17 January, soon after the BBC technical crew had told Simpson, Matthews and Simpson that they were leaving and the three ‘stayers’ had hired Antony Wood and Nick Della Casa, the bombing of the Iraqi capital began. The Americans started by jamming telecommunications. Remembering Saddam Hussein’s warning that there would be two enormously destructive waves of bombing, John Simpson felt distinctly nervous, but only the nervousness you feel before an important match, or a stage appearance. At 2.32 q.m, following his suggestion, he, Wood and Matthews headed out into the streets to film the start of the bombing. They ran across the lobby of the hotel into the silence of the cold night outside. Most of the city lights had been switched off. They had hired a driver for the night and they ran to his car, jumped in and slammed the doors:

‘Drive! Drive! Drive!’

But drive where? We hadn’t had time to work it out. Each of us shouted suggestions. I wanted to be in the heavily populated areas on the other side of the river, but I was afraid of crossing a bridge. All the bridges, we knew, would be bombed, and if we were stuck on the wrong side without any shelter we might well be lynched as spies.

We were still shouting when the darkness and silence exploded around us. There was an extraordinary racket, as the hidden guns and missile batteries started blasting off excitedly into the air. I remembered to look at my watch: 2.37. Red tracer flashed up in patterns beside us, lighting up the frightened, sweating face of our driver, and Eamonn peering through the window trying to see where we should go, and Anthony’s face screwed into the side of the camera. Sirens started up everywhere. Our ears were besieged with with waves of disorienting noise.

‘I’m getting this, I’m getting this,’ Anthony yelled.

The car took a sharp turn into an underpass, its wheels squealing, and came out on the other side just as a battery of rockets exploded beside us.

I’m glad you are, I thought. I could see what was happening: the driver was so frightened, he was heading straight back to the hotel. We were going on a mile-long circle, with nothing to show for it but a few flashing lights in the sky and some spectacular noise. As for the bombing, it hadn’t even started. This was just a display of nervousness by the Iraqi gunners… 

They tried to set up their camera in front of the main door of the hotel, just as the first rumblings of aircraft became audible over the anti-aircraft guns. However, the big security guards hauled them inside. They could hear that outside, the first bombs and missiles had begun falling. The whole building shook as they landed nearby, though nothing, as yet, had hit it. They were forced down into one of the vast underground rooms which were being used as shelters:

It smelled of fear. People were gathered all round the walls in little groups, lying or sitting, terrified or weeping or trying to come to terms with what had happened to them. The old rules that applied on the surface seemed not to work down here. I saw a young woman undressing in front of everyone, and neither she nor anyone else seemed to pay any attention. Children wept or defecated; old men and women sat looking at the floor, too frightened to do anything. And all the time, it seemed, the structure of hotel, fifty feet above our heads, shook and shivered with the bombing.

The crew couldn’t stand to be in this living tomb. They fought their way past a guard armed with a Kalashnikov in the dark and ran up five flights of stairs to the BBC office, catching glimpses on every landing of the extraordinary battle which was going on outside. They were unable to stop, since the guards were chasing them. In the office they found the other members of the crew, and John Simpson managed to record a piece to camera by torchlight, fearing that Iraqi soldiers outside might think they were signalling to the planes and put a heavy round through the window. Dodging past a security man on the corridor outside, and into an empty room, he locked the door and then found his way through several interconnecting doors until, in the light of the blasts outside, he found a bed. Beside it was a short-wave radio which he turned on and found it was tuned to the BBC. As if he didn’t know, the calm voice of the BBC announcer told him that the war had started, and President Bush told him why so much high explosive was being dropped on his head. As he was falling asleep, his watch told him it was 5.45.

He woke up three hours later and went out into the grounds of the hotel, where little groups of journalists were gathered around the white umbrella-like dishes of satellite phones. The skies were blue and empty except for the occasional puffs of smoke from ground-to-air missiles, and there was sporadic gunfire. The BBC journalist did a first telephone report about the night’s bombing, but couldn’t answer questions about what state Baghdad was in that morning. So he and Wood went out again, again dodging the exhausted guards. They found a driver and crossed a still undamaged bridge into the centre of the city which was eerily quiet and empty:

Our car was one of the very few on the streets, and there were scarcely any people to be seen: a woman trailing a weeping child, a few old men and women selling oranges. Here and there entire buildings had been snuffed out of existence – important government buildings, ‘Mukhabarat’ (security guard) centres or Ba’ath Party headquarters – and yet those on either side of them were mostly undamaged, and sometimes still had all their glass in the windows. A local telephone exchange, a smallish building opposite an hotel, was nothing more than a heap of rubble; the hotel was still completely usable.

A couple of hours later, a friend of mine who had been caught out in the darkness told me that she had seen strange red lights playing on the target buildings. British and perhaps American special forces had penetrated the city and were guiding the missiles with infra-red lamps; hence the extraordinary precision.

As we drove round, the driver spotted a ‘Mukhabarat’ car.

‘Allah! He see you take picture.’

The unmarked white car picked up speed, overtook us and forced us to stop. I got out.

 ‘Morning’, I said, ‘Just looking around. I’m sure you don’t mind.’

He did mind. He ordered us to follow him… We crossed the bridge as though we were going back to our hotel, but the police car signalled that it was going to take the right fork, to ‘Mukhabarat’ headquarters: not at all a good destination.

Now, though, the sirens were wailing again, and the Defence Ministry a quarter of a mile away along the river bank vanished in a pillar of brown smoke. You couldn’t hear the cruise missiles coming: you could only see the results.

‘Go straight on, Ali,’ I hissed at the driver. ‘Don’t turn. Go there.’

I tried to look ferocious: Ali had to be more frightened of me at that moment than he was of the secret police. It did the trick. The ‘Mukhabarat’ car turned right, and we sped straight ahead, the hotel only a few hundred yards away now. The missiles were falling again and the futile sound of anti-aircraft fire was everywhere. It must have taken the secret policeman a minute or so to realize what had happened and another minute to turn; but as we raced into the car park the white car was already entering the hotel gates. Ali was safe enough: he told the police I had threatened to cut his throat. Technically it was a lie: but he had interpreted me right.

Later that morning, John Simpson saw a cruise or ‘Tomahawk’ missile pass along the line of the road outside the hotel. It actually turned left at the traffic lights and followed the road which the white police car had wanted them to take. He thought it may have hit the ‘Mukhabarat’ headquarters itself, in which case he was even more relieved that they hadn’t gone there. Soon afterwards, he went down to the hotel gardens, where the satellite phone had been set up. It was around nine in the morning, London time, when he was interviewed by David Dimbleby on a special live programme, and reported the passing by of the missile, adding:

This is the first time anyone’s seen a war like this.  It wasn’t what we expected, to be honest. I’ve covered quite a lot of wars in my time, but I thought this was going to be horrendous: or at least I thought it was going to be last night. It’s turned out not to be so horrendous, and it’s the accuracy of the missiles which makes it less threatening than one thought.

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He didn’t want to become an apologist for any kind of war, but his words were taken as making the case for a new kind of warfare by many back home in the UK, myself included. Somehow, it was evident that war could now be more neat and tidy, without much bloodshed. Until the terrible bombing of the Amriyah shelter, in which hundreds of women and children died, ‘co-lateral’ civilian casualties were indeed minimal. Of course, had it not been for the greed and blinkered mentality of a number of countries, including Britain, in allowing Saddam Hussein to build up so large an arsenal of weapons during and after his war with Iran, it might not have been necessary for them to fight the Gulf War at all.

However, what he felt was incontrovertible was that, for the first time since 1918, this was a war in which killing ordinary people was not a main objective. Of course, those who were against the war didn’t want to hear this. When he went back to Baghdad after the war, he counted only twenty-nine buildings which had been completely destroyed, though those which had been targeted had been hit repeatedly.

Following the initial bombardments of 17 January, there were fewer than forty of the meia people left, including eleven British, eight French, three Italians, a Spaniard, an Australian, a New Zealander, a team of Canadians, five Americans, a Turk and a couple of Jordanians. On the second night, the Americans told the CNN team that they were going to hit the Al-Rashid Hotel, but that didn’t happen. After Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel, there was a real fear that the Israelis might retaliate with nuclear weapons, but that didn’t happen either. The Al-Rashid had ceased to function as a hotel: there was no power, no water and no food. The raids went on day and night, but the missiles continued to loop around high buildings like the Al-Rashid.

The television crews rushed outside every time the sirens went off, meeting the embarrassed security men running for cover inside. On one occasion John Simpson collided with a desk in the hallway in the dark, cracking two of his ribs. Desperate to get on air, he struggled downstairs. Overhead a sensational battle was being fought between the Coalition planes and the Iraqi ground-to-air missiles. There were explosions all across the sky, but the BBC scheduling in London meant that he could only report on the battle after it was over and the skies had cleared. A wonderful broadcasting opportunity had been lost.

The Iraqi security men were only occasionally aggressive towards the camera crews. Besides being reluctant to be out in the open with them, most of them seemed to be praying that Saddam would be killed or overthrown. Certainly, if his army had fought in the way he had intended, there could have been large-scale losses for the Coalition forces. As it was, they only put up a token fight because they didn’t want to support him. On the afternoon the Information told them they would have to leave Iraq, their chief minder assured them that CNN would also be leaving. As it turned out, that was a lie. Before they left, the area around the hotel was attacked by cruise missiles:

Two of the missiles went round the hotel and hit the conference centre opposite, which was one of the entrances to Saddam Hussein’s bunker. Another was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and plunged into the hotel grounds. At the height of the action I recorded a quick piece to camera, with my back to the window. There was a terrible racket outside, but the people in the room were sitting there completely immobile and silent. Then Bob Simpson spoke.

‘It went right behind you while you were talking. It was a cruise.’

But there was no time to talk about it. Anthony and I went charging downstairs to film the damage done by the missile which had crashed. It had ploughed into the staff quarters, which were well ablaze by the time we got there. Fortunately no one had been in the huts at the time, and there were no casualties. As we were filming, we were jumped on by four security men. We fought them for a while, but in the end one of them got hold of the camera and took the cassette out… It didn’t just contain the pictures of the crashed missile; it also had my piece to camera with the cruise passing behind my head. I felt as though I had lost a picture of the Loch Ness Monster.

When they arrived at the Marriott Hotel in Amman, they were greeted, much to their surprise, by a reception committee from the BBC and various other television organisations. The BBC crew who had left Baghdad had managed to smuggle their pictures through, while ITN’s had been confiscated at the border. In addition, the satellite telephone broadcasts John Simpson had managed to make had been heard by immense audiences. After a quarter of a century in the trade, he could now feel that he had truly arrived as a reporter.

Source: John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke & Oxford: Pan Books.

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