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Berlin 1948: Spring Crises, Midsummer Madness, Blockades & Airlifts.   Leave a comment

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By the spring of 1948, the ideological division of Europe into two rival camps was almost complete, except in Germany and the two capital cities of Vienna and Berlin, where Britain, France, the USSR and the USA each governed a separate sector. Agreements had been formalised in the autumn of 1945, guaranteeing the Western Allies free access to Berlin. The former capital of Germany was a special case in the four-power joint occupation and control of the country, a hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, and therefore a key strategic point for the Soviets to apply pressure on the Western Allies. Road and rail lines were designated for the supply of those areas of the city occupied by them. Air corridors across the Soviet zone between Berlin and the western sectors of Germany had also been agreed, and for three years there was free movement along the accepted routes of access to the city. Britain, America and France relied on the road, rail and canal links into the city, but in the spring of 1948, the Soviet authorities decided to make use of this vulnerability by making access from the west more difficult.

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Added to these issues, Berlin had been subjected to an around-the-clock air bombardment in the war and the city had also endured a heavy artillery bombardment by the Red Army during the final battle. The destruction was almost total: whole districts had been flattened; entire apartment blocks had been demolished and almost every building in the city bore signs of damage. Food was perpetually in short supply and the official currency, the Reichsmark, had gradually become worthless. The black market was flourishing, and the cigarette had become the form of currency. The citizens had, literally, to dig into the rubble to find something with which they could barter in order to scratch out a living. They were joined by refugees arriving in the city, who faced an even more desperate struggle for food, warmth and light.

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In January 1948 the British cabinet had discussed the situation in Germany. In the previous year, the three Western Allies had joined their zones of occupation together into one Western zone. Stalin had watched these events with mistrust. The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had presented a paper to his government that argued for slow movement towards a West German government, and for action on currency reform to undercut the rampant black market. Bevin thought of Britain as an intermediary between the French, who were still fearful of German recovery, and the Americans, who were increasingly frustrated by what they saw as French obstructionism. The French were haunted by an ancient rivalry with Germany and bitter memories of recent defeat and occupation. On 23rd February representatives from the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, along with the United States, met in London to plan for the new West German entity, and for the participation of Germany in the Marshall Plan. News of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia added impetus to the urgency for creating the new state. On 12th March, the Soviet leadership was advised by its spies in the Foreign Office in London that the Western powers are transforming Germany into their strongpoint and incorporating it into a military-political bloc aimed at the Soviet Union. Molotov accused the Allies of violating the agreements of Potsdam and announced that decisions made at the London conference were invalid.

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007 (2)Worse was to follow on 20th March 1948, at a routine Allied Council meeting, when Marshal Vassily Sokolovsky, the Soviet military governor in Germany pressed his US and British counterparts for information about the secret London conference, already knowing, of course, exactly what had happened. When General Lucius D. Clay, the US military governor told him that they were not going to discuss the London meetings, Sokolovsky demanded to know what the point was of having a ‘Control Council’ at all. The Soviets then got up and walked out of the meeting, effectively ending joint control of Germany.

As a result, around Berlin, the Soviet authorities began applying a range of petty bureaucratic obstacles to the free movement of people and supplies in and out of the city.

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Restrictions were placed on the use of the ‘autobahn’ between Berlin and the British sector to the west. The bridge over the Elbe at Hohenwarte, the only other road-crossing point, was closed for “maintenance.” The British offered to send engineers to build another to build another bridge, but Sokolovsky turned down the offer. The Soviets announced that they would search military passengers and their cargo on the rail lines, and stated that no freight shipments between Berlin and the western zones could be made without Soviet permission. On 1st April the Soviets halted two American and two British trains after their commanders refused access to Soviet inspectors. All this amounted to what was later called the “mini-blockade.” General Clay ordered a “baby airlift” to fly into Berlin enough supplies for forty-five days.

 

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On 5th April a Vickers Viking of British European Airways took from an airfield in West Germany on a scheduled flight into RAF Gatow, one of the Allied air bases in West Berlin. As it came into Berlin, in one of the agreed twenty-mile-wide air corridors, the Viking was buzzed by a Soviet Yak-3 fighter plane. It was not the first time this had happened. For a few days, Soviet fighters had been carrying out mock attacks on Allied planes flying into Berlin. But this time, as the British transport plane took evasive action, it collided with the Yak fighter. Both planes crashed to the ground, killing all ten people on board the BEA plane and the pilot of the Soviet fighter. The Soviets blamed the British for the collision, and the British blamed the Soviet pilot. A joint investigation of the accident broke down when the Soviets refused to allow German witnesses to testify. The British and Soviets separately concluded that the mid-air collision was an accident, but thereafter both sides were more nervous that such accidents could bring open conflict.

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008With the situation in Berlin now alarmingly tense, the confrontation between the Soviets and the West spilt over into Berlin’s internal politics. The Berlin City Council was the scene of a fierce power struggle between the East German Communists and their political foes, led by Ernst Reuter, a powerful orator, and his Social Democrats. Reuter had been forced to leave Germany by the Nazis but had returned in 1946. hoping to rebuild the country as a democratic state. His election in 1948 as Mayor of Berlin (the whole city) was vetoed by the Soviets and the East German Communists, whose agents operated in both East and West Berlin, using a combination of intimidation, blackmail and kidnapping to get their way.

As far as the Soviets were concerned, East Germany was Stalin’s by right of conquest; for the West Berliners it was, and remained (until 1972), the Soviet occupation zone, SBZ. The old pre-war Kommunist Partei Deutschlands, boosted by sizeable numbers of Soviet-German agents who had spent the war in Moscow and had been sent back to Berlin as early as May 1945, merged forcibly with the socialists and created a new party, Socialist Unity, led by Walter Ulbricht. It took over the main offices of state and reduced the civil service and the other political parties which remained to the status of mere figureheads. Its constitution made it clear that all fundamental human rights were subject to the concrete conditions under which the proletarian revolution must triumph (Article 19). 

Although, by 1948, the Soviets had forced the Eastern ‘zone’ of Germany to accept Communism, in the Western zone elections they never gained more than eight per cent support for the Communists, and despite the level of intimidation, the Communists had failed to gain control of Berlin.  Around Berlin, tensions had worsened. Soviet military authorities threatened to close down the rail traffic with the West. By 15th June canal boats and freight trains were the only means left of supplying the city. In this explosive situation, the Western Allies decided to introduce their new currency, which was announced on 18th June. Sokolovsky immediately issued a proclamation denouncing their action as being…

against the wishes and interests of the German people and in the interests of the American, British and French monopolists … The separate currency reform completes the splitting of Germany. It is a breach of the Potsdam decisions.

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Sokolovsky also prohibited the introduction of the Western Deutschmark (above left) into the Soviet zone and into Berlin. On 22nd June, the Soviets announced that they would be introducing their own currency, the Ostmark (right) for the Eastern zone and, they hoped, the whole of Berlin. The Western military commanders declared the Soviet order null and void for West Berlin and introduced the B-mark, a special Deutschmark overprinted with the letter ‘B’, for the Western sectors of Berlin. General Clay, who made the decision without consulting Washington, insisted it was a technical, non-political measure. But Sokolovsky announced that the Western mark would not be permitted to circulate in Berlin, which lies in the Soviet zone of Germany and economically forms part of the Soviet zone. General Clay assured his staff that he was not concerned by these developments:

If they had put in a currency reform and we didn’t, it would have been (our) first move.   

007Over the next twelve hours, Berlin endured an extraordinary spate of ‘midsummer madness’. On the evening of 23rd June, at a meeting of the Berlin City Council, which was located in the Soviet sector of the city, Reuter tried to persuade the Assembly to approve the circulation of both the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. As thugs beat up non-Communists to intimidate them from supporting Reuter’s proposal, Soviet officials and Communist-controlled police stood by and watched. Nevertheless, the Berlin Assembly voted to accept the Deutschmark in the Western sectors and the Ostmark in the Soviet sector.

Sokolovsky rang Molotov to ask what he should do; should he surround Berlin with tanks? Molotov told him not to, as this might provoke the Western powers into doing the same, and then the only way out of such an impasse would be through military confrontation. They decided instead to impose an immediate blockade around Berlin, and at 6:00 a.m. on 24th June, the barriers were lowered on all road, rail and canal routes linking Berlin with West Germany. The reason given was “technical difficulties.” That same morning, electricity from power stations in the Soviet sector was cut off to factories and offices in West Berlin. The official reason given was “coal shortages.” So the blockade of Berlin began. The Soviets’ purpose was clear; either the Western Allies must change their policies or be forced out of Berlin altogether. General Clay clearly identified this purpose:

When Berlin falls, Western Germany will be next. If we withdraw our position in Berlin, Europe is threatened … Communism will run rampant.

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Berlin was effectively cut off from the West, with only enough food and fuel to last six weeks. In both London and Washington, there was a clear determination that the Western powers would hold on to West Berlin. President Truman vowed; We are going to stay, period and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that the abandonment of Berlin would mean the loss of Western Europe. It was easy to make such statements, but much more difficult to decide what to do next. West Berlin did indeed have a symbolic status as an outpost of the democratic West inside the Communist East, but by an agreement made at the time of Potsdam, the Soviet authorities were not obliged to supply the British, American and French sectors of the city. So 2.3 million Berliners, and the Allied military garrison there were now cut off. The Western part of the city relied upon the arrival of twelve thousand tons of supplies each day. At the time, there was only enough food for thirty-six days, and enough coal for forty-five. The key to keeping a Western presence in Berlin clearly lay in finding a way to supply the citizens with their bare necessities. With rail, road and canal routes blocked, the only way to get supplies in was by air. However, the American C-47 transport, the military ‘workhorse’ of the day, could only deliver a payload of three tons. Initially, the prospect for an airlift to Berlin appeared to be bleak.

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On 24 June, the West had introduced a counter-blockade, stopping all raid traffic into eastern Germany from the British and US zones. Over the following months, this counter-blockade was to have a damaging effect on the East, as the drying up of coal and steel shipments seriously hindered industrial development in the Soviet zone. On that same day, General Clay rang General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in Wiesbaden and asked him to put on standby his fleet of C-47s and any other aircraft that could be utilised. The RAF had come forward with an ambitious plan to supply Berlin by air, but Clay was sceptical. He favoured sending a convoy of US military engineers down the autobahn to force their way through the Soviet blockade, with instructions to fire back if they were fired upon. But in Washington, Truman’s advisers urged caution and restraint. The president was backed into a corner as it was an election year; the American people would never support going to war with the Soviet Union just to defend Berlin, the capital of a country they had been at war with only three years earlier. At the same time, Truman had to be seen championing a firm line with the Soviets, so he made no final decision that day, but Clay was told by telephone that the president did not want any action taken in Berlin which might lead to possible armed conflict.

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Although both the British and Americans had experience with major air supply operations, neither had ever attempted anything on this scale. Clay warned Reuter that to begin with there would be severe shortages and hardships; initially, he did not believe that the Allies could fly in more than five hundred tons a day. Reuter assured him that the Allies could count on the West Berliners to grin and bear it. Then, without consulting Washington, Clay authorised the start of the airlift. On 26th June, the first American transport planes flew into Berlin from air bases in West Germany, following three narrow air corridors through the Soviet zone. The first flight brought in eighty tons of milk, flour and medicine. The Americans code-named the airlift Operation Vittles; to the British, it was Operation Plainfare. To begin with, about eighty C-47s flew two daily round trips into RAF Gatow and Tempelhof, air bases in the British and American sectors of Berlin. Soon the Americans were bringing fifty C-54 Skymasters, four-engined transports each containing nine tons, three times the payload of the C-47s. The Allies organised willing gangs of workers to unload the aircraft and turn them around quickly. Over time these workers learned to empty each plane in just seven minutes. The citizens of Berlin became increasingly confident that the Allies would be able to save their city. They had had few problems delivering bombs, they reminded each other, so why wouldn’t be able to deliver potatoes?

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The Royal Air Force had fewer service aircraft available for the operation, and spare planes of any type were soon pressed into the airlift. British business executive Freddie Laker had begun to buy and sell aircraft parts after the war, and by 1948 he owned twelve converted Halifax bombers. He was asked to make them available for supplying Berlin and provided a team of pilots and engineers as well. As the operation grew over succeeding months, it grew into a ‘crusade for freedom’, with the pilots determined to keep Berlin alive, despite the hazards of flying old, rickety aircraft, often buzzed by Soviet fighters and frequently at risk when flying heavy loads in bad weather. Bevin set up a crisis-management team in London to supervise the effort, and early expectations were soon exceeded, as roughly a thousand tons per day were flown into the besieged city. The irony was not lost on many of the veteran fliers involved; instead of destroying Berlin, they were now keeping it alive.

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In July, General Clay returned to Washington for talks with President Truman. He still favoured a military a military convoy to break the blockade, for he believed that the Soviets would back down rather than confronting the West. However, Truman did not want to chance it. If they chose not to let the convoy through, there would be war. Instead, Truman guaranteed more C-54s, and the two men talked of doubling the airlift to two thousand tons daily. The American intelligence community, knowing that the Soviets still had two and a half million men at arms, was convinced that in a conventional military confrontation the Red Army would walk right over the US forces. At the same time, they were equally confident that the Kremlin would not sanction direct military conflict with the Western powers, which might provoke the Americans to use nuclear weapons, as they had in Japan. To stop the airlift, the USSR would have had to shoot down British and American planes. Stalin was frightened by the USA’s nuclear capability, since, as yet, the Soviet Union had not developed its own capacity. Perhaps because of this overall military superiority, General Clay remained convinced that the Soviets would not risk a military confrontation:

The chances of war are 1 in 10. The Russians know they would be licked. If they cut our air route, they know it is an act of war.

Besides, the Soviet Union was not yet secure within its own accepted sphere of influence. Yugoslavia split away from the Eastern camp, a defection that made the Kremlin even more nervous about its support among its satellites, especially after events in Czechoslovakia in February and March of the same year. On 28th June, only four days after launching the blockade against Berlin, Moscow expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform and called on other Communist parties to isolate Marshal Tito, its charismatic partisan leader who had taken power after the war without Stalin’s help or support. An economic blockade was organised against Yugoslavia that caused great hardship, but Belgrade stood firm. Rejected by the Eastern ‘bloc’, Tito turned, albeit slowly and a little reluctantly, towards the West. Although not technically a member of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia went on to receive $150 million in aid from the United States. Threatened with invasion by Stalin, Yugoslavia remained the only independent state in Europe throughout the Cold War and a ‘thorn in the side’ of the USSR. Any attempt of an Eastern bloc country to establish its independence from Moscow was labelled ‘Titoism’, a heresy to be rooted out and purged.

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Back in the ‘Berlin Crisis’ during July, attempts were made through diplomatic channels to bring about a settlement. On 2nd August, the British, American, and French ambassadors had a private meeting with Stalin to test his willingness to find a peaceful solution. Stalin made it clear that from the Soviet point of view the currency question was crucial, together with the London agreement to create a united West Germany. He argued that if there were now two German states then Berlin was no longer the capital, making the Western presence in the city no longer relevant. Stalin stated that the USSR was not seeking conflict with the West and would lift the blockade as soon as the West withdrew the B-mark from circulation and agreed to reinstate joint four-power rule over Germany. In point of fact, there was little that the Soviets could do in the face of the West’s superiority in the air and its determination to keep up the airlift. What became clear to the Western ambassadors was that the Soviet blockade had only one principal purpose: to prevent the creation of a West German state.

Pictured Above: On 19th August, A C-47 Dakota comes in for a landing while a huge C-74 Globemaster from Frankfurt unloads 23 tons of flour for the people of Berlin. With some difficulty, the enormous plane landed on a new runway at Gatow in the British zone. Below: Inside the Globemaster.

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Throughout the summer of 1948, the British and American governments constantly reviewed their options. Military thinking concluded that the airlift could hardly continue through the winter; that October was to be the cut-off point. The British chiefs of staff prepared a contingency plan to withdraw their troops to the Rhine in case of an emergency. In Washington, the air force commanders were convinced that the airlift was doomed to fail and concluded that there was a high likelihood of war with the Soviets over Berlin. The question which arose from this for the administration was whether the United States would be willing to use nuclear weapons in the developing crisis, for there was still no clear policy emanating from the White House. Truman argued with his Pentagon chiefs that because they were so terribly destructive, atomic weapons could not be treated as conventional weaponry. He urged the military leaders…

to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people.

In September, the US National Security Council produced a secret report designated as NSC-30: United States Policy on Atomic Welfare. This required the military to be ready to utilize promptly a and effectively all appropriate means available, including atomic weapons, in the interests of national security and to plan accordingly.  However, any decision about the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the president, when he considers such decisions to be required. Truman endorsed NC-30. In a briefing with his chief air force commanders, he…

prayed he would never have to make such a decision, but … if it became necessary, no one need have misgiving but he would do so.

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In a dramatic gesture that summer, a fleet of sixty B-29 ‘Superfortress’ bombers was flown into the United Kingdom. These were the latest American heavy bombers, designed to carry atomic weapons. The deployment of the B-29s established the US Strategic Air Command in the UK, and the arrival of “the atomic bombers” was widely publicised. The threat of nuclear retaliation was now made explicit. After a brief debate, at the height of the Berlin crisis, the British Government had formally invited Washington to station the bombers in Britain. The invitation neatly fudged the issue as to who would have his finger on the nuclear trigger; the US Air Force bombers would respond to orders from the United States, but their bases would be technically under the command of the RAF.

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This theoretical ambivalence lasted for more than forty years. I remember going on a CND march to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk to demonstrate against the presence of the US bombers, and their bombs, in 1976. But in practice the real decision, if it ever came to that, would always be made as NSC-30 directed, by the president of the United States. The planes, in fact, carried no atomic weapons, but this was a closely guarded secret. There were not enough atomic warheads in existence to equip the B-29s in Britain. Their arrival was mainly a signal to Moscow that the West meant business over Berlin, and Washington took advantage of the crisis to get congressional approval for permanent overseas bases.  The British Government knew that the B-29s carried no atomic weapons, and through spies at the London Foreign Office, Moscow also, almost certainly knew too. The British, German and Russian people, of course, did not.

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Meanwhile, the Berlin airlift was proving more successful than anyone ever expected. Tens of thousands of Berliners helped build a new airport at Tegel to reduce congestion at the other two airfields. With capacity for more flights, the Americans added another sixty C-54s to their fleet. Clay now spoke of bringing in 4,500 tons each day. By September, aircraft were landing in Berlin every three minutes, day and night. On 18th September, 861 British and American flights delivered a record seven thousand tons in a single day. By this date roughly two hundred thousand tons of supplies had been delivered, the ‘split’ between the USAF and the RAF being about sixty-forty in percentage terms. Coal, flour, drums of petrol, potatoes, medical supplies were all brought in by air. It began to look as if the airlift would be able to supply the city through the winter, after all. But West Berliners were still fearful that the West might not continue the airlift. On 6th September, another meeting of the City Council in East Berlin had been broken up by Communist agitators with violence and intimidation. The Western representatives decided that the Council was no longer functional, so they left and agreed to meet separately in West Berlin. Three days later, a huge gathering of three hundred thousand Berliners, mostly from the western zones, collected outside the ruins of the Reichstag (below). Standing on a pile of rubble, Reuter addressed the huge crowds, calling upon the Western governments not to abandon Berlin.

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By October, many West Berliners were getting desperate. They were allowed only small amounts of fat, spam (tinned meat), potatoes, cereal and bread. Berlin’s people needed four thousand tons of supplies a day to survive. People had got used to the rationing, and even to feeling cold, since electricity was only available four hours a day. But the blockade was not, in any case, absolute, so a minority of West Berliners were able to register for food rations with the Soviet authorities, and about one in ten of them were, therefore, able to draw food and coal from the East. As there was no restriction on travel within the city, so many West Berliners regularly visited the eastern part of the city, where there were well-lit and heated dance halls.

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The airlift became almost a way of life. Although expensive, its cost represented only a fraction of the total cost of American aid to Europe. Despite bad weather and constant harassment by Soviet fighters, the transports continued to bring their cargoes into West Berlin. By December, the goal of 4,500 tons flown in each day was reached. At Gatow and Tempelhof flights landed every ninety seconds. Enough coal was freighted in to keep West Berliners from freezing. The gamble had paid off. Production in the city picked up and output grew rapidly. The feared economic collapse did not materialise.

Below (left): A German child’s drawing commemorates the airlift: “We thank the pilots for their work and effort.” Right: A new game, “Airlift.”

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By the spring of 1949, the weather improved considerably. Food supplies in Berlin could be built up and fuel stocks maintained at a sufficient level. The airlift ensured that eight thousand tons were being flown in each day. In one twenty-four hour period, on Easter Sunday, April 1949, a record number of 1,398 flights came into  Berlin, carrying a total of thirteen thousand tons of supplies. In all, two million tons of supplies had been flown in since the airlift began. As the counter-blockade of eastern Germany hurt more and more, the Soviets took the only course left open to them and tried to end the whole Berlin debacle. The Kremlin indicated that it would consider ending its blockade with minimal conditions imposed: The counter-blockade would have to be lifted and the Council of Foreign Ministers reconvened. The bellicose General Clay quietly returned to Washington, ceasing to be military governor and claiming that, in any case, after the tensions of the preceding year he needed a break. On 12th May 1949, the blockade was finally lifted, and the Western military authorities reciprocated by lifting their counter-blockade. Both sides claimed victory and Berliners were jubilant; many thought this would be the end of the conflict between the Great Powers. In reality, the blockades had resulted in the end of the war-time alliance and in the formation of two Berlins: West and East. Added to that, as the heavy transports continued to fly their daily missions, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany was being drafted. Stalin’s attempt to prevent the division of Germany had failed. President Truman commented:

When we refused to be forced out of Berlin, we demonstrated to Europe that we would act when freedom was threatened. This action was a Russian plan to probe the soft spots in the Western Allies’ positions.

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Above: RIAS, Radio in the American Sector, American-financed, with a mix of popular music and upbeat news, kept up Berliners’ morale. Presenter and entertainer Christina Ohlsen became a celebrity.

The West did, indeed, secure a major propaganda victory through the airlift. It was a reminder to the Soviet Union, and the whole international community, of Western technological superiority, especially in the air. Conversely, the Berlin crisis showed the Soviets in a poor light: they seemed to be willing to threaten 2.3 million people with starvation. The Soviet view of the events was, not surprisingly, quite different:

The crisis was planned in Washington, behind a smoke-screen of anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1948 there was the danger of war. The conduct of the Western powers risked bloody incidents. The self-blockade of the Western powers hit the West Berlin population with harshness. The people were freezing and starving. In the spring of 1949 the USA was forced to yield … their war plans had come to nothing, because of the conduct of the Soviet Union.

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The Soviets, operating outside the framework of American loan credits and facing the Western alliance, saw themselves to be increasingly threatened. We now know that Stalin privately felt far weaker than was known at the time, but in 1948 many in the West genuinely believed that Stalin planned to dominate the entire European continent. The US policy of ‘containment’ meant confronting Communism at all agreed critical points, and Berlin was one of these. Old wartime loyalties to Russia were being replaced by fear of Soviet ambitions; a “them and us” syndrome had emerged. As US Secretary of State, George C Marshall observed,…

There has been a definite crystallization of American public and Congressional opinion over the Berlin issue. … The country is more unified in its determination not to weaken in the face of pressure of an illegal blockade than on any other issue we can recall in time of peace.  

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The Berlin blockade made clear to most Americans that the new enemy was definitely the Soviet Union. The Blockade and Airlift was the first open struggle between East and West. The tactics were designed not to start a war, but to threaten to go to war if necessary. This set the pattern for future Cold War conflicts, including further tensions over Berlin. 

Source:

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

 

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Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

Every Picture Tells a Story:

Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942.  In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.

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A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels.  Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.

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On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.

The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.

My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.

toms-family-4

So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.

photo-in-magazine-1943

The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.

15-october-1944

One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.

may-1944

One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.

The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:

To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.

By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.

In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.

By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.

Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?

The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.

In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.

By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.

Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.

In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:

Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.

She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:

The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.

Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.

The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb  Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.

Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.

Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.

Secondary Source:

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

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

Documentary Appendix Part Five:

001

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

 

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

1 January – Institute for the Research of the Jewish Problem

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

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

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

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

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

30 April – First Veesenmayer Fact-Finding Report

15 May – Dissolution of the Communist International (Comintern)

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

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

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

9 July – Landing of Anglo-American units in Sicily

24 July – E. Ghycy, Minister of Foreign Affairs

15 July – Mussolini arrested; Badoglio Cabinet

August – Secret negotiations between Hungary and Britain in Istanbul

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

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

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

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

29 November – Tito, Chairman of National Defence

12 December – Benes signed Soviet-Czechoslovak Treaty in Moscow

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macartney:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macartney:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macartney:

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

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

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

Macartney:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J. On the Changing Attitude of the British:

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

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

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

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

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

Macartney:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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