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1968 and All That… MLK, LBJ, Bobby, Tet and the Prague Spring.   Leave a comment

The Escalation of the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive:

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At the beginning of 1968, US President Lyndon Johnson thought that victory in Vietnam was worth the sacrifice the US servicemen had already made since President Kennedy had committed 16,500 troops to the support of the South Vietnamese in 1961-62. By 1968, Johnson had committed up to half a million men to the conflict. On taking office in 1964, he had said, I am not going to be the President who saw South East Asia go the way that China went. But by the end of February 1968, he was increasingly isolated in Washington. Robert McNamara, who had been John F Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, had left the White House to become president of the World Bank. He said he did not really know whether he had quit or been fired. The new Defense Secretary, Clark Clifford, opposed General Westmoreland’s latest request for another 200,000 men, arguing that there would soon be further requests, “with no end in sight.” He recommended pegging the level at twenty thousand, and Johnson agreed. What had happened in the war, and the response to it, to change his mind?

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In January 1968, just as President Johnson was announcing that the United States was winning the war in Vietnam, the Vietcong had launched the Tet Offensive within virtually every town and city in South Vietnam. It was their most spectacular offensive yet. In Saigon, a commando unit even penetrated the US Embassy compound; it had to be flushed out man by man. This feat, which took place in front of television cameras, stunned America and public opinion worldwide. Although the US military had intelligence that an attack was imminent, they appeared to have been caught completely by surprise. But the bitterest fighting in the Tet Offensive took place in Hue, previously a tranquil city, where intense house-to-house fighting and killing went on for several weeks. The photo on the right below shows US Marines call for assistance for those wounded in the bloody fighting which took place in the city on 1st February. The beleaguered president finally accepted that there was a limit to the losses of US servicemen in Vietnam that the American people would accept. The photo below (left) of Lyndon Johnson shows him preparing a speech on Vietnam.

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On the other side, the Tet Offensive was intended to inspire a popular rising across South Vietnam. It totally failed in this, but rather led to massive losses of some of the Vietcong’s best fighters. Nevertheless, in propaganda terms, the offensive was a magnificent victory for them. Before Tet, the American leaders had talked of grave enemy weaknesses and of how the Vietcong had met their match and were desperately hanging on. Now the Vietcong had shown that they could attack at will and could strike even at the very nerve centre of the US presence in South Vietnam. The gap between what the US Government said and what people saw on their television screens had never been greater, nor credibility lower. Support for the president’s handling of the war dropped to an all-time low in the polls. Eighty per cent of Americans felt that the United States was making no progress in the war. Tet was thus a turning point.

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Added to this, there was international revulsion and outrage at the American tactics. The British journalist, James Cameron, reported:

There was a sense of outrage. By what right do these airmen intrude over a country with which they are not formally at war? Who gave these people the sanction to drop their bombs on roads, bridges, houses, to blow up the harvest, to destroy people of whom they know nothing? Would this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?

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Despite the bombing, North Vietnam continued to supply the Vietcong in South Vietnam with ever-increasing amounts of aid. Much of it came from the Soviet Union and was driven across the border at night in convoys of heavy, Russian-built trucks. They regularly moved weapons and ammunition into the South, smuggling them right into the hearts of towns and cities. President Johnson had hoped for a ‘quick kill’. But the tactics of America’s land forces in South Vietnam were based on several errors of judgement. First, the soldiers were told to fight for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Yet the GIs simply shot and killed the peasants on sight, often en masse and without discrimination, assuming that they were Vietcong supporters. They also destroyed the land itself, as James Cameron testified (above). Richard Hamer, an American journalist commented, after his visit in 1970, that Vietnam had become a country of refugees … once the rice bowl of Asia, now unable to feed itself. Secondly, the USA believed it could ‘win’ the war and simply could not believe that the US could be defeated by a bunch of guerrillas in black pyjamas. But the reality of guerrilla warfare was very different:

… this enemy is invisible … it is not just the people but the land itself – unfamiliar … frightening … it can be that field ahead littered with land mines … the enemy can be the kind who comes out smiling and then lobs a grenade … or that bent old lady carrying a watermelon.

You walk down a road between rice paddies. Vietnamese are in every paddy. Then a mortar shell lands right in the middle of a patrol. A couple of guys are dead, others are screaming in agony with a leg or arm blown off, or their guts hanging out. Did one of them (the peasants) lob the mortar? If so, which one? Should you kill all of them or none of them at all?

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There was widespread opposition to the American presence in Vietnam, not least from within the US itself. The determined peace protesters outside the White House would not leave Johnson in peace, continuing to chant:

Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!

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In fact, the hostile chanting accompanied him wherever he went and had a devastating effect on him. Senator Eugene McCarthy announced he would oppose Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination; Robert Kennedy also declared he was a candidate and spoke out harshly against Johnson’s foreign policy and conduct of the war. In the second half of March, the ‘wise men’ went into conclave again to review progress and consider their options in Vietnam. By now the civilians in this group were openly critical of the assessments presented by the military commanders. When told that eighty thousand of the enemy had been killed and that the normal ratio of killed to wounded was 1:3, UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg calculated that would mean that all of the enemy’s manpower must be dead or injured: “Then who the hell are we fighting?” he asked. Then, on 31st March, in a live television address, Johnson announced that the US would halt all bombing above the twentieth parallel in the hope that peace talks could begin promptly. He then went on to surprise everyone, even his own advisers, by announcing  that he would “not seek … nor accept” his party’s nomination for a second term in the White House. With his crushing triumph over Goldwater only four years behind him, Johnson now recognised the deep unpopularity of his policy of escalating the Vietnam War. He had lost his fight with public opinion.

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Martin Luther King’s Death in Memphis:

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Above Left: Martin Luther King, Jr., waves to the marchers at the Lincoln Memorial, on 30th August 1963, before making his “I have a dream…” speech. Above Right: Lyndon Johnson shakes King’s hand after signing the Civil Rights Bill into law, 2 July 1964.

Four days after Johnson’s announcement, on 4th April, Martin Luther King was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had gone to Memphis to support a workers’ strike, marching with the strikers, who wanted to protest peacefully, singing and holding hands. Most of them were black street-cleaners, who were badly paid. But gangs of young blacks had not wanted to protest peacefully and had begun rioting, breaking shop windows and fighting with the police. One of them had been killed during the fighting.  After the march, King had talked to the gangs and told them that violence was not the answer and that all protests had to be peaceful if they wanted the workers to win. Some of the gang-leaders had argued back, saying that times had changed and that peaceful protests no longer worked. Finally, King had persuaded them to join the workers on their next march, and they had promised him not to use violence. The date for the second march had been set for 5th April.

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On 3rd April, King had returned to Memphis and had made a speech at the Baptist Church prayer-meeting. It had been full of hope about the cause, but also of foreboding for his own life:

I have been to the mountain top … I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

On the next day, 4th April, King had told his friends that he needed some air. He went out of his hotel room just after six o’clock in the evening. Suddenly, there was the sound of gunfire. His friends ran outside and found him lying on the ground, shot. Jesse Jackson, one of King’s young supporters, held him in his arms while the ambulance was sent for. An hour later Martin Luther King died in hospital. He was just thirty-nine years old.

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The whole world grieved the loss of this man of peace. All the people who had worked so hard for peace and civil rights were first shocked and then angry. Go and get your guns! Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader, told a crowd in Washington DC. Riots swept the American nation; a hundred cities erupted, the rioters fighting the police. There were more than twenty thousand arrests and forty-six more black deaths. Seventy-five thousand troops were called out to keep the peace. For many, King epitomised the dream of racial equality, but for two years his influence had been diminishing. Now the leadership of the black community passed to more radical figures like Carmichael, who wanted to replace passive, nonviolent disobedience to active and violent resistance. The Black Panthers trained as paramilitaries in the ghetto of Oakland, California, for a civil war with racist police. Other black ‘nationalists’ called openly for revolution.

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James Earl Ray, a white supremacist, was arrested and went to prison for King’s murder, though many believed he had not acted alone. Even Coretta King did not believe that Ray had killed her husband. King’s body lay in his father’s church in Atlanta. Thousands of people came to pay their respects to the civil rights leader. Later, his body was buried next to those of his grandparents, and written on his headstone, are the last words of his most famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial five years earlier:

Free at last, Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, 

I’m free at last!

From Paris to California and on to Chicago:

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Above: Robert Kennedy, campaigning in California.

In May, preliminary peace talks began in Paris. In the face of obdurate North Vietnamese negotiators, the talks soon ran aground. The dispute focused on whether or not the United States would halt all bombing of the North and who could sit at the negotiating table; would the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong sit down with the United States, as well as North and South Vietnam? There was no agreement. With a million college students and faculty members boycotting classes because of Vietnam, the stage was set for the confrontation between McCarthy and Kennedy for the Democratic Party nomination. In the California primary, in June, Kennedy won by a whisker. Then, as he was leaving his hotel through a back entrance, he was shot in the head and stomach (below). He died in hospital the next morning. There was no rioting, just silence. The American nation was traumatised by these killings, asking what was wrong with the country to make it so violent.

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Above right: Police and anti-Vietnam War protesters do battle in Chicago.

Everything came to a head when the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its nominee for the presidency – now either McCarthy or Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Chicago was controlled by Mayor Richard J Daley, a hard-liner who ruled the streets through a broad network of ethnic supporters. He promised, as long as I am mayor, there will be law and order on the streets. In the riots following Martin Luther King’s death, he had given his police authority to “shoot to kill” arsonists. Daley was determined to keep order during the convention when rumour predicted that a hundred thousand activists and anti-war campaigners would assemble in Chicago. Only about one-tenth of that number arrived, but Daley had no intention of allowing any marches to go ahead. His police, some out of uniform, attacked a group of ‘hippies’ and ‘yippies’ in Lincoln Park and pursued them – and anyone else who happened to be on the streets – with clubs and batons.

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On the night that Humphrey was to accept the nomination, the police used tear gas to break up the demonstration outside the convention hotel. More than two hundred plainclothes policemen tried to infiltrate the march. Demonstrators, newsmen, and even elderly passers-by were all clubbed and beaten. Tear gas got in the air vents of the hotel, including Humphrey’s suite, as he was preparing his acceptance speech. Live on television, the cameras kept cutting between the convention and the extraordinary scenes outside. Humphrey left feeling shattered, despite having secured his party’s nomination. Chicago was a catastrophe, he said later; My wife and I went home heartbroken, battered and beaten.

According to the to the New York Times, the Chicago police had brought shame to the city, embarrassment to the country. Lawyers defending those charged for their role in the demonstration spoke of a “police riot.” Senator George McGovern denounced Daley and his “Gestapo” for creating a “bloodbath.” Radicals were driven even further outside the political system; they believed that the government was now totally illegitimate and led by war criminals so that only further militancy could win the day. Bring Us Together was the campaign slogan of the Nixon camp, but as the campaign hotted up, there was little prospect of this happening in reality. In fact, Governor George Wallace had declared himself as an independent candidate. Wallace’s plan to stop the trouble on the streets appealed only to the right-wing Republican heartlands:

We ought to turn this country over to the police for two or three years and then everything would be all right.

Meanwhile, Richard M Nixon had won the Republican nomination for president. With conservative Spiro T Agnew as his running mate, Nixon tried to defuse the support for Wallace. He also met with Johnson and agreed not to attack the outgoing president over Vietnam during the campaign, in return for an understanding that Johnson would not abandon Saigon. Nixon tried to come across as the statesman and peacemaker. He spoke of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam and to bring peace with honour. Nixon also agreed that during the campaign he would not call for a pause in the bombing. In October, the Paris peace talks were still deadlocked over the issue of representation, with President Thieu, in Saigon, deeply opposed to negotiating with North Vietnam if the Vietcong were also present. This would imply formal recognition of his hated enemy. With the election only days away, Johnson received FBI reports that Anna Chennault, a Nixon fund-raiser, was acting as a go-between for the Republicans with Thieu. Nixon’s campaign manager had asked her to tell Thieu to oppose the cessation of bombing, and so undermine the peace talks, promising that Thieu would get a better deal under the Republicans. Thieu held out and refused to attend talks at which the Vietcong were present. Despite this, Johnson called a halt to the bombing on 31st October.

Nixon talked of the “tired men” around Johnson and the need for a new team with “fresh ideas”. The opinion polls showed a swing away from Humphrey, who up to this point had had a narrow lead. On 5th November, the American people came out to vote. In the end, the vote was nail-bitingly close: Wallace won thirteen per cent, and Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey with 43.4 per cent of the vote to 42.7. There was to be a new team in the White House, but outside America was split into two nations. But, although the North had set out the terms on which the war would eventually end, the fighting in Vietnam would go on for another five years and cost many thousands more lives.

The anti-war movement clearly boosted North Vietnamese morale and sustained Hanoi’s will to fight on. The hostile chants had almost certainly upset Lyndon Johnson and helped persuade him not to stand for re-election. The movement also affected the atmosphere of decision-making by which it was resolved not to broaden the conflict into a wider war in Southeast Asia. More than anything, the protests against the war exposed a growing cultural divide among the American people and, in the rest of the world, provoked widespread anti-American sentiment on both sides of the Cold War divide. The protest movement was international. In Paris in May 1968, the Fifth Republic was nearly toppled when it came into conflict with a massed combination of workers, students, and intellectuals. In London, police laid into anti-war demonstrators outside the Grosvenor Square US Embassy, in full view of television news cameras. In Northern Ireland, civil rights marches, modelled on those in the American South, sparked a new phase in the long-running confrontation between Irish republicanism and the British State. In Germany and Japan, radicals fought with the police.

Another Year Ending in Eight – The Prague Spring:

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The action of the Chicago police took place just a week after Soviet troops shocked the world by moving into Prague. In Central/Eastern Europe, new thinking had been influenced by the counter-cultural currents in the West, but the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 also had their origins in the fight for Czech independence which goes back four hundred years and seems to contain major events in years ending in the number eight. It began with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, following the defenestrations of Prague, when the Bohemian Calvinists refused to acknowledge Ferdinand, a Hapsburg, as their king, inviting Frederick, the Elector Palatine and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England, to become their king and queen. This was both a religious and a political challenge to the Emperor. Frederick was overwhelmed by Bavaria and Austria at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, having received no help from the Protestant Union of German princes, or from his miserly father-in-law, James Stuart. Frederick and Elizabeth went down in the annals of Czech history as ‘the Winter King and Queen’ due to the brevity of their reign, and it took another three centuries for independence to be restored, in 1918/19. It was then taken away again in 1938/39, by Hitler, with Chamberlain’s connivance and, after a brief post-war restoration, in 1948 the Communists seized power at Stalin’s insistence.

001Jan Masaryk, the independent foreign minister and son of the first president of inter-war Czechoslovakia, was also defenestrated in 1948, by the Communists. A re-examination of the case in 1968 turned up a document which stated that scratch-marks made by fingernails had been found on the window soon after he had fallen to his death. The ‘Prague Spring’ also had economic roots, in common with other protest movements in the Eastern bloc countries. There was deep concern about declining growth rates and the failure to keep up with Western levels of consumer progress.

In Poland, agricultural output had been dropping year after year, and the régime of Wladyslaw Gomulka, so rapturously welcomed in October 1956, was growing steadily more oppressive. Intellectuals who spoke out against the government were imprisoned and in March 1968 a student demonstration was brutally broken up by the police, resulting in several days of street rioting in Warsaw. Gomulka had lost almost all of his support in the country, but Brezhnev and the Soviet Union stood by him. But the crises of 1968 passed quickly in Poland, and Gomulka remained in power for two more years, until food shortages and rising prices finally brought his régime to an end.

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Above left: Alexander Dubcek in Spring, 1968, promising “socialism with a human face.” Right: He shakes hands with Brezhnev in Bratislava, 3rd August 1968.

In Czechoslovakia, there were also concerns over lack of growth in the economy, and in 1966 the government of Antonín Novotny took the first steps towards decentralising the economy, giving greater power to local managers and greater priority to the production of consumer goods. Profits rather than quotas were made the measure of performance, a practice dubbed market socialism. However, these reforms were too slow, and, against a background of student revolts, Alexander Dubcek was appointed party chairman in January 1968. He was no fiery revolutionary, but as the boss of the Slovak party machine, he was a committed party loyalist. He did, nevertheless, promise the widest possible democratisation of the entire sociopolitical system aimed at bringing communism up to date. His appointment speeded change, as he widened the reform debate to those outside the party. Censorship was eased; freedom of speech was introduced in newspapers, on the radio and on television. Amidst unprecedented debate in the press and on television, in April the party approved an Action Programme with a two thousand word manifesto in June, when writers and intellectuals advocated democratic reforms within a broad socialist context. Dubcek’s reforms became known as socialism with a human face. Above all, Dubcek was trying to improve living conditions in Czechoslovakia:

We want to set new forces of Socialist life in motion in this country, allowing a fuller application of the advantages of Socialism.

Trade with the West was developed; different religions were allowed. Dubcek’s Government, though still Communist, wished to have less control over people’s lives. In this, he had the full support of the Czechoslovak people. The thaw in Czech Communism in early 1968 was therefore known as the ‘Prague Spring’. The Prague leadership tried very hard not to upset the Kremlin. They remembered how Hungary had been crushed in 1956, and Czechoslovakia, unlike Imre Nagy’s Hungarian one of twelve years earlier, had no desire to make changes in its foreign affairs or to leave the Warsaw Pact.

Over these months, Moscow and the other Warsaw Pact capitals became increasingly agitated by the so-called ‘Prague Spring’. They believed that economic reform would inevitably test the party bureaucracy’s ability to maintain control, and would ultimately undermine its monopoly of power. They feared that fervent debate about economic objectives would be contagious. Indeed, in Poland demonstrators did call for a “Polish Dubcek.” Gomulka in Poland and Walter Ulbricht in East Germany led the hard-line against reforms in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek continued to proclaim his commitment to the one-party system and his loyalty to the Warsaw Pact, but other Satellite states grew more and more impatient. Moscow itself despaired over the Prague reforms. Inside the Kremlin, it was feared that Dubcek’s government would dismantle the internal security apparatus and evict the KGB from the country. The Soviet military was also worried about its agreements with Czechoslovakia. In the early sixties, the Soviet Union had agreed on terms with its Warsaw Pact allies for stationing nuclear warheads in Central/Eastern Europe. Under these terms, the weapons would remain under strict Soviet military control. The USSR had large numbers of troops stationed in Hungary, Poland and East Germany, but no permanent garrison in Czechoslovakia. When Prague embarked on its reform programme in the first half of 1968, the Soviets delayed their deployment of nuclear weapons there, fearing that they would not be able to maintain tight control over them. Moscow saw Prague as a weak link in the Warsaw Pact frontier.

In July, Leonid Brezhnev met the leaders of his Central/Eastern European allies in Warsaw. Dubcek’s changes were too much for Brezhnev, and the other Warsaw Pact leaders, who shared their concerns over events in Czechoslovakia. They warned the Czechoslovak leadership not to run the risk of opening up a ‘hole’ in the iron curtain:

The word ‘democracy’ is being misused. There are campaigns against honest Party workers. The aim is to end the leading role of the Party, to undermine Socialism and to turn Czechoslovakia against other Socialist countries. Thus … the security of our countries is threatened.

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Above: Students occupy Wenceslas Square, awaiting the invaders

A few days later Brezhnev, Kosygin, and the senior Soviet leadership met with Dubcek (see the photo above), and made new demands on him to re-impose censorship and tighten control over the media. An agreement at Bratislava appeared to promise a reconciliation between Prague and Moscow, but when Yugoslavia’s Tito was given an enthusiastic reception in Czechoslovakia it seemed yet again that Dubcek was steering the country down its independent road. The Soviet Politburo went into a three-day session on 15 August to consider what action to take. When Brezhnev spoke to Dubcek on the telephone, he shouted at him that the whole Communist system in the Eastern bloc could crumble because of what was happening in Prague. Why were the Soviets so frightened of change in Czechoslovakia? The Czech historian, Zeman, has given us this clue:

Twice in this century the Russians have had to face an onslaught from the centre of Europe. Only they know the extent of their losses in the last war … and the country is still governed by the men who fought in it. The Russians have no intention of dismantling their defences to the west.

The Iron Fist and the Heavy Hand:

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At midnight on 20th August, Ladislav Mnacko awoke. He peered out of his window to see shadowy shapes in line all along Stefanik Street. But the road was closed for repairs; nothing could be driven along it. Then he realised that they were tanks, which could be driven anywhere, and there were a lot of them. Czechoslovakia had been invaded; Soviet paratroopers had seized control of Prague airport. Over the next few hours, half a million Warsaw Pact troops crossed the borders into the country. In marked contrast to the events in Hungary twelve years earlier, the government told the Czech and Slovak people to stay calm and not to resist with arms, but only to offer ‘passive resistance’. There were pockets of such resistance, one led by the young playwright, Václav Havel. This campaign was organised through radio station broadcasts, like the following:

Citizens! – go to work normally … keep calm … do not give the occupation forces any excuse for armed action … show the invaders your scorn in silence.

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But the Warsaw Pact tanks moved against unarmed civilians, and again demonstrated how ill-prepared the USSR and its allies were to allow change or national autonomy within the Warsaw Pact. The West was shocked by the invasion but was no more likely to support Czechoslovakia than it had been to support Hungary in the previous decade, perhaps even less so, since the USA had long-since abandoned its ‘roll-back’ foreign policies, and was still heavily committed to its war in Vietnam which, as we have seen, was increasingly unpopular both at home and abroad. The West spoke out but could not intervene without risking nuclear confrontation, and therefore did not attempt to do so. The most significant critic of the USSR’s action was China, partly due to the already strained relations between the two Communist powers. The Chinese leadership had urged Khrushchev to invade Hungary in 1956, but it was now quick to condemn the Kremlin’s invasion of another Warsaw Pact member.

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Many of the Soviet soldiers were told they were being sent to protect Czechoslovakia from invasion by the Germans and Americans. As they learned the truth, some sympathised with the demonstrators. A few defected to them and were executed when they were caught. As the Soviets took control, arrests of Dubcek and the other leaders began. The invading troops tried to find the radio stations and close down their transmitters:

We do not know how long we will be able to broadcast. If you hear an unknown voice on this station, do not believe it.

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The Russian troops were surprised to see how much the Czechoslovak people hated them. They had believed Soviet propaganda:

‘Tass’ is authorised to state that the leaders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic have asked the Soviet Union and allied states to render the Czechoslovak people urgent assistance. This request was brought about by the threat which has arisen to the Socialist system, existing in Czechoslovakia.

(Tass, 21 August 1968)

There were continual rumours that key Czechoslovak party officials invited the Soviets to invade their country to reimpose hard-line law and order. The key documents were locked away in a top-secret folder in the Moscow Communist Party Archives, and have only recently (c 1998) become available. They prove that this was indeed the case. It is now known that the anti-reformist Slovak Communist Party chief, Vasil Bilak, wrote to Brezhnev a direct letter of invitation “to use all means at your disposal,” including military force. to “prevent the imminent threat of counter-revolution.” Bilak warned that “the very existence of socialism in our country is in danger.” Rather than risk sending the letter directly to Brezhnev, he passed it to a Soviet intermediary in a men’s lavatory.

When the Politburo began its three-day meeting to review its options on Czechoslovakia, Bilak dispatched another message to the Soviet leader, on 17th August, not only encouraging the Soviets to act quickly but also offering to form an alternative government that would oust Dubcek and seize control in Prague when the Warsaw Pact troops arrived. It is doubtful that this was a decisive factor in the Soviet decision to invade, but it must have boosted the pro-military faction in the Kremlin, and it helped to provide a pretext for the Soviets to claim that they were acting on behalf of a legitimate alternative government. In reality, the anti-reformists were entirely unable to deliver a government, and the Soviet Union ended up having to reinstate Dubcek’s, which survived for several months. In any case, Brezhnev’s own justification for the intervention was based on the common security of the Warsaw Pact countries, not just on the Tass statement:

When forces that are hostile to Socialism try to turn the development of some Socialist country towards capitalism … it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem of all socialist countries.

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Others among the satellite countries took careful note of this concept, which came to be known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. Of the Warsaw Pact nations, only Romania refused to participate in the invasion. Nikolae Caecescu had visited Prague during the ‘Spring’ (above) and had become an unlikely ally of Dubcek, since he also wanted to pursue a more independent line within the Soviet bloc. János Kádár (pictured below), the Hungarian leader whom the Soviets had installed after the 1956 Uprising, and was to survive in power for another twenty years, had tried to caution Dubcek not to fall too far out of line with the Kremlin. In spite of Kádár’s desperate effort to mediate between the Kremlin and the Czechoslovak leadership, whose experiment was not very different from what was happening in Hungary at the time, Hungary’s foreign policy was marked by unconditional loyalty to Big Brother on all accounts (Kontler, 2009). This meant taking part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to avert a counter-revolutionary takeover. That was a decision which lost Hungary many of its remaining ‘friends’ in the west and led to a further worsening of its bilateral relations with the US administration. Martin J Hillebrand, a skilfull career diplomat who had been appointed as the first US Ambassador to Hungary in September 1967, noted Kádár’s…

… early endorsement  of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely-publicized mediatory role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.

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In any case, it was already too late for mediation by the time the invasion was underway. Alexander Dubcek was flown to Moscow and for days, the Czech and Russian leaders talked. He was forced to accept the end of Czech moves towards democracy. On 27th August the Czech leaders returned from Moscow and the Czech President Ludvik Svoboda announced the ‘mixed’ news:

Dear fellow citizens … after four days of negotiations in Moscow we are back with you. Neither you nor we felt at ease.

Dubcek added the bad news:

… to normalise the present complex situation … it will be necessary to take measures limiting freedom of expression as we have become accustomed to it.

In addition, Soviet troops were to stay in Czechoslovakia and censorship was brought back. Yet, for a time, at that time, after the tanks of the Warsaw Pact had invaded Czechoslovakia, there had seemed to be a feint possibility that the reformists could stay in power and the reforms of the Prague Spring would continue. Dubcek, though taken to Moscow in chains, returned as Chairman of the Communist Party still. President Svoboda (his name means ‘freedom’) was still the head of state of the People’s Republic. Together, they promised that nothing would change, but everything did change, though they resisted for as long as they could; virtually every change that had been made during the Prague Spring was overturned within a year.

The heavy hand of Moscow once more gripped Czechoslovakia. A Czech student, Jan Palach, set fire to himself in the centre of Prague as a protest. Over the next year, hard-line Czechoslovak officials replaced their reformist predecessors at all levels. An experiment in political pluralism had come to an abrupt end. The orthodoxy of one-party rule was restored. In April 1969 Dubcek was forced to resign; his idea of making Czechoslovakian Communism more human lay in ruins. He was sent to Turkey as an ambassador, where he was a virtual prisoner in his own embassy. Svoboda died shortly after being replaced by Moscow’s nominee, Gustav Husák, obedient to the central authority in Moscow, who remained in power for the next twenty years until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1970, Dubcek was expelled from the party and the people of Czechoslovakia, eager for freedom, were either purged or effectively ‘buried alive’.

Throughout the Prague Spring the secret police, the Statni Bezpecnost (StB), had continued to operate for their old masters, not their new ones. Photographs existed of everyone who had spoken at every important public meeting throughout the short interlude of freedom. Large numbers of people in the crowds had been photographed too, and notes were taken of everything that was said. All this had been carefully collated. The tribunals began to sift through the StB’s material. Every member of the government, the civil service, the management of factories and businesses, was investigated to see what line he or she had taken during the Prague Spring. It was a long and careful business, carried ou with obsessive attention to detail of a new Inquisition. As with the original Inquisition, the purpose was not to rescue the individual soul of the heretic but to preserve the integrity of the faith. Active supporters of the heresy were dismissed. Usually, they could find only menial jobs. The applications of young men and women applying for places at universities were examined with the same care. No active supporter of the reform movement was accepted.

Lethargy, Legacy and the ‘unhoped-for moment’:

The caretakers, road sweepers, stokers and maintenance men of Czechoslovakia were the best educated in the world. Distinguished academics, senior civil servants, leading journalists and economists tended furnaces, washed steps, and cleaned out lavatories. The men and women who took their jobs in the Party, the government and the economic life of the country were less well-educated. The looking-glass world was well represented in Czechoslovakia. There was no let-up in the tight control, not just of the Party, but also in the group that headed the Party – the group which took power in 1968 and 1969. Gustav Husak, Milos Jakes and the others remembered the last months of the old Party leader, Antonín Novotny, in 1967, and how the hope of greater liberalisation had split the Party and forced even the liberals to go much farther than they intended. Husak and the others knew that if there were the least easing up, they would be swept away. Under such tight control, it remained difficult for the Party to generate any enthusiasm or activity even among its own members. Three days after the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion, the Party newspaper Rude Pravo complained, on the 24th August 1983:

It is a serious matter that our Party members live in near-anonymity. They cannot be formally rebuked for this, because they pay their membership dues, regularly attend Party meetings, and take part in agitprop sessions. However, they have nothing to say on serious matters under discussion, they never raise their hands, and they never speak their mind. They never oppose others, but they never fight for their Party.

John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, likened this state of mind to that of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Czechoslovakia, he said, had undergone a kind of lobotomy. People had been encouraged to express their political opinions in 1968 and then had suffered for doing so. It was rare to find anyone, during his visit in 1983, who was prepared to make the same mistake again. Czech journalists who did try to talk to Simpson about 1968 found the awakened memories too painful to share and, perhaps more significantly for that time, they saw no “point” to “raising” them since it would just remind them of the way things used to be, just for a bit … We’ll never be like that again! The authorities demanded quiescence and offered in return a decent material standard of living. The shops were well stocked with food and every weekend in the summer people would head out of the cities to the dachas which were made available in large numbers. It was, Simpson wrote, a sleepwalker’s existence.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia came at a crucial time in the rebuilding of relations between the USA and the USSR. The Americans knew that any serious action on behalf of the Czechs and Slovaks would, at the very least, set back the slow process of improving East-West relations. So, in 1968 the Czechs were left to their fate by the West, as they had been in 1948 and 1938. However, there is a comforting, if comic, codicil to this story. The following year, the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team secured a rare win over their Russian rivals. They became world-wide heroes literally overnight, but in the real global power-play, they were still the victims rather than the victors.

Global, ‘regional’ and ‘local’ events in 1968 blurred the distinctions in the images of the two superpowers in the Cold War. It was hard to view the United States as freedom’s ‘sheriff’ in the world when at home, its police were clubbing civil rights and anti-war protesters, and abroad its GIs were being made to commit war-crimes in an escalating and undeclared war in south-east Asia. On the other hand, the failure of the Communist system to feed its own people with grain from the United States, and the crushing of the Prague Spring with tanks, tarnished a form of government which claimed to rule on behalf of its ‘proletariat’. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ended, for decades at least, a possible third way in Central/Eastern Europe, and the possibility of liberal reform within the Soviet bloc.

On the morning of 23rd October 1988, I was standing with a group of British Quaker teachers, at the Esztergom Basilica on Hungary’s ‘Danube Bend’. Looking down to the river, we could see a ruined bridge which, until the Second World War, had connected Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We were excited, together with our hosts, about the changes taking place in Hungary, two of which had been announced on the radio that morning, the thirty-second anniversary of the beginning of the 1956 Uprising. The first was that those events would no longer be referred to as a ‘counter-revolution’, as they had been, officially, ever since. The second was that a phased, but complete withdrawal of Soviet troops would begin the next year. Our excitement was tinged with sadness when we looked across at what, today, is Slovakia. Our host, a fellow historian, expressed her view that Husak’s hard-line régime would be the last of the Warsaw Pact to liberalise. Almost exactly thirteen months later, Husak and Jakes had gone, and Alexander Dubcek was back in Wenceslas Square, addressing crowds of 300,000. Yet in 1988, he was still, officially, the ‘disgraced leader of the Prague Spring Movement’. His granddaughter had told him:

Grandpa, don’t be sad. We never take any notice when our teachers say what a bad man you are. I always leave the classroom and the teachers never say anything. I know that you’re good.

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Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

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

 

 

 

Posted June 11, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Cartoons, Civil Rights, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, democracy, Egalitarianism, Europe, France, Germany, guerilla warfare, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Ireland, Journalism, Marxism, Militancy, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Renaissance, Resurrection, Russia, Satire, Second World War, terror, terrorism, Trade Unionism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, World War Two

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Beginnings of the Cold War in Central/Eastern Europe, 1946-56: Territory, Tyranny and Terror.   1 comment

019Eastern Europe in 1949. Source: András Bereznay (2002), The Times History of Europe.

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, the map of the European continent was radically transformed. The most striking transformation was the shrinking of Germany, with Poland the principal beneficiary, and the division of what remained of the two countries. But Poland lost vast territories on its eastern border to the Soviet Union. West Germany (from 1949, ‘the Federal Republic’) was formed from the American, French and British areas of occupied Germany; East Germany (‘the Democratic Republic’ from 1949) was formed from the Soviet-occupied zone (see the maps below). The former German capital followed this pattern in miniature. Czechoslovakia was revived, largely along the lines it had been in 1919, and Hungary was restored to the borders established by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Yugoslavia was also restored in the form it had been before the war. The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – together with the Ukraine and Bessarabia, were all incorporated into the Soviet Union. Austria was detached from Germany and restored to independence, initially under a Soviet-sponsored government reluctantly recognised by the western powers. It gradually moved away from Soviet influence over the following ten years.

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It rapidly became clear that Stalin’s intentions were wholly at variance with the West’s goals for western Germany. The two zones of Germany followed wholly divergent paths: while denazification in the west followed the Austrian model, with the first free elections taking place in January 1946. However, in the east the Soviets moved quickly to eradicate all pre-war political parties other than the communists, sponsoring the German Communist Party, which became the Socialist Unity Party in April 1946. All other political organisations were suppressed by November 1947. As it became clear that the western and eastern halves of the country were destined for separate futures, so relations between the former Allies deteriorated. Simultaneously, the Soviet Army stripped the country of industrial plunder for war reparations. Germany rapidly became one of the major theatres of the Great Power Conflict of the next forty years. Berlin became the focal point within this conflict from the winter of 1948/49, as Stalin strove to force the Western Allies out of the city altogether. In September 1949, the Western Allies, abandoning for good any hopes they had of reaching a rapprochement with Stalin, announced the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. This was followed, the next month, by the creation of the Soviet-sponsored GDR. More broadly, it was clear by the end of 1949, that Stalin had created what was in effect a massive extension of the Soviet Empire, as well as a substantial buffer zone between the USSR proper and the West. Western-Soviet relations were plunged into a deep freeze from which they would not emerge for decades: the Cold War. In escaping Nazi occupation, much of Central/Eastern Europe had simply exchanged one form of tyranny for another.  

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In July 1947, the USA had issued invitations to twenty-two European countries to attend a conference in Paris, scheduled for 12th July, to frame Europe’s response to the Marshall Plan, the proposal put forward by President Truman’s Secretary of State to provide an economic lifeline to the countries of Europe struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the World War. Stalin and his Foreign Minister, Molotov, had already given their reaction. Stalin saw the issue not only in economic but also political terms, his suspicious nature detecting an American plot. He thought that once the Americans got their fingers into the Soviet economy, they would never take them out. Moreover, going cap-in-hand to capitalists was, in his view, the ultimate sign of failure for the Communist system. The socialist countries would have to work out their own economic salvation. Nevertheless, Molotov succeeded in persuading Stalin to allow him to go to Paris to assess the American offer.

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The ‘big four’ – Britain, France, the USA and the USSR – met first at the end of June in Paris. Molotov agreed to back limited American involvement in the economies of Europe with no strings attached. However, Soviet intelligence soon revealed that both Britain and France saw Marshall’s offer as a plan for aiding in the full-scale reconstruction of Europe. Not only that, but Molotov was informed that the American under-secretary, Will Clayton, was having bilateral talks with British ministers in which they had already agreed that the Plan would not be an extension of the wartime Lend-Lease Agreement which had almost bankrupted Britain in the immediate post-war years. The British and the Americans also saw the reconstruction of Germany as the key factor in reviving the continent’s economy. This was anathema to the Soviets, who were keen to keep Germany weak and to extract reparations from it. The Soviet Union was always anxious about what it saw as attempts by the Western allies to downplay its status as the chief victor in the war. Molotov cabled Stalin that all hope of effecting Soviet restrictions on Marshall aid now seemed dead. On 3rd July, Molotov, accusing the Western powers of seeking to divide Europe into two hostile camps, gathered up his papers and returned to Moscow that same evening.

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With the Soviets out-of-the-way, invitations went out to all the states of Western Europe except Spain. They also went to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, Finland, Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. After initial hesitation, Moscow instructed its ‘satellites’ to reject the invitation. On 7th July, messages informed party bosses in the Eastern European capitals that…

…under the guise of drafting plans for the revival of Europe, the sponsors of the conference in fact are planning to set up a Western bloc which includes West Germany. In view of those facts … we suggest refusing to participate in the conference.

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Most of the Communist parties in the Central-Eastern European countries did just as they were told, eager to display their loyalty to Stalin. But the Polish and Czech governments found the offer of US dollars too appealing since this was exactly what their economies needed. In Czechoslovakia, about a third of the ministers in the coalition government were Communists, reflecting the share of the vote won by the party in the 1946 elections. Discussions within the government about the Marshall aid offer, however, produced a unanimous decision to attend the Paris conference. Stalin was furious and summoned Gottwald, the Communist Prime Minister, to Moscow immediately. Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister, an independent non-Communist member of the Prague Government. Stalin kept them waiting until the early hours and then angrily told them to cancel their decision to go to Paris. He said that the decision was a betrayal of the Soviet Union and would also undermine the efforts of the Communist parties in Western Europe to discredit the Marshall Plan as part of a Western plot to isolate the Soviet Union. He brushed aside their protests, and they returned to Prague, where the Czechoslovak Government, after an all-day meeting, unanimously cancelled its original decision. Masaryk, distraught, told his friends:

I went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state; I returned as a Soviet slave.

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Above: Conflicting cartoon images of the Marshall Plan and the Cold War. Fitzpatrick, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shows the Kremlin’s noose tightening around Czechoslovakia. Krokodil has the Europeans on their knees before their US paymaster. 

The Poles forced them into line as well, and their government made a similar announcement. Stalin had his way; the Eastern Bloc now voted as one and from now on each state took its orders from the Kremlin. Europe was divided and the Cold War was irreparably underway. From Washington’s perspective, the Marshall Plan was designed to shore up the European economies, ensure the future stability of the continent by avoiding economic catastrophe, thereby preventing the spread of communism, which was already thriving amidst the economic chaos of Western Europe. But from the Kremlin’s point of view, the plan appeared to be an act of economic aggression. Stalin had felt his own power threatened by the lure of the almighty ‘greenback’. In Washington, Stalin’s opposition to the plan was seen as an aggressive act in itself. The US ambassador in Moscow described it as nothing less than a declaration of war by the Soviet Union. Both sides were now locked in mutual suspicion and distrust and the effects of the Marshall Plan was to make the Iron Curtain a more permanent feature of postwar Europe.

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The same day as the Conference on European Economic Cooperation (CEEC) opened in Paris, 12th July 1947, the first meeting of Cominform, the short form of the Communist Information Bureau took place in the village of Szkliarska Poremba in Poland. A revival of the old Communist alliance, or Comintern, established by Lenin, this was a direct response to the Marshall Plan, and an attempt to consolidate Stalin’s control over the Soviet satellites and to bring unanimity in Eastern Bloc strategy. Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet ideologue, Stalin’s representative at the meeting, denounced the Truman Doctrine as aggressive and, playing on Eastern European fears of resurgent Nazism, accused the Marshall Plan of trying to revive German industry under the control of American financiers. Along with the representatives of the Communist parties of France and Italy, which had been encouraged to operate through left-wing coalitions in a Popular Front, the Czechoslovak Communist delegates were ordered to move away from their coalition and to seize the initiative.

The coalition government in Czechoslovakia had previously operated on the principle that Czechoslovak interests were best served by looking both to the West and to the East, an idea dear to the hearts of both President Benes and Foreign Minister Masaryk. But as relations between the two power blocs worsened, the position of Czechoslovakia, straddling East and West, became ever more untenable. Masaryk, though not a Communist, felt increasingly cut off by the West after Prague’s failure to participate in the Marshall Plan. Washington regarded the capitulation to Stalin over the Paris conference as signifying that Czechoslovakia was now part of the Soviet bloc. The harvest of 1947 was especially bad in Czechoslovakia, with the yield of grain just two-thirds of that expected and the potato crop only half. The need for outside help was desperate, and Masaryk appealed to Washington, but the US made it clear that there would be no aid and no loans until Prague’s political stance changed. Although Masaryk tried to convince the US government that the Soviet line had been forced on them, he failed to change the American position. Then the Soviets promised Czechoslovakia 600,000 tons of grain, which helped prevent starvation and won wide support for Stalin among the Czechoslovak people. Foreign trade Minister Hubert Ripka said…

Those idiots in Washington have driven us straight into the Stalinist camp.

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When the Soviet deputy foreign minister arrived in Prague, supposedly to oversee the delivery of the promised grain, the non-Communist ministers took a gamble. On 20th February, they resigned from office, hoping to force an early election. But President Benes, who was seriously ill, wavered. Following orders from the Cominform, the Communists took to the streets, organising giant rallies and whipping up popular support. They used the police to arrest and intimidate opponents and formed workers’ assemblies at factories. On 25th February, fearing civil war, Benes allowed Gottwald to form a new Communist-led government. In the picture on the left above, Klement Gottwald is seen calling for the formation of a new Communist government, while President Benes stands to his left. In the picture on the right, units of armed factory workers march to a mass gathering in support of the takeover in the capital.

In five days, the Communists had taken power in Prague and Czechoslovakia was sentenced to membership of the Soviet camp for more than forty years. Masaryk remained as foreign minister but was now a broken man, his attempt to bridge East and West having failed. A fortnight later, he mysteriously fell to his death from the window of his apartment in the Foreign Ministry. Thousands of mourners lined the streets for his funeral, which marked the end of the free Republic of Czechoslovakia which had been founded by his father, Tomás Masaryk thirty years earlier. News of the Communist takeover in Prague sent shock waves through Washington, where the Marshall Plan was still making its way through Congress. Now the case had been made by events: without US intervention, Europe would fall to the Communists, both East and West. Had Washington not written off Czechoslovakia as an Eastern bloc state, refusing to help the non-Communists, the outcome of those events might have been different. This was a harsh but salient lesson for the US administration, but it made matters worse by talk of possible immediate conflict. The Navy secretary began steps to prepare the American people for war and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up an emergency war plan to meet a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. On 17th March, Truman addressed a joint session of Congress with a fighting speech:

The Soviet Union and its agents have destroyed the independence and democratic character of a whole series of nations in Eastern and Central Europe. … It is this ruthless course of action, and the clear design to extend it to the remaining free nations of Europe, that have brought about the critical situation in Europe today. The tragic death of the Republic of Czechoslovakia has sent a shock wave through the civilized world. … There are times in world history when it is far wiser to act than to hesitate. There is some risk involved in action – there always is. But there is far more risk involved in failure to act.

Truman asked for the approval of the Marshall Plan and for the enactment of universal military training and selective service. On 3rd April, Congress approved $5.3 billion in Marshall aid. Two weeks later, the sixteen European nations who had met in Paris the previous year, signed the agreement which established the OEEC, the body which the US Administration to formalise requests for aid, recommend each country’s share, and help in its distribution. Within weeks the first shipments of food aid were arriving in Europe. Next came fertilisers and tractors, to increase agricultural productivity. Then came machines for industry. The tap of Marshall aid had been turned on, but too late as far as Poland and Czechoslovakia were concerned. The plan was political as well as economic. It grew out of the desire to prevent the spread of communism into Western Europe. No longer could European nations sit on the fence. Each country had to choose whether it belonged to the Western or the Soviet bloc. In the immediate post-war years the situation had been fluid, but the Marshall Plan helped to accelerate the division of Europe. Forced to reject Marshall aid, Czechoslovakia became part of the Soviet sphere of influence, albeit abandoned to this fate by Washington, sacrificed once more by the Western powers. On the other hand, France and Italy were now firmly in the Western camp.

Paranoia permeated the Soviet system and Communist Central/GeorgeEastern Europe in the late forties and early fifties, just as it had done during Stalin’s reign of terror in the thirties. Hundreds of thousands of people were sent to labour camps and many thousands, loyal party members, were executed. In Hungary, as many as one in three families had a member in jail during the Stalinist period. As one Hungarian once told me, recalling his childhood forty years earlier, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948 but only recently (in 1988) available to Hungarians to read, was 1948 in Hungary. In the Soviet Union and throughout the Soviet bloc, conformity was everything and no dissent was allowed. Independent thought was fiercely tracked down, rooted out, and repressed.

In the first phase of the Soviet takeover of Central/ Eastern Europe, Communist parties, with the backing of the Kremlin, had taken control of the central apparatus of each state.  Sometimes there were tensions between the local Communists, who had been part of the underground resistance to the Nazis, and those who had been exiled in Moscow and who had been appointed at the behest of Stalin to senior positions in the local parties. Initially, they were devoted to condemning their political opponents as class enemies. In 1948 a new phase began in the Sovietisation of the ‘satellite’ states, in which each nation was to be politically controlled by its Communist Party, and each local party was to be subject to absolute control from Moscow.

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In Hungary, the arrests had begun at Advent in 1946, with the seizure of lawyer and politician, György Donáth by the ÁVO, the state security police, on a charge of conspiracy against the Republic. Prior to his arrest, Donáth had left Budapest for a pre-Christmas vacation near the Hungarian border, so the ÁVO, who had had him under surveillance for some time, feared that he might attempt to flee the country and wasted no time in arresting him there, using the secret military police, KATPOL. Following this, a number of his associates were also arrested. In order to save these fellow leaders of the secret Hungarian Fraternal Community (MTK), which he had reactivated in the spring of 1946, he took all responsibility upon himself. He was condemned to death by a People’s Tribunal on 1st April 1947, and executed on 23rd October the same year. Cardinal Mindszenty, the representative of the religious majority in the country, was arrested soon after and put on trial on 3rd February 1949.

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(Following his release from prison a week before, in 1956)

In Czechoslovakia, where the Party had seized control in February 1948, a series of ‘show trials’ highlighted different stages in the imposition of Communist authority. Between 1948 and 1952 death sentences were passed against 233 political prisoners – intellectuals, independent thinkers, socialists, Christians. The execution of Zavis Kalandra, an associate of the Surrealists and a Marxist who had split with the prewar Communist Party, shocked Prague. Nearly 150,000 people were made political prisoners in Czechoslovakia, seven thousand Socialist Party members among them.

The crisis that prompted this strengthening of control was the split with Tito in 1948. The war-time partisan leader of Yugoslavia headed the only Communist country in Eastern Europe where power was not imposed by Moscow but came through his own popularity and strength. Although Stalin’s favourite for a while, Tito was soon out of favour with him for resisting the Soviet control of both Yugoslavia’s economy and its Communist Party.  In June 1948, Yugoslavia was expelled from Cominform for having placed itself outside the family of the fraternal Communist parties. Stalin even prepared plans for a military intervention, but later decided against it. The ‘mutiny’ in Yugoslavia now gave Stalin the opportunity he sought to reinforce his power. He could now point not just to an external ‘imperialist’ enemy, but to an ‘enemy within’. ‘Titoism’ became the Kremlin’s excuse for establishing a tighter grip on the Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Between 1948 and 1953 all the parties were forced through a crash programme of Stalinisation – five-year plans, forced collectivisation, the development of heavy industry, together with tighter Party control over the army and the bureaucratisation of the Party itself. To maintain discipline the satellites were made to employ a vast technology of repression.

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‘Show trials’ were used were used to reinforce terror; “justice” became an instrument of state tyranny in order to procure both public obedience and the total subservience of the local party to Soviet control. The accused were forced, by torture and deprivation, to ‘confess’ to crimes against the state. Communist Party members who showed any sign of independence or ‘Titoism’ were ruthlessly purged. The most significant of these trials was that of László Rajk in Hungary. Rajk had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had spent three years in France before joining the resistance in Hungary. After the war, he became the most popular member of the Communist leadership. Although he had led the Communist liquidation of the Catholic Church, he was now himself about to become a victim of Stalinist repression. He was Rákosi’s great opponent and so had to be eliminated by him. Under the supervision of Soviet adviser General Fyodor Byelkin, confessions were concocted to do with a Western imperialist and pro-Tito plot within the Hungarian Communist Party. Rajk was put under immense pressure, including torture, being told he must sacrifice himself for the sake of the Party. János Kádár, an old party friend and godfather to Rajk’s son, told him that he must confess to being a Titoist spy and that he and his family would be able to start a new life in Russia. Rajk agreed, but on 24th September 1949, he and two other defendants were sentenced to death and executed a month later. In the picture below, Rajk is pictured on the left, appearing at his trial.

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The Rajk confession and trial became a model for show trials across Eastern Europe. But in Hungary itself, the trial and execution of Rajk, Szebeny and General Pálffy-Oesterreicher were to ‘fatally’ undermine the Rákosi régime. Rákosi and Gerő were typical of the Communists who had lived in exile in Moscow during the war. Compared with Rajk, and the later Premier Imre Nagy, they were never popular within the Party itself, never mind the wider population. Yet, with Stalin’s support, they were enabled to remain in power until 1953, and were even, briefly, restored to power by the Kremlin in 1955. A recent publication in translation of the memoirs of the Hungarian diplomat, Domokos Szent-Iványi, has revealed how, prior to his arrest and imprisonment in 1946, he had made plans to replace them with General Pálffi-Oesterreicher, the head of the dreaded military police, who had had him arrested and placed him in ‘a very small and very dirty hole of a dungeon’ under the police headquarters:

During our conversations I did my best to convince ‘Pálfi’ that the greatest evil to the Hungarian people, to the country, and even to the Communists and the Soviet Union consisted in the policy and machinations of Rákosi and of his gang, and seemingly I succeeded in my efforts in this respect. The execution of Rajk, Szebeny and Pálffy-Oesterreicher seemingly strengthened Rákosi’s position. This, however, was not so. The ruthless liquidation of old Communist Party members was one of the main acts which some years later led to Rákosi’s downfall.

The light-mindedness of Pálffy-Oesterreicher contributed to his own downfall and put my life in peril also. It happened once that Pálffi, sending one of his collaborators, … made the grave error of instructing this man to tell me that “the pact between Pálffi and Szent-Iványi is still effective”.    

In the course of the Rajk trial, my name and that of the “conspirators” were brought up by the prosecution, and Szebeny, Rajk’s Secretary of State, made a statement to the effect that the Rajk-Pálffi group sympathised with the so-called conspirators with whom they intended to co-operate “as soon as the Rákosi gang are out of power”. Rózsa, a young man (whom Pálffy had used as a go-between with Szent-Iványi in prison) … then reported this affair to Rákosi and the consequences as we know were very grave for all parties involved.

Right after the arrest of Rajk, Szebeny, Pálffy-Oesterreicher and many of their followers, I was locked up in a single cell in the so-called “Death Section” of Gyüjtő Prison where those prisoners were kept who were to be executed. … an old Communist Party member whispered to me in the silence … that I was there due to the Rajk case. Among the many indictments brought up against Rajk and Pálfi, their contacts with me and “the conspirators” had particular weight.

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Szent-Iványi argued that the reaction to the Rajk trial, among others, demonstrated that the Hungarian people were sharply opposed to any Soviet policy which was carried out by  Rákosi, Gérő and others in the pro-Moscow leadership. Yet, until Rajk’s rehabilitation in 1955 and especially his re-burial on 6th October, which amounted to the first open demonstration against the Rákosi régime, there was little that could effectively be done to bring it down, either from inside prison or on the outside. He later reflected on the reasons for this:

This was a most distressing time, dominated by man at his most vengeful, envious and cruel.

Revenge and hatred was harboured by all kinds, prisoners and guards alike. Ex-soldiers who had endured the cruelties and horrors of battles, hated those who had lived peacefully in their own homes. … Jewish guards and Jewish prisoners hated their Gentile neighbours for their past suffering. Ex-Arrow-Cross members (fascists) were hated by Communists and Jews. It is strange that the common criminals in general hated nobody; they wanted money and ultimately did not hate their victims … but I could believe that they themselves had some kind of sympathy for their victims, like Tyrrell in Richard III.

Hatred was born of emotions and passion, and emotions had too many times intruded into Hungarian political life also, leading the country and its people to tragedy.

During my detention and prison years I had time to think and ponder over the political blunders, emotions and in particular the passions, of bygone years. Szálasi (the ‘Arrow Cross’ Premier in 1944-45) and Rákosi can be considered as typical examples of authors of such blunders. Both men felt that they were not popular in the country and that they had just a small fraction of the population behind them. In consequence they needed support from abroad. Szalási found his support in Hitlerite Germany, and in consequence adopted Nazi political principles and methods. These include Anti-Semitism and a “foreign policy” against the Allied Powers. Rákosi got the necessary support in Stalin-Beria run Soviet Russia and based his interior policy on revenge and jealousy. His vanity could not tolerate differences of opinion, whether outside the Communist Party … or inside the Party … Wherever he found opposition to his policy or to his person he set out to liquidate real or imaginary opponents.

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Above: Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953). When he began to think of himself as Stalin’s successor, the other members of the Politburo were alarmed that he might attempt to seize power following Stalin’s death. He was arrested, tried in his absence, and shot some time before December 1953, when his death was announced.

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The lack of popular support for Rákosi and his dependence on Stalin and Beria was clearly demonstrated by the establishment of the first Imre Nagy government following Stalin’s death in 1953. Although Moscow then replaced the initial Nagy government by one headed by Gérő and Rákosi, the latter was finally ousted by them in July 1956. Although the subsequent Uprising was put down by the invasion of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Szent-Iványi was at pains to point out in his memoirs that the Soviet Union finally dropped the Stalinist leadership of Hungary and that the Kádár régime (János Kádár, left) which it installed was one which was able to win the confidence of both the Hungarian people and of the Soviet Union, bringing peace to the country and its inhabitants.

Szent-Iványi reflected on how the life of the prisoners he had witnessed and experienced under the Rákosi régime, including health conditions, food, and fresh air had steadily worsened until it was impacted by these events:

The fact that some of the prisoners were able to survive was down to two causes; firstly, the honest among the jailers, in the majority of Hungarian peasant stock, did their best to alleviate the sufferings of the prisoners as well as to improve upon the harsh and very often cruel conditions imposed by Rákosi’s régime upon political prisoners; secondly, the death of Stalin and the elimination of Beria in 1953 … The most important “innovation” was that after more than a full year or so, the daily walks for prisoners as prescribed by law were resumed. Under the more humane régime of Premier Imre Nagy further improvements took place. And two years later prisoners were released in increasing numbers. By 1956 … many of the political prisoners were already outside the prison walls or were preparing to be released.Without these two factors, few prisoners would have survived the prison system after ten or twelve years of endless suffering.

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Szent-Iványi was himself released in mid-September, five weeks before what he called ‘the October Revolution’. But, contrary to the claims of the pro-Rákosi faction’s claims, neither he nor the ex-political-prisoners played a major role in the events, which I have covered in great detail elsewhere. Even the hated ÁVO, the Secret Police, admitted that none of the “Conspirators” of 1946-48 had actively participated in the Revolution and that…

… the blame has remained firmly on the shoulders of the provocateurs, the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő gang which, of course, greatly contributed to the stability and success of the Kádár regime. … The dictatorship of Rákosi and his gang had no other support than the bayonets of the Red Army or rather the power of the Russian Communist Party and of the Red Army.

With real and imaginary political opponents exterminated, the next phase of Stalinisation in Czechoslovakia was a purge of the Communist Party itself. One out of every four Czechoslovak party members was removed. Stalin wanted to make an example of one highly placed ‘comrade’, Rudolf Slánsky, the general secretary of the Czech Communist Party, who was then leading a security purge within it. Stalin personally ordered Klement Gottwald, who had replaced Eduard Benes as President of the country, to arrest Slánsky. When Gottwald hesitated, Stalin sent General Alexei Beschastnov and two ‘assistants’ to Prague. Gottwald gave in. On 21 November 1951, Slánsky was arrested. In this case, there was a new ingredient in the Moscow mix: Slánsky and ten of the other high-ranking Czechoslovak party members arrested at that time were Jews.

The case against Slánsky was based on Stalin’s fear of an imagined Zionist, pro-Western conspiracy. Stalin appeared to believe that there was a conspiracy led by American Jewish capitalists and the Israeli government to dominate the world and to wage a new war against communism. This represented a complete turnaround by Stalin on Israel. The Soviet Union had supported the struggle of the Zionists against the Palestinian Arabs and had supplied them, through Czechoslovakia, with essential weapons in 1947 and 1948. The Soviet Union was the first state to recognise de jure the state of Israel, within minutes of its birth in May 1948. Two years later, perhaps fearful of Israel’s appeal to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, and suspicious of its close ties to the United States, Stalin became convinced that Israel was in the vanguard of an international Jewish conspiracy against him.

011Slánsky was, in fact, a loyal Stalinist. But he was forced to confess that, due to his bourgeois and Jewish origins, he had never been a true Communist and that he was now an American spy. Slánsky and his co-accused were told that their sacrifice was for the party’s good. Their confessions were written out in detail by Soviet advisers in Prague, and each of the accused was carefully rehearsed for his “performance” at the trial to come. They had time to learn their “confessions” by heart, for preparations took a year. In November 1952, the show trial began. One by one, Slánsky and the others confessed to the most absurd charges made against them by their former associates.

Public prosecutor Josef Urvalek read out the indictment, condemning the gang of traitors and criminals who had infiltrated the Communist Party on behalf of an evil pro-Zionist, Western conspiracy. It was now time, he said, for the people’s vengeance. The accused wondered how Urvalek could fein such conviction. The ‘defence’ lawyers admitted that the evidence against their clients confirmed their guilt. In his last statement, Slánsky said, “I deserve no other end to my criminal life but that proposed by the Public Prosecutor.” Others stated, “I realise that however harsh the penalty – and whatever it is, it will be just – I will never be able to make up for the damage I have caused”; “I beg the state tribunal to appreciate and condemn my treachery with the maximum severity and firmness.” Eleven were condemned to death; three were sentenced to life imprisonment. When the sentences were announced, the court was silent. No one could be proud of what had been done. A week later, Slánsky and the other ten were executed.

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Absolute rule demanded absolute obedience, but it helped if people loved their leader rather than feared him. In the Soviet Union, the cult of Stalin was omnipresent. In the picture on the left above, Stalin appears as the ‘Father of His People’ during the Great Patriotic War, and on the right, world Communist leaders gathered in the Bolshoi Theatre to celebrate Stalin’s seventieth birthday on 21st December 1949. Stalin treated the whole of Central/Eastern Europe as his domain, with the leaders of the Communist parties as his ‘vassals’, obliged to carry out his instructions without question. When he died on March 1953, the new spirit which emerged from the Kremlin caused nervousness among the various ‘mini-Stalins’ who held power, largely due to his support. In the Soviet zone of Germany, control was in the hands of Walter Ulbricht, a hard-line Stalinist of the old school who had spent most of the era of the Third Reich in Moscow. One of Stalin’s most loyal lieutenants, he had begun, in the summer of 1952, the accelerated construction of socialism in East Germany, aimed at building a strict command economy. A huge programme of farm collectivisation was started, along with a rush towards Soviet-style industrialisation, with great emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods. Stalin had intended to force the East German economy to complement that of the Soviet Union, to supply the USSR with iron and steel, of which it was in desperate need. Ulbricht allowed no opposition inside East Germany. His secret police, the ‘Stasi’, were everywhere, urging friends to inform on friends, workers on fellow-workers.

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Ulbricht was therefore uneasy with the changes taking place in Moscow. In May 1953, the collective leadership in the Kremlin summoned him to Moscow. For some time, the Kremlin had been considering a review of its German policy, supporting the idea of a re-unified but neutral Germany. The Soviets had no hope of controlling all of Germany, but a neutral Germany would at least prevent the western half, with its huge industrial base, from becoming a permanent part of the Western bloc. The Kremlin encouraged Ulbricht to follow a new course of liberalisation and to ease the pace of enforced industrialisation. But Ulbricht ignored the advice, and in June imposed new work quotas on industrial workers, demanding higher productivity without any increase in pay. Angry at their expectations being dashed, East German workers erupted in protests calling for a lifting of the new quotas. As their employer was the state, industrial protest over work norms soon became a political demand for free elections and a call for a general strike. The American radio station in West Berlin, RIAS, publicised the demands and reported that there would be major demonstrations the following day. On 17 June protests took place in East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, and all the major towns of East Germany.

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Over the next four days, more than 400,000 German workers took to the streets. Ulbricht and his unpopular government were terrified by this vast, spontaneous display of worker power. But the demonstrations lacked any central direction or coherent organisation. Beria called on the Soviet tank units stationed all over East Germany to confront the strikers, to prevent the Ulbricht régime from collapsing. He told the Soviet high command “not to spare bullets” in suppressing the rising, and forty workers were killed, more than four hundred wounded. When thousands of strike leaders were arrested, the demonstrations ended as suddenly as they had begun. Ulbricht had learned a lesson and in time acceded to many of the workers’ economic demands. There were also anti-government riots in Czechoslovakia, and strikes in Hungary and Romania. There was even a prisoners’ strike in Siberia.

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The Soviets saw behind these events a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine the Soviet Union and its allies, part of the “rollback” policy of the new Eisenhower administration, which had replaced the Truman Doctrine of 1947. The United States ‘suggested’ openly that it would now take the initiative in ‘rolling back’ communism wherever possible. The architect of this new, more ‘aggressive’ policy in support of ‘freedom’ movements in Eastern Europe was the new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who proclaimed a new era of liberty, not enslavement. He added that…

… the Eisenhower era begins as the Stalin era ends. … For ten years the world has been dominated by the malignant power of Stalin. Now Stalin is dead. He cannot bequeath to anyone his prestige. 

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The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had written to Eisenhower suggesting a meeting with Malenkov in case both of us together or separately be called to account if no attempt were made to turn over a new leaf. But for the moment Eisenhower had ruled out any direct meeting with the new Soviet leadership. In reality, it was never clear how this new policy could be put into practice, especially in Europe, without provoking a direct confrontation. On 16 April 1953, Eisenhower had made a speech in which he called on the Kremlin to demonstrate that it had broken with Stalin’s legacy by offering “concrete evidence” of a concern for peace. He had appeared to be holding out an olive branch, hoping the Kremlin would grab it. His ‘Chance for Peace’ speech had been widely reported in the Soviet Union and throughout Central/Eastern Europe, raising hopes of ‘a thaw’ in the Cold War.

Only two days later, however, Dulles spoke in much harsher terms, declaring we are not dancing to any Russian tune. A secret report for the National Security Council had also concluded that the Soviet interest in peace was illusory, but at the same time that any military confrontation would be long drawn out. But Radio Free Europe continued to promise American assistance for resistance to Soviet control in its broadcasts into the satellite countries. In doing so, it was promising more than the West was willing or able to deliver. In Hungary in 1956, these ‘mixed messages’ were to have tragic consequences.

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The power struggle in the Kremlin now reached a new intensity. Molotov continued to see the Cold War as an ideological conflict in which the capitalist system would ultimately destroy itself, and his diplomacy exploited the differences he perceived between the United States and its Western European allies. However, for Malenkov and Beria, the conflict was viewed in strictly practical terms.

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First of all, the Cold War was an arms race. Stalin had quickly realized how important it was to break the US atomic monopoly and in 1945 had put Beria in charge of the Soviet atom bomb project. In the summer of 1949, several years ahead of the West’s predictions, the first Soviet bomb had been successfully tested. After Stalin’s death, Beria took more direct control of the Soviet nuclear project, ordering scientists to race ahead with developing a hydrogen bomb to rival America’s thermonuclear weapons. If Soviet strength rested on ever more powerful nuclear weapons and he was in charge of developing them, Beria calculated, then he would control the mainsprings of Soviet power. But this sort of arrogance was no longer acceptable inside the Kremlin. Within days of the quelling of the rising in East Germany, Khrushchev became convinced that Beria was preparing to make a grab for absolute power. Malenkov denounced Beria at a meeting of the Presidium. Forever tainted from heading Stalin’s terror apparatus, Beria was arrested on trumped-up charges of being a Western agent. In what to many seemed a just reversal of fate, the man who had sent hundreds to their deaths was not even allowed to attend his own trial. He was found guilty and shot. His removal marked a huge shift in the power balance within the Kremlin, but he was the only Soviet leader at this juncture whose fate was settled by a bullet.

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During the next two years, Khrushchev simply out-manoeuvred his remaining rivals to become the new leader. In September 1954 he visited Beijing to repair the damage to Sino-Soviet relations resulting from the Korean War, agreeing to new trade terms that were far more beneficial to the Chinese than they had been under Stalin. In Europe, Khrushchev negotiated a farsighted agreement with Austria. Soviet troops, occupying part of the country since the end of the war, were withdrawn in return for an Austrian commitment to neutrality. In May 1955 a state treaty was signed in Vienna by the four occupying powers, and Austria remained neutral throughout the Cold War. In the same month, he also made a dramatic visit to Yugoslavia to try to “bury the hatchet” with Tito. However, he was not so pleased when, also in May, the Western Allies formally ended their occupation of West Germany, and the Federal Republic was admitted to NATO. The response of Moscow to this setback was the creation of the Warsaw Pact, a formal military alliance of all the ‘satellite’ states with the Soviet Union and each other. The Pact was really no more than a codification of the existing military dominance of the USSR over Central/Eastern Europe, but it did signify the completion of the division of Europe into two rival camps.

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The rejection of Stalinism and the widespread acceptance of the new process of reform culminated in the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow in February 1956. This was not merely a Soviet Russian affair, as delegates from throughout the Communist world, and from non-aligned movements involved in “liberation struggles” with colonial powers were invited to Moscow. In his set-piece speech, Khrushchev challenged the conventional Marxist/Leninist view that war between communism and capitalism was inevitable. Then, on the last day of the Congress, Khrushchev called all the Soviet delegates together in a closed session. For six hours, he denounced Stalin’s ‘reign of terror’ and its crimes, going back to the purges of the 1930s. The speech was never intended to remain secret; copies were immediately made available to party officials and to foreign Communist parties. News of the speech spread by word of mouth to millions of citizens within the Soviet bloc. Washington also acquired a copy of the text through the CIA and Mossad, Israeli intelligence. It was passed on to the press and appeared in Western newspapers in June 1956. The Eisenhower administration was convinced that genuine change was taking place in the Soviet Union; the Chinese, on the other hand, were deeply offended. In Eastern Europe, many Communist party leaders, gravely upset by the impact, were concerned for the continued stability of their authoritarian régimes.

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Two months after the Party Congress, the Kremlin dissolved the Cominform, the organisation that Stalin had created in 1947 to impose his orthodoxy over the satellites. Molotov was dismissed as foreign minister and banished to Mongolia as Soviet ambassador. A loyal supporter of Stalin throughout his career, Molotov had been firmly opposed to any reconciliation with Tito, but now the door was open again. Tito made a state visit to Moscow in June 1956, amidst much pomp. Nothing could have been more symbolic of the new Soviet attitude towards Eastern Europe. But how far would the Soviets be prepared to go in relaxing its influence there?  In both Poland and Hungary, now released from the yoke of Stalinist rule after almost a decade down at heel, people wanted more control than ever over their own individual lives and their national identities and destinies.

 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

Mark Almond, Jeremy Black, et.al. (2003), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books (Harper Collins Publishers).

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (eds.) (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

Posted June 3, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Austerity, Austria-Hungary, Baltic States, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Civilization, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, decolonisation, Empire, English Language, Europe, Factories, Family, First World War, France, Gentiles, Germany, Hungarian History, Hungary, Israel, Jews, Journalism, Marxism, Mediterranean, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Oxford, Palestine, Population, Poverty, Russia, Satire, Second World War, Serbia, terror, terrorism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two, Zionism

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Britain Seventy Years Ago, 1948-49: Race, Class and Culture.   1 comment

The Windrush Experience: Commonwealth Immigration.

During the Second World War, men from the Caribbean began to arrive in Britain, serving with the British Forces. There was a Jamaica Squadron and a Trinidad Squadron in the RAF and a West Indian Regiment in the British Army. Others came to work in factories, in the countryside and on radar stations. But once the war was over, most were sent straight home, leaving an estimated permanent non-white population of about thirty thousand. But almost unnoticed by the general public and passed in response to Canadian fears about the lack of free migration around the Empire, the 1948 British Nationality Act dramatically changed the scene. It declared that all subjects of the King had British nationality, reaffirming their right to free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects, without restrictions. This gave some eight hundred million people the right to enter and settle in the UK. At that time, this was uncontroversial, since it was generally assumed that the Caribbean and Asian subjects of the King would have neither the means nor the desire to travel to live in uncomfortable, crowded Britain. Travel remained expensive and slow, but, in any case, until the fifties, so few black or Asian people had settled in Britain that they were often treated as local celebrities and it was not even considered worthwhile trying to count their numbers. But as growing numbers of Caribbeans and South Asians began to take up their right to abode, most famously those who arrived aboard Empire Windrush (above & below), the British authorities became increasingly alarmed.

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Paradoxically, therefore, Commonwealth immigration became an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. The census of 1951 recorded 74,000 New Commonwealth immigrants. By the end of that decade, nearly half a million had moved to Britain, 405,000 of them from the ‘West Indies’. Immigration from the New Commonwealth was driven by a combination of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Partition of India and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan displaced large numbers, many of whom had close links with Britain through the colonial connection. In Britain, postwar reconstruction, declining birth rates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage Commonwealth workers, particularly from the West Indians, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Private companies also recruited labour in India and Pakistan for factories and foundries in Britain. As more Caribbeans and South Asians settled in Britain, patterns of chain migration developed, in which pioneer migrants aided friends and relatives to settle. Despite the influx of immigrants after the war, however, internal migration within Britain and Ireland continued to outpace immigration. The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens.

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There were other immigrant communities: There had been a substantial Jewish presence in London, Leeds and Manchester, making itself felt in retailing (Marks & Spencer), the food business and banking (Rothschild’s). In the five years before the war, since the advent of the Nazis to absolute power in Germany in 1934, some sixty thousand refugees had arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. As Germany’s Jews were hounded from office in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933, the Cabinet agreed to secure for this country prominent Jews who were being expelled from Germany and who had achieved distinction in science, medicine, music and art. No fewer than twenty of them later won Nobel prizes, fifty-four were elected Fellows of the Royal Society, and ten were knighted for their academic brilliance. Despite these contributions and the recent revelations of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still endemic in British society. In particular, there was a widespread assumption that ‘they’ somehow got the best of scarce or rationed goods.

Potentially more serious in this respect was the re-emergence, in February 1948, of the fascists on the streets of London. Sir Oswald Mosely, the leader of the pre-war British Union of Fascists, had re-emerged into political life, forming the new Union Movement. For some time his former henchmen had been holding open-air meetings in the East End market at Ridley Road, Dalston, where many of the stallholders were Jewish. Not surprisingly, the meetings were the scene of violent opposition as the old fascists appeared under their new name. When Mosely announced his intention to march from Ridley Road through Stamford Hill to Tottenham, thousands of ex-servicemen, Jew and Gentile, gathered in Kingsland High Road to prevent the provocation. East London mayors called upon the Home Secretary to ban the marches and on 22 March 1949, Chuter-Ede announced a ban on all political processions. An assurance was sought that trade union marches did not fall within the compass of the ban, but a week later the Home Secretary confirmed that the forthcoming London Trades Council march was included in the ban. For the first time since 1890, London trade unionists were deprived of their freedom to march on May Day, the ban being imposed by a Labour Home Secretary. The photograph below shows a section of the vast crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square to defy him and march with banners flying.

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The Irish were also a big group in British life in the late forties, following a century of steady immigration, the vast majority of it from the south. It continued through the war, despite restrictions, as Irish people moved to Britain to cover the labour shortages left by mobilization. Ireland’s neutrality made it very unpopular with the British, and prejudice against its citizens in Britain continued for a long time after the war. Yet this did not seem to affect immigration, which continued at a rate of up to sixty thousand per year. Although The Republic of Ireland Act, of June 1949, confirmed the ending of Eire’s dominium status, the Republic was not to be regarded as a foreign country. The British government took the view that the Irish were effectively internal migrants and therefore excluded them from any discussion about immigration. There was also a large Polish presence resulting from the war since many refugees decided to settle permanently in the UK. It would be wrong to portray British society in the late forties as relaxed about race. More widely, the trade unions were bitterly hostile to ‘outsiders’ coming in to take British jobs, whatever their nationality. Even the Labour government itself spoke with self-consciousness and a legacy of inter-war eugenics about the central importance of the British race in its public information campaigns.

Country and Class:

Patriotic pride cemented the sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and destiny. But to be British in the forties was to be profoundly divided from many of your fellow subjects by class. By most estimates, a good sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class; factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. They worked by hand and muscle and were paid weekly, in cash (cheque-books were a sign of affluence). Most of them would spend all their lives in their home town or village, though some had migrated from industrial Scotland, Wales, Lancashire and the North East of England to the English Midlands, London and the Home Counties in the thirties. The sharp sense of class distinction was identified with where you came from and how you spoke. The war had softened class differences a little and produced the first rumblings of the future social revolution of the sixties.

With skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war. The trade unions were powerful and self-confident, particularly when the new Labour government repealed the laws that had hampered them ever since the General Strike of 1926. In 1948, they achieved their highest ever level of support. More than forty-five per cent of people who could theoretically belong to one did so, and there were some 8.8 million union members. In other European countries, trades unions were fiercely political, communist or socialist. In Britain, they were not, and the Communist Party spent much of its energy building support inside the unions, and winning elections to key posts. In general, British trades unionism remained more narrowly focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. Yet, a new generation of shop stewards was taking control of many workplaces, sowing the seeds of the great trade union battles of the seventies.

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It wasn’t obvious at this time that the jobs in coal, steel and heavy manufacturing would be under threat by the seventies. The shipyards of the Clyde, Belfast and the Tyne were hard at work, the coalfields were at full stretch, London was still an industrial city, and the car-making and light engineering centres of the West and South Midlands were on the edge of a time of unprecedented prosperity. In 1945, only 16,938 cars had been manufactured in Britain; by 1950, the figure had reached a record 522,515. Alec Issigonis, an immigrant from Turkey, was the design genius of post-war British car-making. His first huge success was the 1948 Morris Minor (above), which was condemned by Lord Nuffield (William Morris) as that damned poached egg designed by that damned foreigner. But it supremely popular as an affordable family car. Gone was the split windscreen (see the older version below).

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Britain was also, still, a country of brick terraces. It was not until the next two decades that many of the traditional working-class areas of British cities would be replaced by high-rise flats or sprawling new council estates. The first generation of working-class children to get to university was now at school, larger and healthier than their parents, enjoying the free dental care and spectacles provided by the young National Health Service, which was founded and began operating in the summer of 1948 (see below). For the most part, however, working-class life in the late forties was remarkably similar to how it had been a decade or more earlier, and perhaps even more settled. Politicians assumed that most people would stay put and continue to do roughly the same sort of job as they had done before the war. Rent acts and planning directives were the tools of ministers who assumed that the future of industry would be like its past, only more so.

The class which did best was the middle class, a fast-growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown hugely and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State would require hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs, administering national insurance, teaching and running the health service. Studies of social mobility, such as the one carried out in 1949, suggested that while working-class sons generally followed their fathers into similar jobs, there was much more variation among middle-class children. Labour’s priority might have been to help the workers, but education reform was helping more middle-class children get a good grammar-school education. Fees for attending state schools were abolished and the school leaving age was raised to fifteen. A steadily growing number stayed at school until eighteen. Increasing numbers would make it to university too, an extra thirty thousand a year by 1950. The accents of Birmingham and Wales, the West Country and Liverpool began to challenge the earlier received pronunciation of perceived middle-class respectability. Churchill himself had told Harrow schoolboys that one effect of the war was to diminish class differences, that the advantages and privileges that had previously been enjoyed by the few would be far more widely shared by the many. Old distinctions were therefore softening, and the culture was slowly becoming more democratic.

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Yet there was still a long road ahead since the ruling class was still the ruling class. Despite the varied backgrounds of the 1945 Labour cabinet ministers, Britain in the late forties was still a society run mostly by cliques and groups of friends who had first met at public schools like Eton and Harrow, or at Oxbridge. A public school education remained the key for anyone hoping to make a career in the City, the Civil Service or the higher ranks of the Army. These schools might only educate some five per cent of the population, but they continued to provide the majority of the political leaders, including many of Labour’s post-war cabinets. Briefly, it had seemed that such schools would not even survive the war: boarding schools had been in enough of a financial crisis for some to face closure through bankruptcy. Churchill’s own Harrow was one, along with Marlborough and Lancing, but all managed to survive somehow. More generally, there was a belief that the public school system had contributed to the failure of political leadership in the thirties right up to the military defeats of the first half of 1940. But Churchill had fought off the demands from Butler and others in his war cabinet that all or most of them should be abolished. Attlee, devoted to his old school, had no appetite for abolition either. Grammar schools were seen as the way to get bright working-class or middle-class children into Oxbridge, and a few other universities, where they would compete with and thereby strengthen the ruling élites. One civil servant described the official view as being that ‘children’ could be divided into three kinds:

It was sort of Platonic. There were golden children, silver children and iron children.

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Under Clement Attlee, pictured above being driven by his wife Violet, Britain remained a country of private clubs and cliques, ancient or ancient-seeming privileges, rituals and hierarchies. In the workplace, there was something like the relationships of pre-war times, with employers’ associations assuming their old roles as ‘cartels’ though some, like Captain Black at the Standard Motor Co. in Coventry, were successful in breaking out of the wage-controls which the Engineering Employers’ Association attempted to set. Inside the newly nationalised industries, the same sort of ‘bosses’ continued to manage, and the same ‘them and us’ mentalities reasserted themselves remarkably easily. In the City, venerable, commanding merchant bankers would still be treated like little gods, younger bankers deferring utterly to their elders and ‘betters’. Lessons in speaking ‘the King’s English’ were given to aspiring actors and broadcasters; physicians in hospitals still swept into the wards, followed by trains of awed, frightened, junior doctors. At the Oxbridge colleges, formal dinners were compulsory, as was full academic dress, and the tenured professors hobbled around their quads as if little had changed since Edwardian days. All this was considered to be somehow the essence of Britain, or at least of England.

The King and Queen also ran what was in all essentials an Edwardian Court.  After the national trauma of the abdication crisis, George VI had established a reassuringly pedestrian image for the family which now called itself simply ‘the Windsors’. There had been cautious signs of royal modernisation, with Princess Elizabeth making patriotic radio broadcasts. On the other hand, the Royal Presentation of rich young debutantes to the monarch continued until 1958 when Queen Elizabeth put an end to it, prompted by Prince Philip, who with characteristically candid brevity, labelled it “bloody daft”. Initially, it was very unclear as to how the monarchy would fare in post-war Britain. The leading members of the family were popular, and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, but there were demands from many of their backbench MPs for a less expensive, slimmed-down contemporary monarchy, such as existed in Scandinavia.

Yet the Windsors had triumphed again in 1947, with the wedding of, as they were then, Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. For the ordinary British people, the wedding was a welcome but transient distraction from their daily struggle to feed and clothe their families. Because rationing affected the quantity of clothes you could have, but not their quality, it hit the poor harder. Government ‘make-do and mend’ campaigns about how to repair, reinforce or reshape old clothes, did nothing to improve the general public mood. For women, faced with an almost impossible struggle to replace laddered stockings or underwear, the wartime fashions felt unattractive – short skirts and masculine jackets, what was called ‘man-tailored’. If pregnant, they were encouraged to adapt their ordinary clothes. Yet the Hollywood films showed women immaculately dressed icons and the newspapers showed men the richest, flashiest Britons, like Anthony Eden and, of course, the King, both beautifully tailored. But they could not afford to look smart. Some men avoided drinks parties because they were ashamed of the state of their clothes and women avoided brightly lit restaurants when their stockings had gone, replaced by tea-stains and drawn-on seams. It was not until 1949 that clothes, boots and shoes were taken off ration.

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For most ordinary people, too, food rationing was the primary example of the dreary colourlessness of wartime life. It continued long after the guns had stopped. It was still biting hard at the end of the forties, meat was still rationed as late as 1954, and though the poor were better fed, most people felt hard done-by. Many doctors agreed. Shortly after the horrific winter of 1947 was over, the British Medical Press carried a detailed article by Dr Franklin Bicknell which argued that available foods were four hundred calories short of what women needed each day, and nine hundred short of what men required: In other words, everyone in England is suffering from prolonged chronic malnutrition. This was angrily disputed by Labour politicians, eager to point out the effect of all that free juice, cod liver oil and milk on Britain’s children. But the people were on the side of Dr Bicknell. The fact that the ‘good things’ were still in short supply had left the way open for the growth of a black market (complete with ‘spivs’) and therefore for the demand for a restoration of the free play of market forces and, at least, something like a free market in food.

Apart from Ellen Wilkinson’s tragic death in 1947, other ministers falling ill, and still others becoming disillusioned, the Labour leadership had also begun to fracture along ideological lines in 1948.  The economy had been doing rather better than in the dark year of 1947 and though still short of dollars, the generosity of the Marshall Plan aid in 1948 had removed the immediate sense of crisis. By 1949, it was estimated to have raised the country’s national income by ten per cent. Responding to the national mood of revolt over restrictions and shortages, Harold Wilson had announced a ‘bonfire of controls’ in 1948 and there seemed some chance that Labour ministers would follow the change in national mood and accept that the people wanted to spend, not only to queue. The restrictions on bread, potatoes and preserves were lifted first, but milk, tea, sugar, meat, bacon, butter, fats and soap remained on ration, the fresh meat allocation being a microscopic eight pennyworth a week. Sweets had been rationed since 1940 and were not taken off ration until April 1949 when the picture below was taken.

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‘Austerity’ was a word reiterated remorselessly by the anti-Labour press. If life was austere, however, it was better for the working-class majority than it had been in the years before the war and Britain’s industry was expanding. Full employment, never achieved until the Second World War, stimulated the private expectations and aspirations of large numbers of people who had been ‘deprived’ before 1939, though they themselves had not always recognised it. For those who preferred society to operate according to plan on the basis of one single aspiration, like winning the war or after the war achieving socialism, the new pluralism of motives and pressures and the growth of business agencies which could influence or canalise them were dangerous  features of the post-war world which contained as yet unfulfilled potential. One thing was clear: No one wished to return to the 1930s, and no one talked of returning ‘normalcy’ as they had done during the 1920s. That way back would have been deliberately closed even if it had proved possible to keep it open.

Culture and Society:

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Some of the most eloquent cultural moments in the life of post-war Britain had religious themes, like the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, with its tapestries by Graham Sutherland. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was written for the consecration of the new Cathedral building. This did not take place until 1962, but the story of the reconstruction began in the years after the war when a replica of the cross of nails made from the ruins (seen above in 1940) was given to Kiel in Germany as a sign of friendship and a symbol of reconciliation. A stone from the ruins of Kiel Cathedral was given to Coventry in return. This is the Kiel Stone of Forgiveness, now in the Chapel of Unity in the New Cathedral. Also in the late forties, a group of young Germans arrived in Coventry and helped to clear the rubble from one corner of the ruined cathedral. It became the Centre for International Understanding, where young people from all nationalities met through the work of the Community of the Cross of Nails. Through this work, Coventry soon became twinned with fifty-three cities and towns throughout the world. Post-war Britain’s major poet, the American-born T. S. Eliot, was an outspoken adherent of the Church of England. His last major work of poetry, The Four Quartets, is suffused with English religious atmosphere, while his verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral addressed an iconic moment in English ecclesiastical history. In 1948, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It could fairly be said that during these years there existed an Anglican sensibility, a particularly English, sometimes grave, sometimes playful, Christianity, with its own art and thought. It was, in the main, a limited and élite movement, but it did sometimes connect with wider currents in British Society.

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In the Britain of the late forties, the continuing influence of the established church was in evidence in the way that divorce still carried a strong stigma, across classes and reaching to the highest. Divorced men and women were not welcome at court. Homosexuality was still illegal and vigorously prosecuted. People clung to their traditional values since the war had shaken everyone’s sense of security, not just those who had served in it, but the bombed, evacuated and bereaved as well. The beginning of the Cold War underlined that underlying sense of the fragility of life. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that there was a profound turn towards the morality of hearth and home and a yearning for order, predictability and respectability, in the street and neighbourhood, if not in the wider world. There was certainly a demand for political reform, but the British people were still, fundamentally, socially conservative.

In the summer of 1948, the Labour Government tried to cheer up ‘Austerity Britain’ by staging the Olympic Games in London. The games were a triumph in a war-scarred, rubble-strewn city, during which the athletes were put up in old army camps, colleges and hospitals. The Union Jack was missing for the opening parade, but cost overruns were trivial and security was barely an issue. The games involved nearly five thousand competitors from fifty-nine countries. Though the medal count for the British competitors was very meagre, holding the games was a genuine sign that Britain was back. For all its fragility and frugality, this was still a country that could organise itself effectively. Football was back too. By the 1948/49 season, the third since the resumption of top-flight football after the second world war, there were more than forty million attendances at matches. There was a general assumption that British football was the finest there was, something seemingly confirmed the previous May when a Great Britain team had played against a team grandly if inaccurately described as The Rest of the World (it comprised Danes, Swedes, a Frenchman, Italian, Swiss, Czech, Belgian, Dutchman and Irishman), thrashing them 6-1. That illusion was soon to be dispelled in the early fifties, with the emergence of the ‘golden team’ of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ among others.

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But at a club level, this was a golden age of football. The stands were open and smelly, the crowds were unprotected, there were no floodlights and the greatest stars of the post-war era were still to emerge. But football was relatively uncorrupt and was still, essentially, about local teams supported by local people. On the pitch, play was ‘clean’ and honest: Stanley Matthews, the son of a barber from Stoke, already a pre-war legend who went on to play in the cup final of 1953, aged thirty-eight and whom I saw play in a charity match in the early seventies, only a couple of years after his retirement from top-flight football, was never cautioned throughout his long career. In June 1948 Stan Cullis, who in contrast to Matthews, had retired as a player in 1947 at the tender age of 31, became the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, literally the ‘old gold’ team of the then first division, according to the colour of their shirts. Cullis was a tough, uncompromising and inspirational manager who steered ‘Wolves’ through the most successful decade in their history. In 1947/48 Wolves ended the season fifth, and a year later were sixth, also winning the FA Cup, beating Leicester City in the final at Wembley. Two of the ‘legends’ of this period are shown in the pictures above and below, the little ‘winger’, Johnny Hancocks and captain Billy Wright, who also captained England.

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Another great footballer of the late forties was Arsenal’s Denis Compton, who was still more famous for his cricket, which again became hugely popular after the interruption caused by the war. Some three million people had watched the ‘Test matches’ against South Africa in 1947 and Compton’s performance then and in the following seasons produced a rush of English pride. The cricket-writer  Neville Cardus found in Compton the image of sanity and health after the war: There was no rationing in an innings by Compton. In cricket, as in football, many of the players were the stars of pre-war days who had served as Physical Training instructors or otherwise kept their hand in during hostilities; but with the Yorkshire batsman Len Hutton also back in legendary form at the Oval Test, cricket achieved a level of national symbolism that it has never reached since. As with football, the stars of post-war cricket could not expect to become rich on the proceeds, but they could become national heroes. Hutton went on to become England’s first professional cricket captain in 1952; Compton first came int decent money as the face of Brylcreem adverts. The new rules of the Football League meant that players could earn up to twelve pounds per week.

The Welfare State Established:

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In summer of 1948, on 5th July, the National Health Service, the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (pictured below), opened its doors for business. There was a flood of people into the surgeries, hospitals and chemists. The service was funded directly from taxation, not from the new National Insurance Scheme which also came into being that year. That too was a fantastic feat of organisation, providing for a comprehensive system of social security, family allowances, and compensation for injury at work. A new office to hold twenty-five million contribution records plus six million for married women was needed. It had to be huge and was built in Newcastle by prisoners of war; at the same time, a propeller factory was taken over to run family allowances. The work of six old government departments was brought into a new ministry. Jim Griffiths, the Labour minister pushing it all through wanted a thousand local National Insurance offices ready around the country, and after being told a hundred times that all this was quite impossible, he got them. The level of help was rather less than Beveridge himself had wanted, and married women were still treated as dependents; there was much to be argued for over the next sixty years. Nevertheless, the speed and energy with which this large-scale task was accomplished represented a revolution in welfare, sweeping away four centuries of complicated, partial and unfair rules and customs in just six years.

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The creation of the National Health Service, which Beveridge thought essential to his wider vision, was a more confrontational task. Britain had had a system of voluntary hospitals and clinics before the war, which varied wildly in size, efficiency and cleanliness. Also, a number of municipal hospitals had grown out of the original workhouses in the late twenties and thirties. Some of these, in progressive cities like Birmingham and Nottingham, as well as in London, were efficient, modern places whose beds were usually kept for the poor. Others were squalid. Money for the voluntary hospitals came from gifts, charitable events, direct payments and a hotchpotch of insurance schemes. By the time the war ended, the majority of Britain’s hospitals had been brought under a single national emergency service. The question was, what should happen next?  Should they be nationalised or allowed to return to local control? A similar question hung over family doctors. ‘GPs’ depended on private fees, though most of them also took poor patients through some form of insurance scheme. When not working from home or a surgery, they would often double up operating in municipal hospitals where, as non-specialists, they sometimes hacked away incompetently. But the voluntary insurance schemes excluded many elderly people, housewives and children, who therefore put off visiting the doctor at all unless they were in great pain or grave danger. The situation with dental care and optical services was similar; they were not available to those without the means to pay for them.

Labour was, therefore, determined to provide the first system of medical care, free at the point of need, there had been in any Western democracy. Although comprehensive systems of health care existed elsewhere, most notably in Germany, these were funded by national insurance, rather than through direct taxation. ‘Nye’ Bevan’s simple idea and his single biggest decision were to take all the hospitals, voluntary and municipal, into a single nationalised system. It would have regional boards, but would all come under the Ministry of Health in London. This was an act of heroic self-confidence on his part. For the first time, a single politician would take responsibility for every hospital in Britain, with the exception of a few private ones. Herbert Morrison, a municipal socialist, was against this centralisation of power but was brushed aside by Bevan.

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A far more significant threat to Bevan’s ‘project’ was posed by the doctors themselves. Their opposition meant that the implementation of his simple idea was a far more complicated process than ever Bevan himself could have anticipated. The doctors, led by the Conservative-leaning British Medical Association (BMA), had it in their power to stop the NHS dead in its tracks by simply refusing to work for it. They were genuinely concerned about their status in the new service; would they be mere state functionaries? They were also suspicious of Bevan, and not without good reason, as he effectively wanted to nationalise them, making them state employees, paid directly out of public funds, with no private fees allowed. This would mean a war with the very men and women trusted by millions to cure and care for them. Bevan, a principled but pragmatic socialist, was also a skilful diplomat. He began by wooing the senior consultants in the hospitals. The physicians and surgeons were promised they could keep their lucrative pay beds and private practices. Bevan later admitted that he had stuffed their mouths with gold. Next he retreated on the payment of fifty thousand GPs, promising them that they could continue to be paid on the basis of how many patients they treated, rather than getting a flat salary. This wasn’t enough, however, for when polled only ten per cent of doctors said that they were prepared to work for the new NHS. As July approached, there was a tense political stand-off. Bevan continued to offer concessions, while at the same time fiercely criticising the doctors’ leaders, labelling them a small body of politically poisoned people who were sabotaging the will of the people, as expressed through Parliament. In the end, Bevan was backed by a parliamentary majority and, after more concessions and threats, they gave way. Yet it had been a long, nasty, divisive battle between a conservative professional élite and their new socialist ‘masters’.

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Almost immediately, there were complaints about the cost and extravagance, and about the way the provision of materials not previously available produced surges in demand which had not previously existed. There was much anecdotal evidence of waste and misuse. The new bureaucracy was cumbersome. It is also possible to overstate the change since most people had had access to some kind of some kind of affordable health care before the NHS came into being. However, such provision was patchy and excluded many married working-class women in particular. The most important thing it did was to take away fear. Before it, millions at the ‘bottom of the pile’ had suffered untreated hernias, cancers, toothache, ulcers and all kinds of illness, rather than face the anxiety and humiliation of being unable to afford treatment. That’s why there are many moving accounts of the queues of unwell, impoverished people surging forward for treatment in the early days of the NHS, arriving in hospitals and doctors’ waiting rooms for the first time not as beggars but as citizens and taxpayers. As Andrew Marr has commented,

If there was one single domestic good that the British took from the sacrifices of the war, it was a health service free at the point of use. We have clung to it tenaciously ever since and no mainstream party has dared to suggest taking it away.

Nationalisation: Political Idealism and Economic Reality.

The same could not be said of some of Labour’s other nationalisation ‘projects’. The first, that of the Bank of England, sounded dramatic, but it had no real impact. Exactly the same men stayed in power, following the same monetary policies. I have dealt with the nationalisation of the coal industry and the establishment of the NCB on 1 January 1947 in a previous article. In the case of the gas and electricity, these utilities were already part-owned by local authorities, so their nationalisation caused little controversy. Labour had talked about nationalising the railway system from 1908, almost as soon as it became a political party in the wake of the Taff Vale case. The railway system had, in any case, been rationalised in the inter-war period, with the creation of four major companies – London & North-Eastern; Great Western Railway; Southern Railways; London, Midland & Scotland. Periodic grants of public money had been needed for years for years to help the struggling companies out, and the government had taken direct control of the railways at the beginning of the war. The post-war train system was more powerful than the pre-motorway road network, but it was now in dreadful condition and because of the economic crisis and shortage of steel, it would be starved of new investment. Nationalisation without investment was no solution to any of these basic problems. The only people who did well out of it were the original shareholders of the railway companies who were, to their surprise, well compensated. In other forms of transport, road haulage and airlines were also nationalised, as were cable and wireless companies.

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By the time the last big struggle to nationalise an industry was underway, the steel debates of 1948-9, the public attitude towards nationalisation was already turning. The iron and steel industry differed from the coal industry and the railways in that it was potentially highly profitable and had good labour relations. The Labour Government had worked itself up, proclaiming that the battle for steel is the supreme test of political democracy – a test which the whole world will be watching. Yet the cabinet agonised and went ahead only because of a feeling that, otherwise, they would be accused of losing their nerve. In the debates in the Commons, Labour backbenchers rebelled. The steel owners were organised and vigorous, the Tories were regaining their spirits and Labour were, therefore, having a torrid time. Cripps told the Commons: If we cannot get nationalisation of steel by legal means, we must resort to violent methods. They did get it, but the industry was little shaken. It needed new investment almost as much as the coal mines and the railways – new mills, coke ovens, new furnaces. Again, nationalisation did not deliver this.

However hard the Tories tried, they failed to make Clement Attlee look like a British Stalin. The Labour Government was, in any case, at pains to make its collectivist programme look patriotically legitimate. After all, taking twenty per cent of the economy into public ownership was called ‘nationalisation’, and the proposed new public enterprises were likewise to be given patriotic corporate identities: British Steel, the British Overseas Airways Corporation, British Railways. The effort was to recast the meaning of being British as a member of a community of shared ownership, shared obligations and shared benefits: Co-op Britain. And because the Labour Party had such huge majorities in Wales, Scotland and the most socially damaged areas of industrial England, it would, at last, be a Britain in which rich southern England did not lord it over the poor-relation regions. It would be one whole Britain, not a nation divided into two, as it had been in the thirties. George Orwell, who wrote 1984 in 1948, had vividly described the divided Britain of that decade, and he now had great hopes that if the British people…

… can keep their feet, they can give the example that millions of human beings are waiting for. … By the end of another decade it will finally be clear whether England is to survive … as a great nation or not. And if the answer is to be ‘Yes’, it is the common people who must make it so.

Taking up Orwell’s theme, Asa Briggs has suggested that the forties need to be treated as one period of The People’s War and Peace. Britain had emerged from the War changed but not destroyed and this time, in Orwell’s terms, the right family members would be in control. From the very beginning, the Labour Government was not insulated from the perennial headaches and imperatives of twentieth-century British government – monetary viability, industrial over-capacity and, especially, imperial or post-imperial global defence. The only option it had, apart from shouldering those familiar burdens and getting on with building the New Jerusalem as best they could, was to plunge into a much more far-reaching programme of collectivisation, Keynesian deficit financing, disarmament and global contraction. But that was never actually on the cards because the Labour ministers were not cold-blooded social revolutionaries committed to wiping the slate clean and starting again. The ‘slate’ was Britain; its memories, traditions, institutions, not least the monarchy. Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison were emotionally and intellectually committed to preserving it, not effacing it. They were loyal supporters of what Orwell called The Lion and the Unicorn (1941). Perhaps appropriately, Orwell died, still young, as ‘his’ decade came to an end, in January 1950, after he had warned of the danger of a dystopian Britain elevating collectivism over individual liberty.

The decision to keep an independent nuclear deterrent, and to sustain the projection of British power in Asia (through Hong Kong) and even more significantly in the Middle East, came at a huge price: $3.5 billion, to add to the estimated cost of the war, $10.5 billion. In 1948, defence spending had risen to seven per cent of GDP, and four years later to 10.5 per cent, incomparably higher than for any other European state. American help was desperately needed, so Bevin’s goal of keeping Britain independent in its foreign policy of the United States actually had the effect of deepening its long-term economic dependence. But the capital infusion, according to Cripps and others, would jump-start the economy as well as pay for investment in new infrastructure, after which surging economic growth would take care of the debt burden. The most idealistic assumption of all was that public ownership of key industries, the replacement of the private profit incentive by a cooperative enterprise, would somehow lead to greater productivity.  There were periods in 1948 when, in expert-led mini-surges, it looked as though those projections were not as unrealistic a diagnosis as they were to prove in the long-term. Britain was benefitting from the same kind of immediate post-war demand that it had experienced in 1918-19; the eventual reckoning with the realities of shrinking exports, as thirty years before, was merely postponed.

Labour was always divided between ideological socialists and more pragmatic people, but there was no real necessity for the party to have a row with itself towards the end of its first majority government, having successfully negotiated so many rapids. The problem was a familiar one. As the bill for maintaining pseudo-great power status and welfare state benevolence mounted, so did doubts and misgivings about the premises on which it had been thought the armed New Jerusalem could be funded. The government’s foreign policy initiatives had encountered serious difficulties. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin negotiated Marshall Aid for Britain from the USA in 1949, and in the same year helped organise the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But the price of such security and the maintenance of a place at the top table of international politics was high. American B-29 bombers stationed in East Anglia from 1948, were set to acquire nuclear capacity in 1950. As a result, the government had to accept inflated defence estimates, which also included increased costs for conventional tanks and planes. Should money be concentrated first on Britain’s overseas commitments, especially her large armies in the Middle East and facing the Russians across the German border; or on protecting the social advances at home?

Britain could not afford to be a great power in the old way, but neither could she afford to spend the Marshall Plan aid windfall mainly on better welfare, while other countries were using it to rebuild their industrial power. In the end, the government had to accept the need for cuts in welfare spending, leading to the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, who was determined to protect his ground-breaking achievement, the NHS, and Harold Wilson. The revised estimates helped to fuel a balance of payments crisis since the nationalisation programme had failed to provide the increased productivity the government had hoped for. Stafford Cripps, who had only a year earlier had been the most ardent ‘collectivist’ in the cabinet became, in 1949, an equally determined advocate of the mixed economy. He was forced to retire from the cabinet and the House in 1950 to replaced as Chancellor by Hugh Gaitskell. The socialist idealism of 1945-8 was put on hold, and Labour never returned to it, replacing it with ‘Gaitskillism’. With the benefit of hindsight, the post-war Labour years were a time almost cut off from what followed from 1950 onwards. So much of the country’s energy had been sapped by war; what was left focused on the struggle for survival. With Britain industrially clapped-out mortgaged to the hilt to the USA and increasingly bitter about the lack of a post-war ‘ dividend’, it was perhaps not the best time to start building The New Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed; the direction of factories to the depressed areas produced little long-term benefit; companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets. In addition, inflation, which would become a major part of the post-war story, appeared, at three per cent in 1949-50.

Conclusion: A ‘Peaceful Revolution‘?

Between 1945 and 1949 the Labour Government undertook a programme of massive reform. It has been called ‘the quiet’ or ‘the peaceful revolution’. Just how far this is an accurate description and a valid judgement is debatable. It was certainly peaceful, but far from ‘quiet’. Jim Griffiths, Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps all had to use coercive methods at times against active and organised resistance both in Parliament and outside. Whether the reforms were revolutionary or evolutionary is an issue which needs careful consideration. The debate was not about whether a Welfare State was needed, it was about the means by which it would be achieved. The issues of individualism versus collectivism, central control versus local control, competition versus cooperation, and reality and illusion can all be identified.

The degree of success which historians ascribe to these reforms depends on what he sees as ‘the Welfare State’. As Bédarida (1979) argued, there are at least three possible definitions for this enigmatic concept. The ‘official’ definition, as it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1955, was a polity so organised that every member of the community is assured of his due maintenance with the most advantageous conditions possible for all. As a historical interpretation, he refers to five points enunciated by Bruce in The Coming of the Welfare State which referred to the aims and objectives of a welfare state. He rejects this as a narrow, rather technical definition … amounting to little more than the enlargement of the social services. He argues that the phrase must be allowed to take on a wider sense, as a symbol for the structure of post-war Britain, a society with a mixed economy and full employment, …

… where individualism is tempered by State intervention, where the right to work and a basic standard of living are guaranteed, and the working-class movement, now accepted and recognised, finds its rightful place in the nation.

By its own admission Labour’s ‘revolution’ must be seen in the perspective of ‘evolution’. The key word (or phrase) is ‘social justice’. Without in the least denying the collectivist principles inscribed on Labour’s tablets, the revolution found its main inspiration in two Liberals: first Beveridge, then Keynes. These were the two masterminds whose ideas guided Labour’s actions. …

In seeking to determine the significance of the Welfare State one must bear three points in mind. Firstly, to use the word ‘revolution’  is to devalue its meaning. … In the second place, the arrival of the Welfare State was situated in the mainstream  of the history of democratic freedom, linking the pioneers of the London Corresponding Society with the militants of the Independent Labour Party, the Benthamites, with the Fabians, the Nonconformist conscience with Christian Socialism. … Finally, if the Welfare State was the grandchild of Beveridge and Keynes, it was no less the child of Fabians, since it concentrated on legislative, administrative and centralising methods to the detriment of ‘workers’ control’. But in thus stamping on any frail aspiration towards a libertarian organisation of society, Labour laid itself open to a charge that would weigh heavily on it in the future, namely, namely that of wanting to impose a bureaucratic form of socialism. …

The ‘Welfare State’ was not just a Labour ‘project’ or ‘programme’. Apart from its Liberal ‘grandfathers’, even Tory supporters were behind this desire for change and reform. It is significant that the inventor of the term was that pillar of the Establishment (and yet advocate of Christian Socialism), the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. No one would doubt that the achievements of the Labour Government of 1945-50 were considerable. They undertook the massive task of social reconstruction and social transformation with vigour and attempted to establish a new social order. Yet their success in this area must be viewed against their economic failures, not to mention their foreign policy. The creation of the Welfare State did not, really, involve a transformation of society. It was, to a considerable degree, a substitute for it.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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

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

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against the World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1870-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Asa Briggs et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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

 

Posted May 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Affluence, Anglican Reformation, anti-Semitism, Austerity, Birmingham, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Egalitarianism, Empire, Eugenics, Europe, Factories, Family, Germany, homosexuality, Immigration, India, Integration, Ireland, Jerusalem, Jews, Literature, Marriage, Middle East, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Monarchy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Normalcy, Population, Poverty, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Second World War, Trade Unionism, Unemployment, Welfare State, West Midlands, World War Two

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Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Two, 1948-53; Descent into Dictatorship.   Leave a comment

1948-49: The Turning Point

In February 1992, Tom Leimdorfer, my former colleague at the Society of Friends (Quakers), was running a week’s residential course for teachers and teacher trainers in Szolnok in eastern Hungary, in the middle of the great plain (Alföld). After the first session, a Physical Education lecturer from a teacher training college called Katalin asked him if by any chance he was the same Leimdörfer Tamás who once attended the Veres Pálné experimental primary school in 1948-49. She remembered being amongst his group little lady friends!

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Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948

Tom in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background

Class teacher Sára Németh

As that academic year got underway, Hungary was effectively becoming a one-party state. It was, and is still often assumed in the west that the communist era in Hungary started at the end of the war. This is far from the case. The Soviet Red Army drove out the previous occupying German troops and the fascist arrow-cross regime of Szálasi was thankfully brought to an end in April 1945. Democracy was restored with free elections, and in fact a more genuinely democratic government came to power than Hungary had known for decades. However, within a year the pressures from Stalin’s Soviet Union ensured that Hungary would be firmly within its economic sphere and the government had few choices. By 1947 the right of centre prime minister from the Smallholders’ party was ousted. The most dramatic political change came early in 1948. The election gave the Communist Party 22.3% of the vote, but their strategy of salami slicing the ‘opposition’ parties came to a successful conclusion with the absorption of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party into the Communist Party. Those who opposed the move had either been exiled, or, like Anna Kéthly, together with tens of thousands of ordinary members, were expelled. On 12 June 1948 the first congress of the now 1.1 million-strong Hungarian Workers’ Party had begun. Rákósi became General Secretary, with another former Muscovite exile, Mihály Farkas, the left-wing Social Democrat György Marosán and János Kádár serving as his deputies. In its programme, the Party committed itself to Marxist-Leninism, to the building of socialism through the ‘struggle’ against ‘reactionaries’, friendship and co-operation with the Soviet Union and the other people’s democracies, combined with a domestic policy of further nationalisation and comprehensive economic planning. The year 1948 soon became known as the year of the turning point. By this time, as László Kontler has written,

… major battles had been won by the Communists in the war for minds, that is, the struggle for dominance over the network of education and cultural life in general, by transforming their structure and content. As in the political and economic spheres, here, too, the destruction caused by the war, the desire to create something out of nothing and the vacuum which could be penetrated, favoured the most tightly organised force on the scene. The damage caused in school buildings, in educational and research equipment, library holdings and public collections by the warfare or by German and Soviet pillage was matched by the number of casualties of war among teachers and intellectuals, especially writers, who fell victim… by the dozens.

Those who resisted either fled the country or were arrested. By the end of the year other political parties had been banned and wholesale nationalisation was in full swing. Yet the Communists were careful to maintain a the post-war ‘coalition’ of an education system based on liberal democratic and national values without imposing Marxist-Leninist ones. The first National Council for Public Education, created in April 1945 and chaired by Albert Szent-György, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, included such diverse members as the composer Zoltán Kodály. Its main initiative was the transition to the eight-year elementary system which Tom Leimdorfer was now entering, originally proposed in 1940 which, besides skills in literacy and arithmetic, also made the acquisition of fundamental knowledge in the social and natural sciences possible. In the new curriculum, the conservative nationalist traditions were being replaced by more progressive ones. The transition to the new system was completed by the end of the 1940s, despite 70% of teachers not having the qualification to teach special subjects in the upper elementary section. At higher levels of education, the opening of the gates to free university places resulted in a doubling of students, though at the cost of a decline in overall standards. Nevertheless, this and other measures meant that several thousand young people from more humble origins were able to gain access to higher education.

However, the debates over aesthetic and ideological issues related to literature and culture, invariably initiated by the Marxist circle of Lukács, gradually metamorphosed into a witch-hunt against the apolitical or decadent representatives of the western-oriented populist writers. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences was also denounced by Lukács at the party congress in 1946 as a stronghold of reaction, and the removal and destruction of several thousand volumes of fascist, anti-Soviet and chauvinist literature from its library by the political police a few months later bode ill for the future. As in politics, 1948 became the year of the turning point in the cultural status quo, when the winding up of the non-communist press started and the Communists scored their most important success in their Kulturkampf against its most formidable rival, the Catholic Church, with the establishment of state control over ecclesiastical schools. The introduction of the eight-year elementary school system and the nationalisation of textbook publishing had already incited violent protests, especially among the organised clergy. Pastoral letters, sermons and demonstrations denouncing the proposed nationalisation of schools were all in vain: parliament enacted the measure on June 16. About 6,500 schools were involved, about half of them being Catholic-controlled.

Dark years again, 1949-53:

The New Year of 1949 saw the establishment of one party dictatorship under Party Secretary Mátyás Rákosi, whose salami tactics had got rid of all opposition and whose establishment of the feared secret police (ÁVH, commonly referred to as the Ávó) heralded an era of full-blown Stalinist repression. It lasted just over four years, but was all-pervasive. The first victims were some of Rákosi’s former political allies and hence rivals. The most prominent was Foreign Minister László Rajk who was accused of siding with Tito, who had led his  communist Yugoslavia out of the Soviet Block towards neutrality. The perceived threat posed to Soviet hegemony led Rákosi to opt for an astonishment effect to convince people of the need for an ‘iron fist’. The fact that Rajk had worked in the western communist movement before the war lent some plausibility to the fantastic allegations that he was an imperialist agent collaborating with the excommunicated Yugoslavs. Convinced by Kádár that the class enemy must be intimidated and that he therefore needed to accept his role as a ‘scapegoat’, though he would ultimately be spared, Rajk signed the expected confession. The charges against him were made public in June 1949. In October he was executed together with two of his associates paid with their lives for just keeping lines of communication open with Tito. Many others accused in the case were also put to death, jailed or interned later on, in the party terror which lasted until 1953. The proclamation of innocence, exhumation and ceremonial reburial of László Rajk in 1956 was one of the key events leading up to the Revolution. A new constitution, modelled on the Soviet one of 1936, made Hungary a People’s Republic. The role of the state organs at all levels was confined to practical management of issues, while strategic policy and control remained in the hands of the party élite.

Tom’s second school year started in September 1949  in a school nearer home, Bocskai primary school (named after one of the Transylvanian princes who successfully resisted both Habsburg and full Turkish rule). Although it was only 15 minutes walk from home, there were several roads to cross, so in some ways it was a more hazardous journey. It was a dull building, which would have been recognised as a suburban primary anywhere and it had a small dusty playground. Tom was a stranger in a year two class of all boys who were all pleased to see their friends and ignored me. Then, on the second day, a boy with a nice smile and very big ears started to talk to him. They soon discovered that they both only had Mums, but Dani was the middle one of three brothers, while Tom was an only child. They both listened to classical music and Dani had recently started to play the violin, while Tom was in his second year of making very slow progress on the piano. They had both recently learnt to play chess and were both keen on football. Within days they were firm friends, a friendship which was to last a lifetime in spite of distance. Dani’s mother (‘Gitta’) wasted no time in inviting him and his mother to her flat. He remembers that…

She was one of the kindest, most patient and loving people I ever met. She had lost her husband in the final days of the siege of Budapest. Gitta and my mother Edit, having met through their sons, became the closest of friends. Living close to each other, Dani and I were in and out of each other’s homes, played football in the street outside our house (which was safe, unlike the main road outside their large block of flats).  To a large extent our friendship must have been rather exclusive as I have no memory of any of my other classmates till we moved to the middle school in year five and became part of a wider group or little gang of 10/11 year olds.

The school day in Hungary started at eight in the morning and finished before one. They took sandwiches for break time (elevenses). Outdoor playtime during break was carefully structured with organised games or walking quietly in pairs. Tom’s class had the same teacher throughout the three years he was at the Bocskai school. She was an efficient and motherly woman. It was the ‘dark years’ of 1949-52, but school was a quiet haven, if rather dull. At the beginning of each year, they all had to buy the grey textbooks stacked in piles for each year and each subject in the bookshop. These were standard texts for all schools and only cost a few forints. Each year they contained more and more propaganda mixed in with what would be recognised as standard subject matter, especially in history.

By 1954, the number of secondary school pupils was 130,000, nearly double that of the highest pre-war figures, and three times as many students (33,000) went to universities, including several newly established ones. The proportion of young people attending from peasant and working-class origins, formerly barred from higher education, rose to over fifty per cent. The inculcation of Marxism-Leninism through the school system was emphasised at all levels within the new curricula. To satisfy this requirement, the whole gamut of text-books was changed, as Tom mentions above, new ones being commissioned and completed under careful supervision by the relevant party organs. Teaching of foreign languages was confined to Russian which became compulsory from the fifth year of elementary school in spite of the lack of qualified teachers.

For Tom, there was some homework even in the early years of elementary school, but afternoons were mainly free for play. When not playing with Dani, Tom spent much of his time with his grandmother, ‘Sári mama’:

We read books together, played endless board games (including chess and draughts), listened to music on the radio and talked about different performers, went for walks in good weather. Sometimes my cousin Éva came over too and we would play together. Occasionally, Sári mama sang songs from Lehár and Kálmán operettas, read me poems translated from world literature and told me stories of plays. From time to time (with the odd tear in her eye), she talked about my father when he was young, telling me which poems and what music he liked. School gave the basic numeracy and literacy skills, but my education during those year came mainly from my grandmother. With Mami working all day and often tired and stressed in the evening, ‘quality time’ with her had to wait till the weekend.

Among the most immediate and direct effects of the events of 1949-52 on Tom’s family was the loss of property, and for the second time within a few years. Tom’s grandfather’s timber yard had been confiscated under the Jewish Laws during the war. He had re-built the business from scratch as soon as the war was over. However, in 1948, he could see the signs ahead. The nationalisation of the large banks and the companies controlled by them, which was the ultimate test of the Smallholder Party, had been enacted on 29 September 1947. The bauxite and aluminium followed two months later. Then, on 25 March, 1948, all industrial firms employing more than a hundred workers were taken into state property by a decree prepared in great secrecy and taking even the newly appointed ‘worker directors’ by surprise. Ármin Leimdörfer (whose business only employed six or seven) generously offered it to a newly formed large state-owned building co-operative.  He was employed in the new firm and they valued his expertise. A few months later, all small businesses were also nationalised and their owners deported to remote villages. This also nearly happened to Tom’s grandparents twice during 1950-52. On both occasions, the senior management appealed to the political authorities to rescind the order as Tom’s grandfather was deemed essential to the firm and had several inventions to his name. On the second of these occasions, all their furniture was already piled on the lorry before they were allowed to return to their flat. Tom’s great-uncle Feri also lost the garage he owned, but kept his job as a much valued architect.

Just five years after surviving the Holocaust, many Hungarian Jewish people, in some cases entire families, were deported from the cities to distant farms in the country together with so-called class aliens, aristocrats, Horthyites and bourgeois elements, ordered to leave behind their apartments and personal belongings and to perform forced labour. It was no longer the upper and middle classes who were the objects of the communists’ ire, but any person belonging to any class who could be branded as an enemy in Rákosi’s system. During the eight years of this reign of Stalinist terror, mostly between the period 1948 to 1953, 600,000 Hungarians were made subject to legal charges taking away their rights, many of them being placed in detention by the police and juridical authorities. By adding family members to this number, the number of citizens affected increases to more than two million, out of a total population of less than ten million.  

The deportations also had the effect of freeing up accommodation in Budapest for workers the government wished to bring in from the provinces. There was also housing shortage as the result of war damage. Without legal proceedings, 13,000 ‘class enemies’ (aristocrats, former officials, factory owners, etc.) were evicted from Budapest, together with a further three thousand from provincial towns, to small villages where they were compelled to do agricultural labour under strict supervision. The official justification was their unreliability during a time of imperialist incitement and sharpening of class struggle, but the reality was their removal to satisfy the need for city housing for the newly privileged bureaucratic class. As living space became rationed, Tom’s small family flat was deemed too large for just his mother and himself:

She acted quickly to offer one room (my room) to a friend of hers whom we always called by her familiar name of ‘Csöpi’. If Mami thought that she had prevented a forced flat share with strangers, she was to be disappointed. We still had the small room next to the kitchen, the one designed for domestic staff, which Bözsi had occupied midweek during the immediate post-war years. The district authority allocated that room to a couple from the provinces. They were not unpleasant people, but the situation was difficult for everyone with shared kitchen and bath room for three very different households (one single young woman, one couple, my mother and me). Mami and I shared the largest room in the flat. The large sofa was turned each night into a wide twin bed. The room also housed a baby grand piano, a large bookcase, a coffee table and a very large old desk, which was my pride and joy as I was allowed full use of it from an early age. The wall opposite the window had the large ceramic stove jutting out into the room (next to the piano). Our room had the french window leading to the small balcony and the stairs to the garden. We shared the garden with Csöpi, but the couple just had the small room and use of kitchen and bathroom all of which opened from the entrance hall. The windowless dining area also opened to the entrance hall, then had two doors: one to our room and to Csöpi’s room (my old room). Our two rooms also had an intercommunicating double door, which did not give either of us any privacy, though we kept it closed…

… It was assumed that the couple who were `brought in’ had some party links, so it was always best to keep a low profile. All blocks of flats had wardens and the wardens were paid to keep an eye on the residents and to inform the secret police of any trouble or suspicious activities by the standards of the state. Residents gave wardens gifts in order to try to keep in favour, as false accusations were quite common.

Our warden lived in the flat below ours, which now would be called a ’garden flat’. Their front window looked out to our garden at knee level, but they only had access to the yard at the back. He was a cantankerous middle-aged man with a liking for too much alcohol, but he had a kind and forbearing wife. Mami made sure that whenever we had a parcel from my uncle Bandi in England, the warden had a present. Occasionally, the warden would appear on our doorstep, somewhat embarrassed, and ask a few questions about a visitor he had not seen before. It was all part of his job.

The shocking figures, combined with Tom’s eye-witness evidence, reveal the supreme inhumanity of the régime not just in terms of the scale of the deportations but also in the dehumanising effect of the housing measures in poisoning private relations, breaking consciences and confidences and undermining public commitments. For anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948, it is not difficult to imagine how varying degrees of distrust pervaded individual relations, if not necessarily in their families and with intimate friends, surely with colleagues, neighbours, fellow members of clubs and choirs. On one of my first visits to Hungary, in July 1989, a Catholic priest commented that, for him, growing up in Budapest, 1984 was not a work of fiction. It described exactly what life was like in Hungary in the period 1948-53. The gap between the official proclamation of the people’s democracy and the reality of their helplessness against the obvious violations of its principles made people apolitical in a highly politicised age, turning them away from civic service.

Meanwhile, the communist state embarked on a 5-year plan of heavy industrialisation. The three-year economic plan, whose task was bringing reconstruction to completion, through the restoration of pre-war production levels, had been accomplished ahead of schedule, by the end of 1949.  The building of Ferihegy Airport, just outside the capital, begun during the war, was also completed. Huge investments were made to enhance industrial output, especially in heavy industry. Planned targets were exceeded, at the expense of agriculture. In respect of the latter, the earlier gradualist approach had been abandoned by the Communists in the summer of 1948. Although the organisation of co-operative farms was their long-term goal from the outset, they realised that the sympathy of the peasantry depended on land reform, and therefore they supported it in the most radical form possible. Even in early 1948, a long and gradual transition to cooperative farming was foreseen, but in view of the June resolution of the Cominform, which censured the Yugoslav party  because of its indulgent attitude to the peasant issue. Rákosi also urged the speeding up of the process, setting aside a few years to its accomplishment. Smallholders were forced into large agricultural collectives managed by party bosses (large landowners had already fled to the west and their land was confiscated). Eventually, the cooperatives were quite successful, but in the first years the effects were devastating. Food production slumped by half and food shortages became the order of the day. In spite of the fact that its share of national income was the same in agriculture as for industry, the former suffered from low investment.  When Tom’s uncle visited from Britain, where ration books controlled the austerity of 1947, he was surprised that war-devastated Hungary still had food in plenty. But by 1951, queues for rations of milk, bread, cheese and meat were the order of the day. Tom remembers standing in food queues after school, keeping a place for his grandmother.

The entirely unreasonable project of transforming Hungary, whose mineral resources were insignificant, into a country of iron and steel established an imbalance in the national economy to the extent that, while the population in general was satisfied with the modest increase in living standards compared with the terrible conditions of 1945-6, the target of reaching pre-war consumption levels was unrealistic. Meanwhile, Hungary’s foreign trade relations were undergoing a profound transformation. By 1949, the Soviet Union took over Germany’s place as its foremost foreign trade partner, a process sealed by the signing of a treaty of friendship and mutual aid between Hungary and the Soviet Union in February 1948. This was followed by the establishment of an entire network of exchange through the creation of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (COMECON) on 20 January, 1949. The Soviets realised that they could save the expenses of dismantling, transporting and reinstalling equipment and, in addition, use Hungarian labour while exerting greater control over the country’s domestic economy, by creating or reorganising companies of key importance in shipping, air transport, bauxite exploitation, aluminium production, oil extraction and refinement, as mixed concerns. Tom Leimdorfer comments on the combined effects of these economic policies on ordinary people:  

With everything nationalised, gradually all choice in items of clothing also disappeared. Worse still, there were actual shortages of items likes shoes or socks or shirts. These were quite unpredictable and probably partly due to rumours and panic buying. Occasionally, one would hear that clothing items of a certain size were available at a particular outlet (by now all stores were also state-owned or directed co-operatives), but there would soon be a shortage. Long queues would form and the item would soon disappear. Large quantities of other items would be lying around unsold. The state denounced the rumours as being started by enemies of the communist state. It is possible that they had a point, but the ridiculous system of supply led planned production was probably mainly to blame. A certain factory had a target to produce a quantity of a certain product and that had to be fulfilled, irrespective of what was actually needed. Workers and managers who fulfilled or exceeded their targets were given prizes (‘Stakhanovite’ medals with small financial bonuses), those who failed faced disciplinary action.

There was a culture of fear in the workplaces. People were regularly denounced as enemies of the state and investigated. Someone could be denounced for pre-war right-wing connections, for having been a ‘capitalist’, for having links with the west or for supposed fraud or misdemeanour at work. Actually, there was a lot of fraud, mainly perpetrated by those who thought they were safe. In fact, nobody was safe as they could be denounced by others who wanted their job or who wanted to climb the political ladder within the party. One close friend who experienced the horrors of the ‘knock in the night’ was Gyuri Schustek, who had been at college with my father. He was taken for interrogation by the secret police for allegedly falsifying documents in the workplace. At one point, he was told at gun point to sign a false confession. He kept his nerve and refused. After several months, he was released without explanation or apology. He never knew who denounced him or why. Such experiences were quite common.

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The main organ of repression, the ÁVH or Ávó, was separated from the Ministry of the Interior and put directly under the authority, first of the council of ministers, and then of the Defence Committee. Its permanent staff originally consisted of 28,000 officers, striking at individuals or refractory groups or rivals of the leaders upon direct orders from them, based on ‘evidence’ collected from about 40,000 informers also employed by the the political police. Records were kept on about one million citizens, or over ten per cent of the total population. Of these, around two-thirds were prosecuted and nearly 400,000 served terms in prisons or internment/ labour camps, mostly in quarries and mines. By 1953, the tide of persecution had turned on the creators of the system itself, including the chief of the political police. About eighty leading party members were executed, tortured to death or committed suicide in prison, and thousands more zealous communists served prison terms.

There were a few ‘show trials’ and presumed disappearances to Siberia. More likely, prominent figures who were or were deemed to be in opposition to the regime served lengthy terms of imprisonment, some with hard labour. One distant relative, the poet György Faludi (his hungaricised name from Leimdörfer) spent time working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book ‘My happy days in hell’. 

For most people, however, it was all much less dramatic. Just an all-pervading atmosphere of fear and distrust, families teaching their children not repeat conversations they heard at home, everyone careful not to be overheard in public places. The language of the school and the workplace (which had to be really ‘politically correct’) was totally different from private conversations. The state controlled media was not believed by anyone (not even when it happened to tell the truth) and listening to low volume radio broadcasts of the BBC World Service or the right-wing ‘Radio Free Europe’ was both risky and difficult as they were often jammed by state-generated radio interference signals.

It was not all negative, of course. The communist regime improved the health service and education, especially in rural areas, and eliminated absolute poverty. There was no real starvation, homelessness or unemployment. There was improvement in sports facilities and Hungary gloried in its near invincible football team and the 16 gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The pervading mood, however, was drabness and fear.

While the mobility between the main sectors of the economy was as yet insignificant, the project of social levelling advanced towards the ultimate communist ideal of a classless society with no private property, an ideal which was not against the wishes of a broad cross-section of society. As a result of the land reform, the nationalisations, the mass forced removals of officials from their posts and the deportations, ‘genteel’ Hungary, the peculiar amalgam of post-feudal, capitalist and liberal-nationalist values was, as Rákosi claimed triumphantly, thrown into the dustbin of history. The business and middle classes who had championed them either emigrated or metamorphosed into service industry or factory workers and engineers. Previously sharing over forty per cent of the national income, they now accounted for a mere ten per cent, while the mass of rural paupers became small proprietors or kulaks, before they too were consigned to history’s dustbin by the intensification of the class struggle in the 1950s. People were told that the reason they could not buy butter or eggs was because the kulaks who were hoarding and hiding their produce.

The party operated an immense system of patronage through which non-measurable benefits (mainly job promotion) could be earned; and for the party élite various perquisites were available according to rank, in a salient contradiction to the professed ideal of equality and the frequent calls to ever tighter austerity in the interest of a glorious future. Among the bulk of the population, a silent resentment grew. Aversion to the personality cult and the ideological terror, the hatred of police repression, bewilderment at the stupidities of economic planning and anger at the anomalies it caused, and the utter exasperation and disillusionment with the régime in general were sentiments occasionally expressed in strikes and perceptible across the Hungarian social spectrum by the time Stalin died on 5 March, 1953. Besides sparing Hungary and other eastern-central European countries from having to ‘import’ a new wave of terror from  the USSR, which had begun in the previous months, the ensuing power struggle and its outcome favoured important changes in the tone and methods, if not in the content and substance, of the communist régimes. With the permission and even on the insistence of Moscow, the process of de-Stalinisation could be started throughout the Soviet bloc. 

Sources:

See part three, following.

The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951; part eleven   Leave a comment

The Road to 1945 and Beyond (4/4)

 

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As the debts mounted for maintaining Britain’s global status and its benevolence at home, so did the doubts about the ideological basis on which the new Jerusalem could be built. Even those who had been the most ardent supporters of the collectivist approach, like Stafford Cripps, became, after 1949, equally determined supporters of the mixed economy. Attlee set the date of the general election as 23 February 1950, and the Labour Party fought the election on the manifesto Let us win through together, an endorsement of Cripps’ economic policy.

Despite polling a record 13.3 million votes, the Labour majority was cut to six. Nevertheless, the social reforms enacted by Labour were clearly popular with the British people, since it not only succeeded in winning more votes, but also won more seats in the 1950 election than it had done in 1945, on an even higher turn-out.

 (Above: The end of sweet rationing in 1949)

012Although it polled nearly fourteen million votes, slightly more than the Conservatives, Labour lost the October 1951 election. Historians have argued that this was, in part, because its achievements in the postwar years had been accompanied by continued, and sometimes intensified, austerity for the British people. Wartime rationing of some essential foods continued into the new year following the government’s re-election. However, there were clear signs, for instance in the Festival of Britain celebrations of that summer, that the drabness of the period was coming to an end. Interestingly, one woman, a wartime child, recalled in 1963, that a great deal was determined by differing expectations within the population. Not everyone’s experience of the prewar years was of prolonged economic depression, of course, but it should be remembered that those born after 1930 did not yet have a vote:

002For those who remembered the years between the wars the gradual climb back to prosperity was a long, dispiriting haul, echoing with prewar memories of better days. For the wartime children it was different. Those years were not a return but a revelation. They were lit by surprises; between 1945 and 1951 we saw not only the first pineapples and bananas of our lives, but the first washing machine, the first fountain, the first television sets.

The world opening before us was not a pale imitation of the one we had lost but a dip of extraordinary things we had never seen before. If later, we seemed to snarl with baffled rage at the disillusionment and apathy of our elders, perhaps this was why. They treated it all as a dreary mess; they forget that for us it could have been a brave new world.

 

As this wartime child suggested, many older, ordinary people had become tired and disillusioned by Labour’s Big Brother style. We work or we want, proclaimed the irritating government posters. Many had worked hard, and industrial production increased by a third between 1946 and 1951, but people wanted more consumer goods in the shops, even, as a tantalising 1946 advert suggested, some lovely lingerie, and ’Lux’ to look after these pretty things. They remembered how pure, safe Lux preserved the beauty of these delicate fabrics… and how easily it rinsed out. For the time being, they had to wash their treasured things with the soap or flakes available. Of course, there were ways and means of getting some of these goods on the black market:

 

The spivs were tense, dubious, insecure. Yet the essence of spivvery was deeply English, a small, boyish lust for life, and eagerness to play practical jokes on the clumsy, long-winded motions of a bureaucracy.

 

One woman, quoted in a radio broadcast, said she was happier when she lay listening to bombs and daring herself to tremble; when she got romantic letters from abroad; when she cried over Dunkirk; when people showed their best side and we still believed we were fighting to gain something. However, for many (now) teenage evacuees, like Daphne Gulliver, returning home after five years, was a much longed-for occasion and they were keen to settle back into their families and communities, to finish school and salvage whatever they could of their childhood and teenage years. Daphne left school at sixteen in 1947 and then went to work as a short-hand typist at the Rolls Royce engine factory at nearby Ansty, using her bicycle to get up the farm lane on the other side of the river Sowe and up the hill each day. She remembered how much she treasured her cycle which one of her relatives put together with true Coventrian craftsmanship:

Tommy Hatfield had a sort of workshop and you could go up there and say you wanted a bike, and he’d measure you up for size and look through all these frames, and find one the right size. Then he’d dip it in acid, then he’d dip it in a stone enamelling vat. I suppose they were always black. He’d tell you which day he’d finish it, and then you’d come home riding your bike, pleased as punch. Lovely thing a bike.

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Daphne was also happy to be able to take part in chapel life again. There were marvelous harvest festivals after the war and everything was decorated. Then the produce would be sold off to raise money and there would be a concert to follow. The choirmaster was quite strict and if anyone wasn’t behaving themselves, he would throw a hymn book in their direction to bring them to attention. After the war, the chapel was taken under the wing of Queens Road and the Rev Gordon Wylie, succeeding Rev Ingli James, brought the thirty-four year-old Rev Arthur J Chandler (left), my father, to Walsgrave from Wednesbury, Staffordshire, in 1948. In addition to overseeing Ansty and Shilton chapels, he helped to build up the Walsgrave congregation again. As Daphne’s mother, Vera, was a deacon at the chapel, he was a regular visitor to their house and around the time of Daphne’s twenty-first birthday in 1952, they got engaged. Her Aunt Jessie’s husband, Tommy Gardner, worked for forty-five years at the Austin Motor Carriage works in Holbrooks. Although they had no children of their own, Jessie and Tommy fostered two children from the Barnado’s Home Tommy had grown up in before the First World War. Jessie lived on in Coventry to be a hundred and two. Aged ninety-one, in 1992, she concluded her memoirs with these remarks about the heritage of her family:

So, they (the Gullivers and Tidmarshes) were good people and that’s where it’s coming out in these generations, because we came from good stock; honest, God-fearing workers. We all seem to be doing very well these days, after all these years. So, I can’t say much for the good old times that they talk about. I’m all for these times.   Some things are better, some things are worse, I will admit. But, on the whole, we are looked after much better in our old age now.

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George Orwell died in January 1950, in a London hospital. His last published piece was a review of Churchill’s memoir, Their Finest Hour which had been published the previous year. He wrote that Churchill’s memoirs read more like those of a human being than those of a public figure. There was, Orwell felt, a certain largeness and geniality about the wartime PM, soon to become a peacetime leader too, which made him cherished by ordinary people, and the stories circulating about him testified to that affection. The same year that Churchill published Their Finest Hour, Orwell published what many consider to be his finest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is usually remembered as a nightmare vision of the doublespeak future, in which the tyranny of Big Brother presides over an English state where War is Peace and Lies are Truth. However, it needs to be read as an English novel, and its title simply as a reversal of the numbers four and eight, rather than as an extended essay, warning of future abuses of power.

For Orwell, as for many others in the world, the themes of the novel were evident in current and recent experiences. In fact, the fundamental conflict in the book is between history (as collective memory) and tyranny. When O’Brien, the arch-deceiver who has persuaded Winston Smith that he is running a resistance group, suggests sealing his recruitment with a toast to the future, Winston lifts his glass and drinks instead To the past. O’Brien agreed, The past is more important. By encouraging forgetfulness, the Party became free to impose on its subjects its own version of whatever past it chose. But, somehow, memory was not quite obliterated from Winston’s consciousness, so that he had a sense that things had not always been as they were in the present. Gradually, the past starts to come back to him through a series of encounters with objects and people. Finally, he denounces the revolution and the Party for destroying all archives: History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. He also dreams of a Golden Country, in which nature, love, liberty and history are all interlaced. This is Orwell’s vision of a True England. Searching for a True Coventry, the sociologist, Leo Kuper, made an astute observation on the gap between workers’ perceptions of Coventry in the late 1940s, and the realities of working class life there:

It is as if there were many worlds; a world of objective reality, Coventry and its people and neighbourhoods, and the worlds of interpretation of this objective reality, the images projected from many and contrasted points of view.

 

Kuper showed how many of those who considered themselves real Coventrians viewed the image of post-war cosmopolitan Coventry in wholly negative terms which led to racial stereotypes being applied to those who were seen as being the major contributors to this image. A leading Coventry official referred to the Rhondda Valley section of Coventry, where he said that there was continual trouble among the Welsh, second only to the centre of the city. He also portrayed the Irish as having to fight every Friday night, after receiving their wages, in order to complete the evening’s revelries; Indians as creating troubles with young girls and living like pigs; Negroes, like the Irish and Scots, as having little respect for the police and the Poles as being unable to understand why they were not beaten up for committing misdemeanors. He went on to suggest that the only real solution to these problems was to segregate these different national groupings until they had come to appreciate our way of living. Kuper commented, with not a little understatement, that there was more in these comments than cool observation of ethnic differences.

In any case, even in 1951, the description of Coventry as a cosmopolitan city, heterogeneous throughout, was as misleading as it had been in 1931. The Census showed that the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the city were of British origin, with just under ten thousand from Ireland. This was a new migrant stream in the postwar period. In the 1931 Census there were only just over two thousand Irish in Coventry, but this number may have expanded rapidly during the building boom of the later 1930s. At the close of the second world war the streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s Roman Catholic churches had a distinctive Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, and the two churches provided useful ports of call for itinerant building workers or those after a start in local factories. Although casual building workers formed an important part of the Coventry Irish community, many more workers began to settle permanently.

The Polish community in Coventry, as in Britain as a whole, came about as the result of three waves of immigration corresponding to the period up to 1940; the decade 1940-50, known as the Emigracja and then the period after 1950. It has been estimated that during the wartime Emigracja some 165,000 Poles arrived in Britain, though numbers decreased by about thirty thousand after 1950 through onward migration to other countries or voluntary repatriation to Poland. The Polish exile community was made up of members of the Polish Armed Forces who escaped to the west through Hungary following the Nazi-Soviet invasion and partition of their country in September 1939 which led to the surrender of the forces in Poland, together with political prisoners from concentration camps in Germany and Russia. Many of the latter, perhaps several hundred, were people with professional qualifications which could be used in Britain, especially doctors and dentists. In addition, there were about two thousand skilled engineers. Later, a rather larger group of unskilled workers, including some disabled and elderly relatives, entered the postwar British economy. Many ambitious immigrants with lesser qualifications set up small businesses, becoming householders and small-scale landlords. The location of Polish forces during the war largely determined the places to which Polish immigrants gravitated. Most of those in the Midlands were airmen, based in Nottingham or Leicester. London, as the home of the Polish government-in-exile became the largest Polish resettlement area, accommodating a quarter of the total immigrants. Birmingham and Manchester were the recipients of the next largest groups of four to five thousand each, but Coventry accommodated as many as three thousand.

Of course, these first generation Polish wartime exiles had every intention of returning to their homeland, and therefore made every effort to maintain their language and to cultivate their Polish heritage. The wartime Emigracja determined the later shape and character of the life of the Polish community in Britain. It was an exile community which arrived with a network of various military, civilian and religious institutions, as well as welfare associations such as the Polish Red Cross, the Polish Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), servicemen’s clubs and a Polish press. There were over two hundred periodicals published in Britain between 1939 and 1949. Factors such as patriotism, class and the negative attitudes towards Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation in these institutions and strengthening ethnic identity and vitality. These conditions gave shape to the social, religious, economic life of the community, allowing it to meet a variety of needs among new Polish immigrants. The Polish YMCA was founded in 1949 as a dynamic organisation responsible for the promotion of Polish history and cultural heritage not only within the Polish and British communities but all over the world through exhibitions of Polish art, folklore, song, dance and music.

Paradoxically, just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. The census of 1951 recorded just seventy-four thousand New Commonwealth immigrants; ten years later, this number had more than quadrupled. The 1948 Nationality Act reaffirmed the right of British citizenship and free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects, without restrictions. But as growing numbers of Caribbean and South Asian people began to take up this right to abode, the British authorities became increasingly alarmed. The most significant group of Commonwealth workers in Coventry were those of Indian origin who took up the right to settle in Britain under the 1948 Act, though a small number but significant number of them had been employed in the textile industries in the thirties. By the early fifties they were estimated to have expanded to about four thousand, though the 1951 Census only showed less than two thousand Commonwealth immigrants in total. They took over some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area near the textile factories. However, even as early as the summer of 1951 there was evidence of colour prejudice when the Indian workers tried to get semi-skilled jobs in engineering and metal-working factories. At the Sterling Metals works, the management, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was the main desire to recruit white labour. It also agreed to keep black and white gangs segregated and to give white labourers guarantees against the upgrading of Indian workers.

Certainly, by 1951 Coventry was predominantly a city of newcomers. It has been estimated that in that year only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of a quarter of a million were born in the City, though when those born in outlying and incorporated areas of Warwickshire are taken into account, this proportion must have been somewhat higher. Of the thousands who came to the city many soon left, having failed to find accommodation or work. One study claimed that in 1949, while eighteen thousand newcomers entered Coventry, but that nearly the same number left. Surveys suggested that Coventrians were far from welcoming to newcomers generally, so that friendship and social networks followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and churches often catered for specific migrant groups, and there was a lack of interest in establishing neighbourhood friendships. However, there is little evidence to suggest any hostility or negative stereotyping between immigrant groups, perhaps because of Coventry’s general status as a city of immigrants. The London area continued to send just under ten per cent of the total immigrants, but by the late 1940s there were more from Northumberland and Durham. As recently as 1940, insurance book analysis highlighted a dearth of migrants from coalfields other than Wales. Perhaps the general increase in mobility of labour during wartime encouraged Geordies to move, together with the high wages available in Coventry.

Paul Addison, in his well-known book, The Road to 1945, attributed the Labour victory to the growth of middle opinion among English intellectuals and to the impact of the war upon popular consciousness. He paid scant attention the pressures from below to the new industrial areas of the Midlands and South East of England, including the contributions to the growth of trade unionism, the Labour Party and working class culture made by immigrants to these areas before and during the Second World War. Besides the role played by migrating militants in the unionisation of the Pressed Steel works in Cowley and later at Morris Motors, there were a number of significant individual immigrants involved in the development of the Labour movement in Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham. For example, Evan Roberts, a former Welsh miner and railwayman, became the first Labour Councillor for the East Ward of Oxford in 1945 and eventually became the first Lord Mayor of Oxford in 1962.

William Parfitt, a former miner from Tylorstown in the Rhondda, came to Coventry to work for Daimler, after which he became Industrial Relations Officer for the West Midlands Region of the National Coal Board. He was elected to Coventry City Council in 1945 and in 1965-6 became Lord Mayor of Coventry. William Tegfryn Bowen worked as a miner in the Rhondda between 1916 and 1926, moving to Birmingham in 1927, where he studied at Fircroft College, the workers’ college in Selly Oak, before working for the Austin Motor Company in 1928. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He then endured long periods of unemployment before becoming a City Councillor in 1941, an Alderman in 1945 and between 1945 and 1949 was Chairman of both the Council Labour Group and Chairman of the Health Committee. This latter position led to his becoming a member of the Executive Council of the NHS and a member of the Regional Hospital Board. On becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on a City which, under the Chamberlains, had been considered a Tory stronghold. In his answer he referred to a large influx of workers from other areas, with a different political outlook.

 

Harry Richards was from Tonypandy in the Rhondda. Between 1939, aged seventeen, and 1945 he was an apprentice draughtsmen at Armstrong Siddeley Motors and a design draughtsman at Morris Motors. He then became a schoolteacher and was elected to the City Council in 1954. He also became Chairman of the Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, and became Lord Mayor of the City in 1979. Roberts, Parfitt, Bowen and Richards shared the motivation for their involvement with other immigrants from the depressed areas like Elsie Jones, who born and reared in a mining area… realised the need for reforms very early in life. It is also apparent that the political attitudes of many of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were largely derived from their memories of the depression years elsewhere in Britain.

 011

The result of the 1945 general election in Coventry had been the confirmation of the Labour Party’s local supremacy since taking control of the Council in 1937. Between them, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman took just over sixty per cent of the votes cast. Crossman’s majority in Coventry East, which included Walsgrave, was nearly twenty thousand. When the Labour government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of municipal socialism in Coventry, from 1937 to 1947, can clearly be seen, like Bevan’s own political progress, as a practical and ideological expression of an impetus to reform which arose out of the determination of Labour leaders to attain better living and working conditions than those which they had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.

After 1945, the housing crisis presented an even greater challenge for Coventry’s municipal socialists than it did for Aneurin Bevan, who was Minister of both Health and Housing. The shortage of housing was not simply a short-term crisis for the Labour Government, but remained a huge national problem for the whole decade and a half after the war. In Coventry, for obvious reasons, it was particularly severe. By 1948 there were fifteen thousand families on the waiting list, widespread squatting in old military buildings and an illegal campsite facing the Council House, yet politicians and planners failed to act swiftly, preferring to concentrate on the city centre development. It was not until a decade later that the worst of the housing crisis was over. In the late 1940s, the large, so-called neigbourhood units of Canley, Tile Hill, Bell Green and Willenhall were designed to accommodate between fifteen to twenty thousand residents in decent dwellings within a planned environment. Several social surveys were conducted by the planners and the University of Birmingham on behalf of the council. What the authorities wanted to find out was what the attitude of the residents of this type of estate was, and the potential services they required. They concluded that the residents had only a thin attachment to their particular neighbourhood. The survey revealed that neighbourhood friendship networks were generally narrow, usually confined to immediate and very near neighbours.

Coventrians in these areas thought of the Welsh, Scots and Geordie women in their city as being unemancipated by comparison with themselves. They were more content than Coventry women to accept traditional roles as housewives, nurses and maidservants. Both oral and documentary sources suggest that very few Welsh women entered insurable employment in Coventry before the war, compared with both native women and immigrant women from Lancashire. However, there is little evidence to suggest that immigrant women were more fertile, as was suggested, or that they had more children. In Coventry, there was, however, a marked tendency for them to select their own countrywomen as friends, rather than their immediate neighbours. This clannishness was perhaps understandable if they were from the more strongly Welsh-speaking western valleys, and were not working, but it cannot have helped them to integrate, and in some cases reinforced the stereotypes of them held by Coventrian women. The Welsh immigrants in general were also accused of being all out for themselves… rootless… thrusting, trying to get on committees and councils in order to run the town, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians.

002Of course, this stereotyping reveals a classic pattern of a dominant majority irked by a foreign minority in its midst, except it was not always based on prejudice, but sometimes on real experiences. Seymour Gulliver (pictured on the right with his wife, Vera, in the 1970s), who had himself born outside Coventry, in 1900, albeit in Warwickshire, moving into Walsgrave with his family in 1909, recalled an occasion on which he fell out with the Welsh miner he had helped to settle into Walsgrave and Binley Colliery. This neighbour, Chairman of the Lodge at Binley, was delayed getting to an emergency strike meeting, so Seymour had started the meeting without him. He was annoyed when he arrived at the meeting to find that his place had been usurped, and became even more irate when the men voted for Seymour to continue in the chair. The two men had words after the meeting. Seymour commented that this incident had taught him that the Welsh miners always wanted to be in charge.

On the subject of who was a real Coventry kid, in his survey of Tile Hill, a district of Coventry, conducted in the late forties, Leo Kuper found that only thirty-two per cent of the community were Coventry born, while twenty-five per cent were from the North of England, sixteen per cent from other parts of the Midlands, ten per cent from Wales, and about five or six per cent each from Scotland, Ireland and the South of England. In Coventry, by the late 1940s, it was impossible to tell who the real Coventrians were.

In terms of facilities, especially shopping, the Coventrians of the late forties were unanimous in their desire for a large, well equipped central retail area with suburban outlets confined to the provision of everyday essentials. The findings of these surveys tended to reinforce the major thrust of the reconstruction plan and convinced the civic officers and councillors that they were providing what the people wanted. The residents on the new estates could also look forward to the provision of the ten form entry comprehensive schools, large health centres and new parades of small shops. Even so, the prosperity of the mid-fifties and sixties was still unimaginable, even in high-wage Coventry, in the late forties. In addition, neighbourliness was difficult to achieve on these new estates. It wasn’t just the Welsh who found it difficult to mix, but also the migrants from the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, who often found Coventrians cold and unfriendly.

Earlier immigrants continued to provide a warmer welcome through churches and chapels. One of the leading Welsh personalities at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the centre of Coventry was Jehu Shepherd, who became organist and choirmaster during the ministry of Ingli James in the 1940s. The Welsh newcomers that Shepherd had formed into a Glee Party in the thirties, found themselves at home among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists which James’ preaching helped to produce in this period. James was from Barry, where his father had been pastor of Bethel Baptist Church before the First World War. In 1917 he was ordained and became Minister at Stoneygate, Leicester, followed by powerful ministries at Cannon Street, Accrington and, from 1923, at Pantgwydr in Swansea. During these ministries, according to a Baptist Union memoir, he saw that the working classes in this country were drifting from the churches and he set himself resolutely to stop the drift. He began his ministry at Queen’s Road in 1931. Besides supporting the initiatives which the immigrants had taken to establish an image of respectability in their new environment, such as the Glee Singers, James also affirmed, from the pulpit, the culture from which they came, continually referring to the miners and unemployment in his sermons. However, his unashamed championing of working class causes and politics, including his appearance on Labour Party platforms (along with Rev Ivor Reece, of West Orchard Congregational Church), brought him into conflict with some of the established professional Coventrians on his diaconate. Jehu Shepherd’s wife, Mary Shepherd, originally from Ystalafera, near Neath, remembered him well:

 

He was a strong Labour man and he upset quite a few people because he just said what he felt – he was true to himself, he would not say one thing and mean another, or say something just to please people. Ingli was not bombastic and what he said was true. I always remember once when he talked about the miners, he said, ’I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day – did I say paid for it? – no money would pay for what they did!’ I can see him now in that pulpit.

 

In 1942 he preached a sermon entitled, How Green Was My Valley, coinciding with the distribution of the Hollywood film of Richard Llewellyn’s book in Britain. Daphne Gulliver remembered the Rev. James preaching at Walsgrave Chapel after the war. She described him as a Welsh ranter, a very famous socialist, and extremely funny. Walsgrave had the kind of pulpit in which you could walk up and down and he used to shake all his black hair into his eyes. James articulated his impetus to reform in his book, published in 1950, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Queens Road congregation for the way they had given him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian socialism:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people. However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no active part in the struggle of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ’the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…

 

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945 should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home. The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing on the rights of the other and without resorting to violence… we must show how it might be done.

 

In this passage, Ingli James distilled the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars. The migrating millions who found their own way to Coventry, as opposed to being sent there by the Ministry of Labour, showed, by their contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the new industry towns, both in the prewar and postwar periods, that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of an economic and political system which had displaced them.

Coventry’s 1951 Development Plan was the culmination of a scheme designed by a new class of professionals, implemented by newcomers for the benefit of a population with shallow roots in the city. The shopocracy had been routed in 1937 and the vice of old Coventry continued to be associated with narrow-minded backwardness. The defeat of this old elite was compounded by the support of the Evening Telegraph for the reconstruction plan. The isolation of the Chamber of Commerce, the main opponents of the plan, was increased by the tendency of many of Coventry’s firms, both in retail and manufacturing, to come under the control of outside owners. There was almost an element of irrelevant antiquarianism in the announcement in 1951 that the new Lord Mayor, Harry Weston, was the first Coventrian to hold the office for eight years, at a time when eighty-four per cent of the ruling Labour group on the Council between in the decade after 1945 were born outside Coventry. In November 1945 thirty Labour councillors were returned to face an opposition of eighteen Progressives, an amalgam of Conservatives and Liberals. Despite continuing austerity, Labour maintained its two-to-one majority in 1947 and 1949. The Evening Telegraph, in its editorial on the 1949 poll, concluded that newcomers to Coventry were strengthening the Left. Labour had an apparently unbreachable majority and the Conservative candidates who stood for election in 1951, the year of Conservative victory in the general election, were an assortment of small businessmen, managers and retired publicans. They were the champions of small shopkeepers threatened by municipal socialism.

The newcomers to Coventry prepared to play along with the prejudices and stereotypical images which confronted them. Instead, and in response, they set about fostering a positive self-image in their new environments, and in the process they enabled and enhanced the recovery of working class politics and culture in the Midland cities of England. The memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force on the road to 1945 and well beyond it. Those who had lost almost everything had also lost their fear; they had everything to regain, and were determined to be there at their own remaking, as part of an integrated and relatively united, British working class. In the 1945 government film A City Re-born, a soldier and his fiancée are shown viewing Donald Gibson’s model of the new Coventry. They cannot contain their optimism and enthusiasm about the city where they are going to live, looking forward to their own little home… with a nice little garage… and a nice little nursery, while the film commentary enunciated the official mythology about the City:

Coventry is going to be a place to live where people can believe how pleasant human life can be… It must not be every man for himself, but every man for the good and happiness of all people living… Every man must believe in the good and happiness that is to be shared… to be shared, equally.

By 1951, Everyman had come to Coventry. The city had become not simply the identifiable symbol of the Tue England, but also of the New Jerusalem of the British working class which had relocated and recreated itself there.

Printed Sources:

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

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Barry Cunliffe (et. al., eds.), (2001),The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. University of Warwick: Cryfield Press.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Land-of-Might-Have-Been: Britain, 1936-37; Chapter Three – 1937 – A Reunited Kingdom?   1 comment

Chapter Three: 1937 – A Reunited Kingdom?

Chronology:

Jan:

 7    Princess Julianna of the Netherlands married German Prince Bernhard

24  United Campaign for Spain launched at Manchester Free Trade Hall

April:

26  Bombing of Basque town of Guernica by German aircraft

 

 

 

 

May:

 6    Germany’s Hindenburg airship blew up in New Jersey, USA

 12    Coronation of King George VI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14    Imperial Conference in London (to 15th June)

Labour Party Distressed Areas Commission on South Wales published

28    Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin as PM

June:

 1    Amelia Earhart’s last flight

 4    Duke of Windsor married Wallis Simpson near Tours, France

7    Death of Hollywood actress, Jean Harlow

 23    Germany and Italy left Non-Intervention Committee

July:

 5      Japan invades China

10   Harold Nicholson’s mission to Evreux

Aug:

 28  Japanese Bombing of Shanghai

 Oct:

 17  Rioting in Sudetenland

 Duke and Duchess’ Berchtesgarden meeting with Hitler

 Nov:

 6   Italy joined Germany and Japan in Aniti-Comintern Pact

 7   Death of Ramsay MacDonald

19  Lord Halifax visited Hitler  

 Dec:

 12      The Panay Incident, Yangtze River

More general events included the imposition of ARP (Air Raid Patrol) duties on local authorities and the passing of A P Herbert’s Divorce Bill extended the grounds for divorce. On the stage, new plays included Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears and J B Priestley’s Time and the Conways. Flanagan and Allen also had a new hit show, Me and My Girl. Films included Show Boat with Paul Robeson, Oh, Mr Porter, with Will Hay, Lost Horizon, with Ronald Coleman and Camille with Greta Garbo. Among the most popular songs of the year were ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’ and ‘I’ve got you under my skin’.

Narrative:

 A United Front?

Despite the non-interventionist position adopted by ‘official Labour’ in the previous autumn, Stafford Cripps had held behind-the-scenes discussions with the Communist leader Harry Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. In January 1937 the first issue of Tribune was published, with a controlling board that included Aneurin Bevan, Cripps and Ellen Wilkinson. On 24th January, the United Campaign was launched at a mass meeting at Manchester Free Trade Hall, the platform being shared by Stafford Cripps, veteran Clydeside ILP MP Jimmy Maxton, Harry Pollitt and William Mellors. As the right-wing of the Labour Party fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, Communist, ILP, Socialist League and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George appearing on the same platform as Harry Pollitt and Clement Attlee visiting the International Brigade, giving the clench fist salute.

George Orwell had arrived at the front in Spain under the aegis of the Independent Labour Party in December 1936. As an officer in the anarchist POUM militia, he was able to put both his parade-ground practice in the Cadet Corps at Eaton and his training in the Burma police college to good use in drilling the raw Republican recruits. However, his eccentric dress in balaclava and long woolly scarf combined with his great height made him a target for snipers and he took a bullet in the neck outside Huesca. Orwell survived, but the damage to his vocal cords made it impossible for him to bark out orders. His faith in international socialist solidarity did not survive, however. In Barcelona he had witnessed first-hand the Republican cause being sabotaged by splits and feuds within the ‘Popular Front’. The communists, driven by instructions from Moscow, in return for the only material support, apart from volunteers, which came from outside Spain, seemed more interested in hunting down heretics like the anarchists and Trotskyists than taking on Franco’s crack Moorish troops. Returning home to heal these physical and mental wounds, his disgust with the official left’s rhapsodies about the Soviet Union only served to reopen the latter, and he decided to try to write the truth as he now saw it, that fascism and communism had more in common than most people realised and that the Soviet variety of it was ‘furthest of all to the Right’. The pillars of the Left like The New Statesman rejected his work. So too did Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, who described Orwell as ‘a little middle-class boy’ who had day-tripped through socialism but returned from his trip the imperialist reactionary he had always been.

Back on the ground in Spain, by the Spring of 1937 there were 30,000 Germans and 80,000 Italians in Spain. The Germans marched and flew aeroplanes. The Republican Government had practically no aircraft and had to pay huge sums of money to freelance pilots. The deliberate bombing of civilians was regarded as unimaginable barbarity at that time, before the experiences of the Second World War. When the Germans bombed the Basque town of Guernica for Franco, practically wiping it out, on 26th April 1937, their involvement could no longer go entirely ignored by the Chamberlain Government, although they tried to downplay the evidence of their own Consul’s own eyes, reported to them the next day. They were tempted to play along with Goebbels’ propaganda machine which went into a fury of action to try to convince everybody that the Basques had blown up their own city in order to discredit General Franco. They certainly couldn’t ignore the broader implications of the attack, that inland cities were vulnerable to aerial bombardment. Britain’s island status would no longer be enough of a defence against a potential Nazi attack, and its government would need urgently to strengthen its anti-aircraft defences, as well as the Royal Air Force, speeding up aircraft production. The movement of the population to the South-East of England would need to be halted, if not reversed.

The rest of the world was outraged and Picasso’s famous picture went on tour all over Europe, including Britain. Now everybody seemed to be taking a hand in the war, and the International Brigades had volunteers from dozens of countries, including two British contingents, one of them named after the mild-mannered military man, Clement Attlee. Harold Nicholson, who had previously muttered secretly at a dinner party to Eden that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’, had his convictions reinforced by the destruction of Guernica, telling his wife Vita ‘….I do so loathe this war. I really feel  that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.’ In public, however, he continued to support the National Government’s policy of non-intervention, praising Eden and instructing the House that ‘Britain could no longer indulge in a ‘missionary foreign policy’ from the nineteenth century by imposing ‘our views, our judgements, our standard of life and conduct’ upon other countries. Britain must fall back on ‘the preservation of peace’  through ‘the arrangement of the balance of power’.

When the Foreign Affairs Committee met in July to discuss the Spanish situation, Nicholson, now its vice-chairman, was agitated to find ‘an enormous majority anti-Government and pro-Franco’. There seemed little alternative to continuing the non-intervention policy, although Eden agreed with Nicholson that it had failed. Britain could not risk the Civil War spreading to an all-out Europe-wide conflagration. Churchill had been feeding Nicholson with an inflated assessment of Germany’s air strength, which if augmented by the Italian air force, meant that Britain was not ready to go to war, except  with ‘very active Russian assistance’. Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for the dominions, reiterated that Brritain was too weak to go to gamble on war at that time. ‘It would mean the massacre of women and children on the streets of London’, he said, adding that ‘no Government could possibly risk a war when our anti-aircraft defences are in so farcical a condition.’

Although the Spanish Civil War continued until 1939, the surviving British volunteers came home in 1937. They had had a rough war. For every five of them who had been gone to Spain the previous year, one had been killed and  another three had been wounded. As they disembarked from the ferry giving their clenched fist salutes to the awaiting press photographers, it was evident not just that the outcome of the great clash between Left and Right was a clear victory for the Right, but that this had not been the real confrontation, merely the dress rehearsal for something much worse. The Fascists had been greatly encouraged by their successful alliance and joint adventure in Spain. Hitler and Mussolini left the Non-Intervention Committee in June, cementing their ’Rome-Berlin Axis’ and beginning a gigantic build-up of forces. The Non-interventionists in Britain and elsewhere had given Hitler the green light to acquire more territory in the East, at the very least, though he knew that Germany, too, would need more time to prepare for the coming campaign of conquest.

The Spanish Civil War had an even longer-term impact on British literature and culture, through Orwell’s writings, as well as those of others for whom the experience of it had been a pivotal experience. Homage to Catalonia, written in 1937, but not published until 1938, suffered from being seen as a shot from the sidelines at the internecine wars of the Left both in Spain and at home, and it was for this reason that Orwell decided to preach the same message in the more popular form of a fable. He wrote:

On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could easily be understood by almost anyone…However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.’

In this way, the germ of Animal Farm, not published until 1945, was already in Orwell’s mind in 1937. In the meantime, however, his acerbic wit was mainly reserved for those who opposed the arm conflict with fascism, in a review of some military memoirs, in August 1937:

General Crozier is a professional soldier and by his own showing spent the years between 1899 and 1921 in almost ceaseless slaughter of his fellow-creatures; hence as a pacifist he makes an impressive figure, like the reformed burglar at a Salvation Army meeting.’  

Today We Live! The Unemployed Miners

In 1937 Donald Alexander, a Cambridge ’double-first’, arrived in South Wales to produce a film called Eastern Valley which dealt with the relief work organised by the Quakers at the top of the Monmouthshire Valleys. In this short film one unemployed miner explained that he was working now ’not for a boss but for myself and my butties’ and another said that ’a new interest in life’ had been created by the Quakers. The best known documentary was Today We Live, made in the same year by the National Council of Social Service. The Welsh scenes were directed by Ralph Bond who told a story using real miners as actors, in which the unemployed miners of Pentre in the Rhondda agree, after some debate, to co-operate with the voluntary relief agencies. Despite the obvious coaching of the miners, the difficulty in dealing with poverty and boredom, living on a shilling a day, are movingly conveyed and it is not surprising that the film was so well received in the art-houses of London and New York. The film made its impact not only because of the realistic dialogue, which the miners interpreted themselves, in their own words, but because of the stunning images of life in the depressed Valleys. Bond’s assistant on the film was Donald Alexander and his shot of the unemployed searching for waste on the slag heaps was not only the highlight of the documentary itself, but also became the most iconic image of proletarian hardship in Depression Britain. It has been used many times in subsequent films and, at the time, played a similar role to that of Dorothy Lange’s still photographs of the migrant mother with her children in California, for American audiences.

The documentary film-makers of 1937 achieved a real breakthrough, despite being constrained by sponsorship and distribution problems. Grierson, Rotha, Bond and Alexander never knew whether their films would be seen outside of London’s Weat End or New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As the Socialist cause became stronger in 1936-7, several groups attempted to challenge Hollywood and the Ealing comedies by producing independent films with independent outlets. The Communist Party was instrumental in this, showing classic Russian feature-films in halls in London, and some of these were shown in the miners’ institutes in South Wales, together with other independent and radical films. Films like Spanish Earth, also made in 1937, were shown alongside more commercially successful films, such as Night Must Fall, based on Emlyn Williams’ stage play. British film-makers had become concerned about the extent of the domination by American-made films in British cinemas, and in 1937 a Quota Act was passed to restrict this, which led to American companies, like MGM, establishing their own studios around London in order to make ’British’ films. They could also be far more radical, since the British film censors were becoming more lenient.

Paradoxically, many of the English middle-class documentary film-makers had a very idealised view of ’the Welsh miner’ which came through in their work, often in the dialogue which contained vocabulary and idioms which were alien to the coalfield. One of the few film-makers to join them from an authentic background, Jack Howells, was openly critical of this, but was unable to effect a greater sense of realism. Howells shared their conviction that the camera could be used to show the world how the miners lived, but that the Cambridge intellectuals were too earnest and lacking in the ability to use humour both to entertain and inform. Penrose Tennyson, Eaton-educated, had left Balliol College Oxford after only one term, to become a film-maker. He was twenty-six when he made the film Proud Valley with Paul Robeson playing a rather confected role as a black sailor who comes to work in a Welsh pit and is recruited to sing in the local male voice choir. The film proved too radical for the censors, and its release was delayed by the Ealing Studios until the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was given a new ending in which the pit is saved from closure, not by the action of the miners, but by the demands of war. The dialogue was written by Jack Jones, which probably saved it from the music-hall stereotypes of Welshness which its actors, including Rachel Thomas and himself were meant to play. Robeson himself was no stranger to South Wales, as he had been singing in concerts to raise money for the Spanish Republicans, and the song ’You can’t stop us singing’ became a powerful resistance theme as choral singing became the means of suggesting solidarity, not just in films, but also in real life. When Penrose Tennyson began making the film early in 1937, his motivations were very clear, as his brother later revealed:

I think Pen felt that the mining community was the only working-class community in the country which had retained their dignity, their sense of community, and their own cultural life and values. I think he had a very special feeling; I don’t know quite what personal contact it was based on until the film, but I think he had a very special feeling for the miners, particularly for the South Wales miners. I remember at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII… that he quite seriously thought that the Welsh miners were going to march on London and insist on Edward VIII being reinstated and put to rout the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr Baldwin, and all the people who had wanted Edward VIII to give up the throne. I think Pen was perfectly ready to join the march as soon as he could, and I think he was very disappointed that nothing ever happened.

Militant Minorities and Migrants

Penrose Tennyson’s belief that the miners were on the point of insurrection in 1937 was not entirely fanciful, but the Communist Party was already beginning to focus its attention on following up its success in winning the leadership of the SWMF with gaining support in elections. At the beginning of April 1937, the people of the Garw Valley were prepared to vote for a respected local Communist in the Council election:

The declaration of the poll in Ogmore and Garw Council elections took place amid scenes of enthusiasm…culminating in the singing of the ’Red Flag’ when Communist candidate for the Pontycymmer ward, Mr. James Redmond, miner, was announced as having gained the large total of 889 votes, and topped the poll. Edward John Evans (Soc), Schoolmaster, gained the other seat with 830 votes. Mr Daniel Davies (Soc) who has served upon the Council for 18 years, loses his seat, the number of his votes being 814. Mr Redmond is the first Communist to be elected in the Garw Valley…After the declaration the crowd became most excited, and the election proved to be the most enthusiastic and keenly followed for years.

 Clearly, while the South Wales valleys may have been a long way from the verge of revolution in the Spring of 1937, they were experiencing some seismic political shifts. It was no coincidence that Redmond’s election came in the same week that a new wages agreement was reached between the SWMF’s Communist leadership and the coal-owners. Also, a decade-long struggle against company unionism in the valley had finally secured almost 100% membership of the Federation. Redmond’s success was a recognition of the organisational abilities of local Communists, rather than a wholesale shift towards the avowal of revolutionary socialism in mining communities. Those communities were simply expressing their growing self-confidence, which the Communist Party had helped them recover.

 The 1935 Hunger Marches against the introduction of the Means Test were still strong in the imaginations of both people and politicians, but the popular image, presented in contemporary newsreels and photographs of thousands continually on the march, is a myth. Demonstrative action was sporadic, localised and uneven, and, where it involved large numbers, it was motivated by immediate concerns, basic frustrations and deep resentment. Such feelings could just as easily lead to a cynical withdrawal from political action, as they did for many. Nevertheless, the determination of militant minorities, well-organised in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, helped to facilitate a partial institutional and political recovery in 1936-7. However, these minorities, with their emphasis on extra-parliamentary marches and demonstrations, were often seen as a threat by the more mainstream Labour movement, especially its parliamentary leadership. This was a time when direct action on the streets had very negative and sometimes sinister undertones for those who believed in the traditionally British  representative form of democracy. This helps to explain why the Labour Party conference held in Edinburgh in October of the previous year had refused to support the Jarrow Crusade or any other kind of ’hunger’ march, preferring instead to appoint a Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas.  This was the leadership’s idea of getting something done, but at least the words it produced were far removed from those which appeared in The Times on January 19th, which reflected closely the Government’s, when it claimed that the Distressed Areas were:

…economic cemeteries, the character of which may be made more pleasant by planting a few flowers, straightening a few tombstones and employing a sexton or two, but cannot be radically changed.

 Towards the end of that month, the Commission began its tour of investigation in South Wales.  Joining Hugh Dalton and other national figures were two local MPs, George Hall (Aberdare) and Arthur Jenkins (Pontypool). A large amount of written evidence had been received at the preliminary conference in Cardiff in December, much of which had already appeared in published form, since there had already been many quasi-official enquiries, investigations and surveys of the coalfield published throughout the thirties; some regional, some local in focus. The Minister for Labour, Ernest Brown, who had accompanied Edward VIII on his legendary tour the previous November, admitted on 9th March that no fewer than 32 out of 38 special area districts in the region had had over 30% unemployment during the previous year. Only one had had a rate of less than less than 20%, somewhere near the national, British average for the year of about 15%. In the previous July a special Ministry analysis had revealed that of nearly a hundred thousand unemployed men, one in eight had been out of work for more than five years, two in every five for over two years continuously, and more than half for over a year. Only one in five had been unemployed for less than three months. What’s more, the numbers of those who had been out of work for more than five years had doubled between the summers of 1935 and  1936.

Most of these older, long-term unemployed were located in local pockets of unemployment, or ’black-spots’ which had the highest levels of unemployment overall. These were spread throughout the coalfield from Garnant in the Amman Valley in the western anthracite area, generally less hard-hit than the dominant ’steam-coal’ section,  with 58% unemployed, to Ferndale in the Rhondda in the centre with 56%, to Brynmawr and Merthyr on the northern edge with 57% and 46% respectively. These were the four highest levels of all the labour exchange areas of the industrial region. The Report of the Commission, published in May, was essentially a summary of these already-available statistics, including details of population loss, mainly by migration, and local rates. For Merthyr Tydfil, the Commission stated the obvious, that ’Migration has been very heavy. Persistent efforts have been made to attract new industries. Excellent sites are available.’ It also gave a list of the new industries which had been suggested to replace the jobs for the three thousand steelworkers in Dowlais to whom Edward VIII had promised something would be done six months earlier. Evidently, nothing had yet been done apart from the repetition of vague proposals. Meanwhile, the rates in Merthyr continued to climb to 29s in 1936-7, the highest in the region, of which just over half was spent on public assistance. At the same time, industrial properties accounted for less than 5% of the rateable value.

The miners’ ’Fed’, the SWMF, had put forward a long list of specific proposals, including the establishment of oil-from-coal plants, afforestation, and the raising of the school-leaving age to sixteen, with maintenance grants payable. A wide range of evidence was also received from the local Labour Groups, ’showing how the social services were at least blunting the edge of the depression, and how essential it was that much greater financial aid should be given by the Exchequer.’ Without the efforts of the Labour-controlled local authorities, they concluded, ’the results of unemployment and poverty would have been even more disastrous’. They also concluded that this was not enough, that prosperity could be brought back to the region, but only by ’thoroughgoing State action’. Above all, they highlighted the mantra of contemporary economists, that ’South Wales must be considered as an economic unit and its future must be planned.’ This planning needed to be coordinated by ’a vigorous and authoritative Minister of Cabinet rank’ with responsibility for all the Special Areas and their planning, with the commissioners for each of the areas becoming ’his chief executive agents’. Substantial funds needed to be put at his disposal and discretion by Parliament, free from detailed control by the Treasury. No more red tape and ’restrictions’ which had ’throttled’ Sir Malcolm Stewart, causing him to resign six months earlier, on the eve of Edward VIII’s visit to the region.

The Report went on to propose that for proper economic planning of South Wales, the Special Area should be extended to include the whole of industrial South Wales from the River Towy in the West to the River Usk in the East, including Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. It argued that a road bridge over the Severn was vital, and that the central Government should take direct responsibility for this. Bypasses should be built around the coastal towns and a first-class route should be provided to link the heads-of-the-valleys’ towns from Garnant and Brynamman through Merthyr Tydfil to Abergavenny and the Severn Bridge road. They recommended that a number of oil-from-coal plants should be established and owned by the State, since there was no shortage of suitable coal in the region. For older miners, they proposed the immediate introduction of a pension scheme. For those of a younger working age, the Minister for the Special Areas should have the power to require all new industries to establish themselves in the Areas, unless it could be proved to his satisfaction that there was an overwhelming case for their locating elsewhere. To that date, not a single new factory or extension was recorded as being established in the South Wales area.

Whether or not there was a fear of war, South Wales should be used for defence purposes, including the storage of oil, food and other supplies, as well as for the manufacture of defence requirements. Trading estates should be established, distributed throughout South Wales, one of which should be for electro-chemical industries requiring huge supplies of cheap electric power. Public Assistance rates needed to be reduced to the average for Britain as a whole, with a special Exchequer grant making up the difference, twelve shillings in the case of Merthyr. Local authorities should be given the powers and resources to clean up the debris of dead industry and to prepare them for use as building sites or open spaces. All children at school, and all juveniles receiving education or training should receive milk and a free meal per day, all year round. The report concluded that ’only the most drastic action  by the State’ could save the people of South Wales ’from the suffering and misery and despair which for long years’ had ’engulfed them’.  Most significantly, perhaps, for the first time, the Party came out against the Transference Policy:

 The transfer of young persons to other parts of the country is very undesirable.

Neville Chamberlain did, eventually, introduce a new act of Parliament for the distressed areas, the Special Areas (Amendment Act), in 1937. For the first time he promised regional planning with some directed investment. His main motivation in doing so was not an acceptance of the Keynesian economics, so clearly articulated in the Labour Party’s ‘plan’, but the twin concerns over the need for Rearmament and the uncontrolled migration to the South-eastern area of England, visibly vulnerable to aerial attacks from the continent. Prior to the war in Spain, Chamberlain had believed that the only effective solution to the mass unemployment in the distressed areas was internal migration. Hence his support for Transference schemes as the main means of government policy and his rejection of locating new industries in the area, which would militate against migration. 1936 had been the most successful year of the Transference policy, especially because the government had come to understand the importance of family transference to the overall success of the scheme. Young men from areas where familial ties were strong were far more likely to settle more permanently in the new areas if their parents and other members of the family could join them. In fact, most of the successful migration schemes were those that had been organised, since the late twenties, along familial and institutional lines, free from government control.

In addition to political action, resistance to state intervention could be expressed in a refusal to participate in Government training and transfer schemes; it could also form part of a rejection of the ‘demoralisation’ involved in the lives of individuals and families by a host of bureaucrats and social service volunteers. Migration could be an effective expression of this spirit of resistance. It was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment for many who decided to leave the valleys. As one of the older unemployed men from the Rhondda wrote in a written statement to the Pilgrim Trust later that year:

For an outsider, who views the situation from the angle of the people in the abyss, or the slum worker out of work, the idea he gets of the depressed areas or Special Areas may be totally wrong…I want to suggest that our people are fully conscious of the economic principles which have brought change to the valleys. The question is, to migrate or remain. I have chosen to remain….

Migration was not simply a knee-jerk reaction to economic conditions; it was a conscious response for the hundreds of thousands who undertook it. The Ministry of Labour’s ‘General Review of the Industrial Transference Scheme’, circulated in 1938, found that 72% of the men known to have migrated in 1936 and 1937, had done so ‘on their own account’ without any reference to the official scheme. The overwhelming majority of workers who left South Wales either knew nothing of it, or they chose to ignore its provisions. It was frequently linked to training, which took place in work camps and centres. Resistance to these can be gauged from the fact that, of 3,000 men interviewed by the Unemployment Assistance Board in Merthyr in 1937, 2,300 refused to even consider it. The lack of flexibility in the location and organisation of the centres, the menial type of training offered and the scheme’s failure to guarantee employment that these forms of provision did not match the needs of coalfield communities already naturally resistant to government intervention. Moreover, of the 90,000 men officially transferred by the Ministry of Labour between 1930 and the middle of 1937, 49,000 returned home. The successful resettlement rate among juveniles was little better; it was estimated that between October 1934 and September 1937, approximately 40% of boys and 50% of girls transferred by the Ministry returned home to stay. It classified ‘homesickness’ as the main cause of this, but this was often intensified by the conditions under which the young people were made to live and work, and could be mitigated by careful placement and thoughtful after-care. Such planning was largely absent from the Scheme at its inception, and the reports given by returnees to the coalfield of the conditions they had been forced to endure undoubtedly fuelled resistance among other potential transferees and, more particularly, their parents, who were more and more likely to feel that ‘it was better for their children to be half-starved in Wales than hopelessly corrupted in London’.

Naturally, most of the Industrial Transference Board’s reports stressed the successes of the Scheme, and where cases of re-migration were reported these were written off as hopeless cases of homesickness, defying all the counter measures taken by local officials and employers. However, many of the placements were in domestic service, particularly in the London area. Wages were insufficient for the teenage boys to support themselves, the work was often arduous, the hours long and there was little time off for visits home. As a consequence, they simply ‘ran off’, giving the local officials no opportunity to relocate them. The solution was found by placing the boys in industrial employment. In 1937, the officers of the Birmingham Juvenile Employment Bureau visited Merthyr to interview juveniles and explain to their parents the opportunities available.  This resulted in the successful transfer of sixteen boys and seven girls. They were accommodated together at a hostel until suitable lodgings could be found close to their place of work. The managing director of one of the Birmingham firms of electrical engineers then employed a whole family from Merthyr, and they were given a bungalow from which the woman looked after a number of the firm’s transferred juveniles. Employers in Coventry also established a hostel in 1937, guaranteeing the employment of the Welsh juveniles for a year. However, most of the migration that took place, certainly among adults, was autonomous in organisation. As Captain Crawshay remarked in his survey for the Special Areas Commissioner’s 1937 Report, ‘Dai in the Midlands finds a job for Ianto at home’. Professor Marquand also noted that younger men were ‘subject to waves of feeling’ connected to the receipt of letters from friends who had already left Wales’, from which he concluded, in his 1937 Report for the South Wales Industrial Development Council, that a programme of training and transfer would only be successful if it were operated through a policy of group transfer. Social solidarity was the only means of real protection against an alien atmosphere characterised by precariousness and prejudice often encountered in the new industry areas.

The Hindenburg Blows Up

Following her triumphant first crossing of the Atlantic of the season, Germany’s huge airship Hindenburg, the biggest ever built, nosed down to the aerodrome at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the evening of 6th May. A severe thunderstorm had just ended. As the landing lines were dropped, the ground crew began pulling the ship towards the mooring mast, when flames suddenly leapt from her tail. In a matter of a few seconds, the whole airship, filled with 6,700,000 cubic feet of inflammable hydrogen, was on fire; she began to buckle in the middle and fell to the ground. Passengers and crew jumped for their lives as flames and explosions destroyed her. Within five minutes, the fire had burnt out, leaving thirty-five dead among the wreckage. The dramatic pictures of the explosion, exclusive to The Daily Express, were flown across the Atlantic by two American pilots, who then returned to the United States a week later with exclusive pictures of the Coronation.  

 

The Twelfth of May: Coronation and Kind Hearts

At midnight on 30th April, London’s quarter of a million busmen came out on strike, after negotiations for a seven and a half hour day had broken down. London had to walk to see the coronation, but they were rewarded for their efforts by fine weather. The Coronation of King George VI in Westminster Abbey, the crowning place of thirty-seven monarchs since William I, of Normandy, required twenty-five thousand police and eight thousand special constables to handle upwards of ten million people who had thronged to London to see the world’s greatest free show. It was estimated that the show cost forty million pounds, and its preparation had lasted six months, since planning had first begun for the coronation of Edward VIII. At 10.30 a.m. the royal coach left Buckingham Palace with King George and Queen Elizabeth inside. In Westminster Abbey, the assembled Lords and Ladies, who had been in their 19-inch-wide seats before nine o’ clock, tried to conceal, as best as they could, the sandwiches and drinks they had brought with them, many using their coronets as picnic boxes. Outside the Abbey, forty thousand soldiers lined the route, with the crowds packed in behind them. They cheered at the six-mile-long procession, with its royalties in glass carriages, distinguished men and women from every country in the world. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, bands and prancing horses preceded the golden coach.

The crowning moment belonged to seventy-four year-old Cosmo Lang, no doubt relieved that he no longer had to crown an adulterer.  Immediately after, the hundreds of peers and peeresses put on their coronets and cried ‘God Save the King’ with everyone else in the Abbey. Guns at the Tower Of London and all over Britain were fired to mark the moment. At four o’ clock, the King and Queen were back at the Palace, appearing on the balcony with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. For this appearance, the King wore the State Crown, not the heavy St. Edward’s Crown placed on his head earlier at the Abbey.

The Coronation also demonstrated how much George VI felt he owed to his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. He and his wife were given pride of place in the Royal box, much to the displeasure not just of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but also to many others in the Establishment. It was clearly of great importance to King George’s confidence that Logue should be physically close at hand during the ceremony. That night he broadcast to the Empire, the first time ever that a newly crowned monarch had talked to his people directly, and live, in their own homes. Logue’s coaching helped him to overcome his stammer, so that it was this speech of thanks to his people, which was the first of many successful encounters with the ever-present microphone he had previously dreaded. Edward had had two decades as Prince of Wales to prepare for the duties of King. His brother, as Duke of York, had not had to undertake many official engagements, but now found himself thrust into the limelight, and within five months had gone from being a diffident and unwilling inheritor of the Crown, sobbing for an hour on his mother’s shoulder, to overcoming all doubts and prejudices as to whether he could cope with the excessive pressures of kingship.

Many among those in the Abbey commented on the regal manner in which he carried himself throughout the event commended the King. During the ceremony, Churchill is said to have turned to his wife, Clementine, and said, ‘you were right! The other one would never have done!’ Although he had been a close friend and supporter of Edward VIII to the point where he, and many others, felt that he had blown his chances of a return to government, Churchill now accepted that the crown would now be safer on the head of King George VI. His love of formal ceremony, like that of his father, was clearly evident, just as his brother’s hatred of it had also been evident in the summer and autumn of the previous year, when he had used the very un-British excuse of ‘rain stopped play’ to cancel major events.  George VI only had to speak six words in response to the Archbishop’s questions; ’all this I promise to do’, which he managed by pausing in the right place rather than stammering. His wife and children, beautifully dressed, added to the occasion, and all those watching in the Abbey, outside, or on the newsreels later, fell even more deeply in love with the new royal family. The effect of the event was to unify both Right and Left behind the monarchy, especially because the pomp of pageantry, containing all the symbolism of the monarchy as the defender of the freedom of the people of Britain, seemed far more benign than the Blackshirts goose-stepping in the carefully choreographed fascist rallies of Nuremberg and elsewhere on the continent. Kingsley Amis wrote of how the coronation had ’upstaged’ Goebbels and Hitler. The summer Olympics of 1936, held in the German capital, may have been a triumph for Nazi Germany, but in 1937 it was Britain which was revealing its best bright clothes to the world, and London was putting on its own kind of show, which only it could do. May was a bad month for Germany in the propaganda stakes, beginning as it had done with the Hindenburg disaster.

Exits and Entrances

At the end of May, Neville Chamberlain finally replaced Stanley Baldwin, the worn-out ‘dear vicar’, as Prime Minister. Baldwin had been planning for many months to retire from political life, but the events that precipitated the Abdication and those which followed it, had kept him in office. As soon as George VI had been crowned, Baldwin decided to hand over the Premiership to his Chancellor, and on May 28th the Chamberlains moved next door in Downing Street. The former PM went to the House of Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley. As René Cutforth observed, ‘his chief influence had been anaesthetic’. Stability and the status quo had been obsessions that he shared with the great majority of voters in the first half of the decade at least and, unless forced to do otherwise, ‘he had preferred to drowse’. He had a genuinely poetic passion for the idea of ‘middle England’, but had done precious little for working-class regions of Britain as a whole. Like many in his generation, Baldwin had continued to ‘bleed inwardly for the sufferings’ of the Great War, and had promised both himself and his country that those evils would never be repeated. ‘Its memory sickens us’ he said, and Britain needed to be protected from the twin evils of extremism, fascism and communism.

Baldwin had been the epitome of sleepy village England virtues that no longer fitted with the modern age. However, just as Baldwin had not been fond of first class minds, Chamberlain’s cabinet, when announced, excluded most of the able men who might be suspected of supporting Churchill, like Duff Cooper, Harold Macmillan and Julian Amery. The old gang was given the top jobs, including Sir John Simon, Sir Samuel Hoare and Lord Halifax. When Sir Thomas Inskip was announced as Minister of Defence, the House of Commons sat there laughing for several minutes. Halifax, an aristocratic Anglo-Catholic, was intensely loyal to his native Yorkshire. He was also shrewd, having spent a lifetime in public office, and was proud of his ability to see behind the public rhetoric of Churchill. As Viceroy of India, he had done what was necessary to keep the imperial connection. Neville Chamberlain, however, represented the economic imperialism his father had campaigned for, even though his parental home, Highbury, was a way from both the screw manufacturing industry and municipal radicalism that had first brought the late Victorian dynasty to pre-eminence. His more patrician stepbrother, Austen, had seemed more destined to lead the Conservatives, especially as foreign and imperial affairs had been his speciality. Apart from being another Midlands industrialist, Neville Chamberlain had little in common with Baldwin. He was an upright provincial businessman with an old-fashioned moustache who had once been Lord Mayor of Birmingham. To some, both these were signs of his lack of imagination and vision. A political observer at the time he became Prime Minister wrote of him:

This seeming lack of breadth of mind and culture…arouses some misgivings about Mr Chamberlain. Clarity of mind – and he has it in an unusual degree – is not enough if the mind, so to say, sees the field as part of the landscape, and that kind of limited vision is not necessarily compensated by courage such as Mr Chamberlain has. The two together should be a positive danger.

Neville Chamberlain had remained true to his Birmingham roots, committed to the improvement of local government, especially education, and possessing a strong instinct for what the professional middle classes wished to see in a Conservative Prime Minister. Above all, they valued the preservation of peace. Churchill, sensing that Chamberlain was a far more principled appeaser than Baldwin, felt renewed in his opposition to the policy. Simon Schama has written of how Chamberlain and Lord Halifax represented a more pro-active Britishness that Churchill understood, while Churchill understood ‘this England, this Britain of… the village institute, the small town chapel, the brass band’. However, he continued to insist that this England, this Britain, would never survive by simply hoping that the new powers on the continent could be persuaded to leave it alone. That would be to depart, as Duff Cooper remarked, from two and a half centuries of British opposition to one-power dominance of the continent.

On November 9th, 71-year-old Ramsay MacDonald, died from a heart attack in mid-Atlantic while on his way for a vacation in South America. In his long career he had been a radical ILP MP, a founding member of the Labour Party, a pacifist during the Great War, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, and Prime Minister of the National Government six years earlier. George V had told him that he was his the PM he had liked most during his reign. A suggestion of a burial in Westminster Abbey was made, but he was buried in Lossiemouth in Scotland, where he had been born.

Famous Females

Amelia Earhart, America’s ‘Miss Lindy’ had become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic when she landed in South Wales on June 18th, 1928, after a 1,900-mile non-stop flight from Newfoundland in the triple-engine seaplane, Friendship. Four years later, she had appeared with Lord Astor at the Epsom Derby, after flying the Atlantic for a second time, but the first time this had ever been done solo by a woman, landing this time in a field near Londonderry, in Northern Ireland. She had hoped to reach France. On 1st June 1937, she set out in a Lockheed Electra plane, a “flying laboratory,” to make a round-the-world flight. She reached South America, Africa, India and Batavia, but after beginning the last stages to tiny Howland Island, a mid-Pacific airbase, neither she nor her aircraft were ever seen again. After intensive searches, she was presumed dead. A week later, another American female icon of the early twentieth century, film star Jean Harlow, best known for her platinum blonde bleached hair which had started a vogue among hundreds of thousands of girls, died from uremia at her home in Beverley Hills, Hollywood, on June 7th.

The Windsors’ Saga Continued

The most famous American woman of 1936 had been Wallis Simpson. After the granting of her divorce had been made absolute in the first week of May, she was free to marry Edward, now Duke of Windsor. They wed on 4th June, at the Chateau de Condé near Tours in France. No member of the royal family was among the sixteen guests, but the sixty-year-old vicar of Darlington, Rev J A Jardine, against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was there. Writing privately to the Duke a week before, he had been invited to officiate at the ceremony. After the wedding, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who received more than three thousand congratulatory telegrams and thirty thousand letters, left for a honeymoon in Austria, staying at the Schloss Wasserleonburg, near the Wörther See, throughout the summer. In July, Harold Nicholson performed one last service for Wallis. On her hurried flight to Cannes, during the Abdication Crisis, she had inadvertently left some notes at the Evreux hotel she had stayed in. These notes apparently ‘reflected greatly to her credit’ and upon hearing about them, Harold offered to retrieve them. Having succeeded in doing so, he then gave thanks in the city’s Cathedral for the completion of his mission. He needn’t have bothered, for some years later he discovered that the notes he had so painstakingly recovered had been carelessly lost once more by the Windsors.

The following October, they had a controversial rendezvous with Adolf Hitler at his mountain villa in Berchtesgarden, near the Austrian frontier. While the Duchess chatted with Nazi leaders, the Duke had a twenty-minute private audience with Germany’s dictator. Criticism followed this decision to make Germany the first country to visit on a tour of Europe planned by the Duke to investigate social conditions. Early in November, in his first public speech since his abdication address, he told journalists in Paris that he was mystified by the attribution of ulterior motives to his action. “Though one may be in the lion’s den,” he commented, “it is possible to eat with the lions if one is on good terms with them.”

However, Harold Nicholson was among those who thought the Windsor’s visit was ill advised, and its political connotations were clear, even if weakly discounted by the Duke himself. It left Nicholson, for one, considerably on edge. He himself had refused to travel through Germany ‘because of Nazi rule’, telling ‘Chips’ Channon that whereas ‘we stand for tolerance, truth, liberty and good humour…they stand for violence, oppression, untruthfulness and bitterness’, distinguishing traits that had obviously escaped the notice of the Windsors. It must have confirmed for Harold what many suspected: that the couple had fallen heavily for the ‘champagne-like influence of Ribbentrop. Rumour had it that the man nicknamed ‘Ambassador Brickendrop’ had ‘used’ the Duchess. Even Channon admitted that King George VI himself was ‘going the dictator way, and is pro-German, against Russia and against too much slip-shod democracy’. It has often been argued, somewhat with the benefit of the hindsight of what happened in the following three years, that Edward differed in many aspects from the government’s foreign policy, and foolishly allowed his tongue to run away with him in an unconstitutional manner. In Germany, these utterances created an impression of warm sympathy and an exaggerated idea of his power and influence. There is no evidence to suggest, however, that the former King’s views, however ‘pro-German’, influenced either the new King’s views, or government policy. After some deliberation, Nicholson concluded that Edward believed more than he should have in Herr Hitler’s integrity as well as in his own ability to continue to influence the course of events. In this, of course, he was not alone, as the events of 1938 were to reveal, though he was no longer, in any sense, in charge of those events. The man now in charge of Britain’s appeasement policy was Neville Chamberlain.

Living with the Dictators

Anthony Eden remained at the Foreign Office throughout 1937, but looked, at forty, increasingly out-of-place among the dull, grey knights of Chamberlain’s 1937 Cabinet. Worse still for him, whereas Baldwin had preferred to leave his Ministers to their own devices, Chamberlain was an interfering PM: he liked, he said, to give each member of his government a policy to pursue, and it was in foreign affairs that he chiefly meddled, because although he had little experience in that field himself, his policy of ‘Appeasement’ was not the same as Eden’s. It was believed by almost every liberal mind in Britain, including that of Churchill, that the Versailles Treaty had been unfair to Germany and needed to be revised, so that some form of ‘give and take’ policy might be needed in the highly charged atmosphere on the continent.

As winter approached,  Harold Nicholson was invited to participate in a kind of ‘brains trust’ on foreign affairs at All Souls College, Oxford. Its purpose was to set out guidelines which would neutralise the menace of the totalitarian states. It included A L Rowse, the historian and fierce critic of government policy, Arnold Toynbee, a loyal defender of it, Harold Macmillan, Basil Liddell Hart, and H A L Fisher.  With the Austrian and Sudeten Conflicts beginning to foment, the group suggested a ‘package deal’ to Germany, including allowing the Anschluss, getting the Czech government to allow cantonal status to the Sudetenland, and recognising Germany’s economic rights in eastern Europe. In return, Germany would be asked for assurances about the territorial integrity and autonomy of its eastern neighbours, to agree to limit its arms to giving it preponderance but not supremacy in central-eastern Europe, and that it would not support Italian ambitions in Africa and the Mediterranean. Nicholson put on record his outright opposition to this ‘deal’, and his belief in Germany’s ‘aggressive ambitions’ which he believed were based on the Nazi propaganda of the ‘heroic motive’ that inspired German youth and conditioned them to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of world domination. The group, divided into ‘traditionalists’ and advocates of  ‘a new policy of trying to conciliate the strong’, between ‘moralists’ and ‘realists’, failed to reach a consensus, eventually breaking up in May 1938.

In November 1937, Chamberlain had dispatched Lord Halifax to Berlin. Halifax was very interested ‘getting together with Hitler and squaring him’, and also met Goebbels and Goering (picture left) but wasn’t able to ‘square’ the Führer on this occasion. ‘We have a different set of values,’ he confided to his diary, ‘and were speaking a different language’. However, Halifax reported to the Cabinet that, in his view, the Germans had no policy of immediate adventure. Their country was still in a state of revolution. Nevertheless, they would press their claim in s in Central-Eastern Europe, though not in a form to give the Western powers cause to interfere. The PM took the view that an atmosphere had been created in which ‘practical questions’ involved in a European settlement could be discussed. Even though Halifax did not pretend to himself that he was using the same language as Hitler, he did want to go on talking in the hope that, sooner or later, some breakthrough of understanding may occur. The ‘state of revolution’ would eventually cease, and then the appeasers would have their role to play in the adjustments of world power that seemed to be taking place. Change could not simply be resisted, but it could be made as harmless British Imperial interests as possible. This condescending attitude transferred itself to the physical sphere of Halifax’s diplomacy, as he was a very tall man, six feet five inches. By contrast, he referred to both Hitler and Goebbels in his diary as ‘little men’. Hitler was the nasty one, Goebbels the more likeable one.

Whereas Eden was contemptuous of Italy, and was pursuing a strong line on non-intervention in Spain, insisting that both the Germans and Italians should take their promises more seriously, Chamberlain set about conciliating Mussolini, accepting his conquest of Abyssinia. He decided to go ahead with an Anglo-Italian agreement, without terms, to ease the bad feeling between the two countries that had existed since Il Duce’s invasion in 1935. Eden, firmly committed to the League of Nations policy, insisted that Mussolini should first agree to withdraw Italian troops fighting under Franco’s command. Finally, in a conversation between Grandi, the Italian Ambassador, Eden and Chamberlain, the PM actually argued Grandi’s case for him against Eden. The Foreign Secretary was eventually to resign over this issue in February 1938, to be replaced by Halifax, who had no qualms about letting Chamberlain run the Foreign Office. His view had not changed since the time of his Berlin visit, and was remarkably similar to that expressed by the Duke of Windsor; ‘you have got to live with the devils whether you like them or not’, Halifax wrote, reflecting on Eden’s ‘natural revulsion’ for dictators.

Incidents and Intervals

In many ways, 1937 represented a brief interval in the British inter-war drama before the curtain rose on the last act of the thirties. There were now two ‘open’ wars in progress, as well violent persecutions and civil strife across the continent. One a civil war in Spain, which it seemed Franco was going to win, and one in the Far East, which had partly emerged out of a decade-long civil war between nationalists and communists in China. Taking advantage, expansionist Japan had marched into Peking in July, following its annexation of Manchuria in 1931. A shooting incident near this frontier had led to the invasion, but China’s resistance under Chiang-Kai-Shek, its nationalist dictator, was greater than the Japanese had bargained for. He had built up a well-disciplined, well-equipped army, aided by his American-educated wife, Mei-Ling, who had taken over the organisation of propaganda, censored the news and negotiated foreign loans, using her connections as a member of China’s influential Soong family.  At Shanghai on 28th August, sixteen Japanese planes had bombed the area around the South Station, killing two hundred civilians. An estimated 136 million people all over the world, in newspapers and newsreels, saw the picture (above right) of an abandoned baby crying amid the ruins. It was an abiding image and a warning of what might be to come in Europe as strong as those from the bombing of Guernica, four months earlier.

In December, on Sunday 12th, there was an international incident. This time the Japanese planes swooped down to bomb the US gunboat Panay, which was steaming along the Yangtze River, carrying Chinese refugees from Nanking, China’s capital at that time. The Panay seamen fired back with antiquated Lewis guns, but the planes kept in line with the sun, blinding the gunners. In two hours, the Panay sank and fifty-four survivors, who had got to the riverbank under heavy machine-gun fire from the planes, lay hidden, many badly wounded, in the rushes until the Japanese flew away. Hiroshi Saito, Japan’s ambassador to the United States offered immediate apologies when he heard the news, claiming that the bombing was ‘completely accidental’ and calling it ‘a terrible blunder’. Soon after, Tokyo made offers of full compensation and promised to punish offenders. Apologies were accepted by the ‘pacific’ Americans.

Britain, although having important commercial interests in China, was not strong enough to take on Japan alone. The French were busy building an impregnable fortified strip stretching all the way across northern France to the Belgian border, with hundreds of miles of underground workings. It never occurred to anyone that this might not turn out to be the fortification to provide the West’s main guarantor on land. Since Chamberlain’s accession, the speed of rearmament in Britain had quickened, but by no means feverishly, and the Army was being brought up to date, to make it less class-ridden, with commissions being given to intelligent NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers). Despite the need for speedy rearmament, however, there were still 1,600,000 unemployed, and the efforts of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the new thoroughly modern War Minister, were resisted by the Generals with references to his Jewishness.

There had been a large influx of Jewish refugees from Europe, so large as to be noticeable on the streets of London, the continental cut of their clothes making them conspicuous even in crowds. The Nazis were already at war with their Jews, and particularly the intellectuals among them, so the number of these among the refugees was disproportionately large. The universities benefited from this, especially in the sciences, though the newcomers to Britain had little to do with the most shattering of all the scientific discoveries of the century: the atom had already been split at Cambridge and a handful of physicists already new that it might be possible to make an atomic bomb. The application of this knowledge in the US in the 1940s was, however, very largely the work of exiles from central and eastern Europe, fleeing Nazi tyranny. But that’s a different, well-documented story. In Britain in the late thirties the ordinary refugees were unpopular, but, after Cable Street, not to the point of open violence. The attitude of plebeian Londoners at the time seemed much the same as those of the patricians, like Duff Cooper, who once announced ‘although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews’. A well-known bus-conductor expressed his feelings by providing a free translation for his Jewish passengers, bawling out ‘Swiss Cottage – Kleine Schweizer-Haus’.

‘So ends a historic year’, Harold Nicholson observed in the last pages of his diary for 1937. His garden home of Sissinghurst on the Weald of Kent was ‘developing splendidly,’ and his life was ‘as gay as an Alpine meadow patinated with the stars of varied flowers’. For him, as for many in Britain, it had been a happier, more useful year. The only snag was that it was ending ‘clouded by the menace on the Continent.’ Taken together, the two years of 1936-7 contained a remarkable series of events in every aspect of British life – royal, political, economic, social, and cultural – which changed the course of the twentieth century experience of every creed and class in the country and forged a new age of modern Britain.

 A Literary Interlude: The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro was published in 1989, and became an international bestseller in English. It was adapted into an award-winning film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, by Merchant Ivory Productions. Both book and film became celebrated evocations of life between the wars in a Great English House.

In the strory, the fictional ’Darlington House’ becomes a venue for the aristocratic games of diplomacy which typified the deluded times of the setting, spawning a film and television genre from Gosford Park to Downton Abbey. A ’Conference’ on Germany is held in 1923 at the time of the Reparations Crisis and Locarno Treaty, and in 1936, an ’unofficial’ meeting takes place between Lord Halifax, shortly to become Foreign Secretary upon the resignation of Anthony Eden, and the German Ambassador to London, Herr Ribbentrop, the first of a series. Halifax arrives first, exclaiming somewhat nervously to his host, ’Really, Darlington, I don’t know what you’ve put me up to here. I know I shall be sorry.’ As Lord Darlington takes him on a tour of the House to relax his nerves, Halifax continues to express his doubts about the evening ahead. At one point, however, the butler, Stevens, hears the distinguished guest comment on the quality of the silver he is shown, which puts him into ’a quite different frame of mind altogether’. The butler looks back on this some twenty years later with a sense of pride that ’the state of the silver had made a small, but significant contribution to the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop that evening’. The butler goes on to defend his employer’s rlationship with the German Ambassador:

It is, of course, generally accepted today that Herr Ribbentrop was a trickster: that it was Hitler’s plan throughout those years to deceive England for as long as possible concerning his true intentions, and that Herr Ribbentrop’s sole mission in our country was to orchestrate this deception… It is, however, rather irksome to have to hear people talking today as though they were never taken in by Herr Ribbentrop – as though Lord Darlington was alone in believing Herr Ribbentrop to be an honourable gentleman and developing a working relationship with him. The truth is that Herr Ribbentrop was, throughout the thirties, a well-regarded figure, even a glamourous one, in the very best houses. Particularly around 1936 and 1937, I can recall the talk in the servants’ hall from visiting staff revolving around “the German Ambassador”, and it is clear from what is said that many of the most distinguished ladies and gentlemen in the country were quite enamoured of him.

The fictional Lord Darlington, Stevens tells us, received hospitality from the Nazis on several trips made to Germany during those years, which was nothing unusual. The guest lists for the banquets held by the Nazis at the time of the Nuremberg Rally would make interesting reading if published in The Times, he suggests. The great majority of these ladies and gentlemen were returning to England with ’nothing but praise and admiration for their hosts’. He goes on to describe as ’salacious nonsense’ any suggestion that his master was anti-Semitic, or that he was closely associated with Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, despite the ’blackshirt’ leader visiting the Hall on three occasions ’in the early days of that organisation before it had betrayed its true nature’. Lord Darlington quickly disassociated himself from Mosley’s movement when its ugliness became apparent. As the butler saw it, the BUF was ’a complete irrelevance to the heart of political life in this country’. On the other hand, his employer, as he also saw it in his grand delusion was ’the sort of gentleman who cared to occupy himself only with what was at the true centre of things, and the figures he gathered together in his efforts over those years were as far away from such unpleasant fringe groups as one could imagine.’ These were figures with ’a real influence on British life’, including politicians, diplomats, military men and clergy. They included Jews, he points out, at pains to bury an earlier incident in which he was instructed by Lord Darlington to discharge two Jewish chambermaids, despite the objections of the housekeeper. Towards the end of the book, Stevens describes, in flashback, one of these evening gatherings at Darlington Hall:

At almost precisely eight thirty, there came the sound of motor cars pulling up on the courtyard. I opened the door to a chauffeur, and past his shoulder I could see some police constables dispersing to various points of the grounds. The next moment, I was showing in two very distinguished gentlemen, who were met by his lordship in the hall and ushered quickly into the drawing room. Ten minutes or so later came the sound of another car and I opened the door to Herr Ribbontrop, the German Ambassador, by now no stranger to Darlington Hall. His lordship emerged to meet him and the two gentlemen appeared to exchange complicit glances before disappearing together into the drawing room. When a few minutes I was called to provide refreshments, the four gentlemen were discussing the relative merits of different sorts of sausage, and the atmosphere seemed on the surface at least quite convivial.

Meanwhile, Lord Darlington’s godson, Reggie Cardinal, an international affairs columnist has arrived, and begins a conversation with Stevens in the library. He has received a tip-off about the events going on in the drawing room and claims to be concerned that his lordship is getting into deep waters, and is out of his depth:

Over in that room…there is the British Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the German Ambassador. His lordship has worked wonders to bring about this meeting, and he believes – faithfully believes – he’s doing something good and honourable.

He asks Stevens if he knows why the three gentlemen have been brought together. The butler does not, nor is he curious to know. It is not his place to do so. Reggie tells him that his lordship is being made a fool of, being manoeuvred like a pawn by the Nazis, through Herr Ribbentrop, just as easily as Hitler’s pawns back in Berlin. Fuelled by copious amounts of brandy, he continues:

His lordship is a gentleman. That’s what’s at the root of it. He’s a gentleman, and he fought a war with the Germans, and it’s his instinct to offer friendship to a defeated foe. It’s his instinct. Because he’s a gentleman, a true old English gentleman. And you must have seen it… the way they’ve used it, manipulated it, turned something fine and noble into something else – something they can use for their own foul ends?…Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts…Over the last few years, his lordship has probably been the single most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda tricks. All the better because he’s sincere and honourable and doesn’t recognise the true nature of  what he’s doing. During the last three years alone, his lordship has been crucially instrumental in establishing links between Berlin and over sixty of the most influential citizens of this country. It’s worked beautifully for them. Herr Ribbentrop has been able virtually to bypass our Foreign Office altogether. And as if their wretched Rally and their Olympic Games weren’t enough,… his lordship has been trying to persuade the Prime Minister himself to accept an invitation to visit Herr Hitler. He really believes there’s a terrible misunderstanding on the Prime Minister’s part concerning the present German régime… At this very moment, unless I am very much mistaken, …his lordship is discussing the idea of His Majesty himself visiting Herr Hitler. It’s hardly a secret that our new King has always been an enthusiast for the Nazis. Well, apparently he’s now keen to accept Herr Hitler’s invitation. At this very moment, Stevens, his lordship is doing what he can to remove Foreign Office objections to this appalling idea.

Stevens replies that he trusts his lordship’s judgement, to which Cardinal responds that no one with good judgement could persist in believing anything Herr Hitler said after the Rhineland. Although this is a fictional account, it does represent the atmosphere of aristocratic delusion which accompanied the development of the appeasement policy in the years 1936-7.

Sources: 

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicholson. London: Pimlico

Andrew J Chandler (1989), ‘The Re-making of a Working Class’ . Cardiff (Phd Thesis)

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement. Oxford: Blackwell

Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press

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

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain, 3, 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide

The Labour Party (1937), South Wales: Report of the Labour Party’s Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas.

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