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Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

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

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

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

Aftermath: Autumn into Winter…  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Above: Heroes’ Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections and Projections on the fate of the Revolution and Communism  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary Sources:

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

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

 

  

Death of the Dictator: The Romanian Revolution of December 1989   Leave a comment

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The Rebellion in Timisoara and the Revolution in Bucharest had not just taken Ceausescu and his ruling clique by surprise, but the whole world outside Romania, including journalists and news media. John Simpson flew to Belgrade on 22 December and drove the short distance to the Romanian border with three other BBC crew, plus a French reporter and his photographer, in convoy. When they arrived at the border, they expected to be met by Securitate, since they were a long way from Bucharest:

We braked sharply. Three men stood motionless in our headlights, not even blinking. They formed a weird tableau in the dark. I assumed they were part of a Securitate roadblock and braced myself for a bullet. Nothing happened. They held flags over their heads and their hands, grasping the wooden staffs, remained intertwined. There was something strange about the flags: the Communist emblem in the centre had been roughly hacked out of them. These were not Securitate men, they were revolutionaries. The three unsmiling peasants, their lined faces as white as the painted tree trunks in the headlights, and heard that the mutilated flag was the symbol of their revolution. Word had radiated out from Bucharest until it had reached even this obscure place, four hundred miles away. They did not speak to us. They merely watched us uncomprehendingly as we circled round them, filming. We climbed back into our cars and drove off, leaving them still standing there in the darkness… In the nearby villages, unlit except for the statutory forty watt light bulb per dwelling, people turned out to cheer us and dance in the light of our camera.

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The journalists drove on to Timisoara, arriving there at eleven o’clock, finding the town in total darkness and hysterical crowds on the streets. Groups of people emerged from the shadows, demanding to see their accreditation before waving them on to the next batch of guardians of the street, often only ten yards further on. Mass delusion had set in, with the self-appointed roadblocks telling them to turn their lights of, as the Air Force was threatening to bomb the town. At first they complied, but soon the claim seemed implausible. They switched their lights back on, and people shouted at them, but took no action. Some claimed that the Securitate had poisoned the water. They drove fast through Timisoara, glad to leave its hallucinations behind. The serious action now lay ahead in Bucharest.

At first, the focus of the revolution in Bucharest was the Central Committee building. The insurgents had fought their way into Ceausescu’s office, with its ante-room leading out onto the balcony, and took it over as their headquarters. None of them knew each other; they had been brought together by their courage, and were an unlikely bunch of revolutionaries: among them an ordinary soldier who could scarcely write, a cinema stunt man, a sculptor, a couple of would-be politicians, a hostess from the InterContinental Hotel, a witty and worldly-wise sociologist who was hoping to write an account of the group dynamics of creating a revolution, and Adrian Donea, a taxi driver who had started his career as a designer but had switched to driving a taxi because there was more money in it.

The Army was extremely anxious to take over the revolution in its early stages and restore order. It was several days later that John Simpson spoke to one of the soldiers who had been involved from these early stages, taking the whole thing very seriously:

I first found out that the Army had gone over to the side of the people by listening to the radio. Our commanders ordered us to go into action. We were the very first soldiers to take up position here at the Central Committee building. I was very moved when the people embraced us and chanted: ‘The Army is with us! You are our sons, our brothers. You must help us!’

Simpson and his BBC crew arrived in Bucharest at dawn on Saturday 24 December, Christmas Eve. The Army, having declared for the revolution, was rumbling its tanks into the city centre to protect it.

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By Christmas morning the fighting in Bucharest was over. The revolution was accomplished and the counter-revolution had been defeated. It had taken three days. The Square (pictured below) was a depressing sight. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were skewed around the middle of it, and exhausted soldiers lay on them in a muddle of uniforms. The dome of the University Library was a smoking skeleton the windows blackened by fire. The ground below was covered with black ashes from the books that had been burned. Every frontage in the Square had been splattered by pointless gunfire. The old Royal Palace was a terrible sight, the grand rooms a mess of charred beams and burned furniture. Fire was still licking the walls and the roof of the block of flats opposite the Central Committee building. These were the flats where the senior officers of the Securitate lived, and they had been built with the thought of possible counter-subversion in mind. The windows of the expensive shops which had sold chocolate and jewellery had been smashed by rifle fire.

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It was the first Christmas many Romanians had been permitted to celebrate. This was a society where even Father Christmas had been forbidden. Now there were decorations everywhere, and people were still dragging Christmas trees home that evening. On television there was an announcement that there was a new national flag, just the country’s blue, yellow and red. It was accompanied on-screen by Christmas decorations, a bowl filled with ornaments, just the usual balls of coloured glass that would have been part of the fixtures and fittings of any Western European TV studio, but in Romania they were a symbol of revolution.

In the Square people had been camping out all night round fires of rubbish. At first they had sung their new revolutionary songs, cooking whatever food they could find. It was like the field of some great battle after the fighting was over. Suddenly and terrifyingly there was a wild burst of shooting from a wing of the Central Committee building nearby. In the panic people flung themselves to the ground or ran through the camp fires looking for cover. The soldiers had discovered a small group of Securitate hiding out in one of the first floor rooms. They were captured and taken away for questioning, which consisting of searching them for Securitate documents. Those who were found in possession of these were taken down to the cellars and shot in the back of the head,their bodies taken away in trucks before dawn on each of the following mornings. This was also the fate of the three black labradors, two of them gifts to the Ceausescu family from HM the Queen, which had had the misfortune to be discovered in the Central Committee building, abandoned by their fleeing owners.

There was a kind of revolutionary insanity in the air. Sudden myths swept through the revolutionaries’ camps: Two of Ceausescu’s doubles had been sighted; Ceausescu had escaped and was in China/Iran/East Germany/Albania; Securitate paratroopers had been dropped on Timisoara; that Colonel Gaddafi had sent troops to support the counter-revolutionaries, etc… These myths could be self-defeating. The revolutionaries found the flat where a Securitate sniper had been hiding. It was empty, but a few minutes later a man in a fur hat slipped out of a side entrance and calmly got into his car. It refused to start, he was spotted and pulled out. The crowd treated him roughly, someone punching him in the face. They discovered a pistol on him, but he remained perfectly calm, though his face moved quickly round the circle of faces, searching out the people he had to convince. When they looked through his pockets they failed to find any Securitate documents. He explained coolly that he was an ordinary policeman, off duty, and that he had kept his gun with him to help in the search for Securitate snipers. The crowd liked that, and he gave them some advice about where to search for the snipers in the building. They were, in any case, expecting to find Libyans. They clapped him on the back and went back with him to his car. It still wouldn’t start, so they pushed it for him. As they waved him off, John Simpson suggested to one of the self-appointed commanders of the group that they had let the real sniper get away. He laughed, and said that he thought Simpson was right, adding, but you’ve seen these people; how could I change their minds? What heightened the atmosphere of paranoia in Romania during those first days of the revolution, was that the Securitate really were everywhere.

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Above: A still from the BBC coverage of the tunnels underneath the Central Committee building. Adrian Donea, the taxi driver who became a leading revolutionary, holds a gun to the head of a suspected Securitate man who they have arrested. The tunnels went on for miles under the city, and were stocked with supplies for a long siege.

That Christmas morning, it was bitterly cold. Outside the Central Committee building a hundred or more people were queuing for a free hand out of bread and a watery light brown soup. Each person who received a ration began wolfing it down then and there. Behind them the queue bunched up and the process slowed.  Those waiting shouted angrily, but those eating didn’t stop. Inside the building, Ceausescu’s office was as big as a football pitch. Until two days before he had sat at the enormous desk in the far corner while his ministers std in the circular pattern in the middle of the carpet and called over their business to him. Now there was even more calling over of business: The crew had taken over the admiral’s cabin and there was points were emphasised with revolvers or Kalashnikovs. This was the heart of the powerfully anti-Communist emotions which had welled up and overthrown Ceausescu. There were still Securitate men still at large inside the maze of tunnels under the building. It was also true that a group of special agents had been detailed to infiltrate the revolutionaries in case of a coup.

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Above: Ceausecu’s office in the Central Committee building, under new management. The desk with the typewriter on it is his desk.; so is the choice of paintings. Behind the fierce characters with guns is the door leading to his private apartment. 

Meanwhile, Vaughan Smith, a freelance photographer who had also worked in Afghanistan, had followed the trail of the infamous couple for days after their helicopter had lifted off from the roof of the Central Committee building, meeting and interviewing the people who had come across them on their way to arrest and execution.  The helicopter pilot, Lt-Col Vasile Malutanu (pictured below), explained how he had rescued the Ceausescus and the others in their party from the jammed lift in the building, flying them the short distance to their villa by the lake at Snagov.

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They had arrived at Snagov around 12.30, the staff there knowing nothing of the morning’s events in Bucharest. The chief of security at the villa, Sergeant-Major Lalescu, heard the helicopter’s engines and went out nervously to meet them:

Elena and Nicolae Ceaucescu got out of the helicopter and started running. They ran along the path to the back of the house and went up to their apartment on the first floor. There they went searching through all the cupboards, emptied the drawers and turned over the mattresses. They put everything into two big blue bags. On the top I could see blankets and loaves of bread. I’ve got no idea what was under them. Then they made a couple of calls.

The first of these calls was to the military base at Otatoi, where they could catch a plane to take them out of the country. The other was to a Party secretary in the mountains of the north. It took them three-quarters of an hour for them to pack the bags and make the phone-calls before they hurried back to the waiting helicopter. By this time, the two unwanted passengers, Emil Bobu the prime minister and his deputy, had headed off by car, leaving the Ceausescus and their bodyguards, including General Neagoe. The pilot, Lt-Col Malutanu, had been in contact with his superior officers at Otatoi. They had told him that they had refused Ceausescu’s request for a helicopter escort, but he agreed to follow Ceausescu’s orders:

The bodyguards were very nervous. They kept their machine-pistols pointed at me. On my headphones I could hear my commanding officer saying, ‘Vasile, listen to the radio – this is the revolution!’ After that, Ceausescu ordered me to cut all radio contact with my base. I wanted to persuade him to let us land so he could be captured, but I was on my own, cut off from the world. I deliberately flew into the range of air traffic control radar so they could track our helicopter.

Malutanu was ordered to fly to Pitesti, but protested that he did not have enough fuel, that they were being tracked and that if he didn’t put down, the anti-aircraft defences would shoot them down. None of this was true, but Ceausescu had little choice. They landed next to a country road, but the fleeing president did not want to leave the helicopter, so the pilot pushed him out. As he prepared to take off again, Ceausescu asked him why he was abandoning the cause like this. What cause? he replied. The bodyguards commandeered two cars, one belonging to a local doctor, Nicolae Deca, and the other to a forestry official who had been watching the helicopter land from a nearby farmhouse. Neagoe got into the doctor’s red Dacia with the Ceausescus, and the other bodyguard, Ivan Martin, drove off in the other car, after telling the Ceausescus he would follow them. In fact, he was deserting them, and drove off in the other direction, back towards Bucharest. Dr Deca, a stout man in his mid-fifties was extremely scared, especially as Neagroe was pointing a gun at him, but he was able to make a shred assessment of his passengers:

They were completely dumbfounded by the situation they were in. There was disbelief written all over their faces. I think they were terrified and close to despair. They seemed to get smaller and smaller as they sat in the car. We continued down the next road… Ceausescu asked me if I knew what had happened. I replied that I had been on duty at the hospital all night and had no idea. He said, ‘there was a coup’, and lapsed into silence. Later he turned to me and said, ‘we’re going to organise the resistance. Are you coming with us?’ …I ended up by saying, ‘Anyway I’m not even a Party member.’ That seemed to come as a real blow to him. He went white and refused to say any more.

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Above: BBC crew member, Tira,  with Dr Deca, who later came under suspicion of having been a Securitate supporter; no doubt it was untrue, but in the hysterical atmosphere of the time the fact that he had been forced to drive the Ceausescus was used as evidence against him. 

Ceausescu probably thought the Army had seized power. He had always been afraid of that, and had been particularly anxious about Soviet control over his high command, ever since his resistance to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Later, he seems to have believed that Gorbachev was planning to overthrow him. The idea of a mass rebellion by the ordinary people of the country doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. Having initially been told by Marian that he was taking his passengers to the militia headquarters in Gaesti,  Neagoe now told Dr Deca to turn in the direction of Tergoviste.  Deca told them that the car was breaking down and pulled over when he saw a friend washing his car by the side of the road, to ask him for help. Neagoe told this man, Nikolae Petrisor, to get into his car and take the three of them with him. Throughout the journey, Elena Ceausescu held a gun to the back of his neck. Her husband asked him if there was a good place for them to hide, possibly in a village. Petrisor replied that, by now, everyone knew the couple was in the locality. General Neagoe suggested going to a steel works at Tergoviste, because he knew the security people there. On the outskirts, they ran into a group of workers who were on strike. They recognised Ceausescu and started throwing stones at the car. Elena told her husband to take of his coat and they hunched down in the seats and hid their faces. A little further on, Neagoe got out to check directions, but some children recognised them and Elena told Petrisor to drive on, leaving the general on the roadside.

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Above: Nikolae Petrisor and the car in which he drove the Ceausecus to eventual capture and imprisonment.

After that they tried to take refuge in a nunnery, but the nuns refused, hardly surprising given Ceausescu’s persecution of the churches. Even a hotel for Communist Party officials told them there was no room. Finally, their unwilling driver, Nikolae Petrisor, turned into the driveway of an agricultural institute just outside Tergoviste, where he knew the staff. It was 3 p.m. The director of the institute, Victor Seinescu, was watching the reports on the TV, including the latest one that the Ceausescus had been arrested in Tergoviste. Seinescu had been a member of the Communist Party, but had been thrown out a decade earlier. Suddenly, Petrisor burst into the room and announced, I’ve got the Ceausescus in the back of my car! The director told Petrisor to bring them in, which he did. Seinescu then got on the phone to his boss, who told him to hang on until the police got there. They arrived at 3.20 p.m. and took the couple to the old cavalry school near the railway station which had become an army barracks. This was where the Ceausescus were held for the next two days and nights.

On Christmas Eve the Securitate troops finally worked out where the Ceausescus were being held, and took up positions around the base. Soon after darkness fell they opened fire. You can still see the bullet marks on the front and sides of the headquarters building: there are several hundred of them. The captured couple were hurried out and put for safety into an armoured personnel carrier, which parked in as sheltered a place as possible. They spent the night there and the following morning they were driven back to the headquarters building and taken to a room which was used as a lecture room. The tables ad chairs had been arranged to form a rudimentary court, with a dock formed by two desks and chairs in one corner. A prominent lawyer in his late fifties, Nicu Teodorescu, was sent from Bucharest the ninety miles to Tergoviste by military escort, to represent the Ceausescus. He arrived to find them already sitting in the makeshift courtroom. There were five judges, all senior army officers in uniform, two prosecutors, a junior to help Teodorescu with the defence and a young officer with a video camera, whose job it was to record the proceedings but not show any of the participants except for the defendants themselves. There were no witnesses. The couple had been examined by a doctor and he had pronounced them fit to stand trial. Teodorescu told them their only hope was to plead insanity. Not surprisingly, they were deeply insulted by this suggestion.

001On the left is the still from the official video of them at their court-martial for crimes against their own people. Nicolae places his hand on Elena’s. It was probably less from affection than from a desire to stop her getting into an unprofitable argument with their accusers, but they always showed their affection for each other.

They refused to accept the legality of the military tribunal. After a hasty trial, their end was shabby and terrible. The Ceausescus’ hands were tied behind their backs. Elena wept, but then swore at the soldier tying her up. They were led down the corridor and out onto the yard of the barracks. The Ceausescus apparently had no idea that they were to be executed immediately. On the parade ground, fifty yards away, they could see the helicopter which had brought two members of the National Salvation Front from Bucharest to attend the trial. Assuming that they were to be taken somewhere in it, the Ceausescus headed towards it. Lt-Col. Mares gently but firmly directed them down another path that led to the yard. The entire complement of the base, soldiers and civilians, had been drawn up in a large semi-circle to watch. The television cameraman who had filmed the trial had some difficulty with his equipment, and failed to record anything except the last few seconds of the execution. Nevertheless, pictures of their bodies were shown on Romanian television and throughout the world soon afterwards.

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By Christmas Night, the Romanian television staff hadn’t slept in a bed for three nights. One of them, a woman in her fifties, fell asleep while speaking to the co-ordinators of the satellite in Geneva. Ten minutes before the BBC link to London was due, the Romanian announcer began reading a statement live on air. Everyone in the control room was standing, silent and shocked. The list of charges for which the Ceausescus were to be tried – the murder of sixty thousand people, sabotaging the national economy and corruption – had just been read out. The newsreader continued:

For these serious crimes committed against the Romanian people and Romania, the accused, Nicolae Ceausescu and Elena Ceausescu, were sentenced to death and confiscation. The sentences were final and were carried out.

The tired men and women of Romanian Television broke into spontaneous applause. John Simpson threw away most of what he had written and rapidly sketched out a portrait of a man and woman corrupted by absolute power. With a minute to go to the BBC’s satellite broadcast, he finished, sat back and looked down. He had written Ceausescu’s obituary with the pen he had been ‘given’ in their private apartment, which had been presented to the dictator by the British Labour Party, though they later denied having any record of its presentation.

That night the mild weather which had made the revolution possible came to an end. It froze, then snowed hard. Later on Christmas night the television station showed an edited version of the Ceausescu’s trial, and of their bodies lying in the snow. People all over the world competed with each other to condemn the couple: even those – especially those – who had given them gifts. No one wanted to think of the ghastly museum in Bucharest which housed the trophies from his good relations with the outside world: with, in pride of place, the insignia of an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath which the British government had insisted that the Queen should give him (against her will) in 1978. The museum was shut. It must have been a relief to a good many politicians and civil servants who watched their televisions in Western Europe that night that it was impossible to provide pictures of the honours they had showered on him little more than a decade before.

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The Ceausescus’ bodies were flown back by helicopter to Bucharest and the next day, the day of St Stephen the Martyr, 26 December, they were taken to a cemetery on the outskirts of the capital where they were buried a hundred metres apart, with rough wooden crosses marking the graves. With them was buried the socialist republic of Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania had turned from a Marxist-Leninist state into an expression of the personality of its leader, more like Mussolini’s Italy, rather than an ideological entity. Unlike in Prague, there was no Dubcek, no Good King Wenceslas to step back into his own footsteps on the Feast of Stephen. With the leader’s death, the socialist facade in Romania crumbled away almost immediately and left scarcely a trace behind itself. Apart from the borrowing of a few words from Russian and a few props and symbols, it was, to all intents and purposes, a fascist state. As writer and sociologist, a gypsy by birth, commented to John Simpson as they walked down the marble staircase at the Central Committee building:

We Romanians will always suffer as a result of Ceausescu. He made everyone afraid of everybody else, and he made it impossible for any of us to take our own decisions, to think or act for ourselves. Ceausescu is inside every one of us, and we haven’t killed him yet. If we had given him a proper trial, we might have dealt with him. Now we can’t. That is his revenge on all of us.

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Above: Ceausescu in one of his many games rooms

John Simpson’s obituary concluded:

The Ceausescus were evil and vicious. An entire nation was imprisoned, went hungry, and lived in the half-light because of them. Yet their lives and deaths weren’t small or squalid. Nicolae Ceausescu was a tragic hero along the lines that some grand, out of date Shakespearian scholar… would have recognised. It was the heroic Ceausescu, the man who stood on his balcony and defied the Russians when they invaded Czechoslovakia, whom the Western world praised and rewarded… the single tragic fault that turned noble defiance into savagery… was Ceausescu’s vanity… fed by an assumption that he was invulnerable.

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Above: The Securitate commanders of Timisoara on trial. The similarity with Nuremberg was deliberate

At the beginning of 1989 the Iron Curtain still divided Europe, as it had done for more than forty years. By the end of the year, the leaders of every Eastern European nation except Bulgaria, which soon followed suit, had been ousted by popular uprisings; in every case the will of the people had prevailed and, except in Romania, hardly a drop of blood had been spilt. With dizzying speed, the Soviet Union’s European empire, the buffer zone ruthlessly built up by Stalin and maintained with brutal force when necessary by his successors, had collapsed like a house of cards. Truly, 1989 was an annus mirabilis. 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publications.

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

   

 

The Fall of Herod the Great: Twenty-Five Years on from The Romanian Revolution.   Leave a comment

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The Last Stalinist

At the end of the events of 1989, there was one last, grim, twist. The only Eastern European nation still ruled by an old-school Communist was Romania. The tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu had run the country with a rod of iron since 1965, turning it into a police state. The Securitate, the secret police, terrorised the people into submission while Ceausecu imposed his Stalinist will over the nation and its economy.  At the meeting of the Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow the day after Gorbachev returned from the Malta summit with President Bush, Ceausescu was the sole Eastern European Communist boss still in office since the last Warsaw Pact summit, only five months before. Gorbachev spoke of eliminating the Cold War, while Ceausescu said the West was out to liquidate socialism. He called for the building up of the Warsaw Pact  against the common danger of NATO. The other Eastern European heads of government ignored him. They went on to support a Czech resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of 1968 which Ceausescu refused to sign. After a frank exchange of opinions with Gorbachev, the Romanian leader flew home in a bad temper.

Two weeks later the Securitate opened fire on protestors who had gathered in the traditionally dissident Transylvanian city of Timisoara in western Romania. For several days the shootings continued, but still people came out onto the streets in ever-growing numbers.  On 21 December, Ceausescu gave a prepared speech from the balcony of his presidential palace in Bucharest to a huge, specially assembled crowd. He intended to show he still had the supporters to restore order, and it was carried live on television. But Romanians had had enough of him.

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Leonid Brezhnev made a historic visit to Romania in November 1976 (above), only too conscious that the government of Nicolae Ceausescu was being courted in the seventies by western politicians who should have known better. For a time it had been useful to them, since they erroneously believed that his independent policies were turning Romania into a Trojan horse within the Warsaw Pact. He had kept his links with Israel and China, when the rest of the Soviet bloc had severed theirs. He advocated the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe and ways of relaxing tension between the two power groupings. But as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985,  Ceausescu’s usefulness to the West dropped away.

It was no secret that Ceausescu’s regime was responsible for serious infringements of human rights. For its size, Romania had the highest number of secret policemen in the entire Soviet bloc: the Securitate had almost a hundred thousand full-time members. One third of the population, it was said, were informers. Every Romanian who talked to a foreigner was required to report the conversation to the Securitate within twenty-four hours. Securitate officers had the right people’s houses under any number of pretexts and confiscate ‘illegal’ possessions.  The illicit goods Law of 1974 declared the ownership of rare metals and precious stones a state monopoly. A supposed shortage of paper meant that writers were not allowed to publish more than one book a year.

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By the mid-eighties, Ceausescu himself had become a parody of a dictator. The newspapers, radio and television were mostly devoted to his and his family’s doings. In June 1978 the Queen had been obliged, much against her own better judgement, by the then Prime Minister James Callaghan, and his Foreign Secretary, David Owen, to invite Ceausescu to Buckingham Palace. The Labour government was beset with problems at home, and anxious to prove its worth in international diplomacy in relieving the Cold War tensions between the superpowers. Elena Ceausescu, riding in State with Prince Philip along the Mall, enjoyed herself immensely.

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The Queen’s face, however, seemed to show a lack of amusement as she travelled alongside the President. However, back at the Palace, which ‘inspired’ the Romanian couple to plan their own palace in Bucharest, the Queen was both amused and annoyed by the Ceausescu’s assumption that his rooms were bugged. Every morning he would go for a walk, with all his ministers in attendance, around the gardens of the Palace in order to avoid the microphones which he supposed were everywhere. One of his other obsessions was that the Soviets might try to poison him by secreting a radioactive isotope near him, as he believed they had done with his predecessor, who had died of cancer. The Queen gave him two English-bred Labradors, who lived far better than most ordinary Romanians. They had their own limousines, which drove down the centre of lane in the main streets of Bucharest, and they were fed only the best lean steak. Government ministers were expected to address them as ‘Comrades’, and it was a not very funny joke that their master was thinking of giving them seats in the Senate.

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Western politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlooking his increasing madness and megalomania, together with his government’s treatment of his own people, because they felt that his was an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact. After meeting the dictator on his visit to Britain in June 1978,  the then leader of the Opposition commented,

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceausescu… Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding, in particular by means of numerous direct contacts leading to the development of bilateral collaboration.

In August 1978, Ceausescu won approval from the Chinese, as their premier, Hua Guo-Feng visited Romania:

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As late as 1988,  Harold Wilson (above), Britain’s PM in much of the 1960s an 1970s sent the dictator a telegram which read: You have raised the Romanian nation to a unique role in the world. By this time,  Ceausecu’s wild extravagance was making Romania’s economic situation far worse. He decided to build a boulevard through Bucharest longer than the Champs-Elysées, lined with shops and mansions. At the head of it was to be a presidential palace larger than Buckingham Palace. It was to contain more than a thousand rooms, and cost more than a billion US dollars, though most of the labour was supplied by the army. Whole regiments were deployed in building what was to be called The House of the Republic (pictured below), and was scheduled for completion in January 1990.

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He had declared that he would pay off Romania’s foreign debt by the middle of 1989, which meant a disturbing programme of austerity for the ordinary Romanians while they could see the extravagance of the building programme in front of their eyes. This was all happening in a country which had been kept short of food and consumer goods since the early 1970s.

Romania had once been called the bread-basket of the Balkans: By the end of the 1980s it was an economic ‘basket case’, exporting ninety per cent of its of its food produce. Eggs became a form of currency, changing hands perhaps a dozen times before they were actually eaten. Westerners who stayed in the foreign currency hotels of Bucharest were unto find ordinary Romanians watching hungrily through the street-level windows while they ate. In the largely Hungarian-speaking area of Transylvania, rationing was intensified to five eggs, a kilo of flour, a kilo of sugar and a kilo of cheese per person per month. Conditions were not much better in Bucharest, and for the country as a whole the rationing was worse than it had been during the Second World War. With Ceausescu, there were scarcely any policies which he could not force on the country. The so-called systematisation of the rural areas, for instance, was something only Stalin or Mao Tse-dong had tried to introduce before him. Its origins lay, as Mao’s reorganisation of the Chinese countryside had done, in a desire to reduce the disparities of wealth and opportunity between country and town. As early as 1967 Ceausescu had announced a policy of homeginisation between the two, but the first projects were not begun until un 1979.  Poor villages were to be demolished and their inhabitants relocated in agro-industrial centres; 558 villages were selected for this process. Naturally, this was deeply unpopular, and even the Communist Party bureaucracy opposed it, with local Party secretaries using every available tactic to delay its implementation. Various Western journalists claimed to have seen or filmed this process, particularly in Transylvania, where it became mixed up with the issue of ethnic Hungarian rights. In the end, only five villages, all in the Bucharest area and all on the route of the President’s motorcade route to one of his country houses, were seriously affected. However, the policy, together with the austerity measures, represented a dangerous attack on the values of a largely agrarian society by an increasingly power-crazed dictator.

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John Simpson, the BBC TV reporter and foreign correspondent was in Romania in the spring of 1989, where a young woman betrayed his crew to the local Securitate in Cluj. He summed up the mood at the time:

As for the woman who had reported us… it was impossible to blame her. Only a handful of Romanians had the moral courage to speak out against the conditions Ceausescu imposed on them. Once they had put their heads above the parapet they could expect to be badly treated. Most people were prepared to put up with the unrelenting hardships of everyday life in silence rather than endure that. She could not have known that we would be allowed to go free; but a regime like Ceausescu’s induces and rewards selfishness and inaction. Later, no doubt, she was embarrassed at what she had done.  But in the spring of 1989 there was no reason whatever to suppose that Ceausescu and his wife would be overthrown before the end of the year. At that time, the regime looked as if it would last forever.  

Arriving in Bucharest, they went out to film the Boulevard with the enormous, elegant and absurdly expensive House of the Republic at its end. By 1989, Ceausescu had become so obsessed with the project that he paid ninety-nine visits to it over the course of the year before his death, examining every little detail. He told the men and women in charge of building it to remember that it was to last for five hundred to a thousand years. The Ceausescu’s were influenced in their choice of interior design, as with the exterior, by their stay with the Queen in 1978. The president’s office, only completed after the dictator’s death, was more than a hundred feet long, with a huge patterned carpet. A little man with skilfully built up shoes, Ceausescu needed imposing circumstances to seem imposing himself.

Rebellion in Transylvania and Revolution in Bucharest

On 20 November 1989, the regime which Nicolae Ceaucescu had run since 1964 seemed to be coup-proof. It was a text-book example of a Marxist-Leninist state. Scientific Socialism,  Ceaucescu had explained to the Congress,  is in absolutely no danger.  They applauded him to the echo, gave him more than forty standing ovations, and re-elected him as President for a further five years. The autocracies of central and eastern Europe might be like dominoes in a circle all around Romania’s borders, but Romania itself was safe for Stalinism. Then, in mid-December in Timisoara, a city in Transylvania with a majority Hungarian-speaking population  (Temesvár in Magyar),the Securitate came to arrest a Reformed Church pastor, László Tökés, for speaking to the Western media. Many of his flock gathered around his manse to protect him. They drove off the Securitate and in the days that followed what had begun as a religious and cultural dispute became broader, as ethnic Romanians joined in. It became an uprising against the government. The tanks were summoned and many people died, but the troops were beaten off. Now the Army’s loyalty was in question, as a little local incident had turned into a full-scale rebellion, the most serious threat that the dictator had faced in a quarter of a century.

017

Ceaucesu was not given the full facts about the Timisoara Rebellion. The Securitate kept some of the worst details from him, fearing that it would be blamed for allowing the situation to get out of hand.  As a result, the president had no real idea of the intensity of the feeling against him, or the extent of the uprising he already faced. His response to what he was told was to call a public rally in the main square of the capital. He would address it and the people would listen respectfully, as they always had done. Some of his ministers tried to suggest a television broadcast instead, but he he ignored their concerns. The Securitate sent its men to the factories and offices to instruct fifty people from each workplace to turn out or face being sacked. Loyal party members were to take up their positions at the front of the crowd, and the pleasant winter sunshine encouraged people to turn out in sufficient numbers to provide anonymity for everyone else there. The loyalists at the front held up their long red banners which spoke of Socialist progress and their leader’s heroism. Above their heads, portraits of a much younger Ceausescu were waved. They clapped in unison as Romanian TV broadcast live. As it turned out, that was a serious error of judgement.

019

The Great Dictator stood on the balcony overlooking the Square and surveyed his people. In his black Astrakhan hat and his coat with matching collar, he looked very presidential, standing on an unseen box to make him look taller. Beside him were his wife Elena and assorted courtiers, together with his personal head of security, Neagoe, a large man in a fedora hat. Shortly, a few words from him would help change the course of Romanian history. But for the time being, each time each time the president paused, there was more clapping in unison. He waved back,  in a way that was perhaps intended to show humility, but actually made him look more imperious to most of the crowd beyond the loyal front ranks whom he was thanking for organising the rally.

Suddenly, there was a low groan from a section of the crowd, which quickly grew louder and higher and then erupted into booing, whistling and cat-calls.

018It was a total surprise to Ceausescu. He had been reading his speech in his hoarse, old man’s voice, his eyes on the sheet of paper in front of him. As the sound of the booing gradually penetrated him, he looked over to his right, where it was loudest. But he went on pumping out the bland words for a much more slowly now, not thinking what they meant, but trying to think instead about the booing. At his words faded altogether, and he stopped. It was a laughable and shocking moment: a tyrant coming face to face with the hatred of his people:  Macbeth watching the wood begin to move. He put up his right hand, trying to order the crowd to be silent, but it looked as if he was warding off the noise of the booing  and what it meant. One of the group of ministers to his right must have offered some advice, off-mike, because he waved him away angrily. Then, from the right of the screen, the head of the President’s personal bodyguard, Neagoe, came into shot, walking swiftly towards Ceausescu. He paused behind him for an instant, and the microphones picked up his voice and boomed it out over the Square:

They’re getting in.

The general headed for the big French window behind Ceausescu, holding his coat open as though he had a gun in a shoulder holster and would soon pull it out. Elena Ceausescu’s thin, harsh voice was also picked up by the microphone:

Stay calm, please.

Her instincts were right. The crowd wasn’t getting in. There was no plot, no coup. no insurrection, but simply booing, the reaction from years of repression. At that point someone at the television station decided to cut the transmission. The evidence that Ceausescu could be threatened was therefore transmitted live to every home and workplace where the television was switched on, throughout the country. He was vulnerable, after all. However, the moment swiftly passed, when it became obvious that the crowd was not breaking into the Central Committee building and that the rally was continuing, the television cut back to the President.  Ceausescu was continuing with his prepared speech as though nothing had happened, warning about the consequences of the rioting in Timisoara. But it was too late. There were thousands of people out on the streets that afternoon and evening with the same sense of burning grievance. They had realised that the regime was momentarily weakened and that it might just be overthrown if they all stuck together and kept their nerve. They chanted, we want free elections and Don’t leave the streets. They were rewarded by many more, who had been watching the live broadcast, coming out onto the streets, from all over the city, as the Securitate forces hesitated to break up the existing dissenting crowds from the rally.  A full-scale rebellion was taking shape.

002

As night fell, the Securitate received orders to shoot to kill.  The crowds built barricades and set fire to cars, as street-fighting became general. The insurgents had no guns or bullets with which to answer the fire of the Securitate, but they made use of Molotov cocktails and the cover of darkness. By dawn on 22 December the outcome was clear, as the crowds had taken control of the main avenue and squares with the Securitate troops having melted away. The insurgents had demonstrated the power of numbers and determination.  The key to their eventual success now lay with the Army, who had so far refused to support the Securitate troops.  At this point the defence minister, General Vasili Milea was shot by Ceausecu’s bodyguard for refusing to pass on the orders for the Army to fire on the insurgents. When the news of this  was broadcast on the TV, the Army was infuriated, and began to change sides,  thus bringing about a revolutionary situation. Ceasescu tried to make one last appeal to the the crowds in the Square, but this time there were no plain clothes Securitate among them, and the crowd hurled stones at him, so that his bodyguard had to quickly bundle him back into the building. This time, the the insurgents did break into the building, and many of those defending it gave up their weapons to them. However, there was just enough resistance from the Securitate troops to enable the  dictator and his wife to escape by helicopter from the roof. A National Salvation Front was declared and , consisting of former Ceausescu aides and a few prominent dissidents. The Army transferred its allegiance to the new government. There was sporadic fighting between soldiers and the remaining Securitate, but by Christmas Day the fighting in Bucharest was over and the revolution had succeeded. Only the fate of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu remained to be decided.

023023 (2)

Top left: A couple of volunteers carrying water to the pro-revolutionary troops are stranded in no-man’s land.

Top right: 22 December – a casualty of the sniping. The building in the centre of the picture is a block of where the Securitate men lived.

021

Above: The poet, Mircea Dinescu, newly free, declaims to camera at the studios of Romanian Television on 22 December.

Magyar-British Relations in the Era of the Two World Wars, 1914-44: Documents and Debates, 1943   Leave a comment

Documentary Appendix Part Five:

001

Hungary’s Second Attempt at ‘Breakaway’ from Nazi-German Hegemony, 1943

 

A. Important Hungarian and International Events, January-December 1943:

1 January – Institute for the Research of the Jewish Problem

12-14 January – Casablanca Conference (Churchill-Roosevelt)

24 January – Collapse of Hungarian 2nd Army (Don-Army)

31 Jan – 2 February – Capitulation of Field Marshal Paulus at Stalingrad

12 April – Two new Cabinet ministers (Lukács and Antal)

17-18 April – First Klessheim Meeting; Horthy and Hitler

30 April – First Veesenmayer Fact-Finding Report

15 May – Dissolution of the Communist International (Comintern)

May (second half) – Unofficial discussions between Bethlen, Barcza and the British

June – Dissolution of Communist Party in Hungary; replacement by the “Békepart” (Peace Party)

12 June – Minister of National Defence, V. Nagy, replaced by Gen. L. Csatay

9 July – Landing of Anglo-American units in Sicily

24 July – E. Ghycy, Minister of Foreign Affairs

15 July – Mussolini arrested; Badoglio Cabinet

August – Secret negotiations between Hungary and Britain in Istanbul

8 September – Unconditional surrender of Italy; Hungary issued with terms for surrender by Great Britain

9 November – Pact of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) signed by 44 nations

22-25 November – First Cairo Conference (Churchill, Roosevelt, Chang Kai-Shek)

28 November – Teheran Conference (Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin)

29 November – Tito, Chairman of National Defence

12 December – Benes signed Soviet-Czechoslovak Treaty in Moscow

December (Late) – Veesenmayer’s second Fact-Finding Report in Berlin

 

B. On The ‘Provocation’ of Germany, February-April 1943:

The Government by now (February 1943) had arrived at the point where it became necessary to give to its agents and emissaries instructions appropriate to the new situation… Ullein gave the instructions Frey had received before leaving Budapest in January:

“… Hungary did not intend to oppose Anglo/American or Polish troops if they reached the Hungarian frontier and advanced into the country. Hungary wished for nothing in return for this… Frey left Budapest in the last days of January, arriving in Istanbul on 1st February… The National Bank had… legitimate business abroad, and one of its officials, Baron Antal Radvánszky, was due to go to Switzerland on its affairs in Early February. Kállay… gave him oral instructions to ask Mr Allen Dulles and Mr Royall Tyler what diplomat they would accept as a permanent partner for secret talks. He was to emphasise to the Americans the Hungary was very anxious to enter such secret talks ‘with a view to preparing the ground for continuous co-operation between Hungary… and the Americans and British, this co-operation to lead eventually to Hungary leaving the Axis camp… Other people were being sent abroad at this time… A. Szent-Györgyi, Nobel Laureate went to Istanbul; he was keen to keep his eyes open as well as to ‘enlighten the Allies on Hungary’s standpoint’. …

“It was a mixed bag of emissaries, and the results of their missions were various … the most unfortunate of them was Szent-Györgyi. The famous Professor was contacted in Istanbul by persons representing themselves as American agents who were, in fact, agents of the Gestapo. To them he told his whole story, which thus reached Hitler within a few days… although he appears to have talked also to some genuine agents of the Anglo-Saxons, as well as bogus ones, his conversations had… no practical sequel.” (Macartney)

Day after day, week after week followed without getting any positive result out of the manifold negotiations and contacts.

“Kállay was already irritated by the delay and nervous on account of what appeared to have been leakages. He was also extremely perturbed by the fact, which Frey reported, that the agent chosen by the British to receive the communications was M. Pálóczy-Horváth, who was all too well known in Hungary. In the 1930s he had, evidently, been a man of Gömbös’: later he had moved Left-ward and was credited with Communist sympathies; the Government strongly suspected him of being in Russian pay. He was extremely hostile to the Hungarian regime.” (Macartney)

The wonder is, not that the Germans reacted, but that they did not do so earlier. It was only in March, when numerous reports… on Kállay’s negotiations with the West came in from the German missions in Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, that Ribbentrop sent his expert for South-Eastern Europe, Vessenmayer, down to Hungary to check these, and to make a general survey of the situation… Meanwhile, the definite refusal to send troops to the Balkans and the demand for the return of the Second Army, formulated on 31st March, had reached Germany… on about the 10th April Hitler sent Horthy an invitation to meet him at Scloss Klessheim, Salzburg, ’to discuss the military situation and the question of Hungarian troops’.” (Macartney)

C. On The First Klessheim Horthy-Hitler Entrevue, 17-18 April, 1943:

… The accusations brought up by Hitler and Ribbentrop against the Kállay regime were presented in writing to Horthy. Besides the military co-operation of Hungary, the main topic of the conversations was the alleged “Hungarian defeatism”. The paper presented bz the Germans contained the names of certain well/known Hungarians who had been allegedly sent abroad by Ullein to inform the Western Allies about the real sentiments and intentions of the Kállay regime. That was the first fiasco of the policy of drawing-away as carried out under the direction of Ullein: it did not bring any advantage for Hungary but on the other hand it aroused the suspicion of the Germans which then led to the catastrophe of Hungary in 1944-46…

Macartney:

“… Hitler asked that at least a joint communiqué should be issued, ‘to show the world that Hungary had no intention of cutting adrift and was standing squarely and unmistakably on the side of the Axis Powers.’ Horthy agreed to this; but the text submitted to him by Ribbentrop also contained a phrase which expressed Hungary!s ‘determined resolve to continue to continue the war until the final victory’ not only ‘against Bolshevism’ but also ‘against its Anglo-Saxon allies’… the Germans issued a communiqué in… fuller terms while the Regent was still on the train…:

‘Hungary, Italy and Romania have now made it perfectly clear that they will continue the war until victory. They make no distinction between the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union’s Westen Allies, who both pursue the same aim – destruction.’ When the Germans rang up the Hungarians, said what they were publishing… and asked the Hungarians to publish the same text, Kállay refused to publish anything until Horthy came back. He then got the Regent’s assurance that he had not agreed to this wording and then issued a short text which, besides appearing a day later than the German, omitted any reference to the British and Americans. Later an official comment in the ’Pester Lloyd’ confined itself to enlarging on Hungary’s defensive study against Bolshevism. Thus a concentrated spotlight was thrown on the glaring discrepancy in the attitude of the two States towards the West.”

Bárczy tells us how it came that two different communiqués were published… the Regent had refused his approval to the text of the communiqué as drawn up by Ribbentrop and he had repeated his refusal when he was boarding the train which was to take him back to Budapest.

From the time Hungary entered the Second World War, and in particular since Hungary’s occupation by Germany on 19 March 1944, practically no secret could be kept without the Germans becoming aware of it. Most of the important telephone lines were tapped and every important office and bureau the German Fifth Column had its own informant…

D. On the Re-establishment of Contacts with Britain, May 1943:

In the second half of May 1943, Barcza finally succeeded in establishing contact with the British. He presented himself to his interlocutor as a private person, representing a group, headed by Count István Bethlen,… a patriotic opposition to all pro-Nazi policies in Hungary, whether governmental or party-political. He also placed stress on the impossibility of Hungary breaking away from the Axis camp for the time being…Other contacts were… of a nature to discourage Premier Kállay.

Macartney:

“… the ferocious communications which he was receiving from Pálóczy-Horváth and the incessant objurgations lavished on him by the BBC… and the Voice of America, both of which ceaselessly and abusively denounced him and every other member of the regime… for ’Quislings’… left all Hungary under the impression that the only element in the country which the West was not determined to destroy was the extreme Left. It may well be that the nervous irritation produced in Kállay by these outpourings… aroused in him a determination even stronger than he would otherwise have felt to preserve every possible detail of the regime and to refuse any concession to democracy.”

As secrets could no longer be kept very well in Hungary, not only Kállay, but also other individuals were frightened by the aspect of the victorious Western powers eliminating and destroying everything of past and present Hungary…

E. On the period of the ’Second Attempt’, Summer 1943:

… in the Summer of 1943… with the re-shuffling of the Foreign Ministry, a new period in Hungarian foreign policy, that of the Second attempt began. The appointment of Ghyczy to Foreign Minister preceded by just one single day the fall of Mussolini (25 July 1943)

(The editors: ‘Mussolini’s fall was preceded by a series of defeats Italy suffered on the fronts. By 1943 the Allies pushed the Axis powers from North Africa; in July 1943 the British and American forces marched into Sicily and bombed Rome as soon as 19 July; and preparations were underway for the Normandy landings… Mussolini was arrested and… kept under house arrest. On 3 September… Badoglio concluded an armistice with the Allies. The German army subsequently occupied Central and Northern Italy…rescued Mussolini from prison, and he was made head of the Nazi puppet state…)

It was an event which considerably influenced Hungarian foreign policy of July 1943 – March 1944.

Macartney:

On the morning of 27th July Hungary suddenly learned that Mussolini had fallen. The effect of the news, which was quite unexpected, on the volatile national public opinion, was electrifying. All Hungary jumped to the conclusion that within a few days Italy would have joined hands with the Allies, whose triumphant forces would be within a few days’ march from the frontiers of Hungary, or a few hours by parachute.

… The Allies apparently shared for a few days the illusions of the Hungarian Opposition about the situation in Italy. All the broadcasting stations, Western as well as Russian… thundered abjurations at Kállay to act while there was still time, and most of them… denounced him ferociously… when he failed to do so.”

Under the effect of the events in Italy, Hungarian activities in Istanbul, Lisbon, Stockholm and Switzerland gained new impetus… but all these activities… remained fruitless. Not only were the ’negotiators’ “representing Hungary”… of secondary importance and quality, but so too were the foreign personalities.

Macartney:

… a Trade Union official called Gibson, who after a visit to Stockholm found fit to announce in ’The Daily Telegraph’ that he had been meeting ’politicians from Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, who had direct contact with their own countries. He had conveyed to these ’politicians’ ’ the views of the British Labour movement, which has… representatives in the Cabinet’. Mr Gibson went on to tell the journalist who was interviewing him that… Hungary must give a guarantee that she will return to Czechoslovakia and other Allied nations territory she had acquired since the start of the war… Mr Gibson made it clear to those whom he met… that only on these lines would Hungary and the Balkan countries under Axis domination be able to command the support and goodwill of those nations which could rescue them from the grip of the Axis… The fact was that all this was the outcome of the unofficial negotiations initiated in the preceding summer… The Hungarian ’politician’… was simply M. Böhm,… now… engaged in reading the Hungarian Press for the British Government. The ’views’ had been concocted between… Gibson and M. Böhm. When all this came out, the Hungarian Right had the time of its life… Firstly, it pointed out with gusto that in spite of her hypocritical assurances to the contrary, Great Britain had now herself ’authoritatively’ declared that it was her intention to mutilate Hungary again at the end of the war. Secondly, it was able to enlarge on its familiar theme of the treachery… of all Hungarian Jews… and of the Social Democratic Party. No incident during the whole summer gave it so much pleasure, or brought it so much advantage.”

With the exception of Teleki, Bethlen, Barcza, Baranyai and a few others, there were very few Hungarians with influential friends and connections abroad…

Passing through Rome, Barcza went to Switzerland where he established himself in Montreux and soon began contacting Royall Tyler. It was Tyler who brought about a personal meeting between Barcza and a certain gentleman, described by Barcza as “Mr H.” who… was cleared to talk to him. The contacts and conversations between Barcza and ’Mr H’ started in May 1943 and were continued in 1944. Already in 1943, Mr H was stressing the attitude of the British Government which wanted action and not promises. In July 1943, after Mussolini’s fall, Mr H went on to declare that Hungary should follow the example given by Italy taking all possible opportunities to bring about such a conclusion, as he put it was Hungary’s ’last chance’…The Hungarian Government was now considering the possibility of leaving the Axis… The military was strictly opposed to such an action; they viewed it as very dangerous and impractical. Then came the news that the King and Badoglio had declared their loyalty to the Axis… Kállay came to the conclusion that an open rupture with Germany was not only unfeasible but it would produce disastrous results. The Germans would simply occupy Hungary and install a quisling Government… Even the British accepted the realities of the new situation. On 16 September 1943 “Mr H” told Barcza that London was no longer expecting Hungary to jump ship immediately.

F. On the Hungaro-British Negotiations in Istanbul (Macartney):

“On his own admission, he (Kállay) had temporised… in favour of a diplomatic agreement with the West. He had even vetoed as too dangerous proposals for more vigorous action made by Szombathelyi and Kádár themselves, who had wanted to send down an officer to arrange for an Allied parachute landing, under cover of which Hungary should rise.          

Finally, however, the British in Istanbul had sent an ultimatum. Something definite must be done by 20th August or they would break off negotiations altogether. Kállay did not dare risk this happening before the alternative line through Barcza was secure, and at the beginning of August he… sent Veress down… to wait in Istanbul. If he received, via the Consulate General, a coded telegram with a pre-arranged meaning, this meant that he had ’full powers to negotiate’… also on behalf of the General Staff,… to give… whatever undertakings the demands of the British made unavoidable.

On 7th August… the military themselves agreed that it was unsafe to cut the Istanbul line. Veress was sent his telegram, which he received ’some time between the 10th and 16th’. He and Ujváry now pressed for a meeting with some ’authorised and responsible British representatives’, indicating that they had an important message to convey. They concocted this between them, using as a basis Veress’ earlier message and later instructions; but since Veress was convinced that ’there was no basis on which conversations, political or military, could take place unless Hungary decided to bring her interests fully into line with the political and military interests of the Western Powers’. The message ran as follows:

’… if the Western allies reached the frontiers of Hungary she would in no case oppose them, but would turn against Germany to the extent of placing her airports and transport system at the disposal of the Allies. She would accept the guidance and instruction of the Allies, and although at the moment no General Staff officer was available, she would establish wireless contact and provide information. She asked that this offer should be taken as an advance notice of unconditional surrender, and asked the British to communicate their ’preliminary conditions’.

On 17th August the two Hungarians met Mr Sterndale-Bennett, Councillor of the British Embassy, and handed him this message, which he took away for communication to the competent quarters. While this was going on, an unofficial approach… had also been made to the Russians.The Hungarian concerned was the honorary Consul in Geneva, M. Honti… It was actually a British diplomat who advised M. Honti to turn to Russia, saying that ’it was there that the fate of Hungary would, for the present, be decided’.

G. On Hungary’s attempts at Rapprochement with Romania and Yugoslavia:

In mid-July Count Miklós Banffy, Bethlen’s Foreign Minister in 1921, was sent to Bucharest…

(Editors: ’Motivated by an identity of interests vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, the idea of a Romanian-Hungarian reconciliation was initiated by Crown Prince Nicolae of Romania, who lived in Switzerland and advocated British-American orientation. Rapprochement on an official level was opened with bilateral negotiations between Ion Antonescu and… Miklós Kállay in December 1942 concerning a possible joint pull-out of the war… However, negotiations broke down on the issue of Transylvania, which ruined the possibility…)

The views of the two Governments were very far apart and since the Romanians had, just like the Czechs and the Serbs, much better connections and standing in London than Hungarians, they were not in haste to arrive at a settlement with Budapest… As to Hungary’s southern neighbour, secret contacts had been established between the Hungarian Government and the Mihailovic camp, which also remained fruitless, mainly because… of the growing support given to Tito by the USSR and Great Britain.

H. On The British Conditions for Hungary’s Surrender, 8 September 1943 (Macartney):

The British had kept Veress waiting a long time for his answer; if the Hungarians understood aright, their messages had been submitted to the Quebec Conference and also passed to Moscow. On the 8th September, Veress was told to meet Sir Hugh Knatchbull-Hugesson at midnight on the latter’s yacht in the Sea of Marmara. Sir Hugh, after showing Veress his own authorisation in the form of a telegram from Mr. Eden, informed him in the name of the United Nations that HM Government had ’taken note’ of Hungary’s communication, and read out the… ’preliminary conditions’ which Veress took down from his dictation:

… The agreement to be kept secret until published at a moment to be agreed, which in no case should be before the Allies reached the frontiers of Hungary.

… Hungary progressively to reduce her military co-operation with Germany, to withdraw her troops from Russia and to assist allied aircraft flying across Hungary to attack targets in Germany…

… Hungary to resist if Germany attempted to occupy her, and to that end to reorganise her High Command so that her army should be able to attack Germans…

… At a suitable moment, Hungary to receive an Allied air-mission, to advise on the preparations for the breakaway…

It was only on the 14th that Veress reached Budapest, with a memorised account of the document and two wireless transmitters… Kállay objected on principle to the formula of unconditional surrender. Keresztes-Fischer, however, pressed strongly that the agreement should be ratified, and eventually Kállay consented… (However), he regarded the agreement as a political gesture from which Hungary expected political consequence… to be ’struck off the list of enemies’ and given ’British Protection’… to operate as much against Russia as much as, or even more than, against Germany; while the Allies ’sought only to derive military advantage’ from it… he (went on) to complain with acerbity of the way in which the British, in particular, sought to obtain this military advantage. It is true that they had given up asking for an immediate ’jump-out’; there is fairly good evidence that they had dropped this demand as early as August… But they insistently demand(ed) actions in various fields, in particular sabotage on a serious scale. Kállay… maintained at the time that fulfillment of these demands would at once have brought about the occupation of Hungary by Germany, and rejected it stubbornly because he thought that the Allied agents were actually anxious to see this come about, in the calculation that would provoke resistance from the ’democratic elements’ in Hungary (whom, according to their view, Kállay was holding back), hamper production and tie down an appreciable German occupying force in Hungary.

Kállay’s reply was that… the regime was not… holding the forces of resistance back…. an occupation would entail frightful sufferings for precisely those elements whom the Allies desired to see spared. Consequently, he could not undertake any action that would provoke an occupation. These arguments, however, did not convince the Allies, who retorted that Kállay was simply stringing them along. He was giving them fair words and excuses, while really collaborating against them with the Germans. His only real object was to save his regime.

There was one point of the agreement – and it was, of course, a very important one – which the Hungarians honoured in full from the first. They refrained scrupulously from interfering with the Allied aircraft which, after the beginning of October, were flying over Hungary almost daily; they for their part leaving Hungary unbombed. This tacit mutual understanding was observed throughout the entire autumn and winter, being also applied to the Soviet aircraft which in the later months were flying to and from Yugoslavia (a journey which … used to carry them directly over Budapest).”

I. On the pro-German Backlash in Hungary and Veesenmayer’s Second Report:

On 1st October, Imrédy presented the Government with a long memorandum in which he maintained that ‘in the event of an Anglo-Saxon victory all Eastern Europe would be handed over to Russia’ and adding… that it was useless to dream that when that happened only the extreme Right would be made the scapegoats… only those elements which had gone over to Communism would be rewarded.’… Kállay… refused to accept such a thesis ‘or to strengthen in their belief those inside or outside Hungary who reckon on this.’”

It was in early October that the MFM (Hungarian Independence Movement) received the first alarming news of the growing dissatisfaction of Germany about the “over-optimistic pro-Anglo-Saxon atmosphere” in Hungary… it was at this time that we were informed about a planned second mission of Veesenmayer to Hungary… the Germans would undertake military occupation of Hungary should the Kállay regime continue its hazardous policy. Veesenmayer’s stay in Hungary this time was this time considerably longer than in April of the same year… This time Veesenmayer spent more time on writing his report and it was only in January 1944 that his report was read by Ribbentrop, Himmler and Göring… Veesenmayer’s conclusions and suggestions were as follows:

… in consideration of the given situation and circumstances the only route to take was to win the co-operation of the Regent and persuade him to replace Kállay with a more pro-German politician…

… As the Kállay regime had already been in secret negotiations with the Western Democracies, the “Hungarian problem” needed solving soon.

During and after Vessenmayer’s second fact-finding mission, the negotiations of the Hungarian emissaries and agents were continuing. Their reports, however, were misleading and increased the optimism in Government circles in Hungary. Thus, still after the Teheran Conference of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin (28 November…) Wodianer’s reports remained optimistic and he assured his Government that the settling of Central Europe’s problems had been assigned to Great Britain and the United States.

Eckhardt… told Bethlen in December 1944 that ‘the fate of Hungary was sealed and it would pass under Russian rule for many years’. Bethlen replied on 19 March that ‘he was confident that Eckhardt would prove mistaken’.

J. On the Changing Attitude of the British:

On 12 December Benes signed in Moscow a Soviet-Czechoslovak Treaty which carried the message in Hungary… that Czechoslovakia was becoming the most western outpost of Pan-Slavism as well as Pan-Bolshevism, both dangers which had always been the most feared bugaboos in Hungarian public opinion. In addition, through “reliable, secret” sources it was soon known in Hungary that Stalin had promised Benes to back Romania’s claims on the whole of Transylvania. Maniu even went as far as to declare that as a compensation for losing Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, Romania was to get at the final settlement not only Transylvania but also the adjacent territories up to the Tisza river. Here we quote again Macartney:

“The West – this was the worst – did not seem to be opposing all this. Mihályi Károlyi spoke on the BBC, advising Hungary that her road led through Prague and Moscow… The British were obviously uneasy, but were… not opposing the Russian demands in full, nor opposing her suggestion that Poland’s frontiers with Germany should be shifted westwards. Then came Mr Churchill’s extraordinary statement that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to Germany as a matter of right, nor forbid territorial transferences or adjustments in enemy countries.”

The result of the attitude of Britain and her Press alienated a great part of the pro-Anglo-Saxon sentiments from the Western Democracies… The result of the not very encouraging attitude of Great Britain and the fateful advance of the Red Army had its effect on political parties… and circles: the criticism exercised upon the Government’s, theoretically secret, negotiations abroad became sharper and many former Kállay regime supporters turned away from the Government’s policy.

At this stage of negotiations the situation was that the Government, or at least a circle in the Foreign Ministry, was engaged in talks with emissaries and agents of the Western Democracies, while Hungarian public opinion and even Kállay, himself, were concentrating their attention on the approaching Soviet danger. And Kállay declared (to Ullein):

“We have repeatedly explained that so long as the Russian menace is not only unchanged but constantly increasing, we cannot turn against Germany, and the execution of the three conditions involved (in the British surrender plan) would inevitably involve this. Faced with a choice between Russia and Germany, we cannot opt against the latter, for we cannot identify the Russians with the Anglo-Saxons.”  

Macartney:

“The Hungarian diplomats who had been in contact with the Allies now realised that their role would soon be ended, and it was in these days that, under Barcza’s… auspices, a shadow organisation of ‘dissident diplomats’ took form, with the purpose of providing some sort of machinery for the continuance of diplomatic contact if Hungary was occupied… Barcza got from the British and American Governments assurances that they would regard such an organisation with favour… “

K. On the Secret ‘Parachute’ Plan of Prince Sapieha and Col. C. T. Howie:

Prince Sapieha, a fugitive, represented the Polish Underground Army… Col. Howie, a South-African was a POW who… was permitted to stay in Budapest as a free man. Howie had escaped from Germany and after some adventurous travels arrived safely in Hungary.

(Editors: Polish aristocrat Prince Andrzej Sapieha arrived in Budapest in 1943 as the representative of the Polish government-in-exile in London. He had free access to the highest political circles… He stayed in Budapest until its Soviet occupation. He was last seen in spring 1945. He disappeared amidst mysterious circumstances.)

Sapieha succeeded in acquiring a wireless transmitter, and now the two men… began exchanging messages with the British. In a few days…the…Americans, British and Poles were working together. As the British had promised that the mission as planned, American and British officers to be parachuted over Hungary, would not involve organising sabotage, Kállay finally gave his assent… Col. Howie… wanted to act at once… the arrangement was reached by means of the transmitter set of Sapieha and Howie with the British in Istanbul…

L. On the Military Situation, Autumn-Winter 1943:

The Red Army, during the fall of 1943… was continually advancing. The question for Hungary was not any longer whether the Russians would reach the Carpathians, but when they would… Kállay’s idea remained the same: fight the Russians until the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon forces. Thus Kállay’s strategy was to prepare for the defence of the Carpathians and arrive at an agreement with the British and American military leaders for an Anglo-Saxon airborne landing in Hungary… As Kállay wrote in a letter:

“Everyone, including the pro-British circle, agrees that we must, if need arises, defend the Carpathians against the Russian danger. No one regards this as a question on which opinions might differ. It is simply a question of the vital interests of the country.”

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