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‘God’s Own People’ – Welsh Puritans, The New Model Army & The Commonwealth.   Leave a comment

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‘Williams alias Cromwell’ – God’s Welshman?:

Christopher Hill

Writing recently on the 375th anniversary of the founding of the New Model Army, I was reminded of the fact that its cavalry commander, Oliver Cromwell, given the epithet ‘God’s Englishman’ as the title of his biography, by Christopher Hill (right), was of ‘good Welsh stock’. Indeed, his ancestors’ story is very much synonymous with the union of England and Wales under the Tudors. Oliver himself was born in 1599, one of ten children, in Huntingdon, towards the end of the reign of the last Welsh-speaking monarch of Britain, Elizabeth I.

Oliver Cromwell’s father, Robert Cromwell (alias Williams), was the younger son of Sir Henry Cromwell (alias Williams), the ‘Golden Knight of Hinchingbrooke’. Henry’s father was born Richard Williams, grandson of a Welshman said to have accompanied Henry Tudor when he seized the throne of England from the Plantagenets at the Battle of Bosworth and became Henry VII in 1485. So the family’s estate derived from Oliver’s great-great-grandfather Morgan ap William, the son of William ap Ieuan of Wales. William was a great archer and a kinsman of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. Morgan was a brewer from Glamorgan who settled at Putney near London and married Katherine Cromwell (born 1482), the daughter of the local blacksmith, Walter Cromwell. She was also the sister of Thomas Cromwell, the famous chief minister to Henry VIII. The Cromwell family acquired great wealth as occasional beneficiaries of Thomas’s administration of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Of course, he was known as the ‘hammer of the monks’ and was the architect of the English Reformation. The story of his fall and execution in 1540 has just been re-chronicled by historical novelist Hilary Mantel in the final part of her hugely popular ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy, something else that prompted me to write about Oliver Cromwell’s Welsh connections.

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Henry VIII believed that the Welsh should adopt surnames in the English style rather than taking their fathers’ names (patronyms) as Morgan ap William and his male ancestors had done. Henry suggested to Sir Richard Williams, one of the king’s most favoured knights, who was the first to use a surname in his family, that he might adopt the surname of his uncle Thomas Cromwell. For several generations, the Williamses added the surname of Cromwell to their own, styling themselves “Williams alias Cromwell” in legal documents (Noble 1784, pp. 11–13). Richard Williams took the name of his famous uncle and acted as his agent in the suppression of the monasteries. He had his reward: three abbeys, two priories and the nunnery of Hinchinbrooke, worth perhaps two-and-a-half thousand pounds a year, came into his possession; and he married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London. His son, Sir Henry, built the magnificent mansion out of the ruins of Hinchinbrooke, fit to entertain royalty, on the site of Ramsey Abbey. In the year of the Armada, 1588, he ordered all his copyhold tenants in the manor of Ramsey to be ready to attend him at an hour’s notice. He too married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, represented his county in the House of Commons and was for times sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. He was one of the two wealthiest landowners in Huntingdonshire.

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An integrated Britain becomes visible first in the major migration of the Welsh to the centre of power in the sixteenth century. Dafydd Seisyllt from the Welsh-speaking ‘enclave’ of Ergyng in Herefordshire went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman and spy-master. William’s son, Robert Cecil, became chief minister of James I, and in 1605 ‘uncovered’ the Gunpowder Plot. As we have seen above, the family of Morgan ap-William, the brewer who married Thomas Cromwell’s sister, changed its name and its base from Glamorganshire to Huntingdonshire during this time, producing Oliver Cromwell three generations later. A horde of less well-known Welsh people colonised some of the London professional classes, the armed forces and some branches of commerce which in a few sectors became historically significant. The law and education are major examples of this. They also helped to establish Bristol as Britain’s major Atlantic port as trade routes switched from the eastern English coasts to the west. The Welsh moved resolutely into every conceivable avenue of advancement, from the Court, the Great Sessions, the Council of Wales, JP patronage and the academic world, through minerals, commerce and politics, to smuggling and piracy.

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Under Elizabeth I, Welsh intellectuals concentrated in force behind the first thrust for naval growth, American colonisation and empire. For the first time in centuries, the Welsh Church ceased to serve as the provider of sinecures for English clerics; thirteen of the sixteen bishops appointed to Wales were crusading Protestant Welshmen. Elizabeth’s coronation oath referred back through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories of the Kings of Britain to claim her right to call herself Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church independently of the ‘Bishop of Rome’, tracing the origins of the churches in Britain to the Celtic missionaries. When these claims came under attack from the ‘Italian School’, most Tudor Renaissance humanists came to the defence of what had become official ‘doctrine’.

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Among the new scholars were Sir John Price of Brecon and Humphrey Llwyd of Denbigh. In 1571, Jesus College, Oxford was created specifically as a Welsh college. Central to this burst of British imperial energy was the seminal figure of the European Renaissance, Dr John Dee, the London-Welshman, originally from Radnorshire, who is credited with the coinage of the term ‘British Empire’. He was a brilliant mathematician and foundation fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. In the 1580s, from the twin Calvinist bases of Bohemia and the Palatinate, he launched a scientific and mystical movement which cultivated a new world view. In 1614, Elizabeth Stuart, James I’s daughter, married Frederick, Elector Palatine, and in 1618 they became the ‘Winter’ King and Queen of Bohemia, an event which led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe.

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Court & Country in Stuart Times:

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Henry’s son, Sir Oliver, also a knight of the shire and high sheriff, was the uncle of Oliver Cromwell. Despite prudent marriages, Sir Oliver, living to almost a hundred, managed to dissipate the family fortunes. He entertained James I at Hinchinbrooke (above) in the most lavish way when the King was on progress from Scotland in 1603 and on many later occasions. Like other country gentlemen who entertained the impecunious monarch, Sir Oliver got little in return. Like Sir John Harington of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, tutor and guardian of James’ daughter Elizabeth, Sir Oliver is a classical example of a man ruined by ‘courtesy’. He had to sell his great house to the Montague family, who were to play a major part in the civil wars.

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This may have been the root cause of the family feud which was the background to Oliver’s own quarrel with Sir Edward Montague, the Earl of Manchester, pictured right, which led to the ‘Self-Denying Ordinance’ removing Manchester and his fellow peers from command of the Parliamentary Army, and the establishment of the ‘New Model’ Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell. The immediate result of the sale was that Robert, as the younger son, inherited little of the patrimony; but he did retain some of his own former church property. Cromwell’s father Robert was of modest means but still, a member of the landed gentry.

As a younger son with many siblings, Robert inherited only a house at Huntingdon and a small amount of land. This land would have generated an income of up to £300 a year, near the bottom of the range of gentry incomes. Oliver’s mother was Elizabeth Steward, the anglicised surname of ‘Stewart’ or ‘Stuart’. On both sides, the fortunes of the family had been founded by the ‘spoliation’ of the Roman Catholic Church. At the Reformation Elizabeth Steward’s great-uncle, Robert had been the last Prior of Ely and its first protestant Dean. Her father William and after him her only brother Sir Thomas farmed the lands of Ely Cathedral. The connection between the two families went back two generations: for the man who persuaded Prior Robert Steward to throw in his lot with Thomas Cromwell was Sir Richard Cromwell, previously known as Richard Williams.

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Above. Ely Cathedral from Cromwell’s House.

Oliver was born in a house which had been part of the hospital of St John in Huntingdon since his father had acquired property which had formerly belonged to the Austin friars: from his maternal uncle Sir Thomas Steward, Oliver was later to inherit extensive leases from the Dean and Chapter of Ely. But he must have grown up conscious of the fact that he was a poor relation. He visited the splendours of Hinchinbrooke from time to time, but his father’s three hundred pounds a year was less than Sir Oliver would have spent on a fleeting visit from King James. Young Oliver had many rich and important relations, but his own upbringing was modest. Cromwell himself in 1654 said,

“I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity”.

Above: Cromwell’s House and parish church, Ely

Along with his brother Henry, Oliver had kept a smallholding of chickens and sheep, selling eggs and wool to support himself, his lifestyle resembling that of a yeoman farmer. In 1636 Cromwell inherited control of various properties in Ely from his uncle on his mother’s side, and his uncle’s job as tithe collector for Ely Cathedral. As a result, his income is likely to have risen to around £300–400 per year.

Cromwell’s House in Ely is a museum today, as shown above, and below.

 

By the end of the 1630s, Cromwell had returned to the ranks of acknowledged gentry. He had become a committed Puritan and had established important family links to leading families in London and Essex. In his seminal book The World Turned Upside Down (below), Christopher Hill argued that the familiar civil war division between the ‘Royalist’ North and West and the ‘Parliamentarian’ South and East, was also a division between the ‘relatively backward’ North and West, and the ‘economically advanced South and East’. Yet, with hindsight, these contemporary stereotypes were already changing as the first civil war got underway and by the second the growth in Atlantic trade was already beginning to transform the fortunes of war in the West. Yet, the North and West were regarded by Parliamentarians as the ‘dark corners of the land’, in which preaching was totally inadequate, despite the early attempts made by many Puritans to propagate the Gospel. In 1641, Lord Brooke (Earl of Warwick) observed that there was…

… scarce any minister in some whole shires, as in Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland and especially in Wales.

Eighteen years later, the evangelical minister and Parliamentary chaplain, Richard Baxter, argued that…

 … multitudes in England, and more in Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, the Highlands, are scarce able to talk reason about common things. Are these … fit to have the sovereign power, to rule the Commonwealth?

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But the radicals puritans’ vision already included a reformed educational system, which would realise something of Comenius’ ideal: universal education in the vernacular for boys and girls up to the age of eighteen, followed by six years at university for the best pupils. On a visit to England in 1641, he wrote that…

… they are eagerly debating on the reformation in the whole kingdom … that all young people should be instructed, none neglected.

Wales in the Civil Wars – Royalists to Roundheads:

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In the first civil war, Wales was seen as solidly in support of the King, but by 1645 the royalist coalition in Wales, bludgeoned by repeated levies of men and money, murky deals with the Irish and an inflow of royalist refugees, began to break up. In Glamorgan, ‘peaceable armies’ demonstrated for compromise and throughout Wales, there was wholesale defection. By 1646 the ‘Pembroke party’ was also working for a compromise peace with the Presbyterians in the face of a radical army. From that army came Independent chaplains such as Vavasour Powell, who became itinerant preachers among the Welsh. In response, moderate royalists, Presbyterians and disgruntled parliamentarians shuffled into an alliance in support of the imprisoned king. This led to a rising focused on south Pembrokeshire in the summer of 1648 when there were also revolts in south-east England, followed by an invasion of Northern England by the Scots. The rising in South Wales was led by former Parliamentarian officers, renegades against whom Cromwell was particularly bitter. After their defeat, one of their leaders was shot. In this second civil war, the New Model Army won a victory against the rebels at St Fagans near Cardiff and Cromwell himself brought about the final reduction of Pembroke Castle, the boyhood home of Henry Tudor. Early in 1649, Charles was executed and Wales was exposed to the full force of ‘the British Republic’.

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But the ‘transformation’ of Wales from a Royalist ‘fiefdom’ into a Roundhead republic by no means simply an orgy of expulsions and confiscations. Many of the men who gained control in Wales were ‘crusaders’ for the puritan cause. John Jones, a freeholder from of Maes-y-Garnedd in Merioneth and a convert of Morgan Llwyd’s preaching, married Cromwell’s sister, served the Protector in Ireland and died heroically on the scaffold as an unrepentant regicide. Colonel Philip Jones of Llangyfelach, a distinguished soldier, was close to the visionary Hugh Peter, and it was this circle that the notion evolved of evangelising Wales around a ‘commission’ to propagate the gospel. To them, Wales was a dark corner, ripe for a radical experiment in godly government. It was this abused régime with its army men and preaching cobblers which proved to be the only English administration to date to treat Wales as a separate nation. The Rump Parliament at Westminster had disappointed even moderate reformers by its failure to ensure that the word was preached in every parish, for there were still too many lazy, ignorant and absentee parsons who left their flocks hungry in what was a sermon-hungry age. It did set up two local Commissions for the Propagation of the Gospel early in 1650, one for Wales and the other for the northern counties, but it made no progress at all with a bill intended to do the same for England as a whole.

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The Act for the Better Propagation of the Gospel in Wales of 1650 gave the country a peculiar form of autonomy under Colonel Thomas Harrison and seventy commissioners. There were a few members of the gentry of Independent temper like Sir Erasmus Philipps of Picton in Pembrokeshire, though most, of necessity, were English military missionaries. Philip Jones and John Jones were prominent, but the core around Harrison were men like Powell, Cradock, Llwyd, John Miles (who had created the first Calvinistic Baptist church in Gower), men whom later generations would see as founding fathers of modern Wales. They threw out nearly three hundred clergymen, but the propagating venture got a bad name when the Welsh commission was powerfully infiltrated by Fifth Monarchist firebrands, most notably Vavasour Powell and Morgan Llwyd, who had strong links with Colonel Harrison and his faction in the Army. They were not only seen as perverting the organisation in order to preach socially subversive ideas about the irrelevance of worldly rank and the imminent rule of the saints, but they were unjustly accused of misappropriating the tithes and other revenues of the church in Wales to their own sectarian ends. This was only one symptom of growing polarization between moderate and extreme puritans. The year 1652 saw a spate of radical pamphlets and petitions, tending to the removal of religion from the state’s authority, as well as the rapid expansion of Quakers and other heterodox sects. But it also saw the emergence of a group of moderate Independents led by John Owen who put a set of proposals before the Rump prefiguring the ecclesiastical régime of the Protectorate. They sought to preserve a broad established church, with generous freedom of worship and association outside it.

As a political and religious ‘Independent’, Lord General Cromwell favoured the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in both England and Wales, though he maintained the need for a national Church, supported through tithes, possibly because he himself was a tithe-collector for Ely. Yet Parliament did nothing to achieve this. It was not until February 1653 that the Rump took up the relatively conservative but nonetheless reforming scheme of Owen and his group. But Parliament and the Army remained suspicious of each other, and the Rump showed particular animosity towards Harrison, whom the hostile MPs blamed for the radical actions taken under the auspices of the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales. He had lost his place on the Council of State in November 1651, and there was even a move to expel him from parliament. This was not only unjust but also foolish, for though Cromwell did not share Harrison’s fifth monarchist beliefs, there were still strong ties of friendship and mutual trust between the two seasoned soldiers. According to contemporary sources, Cromwell played up to Army radicalism by saying that the Rump intended to support ‘the corrupt interests of the clergy and the lawyers’. So far from reforming the Anglican Church, Parliament aroused resentment by refusing to renew the Commission for Wales, the Army’s favourite instrument for evangelising what had proved to be a politically unreliable country.

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Cromwell and the generals also advocated the disappearance of Parliament and the handing of power to a provisional government, in which they themselves would naturally predominate, to supervise and control elections. How otherwise, he asked, could one know …

… whether the next Parliament were not like to consist of all Presbyterians. … Thus, as we apprehended, would have been thrown away the liberties of the nation into the hands of those who had never fought for it.

When a meeting between officers and MPs on 19 April 1653 ended in deadlock, the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between them to engage in further discussions was breached the next day by backbench MPs who started to rush through a bill for dissolution without meeting the officers’ demand for an interim authority under their control, revealing that parliament intended to control the election of its successors itself. Cromwell felt that his hand had been forced, and intervened with the army just in time to stop the new bill from becoming law. He flew into a rage, by all accounts, declaring to the Commons:

You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament …

So ended the Long Parliament, which had sat for twelve and a half years. Despite the repeated attempts by many to ‘paint’ this as an act of tyranny in the form orchestrated ‘coup d’état’, it is quite clear that what Cromwell was seeking to do was to end the dictatorship of an undemocratic ‘élite’ which was clinging to power and trying to ensure the continued predominance of presbyterian rule both in Westminster and the country at large. His ‘righteous indignation’ stemmed from the manner in which they sought to dissolve themselves in order to ensure that they could rig the subsequent election to this effect. Their betrayal of the compromise reached with the Army took him by surprise.

The ‘Coral Growth’ of the Welsh Independents:

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Above: The British Republic, 1649-60.

During the civil wars, new universities were proposed for Bristol, Shrewsbury, Ludlow and Aberystwyth. There were also proposals for an increase in the number of schools and in Wales a great number of new schools were actually started. Despite the negative stereotypes quoted above, according to Laurence Stone, there was a substantial increase in lower-class literacy throughout the revolutionary decades. One of the paradoxes of the period was that of the most radical sectarian groups, the Quakers started almost exclusively in the North of England and the Baptists were at their strongest in Wales. William Erbery claimed that the new English Independency had already been overthrown by the Welsh and that…

… baptised churches have the greatest fall (harvest) from the northern saints in both in England and Wales … John’s spirit is in the North of England and the spirit of Jesus rising in North Wales is for the fall of all the churches in the South. The whirlwind comes from the North. 

From the early 1650s, there was a rapid expansion of Particular Baptists in Wales and of Quakers all over the North of England. In 1654, one of their enemies, Ephraim Pagitt, said of them in 1654 that they were made up out of the dregs of common people … thickest set in the North Parts. Earlier, in 1649, Hugh Peter and others had noticed that the Welsh border counties, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, were ‘ripe for the gospel’ and emissaries were sent from Glamorgan to London asking for preachers. When the Quakers turned south in 1654 they made great progress among ‘that dark people’ of Cornwall, as well as in Wales, and among weavers generally, notably in Gloucestershire. The paradox was further intensified by the fact that such Puritan ministers as there were in the North had mostly been cleared out in the Laudian persecutions of the 1630s, under Richard Neile, Archbishop of York. Those remaining were further reduced in the North and Wales when they fled from their parishes the civil war to escape the Royalist occupation in those territories. As early as 1646 Thomas Edwards had noted that…

… emissaries out of the sectaries’ churches are sent to infect and poison … Yorkshire and those northern parts, … Bristol and Wales. … Sects begin to grow fast … for want of a settlement in discipline.

Traditional southern middle-class Puritanism of the Presbyterian variety had a hold only in isolated areas of the North, and hardly at all in Wales, except for the area of Harley influence along the borders with Worcestershire and Herefordshire. There, Sir Thomas’ planting of godly ministers … backing them with his authority made religion famous in his little corner of the world. Clarendon testifies to the existence of support for the Parliamentary cause among the common people and popular religious movements in North Wales and in the Forest of Dean at the end of the first civil war. This helps to explain why the New Model Army, …

… having marched up and down the kingdom, to do the work of God and the state … met with many Christians who have much gospel-light … in such places where there hath been no gospel-ministry.

Presbyterian Puritanism took little hold of any depth in Wales. The defeat of the Royalist armies and the bankruptcy of the traditional clergy created an even greater spiritual void than in the more traditional Puritan areas of the South and East. Yet the period was one of much greater prosperity in the pasture farming areas of Wales and the borders. This combined with a growth in ‘cottage’ industries as confirmed by a shift in population to the west midland counties of England and the re-building of peasant houses in stone. Contemporaries explained the ‘whoredoms of the Welsh’ by the mountain air: the modern historian more wisely sees them as the natural product of a society which refused to accept English protestant marriage laws.

In these areas, it was the Particular Baptists who initially filled the spiritual gap, though in some parts they were superseded by Quakers, as in the North of England. The more politically radical Fifth Monarchists had only a superficial influence in Wales, being a mainly urban movement, and they had little connection with the Forest of Dean before the 1670s. It seems to have been mainly in response to this radical challenge that the outlying clergy joined in the movement led by Kidderminster’s Richard Baxter to build up voluntary county associations of ministers, a sort of ‘Presbyterianism from below’. The radical Independents of the Cromwellian period in Wales and along the Welsh border included Vavasour Powell, Morgan Lloyd, Walter Cradock and William Erbery, to which might be added Thomas Harrison and Henry Danvers, the Fifth Monarchists from Staffordshire, and the Leveller William Walwyn of Worcestershire.

There was also a broader cultural impact of Wales and the borders upon the ‘more advanced’ south and east. John Donne, the greatest of the metaphysical poets, is separated by just one generation from the Welsh forbear who sent his younger son to London to be apprenticed, and George Herbert and Henry Vaughan were both Welsh. Thomas Traherne came from the Welsh ‘marches’ and in the second rank of border ‘bards’, we might include Lord Herbert of Cherbury and John Davies of Hereford. Inigo Jones, the great architect who re-built St Paul’s before the Great Fire destroyed it completely, was of Welsh descent. Turning to the field of mathematics and science, Robert Recorde, John Dee, Robert Fludd, Matthew Gwynne, Edmund Gunter, Thomas Vaughan and Edward Somerset, Marquis of Worcester, were all Welsh or, like Cromwell himself, of Welsh descent. The cultural consequences of the union of Great Britain, begun by the Tudors, and extended by James I, were further developed through the creation of the New Model Army and its role in the political and religious matters of the mid-seventeenth century.

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The Cromwell Coat of Arms (on Oliver’s ascent to Lord Protector in 1653)

The Bible & Radical Puritanism in the Protectorate:

Late twentieth-century historians re-examined the nature of Cromwell’s faith and of his authoritarian regime. In his extensive 2002 book (see below), Austin Woolrych explored the issue of “dictatorship” in depth, arguing that Cromwell was subject to two conflicting forces: his obligation to the army and his desire to achieve a lasting settlement by winning back the confidence of the nation as a whole. He argued that the dictatorial elements of Cromwell’s rule stemmed less from its military origin or the participation of army officers in civil government than from his constant commitment to the interest of the people of God and his conviction that suppressing vice and encouraging virtue constituted the chief end of government. Historians such as John Morrill, Blair Worden, and J. C. Davis have developed this theme, revealing the extent to which Cromwell’s writing and speeches are suffused with biblical references, and arguing that his radical actions were driven by his zeal for godly reformation.

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It is difficult to overemphasise the role of the Bible in the radical Puritanism of the first half of the seventeenth century. By mid-century, eschatological prophecy had become a major part of protestant controversial literature, aided especially by the invention of printing. Scholars, including Newton, approached the Bible authorised by King James in 1612 in a scientific spirit and reached a consensus which indicated the advent of remarkable events in the mid-1650s: the fall of Antichrist, the second coming and the millennium. This underlay the confident energy and utopian enthusiasm of the Puritan preachers of the 1640s and ’50s. In this spirit of optimism, they called upon their fellow commoners to fight the Lord’s battles against the Antichrist. Cromwell was chief among these men to take up that calling.

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Ordinary Bible-readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wanted to democratise the mysteries that lay behind the sacred texts of the Scriptures, previously known only to scholars, for themselves. They believed, on good protestant authority, that anyone could understand God’s word if he studied it carefully enough and if the grace of God was in him. Then the Bible could be made to reveal the significance of the events of his own time. Bibles were no longer expensive as book prices then went, 3s 2d in 1649 and later just two shillings. Soldiers in the New Model Army were issued with The Soldier’s Bible, containing key passages which justified their war with the ‘Antichrist’. The Geneva Bible, on which the Authorised Version was based, was published in pocket-size editions so that men could take it to church or the ale-house, as Henry VIII had observed with alarm, to knock down an argument with a text. Those coming to the Bible with no broad historical sense but with high expectations found in it a message of direct contemporary relevance. A young Welshman delighting in the name of ‘Arise’ Evans (a forename probably derived from ‘Rhys’, ‘ap-Rhys’ or, in its anglicised form, ‘Rice’) who arrived in London in 1629, witnessed as to how his attitude to the Bible changed in the decade before the Revolution:

Afore I looked upon the Scripture as a history of things that passed in other countrie, pertaining to other persons; but now I looked upon it as a mystery to be opened at this time, belonging also to us.

This attitude was, no doubt, shared by many of the victims of economic and political crisis who turned to the Bible for guidance in that perplexing period. The 1640s and ’50s were indeed the great age of ‘mechanic preachers’, laymen like the Quakers George Fox and James Nayler, who led a procession into Bristol in 1656 symbolically riding on an ass, and the ex-soldier and Baptist John Bunyan, interpreting the Bible according to their own untutored ‘inner lights’ with all the excitement and assurance of a new discovery. Many Quaker leaders were also ex-soldiers, like James Nayler, and some had been dismissed from the Army in the 1650s for disciplinary reasons, but others seem not to have found military service compatible with their values. Quakers also continued to serve in the Navy. George Fox was offered a commission in 1651. In his Journal he recorded that he refused it on pacifist grounds, but in 1657 he urged ‘the inferior offices and soldiers’ of the Army on to conquer Rome. After 1658 he was more cautious, but as late as 1660 a leading south Welsh Quaker asked Fox whether Quakers were free to serve in the Army. The first official declaration of absolute pacifism was made by the Society of Friends in January 1661, after a number of Quakers had been arrested in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Fifth Monarchist Revolt. It was intended to protect them against charges of sedition, but also marks the beginning of refusal among them to accept civil or military offices. However, it is more likely that, in the previous decade, the early refusals of Fox and others sprang from political objections to the government of the Commonwealth rather than from pacifist principles. In fact, in 1659, when the political situation was more to their liking, many Quakers re-enlisted in the Army. As late as 1685, Quakers are said to have turned out with their ‘pitchforks’ in the west country to join Monmouth’s rebellion.

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The Growth of Quakerism in Wales & the West of England – The Strange Case of Dorcas Erbery:

The coral growth of Quakerism, especially in Wales and the Western Counties of England, from Cumberland to Cornwall, was largely the product of the nurturing of lay-preaching in the radical regiments of the New Model Army. These soldier-preachers, like Nayler, took it for granted that fellow Quakers had supported and, in most cases, fought for Parliament in the civil wars. George Fox made similar assumptions, though by the mid-1650s he was resisting James Nayler’s ‘simple teaching’ and writing to Nayler that his style of mechanic preaching had made him a shelter for the unclean spirits, the beasts of the field; they made thee their refuge. The controversy led to disunity, as elsewhere, while Nayler himself remained silent. Nayler was born in the Yorkshire village of West Ardsley, near Wakefield in 1618, where he followed his father’s occupation of a ‘husbandman’ before moving into the nearby town. In 1643 he had joined the Parliamentary Army and served seven years in a foot regiment before becoming quartermaster in Lambert’s Regiment of Horse, taking part in the third civil war, including the battles of Dunbar and Worcester.

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In the summer of 1656, along with a number of other Quakers, Nayler was imprisoned in Exeter Jail. Amongst these were a number of women, including Dorcas Erbery, the daughter of an “honest minister” in Wales, probably William Erbery. One of the women died, and when Dorcas, some days later, fell into a prolonged faint, the excited women about her declared that she was also dead. Nayler was called to see the lifeless body and laid his hands upon it, and at his touch, the girl revived and stood up. That was sufficient to prove to his followers that he was Christ, though he himself never claimed this, contrary to the charges made against him later that year. When the Bristol magistrates quoted from the letters found in his pockets, one of which referred to him, from John’s Gospel, as the Lamb of God, in whom the hope of Israel stands, and asked him whether he was himself that Lamb, he responded:

If I were not his Lamb, I should not be thus sought for to be devoured. The hope of Israel stands in the righteousness of the Father in whomsoever it is.

Such a reply scarcely seemed to merit imprisonment, and it may be that if Nayler’s followers had not shown such an uncompromising spirit in their hero-worship he would have been allowed to go free. Martha Simmonds and Dorcas Erbery both stoutly maintained that he was indeed Jesus. No cross-examination could shake Dorcas from her belief that Nayler had raised her to life after she had been dead two days. Under these circumstances, a seventeenth-century Bench had no alternative but to send them back to jail. The two male Quakers who had played a modest part in the demonstration in the courthouse, which had included continual shouting of ‘hosanna’, were sent home without charge and attended the Friends’ meeting later that day. Nayler and his companions were not completely disowned by the Bristol Quakers, and a local Quaker apothecary brought them supplies and “comforts” before Nayler was sent to Westminster to answer the charge of ‘blasphemy’ before Parliament. But a note from Thomas Simmonds, the printer, to his wife Martha, one of the women involved, concludes with an affectionate but somewhat bantering strain:

Dear heart, my love is to thee and to J.N. and to J.S. and H.S. But this I could not but write to warn you that you stand single to the Lord and not believe every sprit. Your work is soon to come to an end: part of the army that fell at Burford was your figure.

The reference to Burford is to Cromwell’s suppression of the Leveller mutiny in the Army of 1649 when the mutineers were locked in Burford Church and a number of them were shot. This ‘turning point’ in the Revolution was clearly still fresh in many minds, and the reference to it may also point to the quarrel between Nayler and Fox, whose ‘authority’ over the movement he continued to dispute. When one of Fox’s letters to him was used in evidence against Nayler in court, the latter had called his erstwhile leader a liar and firebrand of hell, which must have alarmed the local Quakers who were present and given them a measure of his alienation from Fox’s leadership. Nayler’s ‘excitable women followers’ were also bitterly critical of Fox, but Nayler had refused to restrain them at Fox’s request, made in a letter of September 1656, possibly the letter produced in court. Nayler later justified his refusal by saying that he did not wish to quench whatever was ‘of God’ in what they said and did. The modern-day Quaker writer, John Lampen, has stated (1981) that:

It has been generally assumed that at the time he did not have the emotional strength to withstand their influence, and this is borne out by contemporary descriptions of his passive, exhausted demeanor. However he was still justifying his behaviour by appealing to divine guidance, and so implicitly challenging Fox’s spiritual insight.

Other friends expected Fox to settle the issue by his personal authority. In the unity so often felt at the start of a great venture, they had not yet needed to discover ways of reconciling different perceptions of the Truth, and Nayler was considered by many contemporaries to be their most notable preacher, even if Fox was the chief pastor of their flock. The over-enthusiastic atmosphere which developed around Nayler was created by men as well as women. When one man wrote to him, Thy name shall be no more James Nayler, but Jesus, he put it straight in his pocket, overcome by fear, intending no-one to see it, as he could not own its contents, but he did not, as far as we know, reprove the sender. Fox was not without fault in their quarrel. When the two men eventually met, Nayler went to kiss Fox on the head, but Fox recoiled, instead offering him his foot to kiss. However, Fox refused to publish a statement condemning Nayler, but he did repudiate some of his ‘followers’ including Martha Simmonds, for their lies and slanders. Beneath the inter-personal conflict lay a fundamental issue as to whether the ‘Guidance within’ which was claimed by individual Quakers could be viewed as an infallible spirit. Fox could see in Nayler the possibility of unchecked individualism diverging from the divine illumination in which he believed. Following Nayler’s release from prison, the two were finally reconciled in 1659 shortly before his death. Early Friends believed that one of the ‘offices’ of Christ was judgment and Fox could assert that he did not judge Nayler himself but ‘set the Power of God over him’, while Nayler could claim that he felt this ‘inward judgment’ while in prison and it saved him.

In this context, it is quite clear that whatever interpretation Nayler’s followers might have placed upon their actions, he regarded himself simply as a symbol of the Christ whom they all worshipped, and that the ‘triumphal’ entry into the city on 24 October 1656 was simply a sign of his second coming. Viewed in this light, the episode falls into line with the frequent going naked for a sign and the other revivals of symbolism from the Bible practised by primitive Quakers, Baptists and other sects. The rift between the supporters of George Fox and those of James Nayler that had extended throughout the movement, and far into Wales, was eventually healed, and it showed that it was not as vulnerable as its enemies had hoped. But treachery lurked in the ‘inner light’. In a time of defeat, when the wave of revolution was ebbing, the inner voice became quietest and pacifist. This voice only was recognised by others as God’s. God was no longer served by the extravagant gesture, whether Nayler’s entry into Bristol or the blasphemy of the Ranters. Once the group decided this way, all the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking to the society in which men had to live and earn their living. In 1656, John Lewis urged the religious radicals in Wales not to go too fast or too far in inveighing against old customs and against the superstitious Welsh regard for church buildings.

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When Nayler was pilloried for his ‘blasphemy’ in London at Christmas (pictured above), the three women prisoners, including Dorcas Erbery, were also present, and in what was (no doubt) intended as another ‘acted parable’, took their seat at the foot of the pillory in imitation of the women at the crucifixion of Christ. Dorcas and the others who had been imprisoned with Nayler in Exeter and Bristol remained in prison until the following May. In February, they attended a service at Westminster Abbey, which was presumably part of their punishment. The following is from a contemporary account in Mercurius Politicus:

This day being the Lord’s day, the persons called Quakers who were brought from Bristol with James Nayler, remaining yet undischarged under the custody of the Sergeant at Arms, but now somewhat altered in their carriage, went to the Abbey morning and afternoon, where they gave ear civilly and attentively to the sermons of Mr. John Rowe, an eminent preacher; whose spritual doctrine so far wrought upon them that they intend to hear him again – which gives hopes that they may be rectified in their judgment.

However, it does not appear that Dorcas Erbery’s judgment was so completely rectified as was supposed, for in two years from this date she was again in prison in Bristol, …

… with many others … for preaching and declaring the truth to the people in the public places of resort and Concourse, a Duty which they esteemed themselves under an indispensable necessity of performing.

The Welsh Prophet, ‘Arise’ Evans:

‘Arise’ (Rhys) Evans spoke of his own humble origins with reference to the apostles:

I am as the Paul of this time. … he was a mechanic, a tent maker. Acts 18:3. I am a tailor.

Evans was born about 1607 in Llangelynnin parish  (near Barmouth) and was apprenticed to a tailor at Wrexham. While living in Wales he had seen visions and prophetic dreams which were accentuated when he went to London in 1629. In London, he made vain efforts to warn Charles I of perceived dangers but succeeded in telling the Earl of Essex to his face of his future promotions. Evans also seems to have suffered from mental illness. He hung around Charles I’s court for days on end, in order to deliver his message from God to the King announcing that he and his kingdom were to be destroyed. Meanwhile, bishops ran away at the sight of him, and the royal Secretary of State asked for the prayers of ‘God’s secretary’. In the 1640s, Evans got a brief spell in the Bridewell for telling the City’s Deputy Recorder that he, Arise Evans, was the Lord his God. Later, he called upon Oliver Cromwell and stayed to midnight: he pestered the Council of State to restore the son of the King whom they had executed, and republican officers defended him in long arguments at Whitehall.

But the Commonwealth did not even imprison him as Charles and the Deputy Recorder had done. As long as the ‘imbecile’ had no disciples, he or she was allowed a great deal of latitude. Prophets were often tolerated because they could be used to further the political purposes of powerful men, as Arise Evans may have been. In 1653, indeed, he gave a forecast of the course of events in England following Cromwell’s death that came remarkably near the truth. His Narrations, Voices from Heaven, and Echoes of those Voices contain weird and impossible extravagances, but there are passing references of great interest, notably to John Jones (1597 – 1660) the regicide’s acquaintance with the lake of Tal-y-Llyn, to Christopher Love speaking to him in Welsh, to the Welsh connections of Oliver Cromwell. In the freer circumstances of the 1640s and ’50s, most so-called ‘mad’ people appear to have been political radicals. A mental breakdown could be seen as a form of social protest or at least a reaction to intolerable social conditions: those who break down, like Arise Evans, may, in reality, be truly sane. This is certainly an explanation to bear in mind when considering those radicals often dismissed as ‘the lunatic fringe’.

As William Dell of ‘the Apostles’ claimed, Poor, illiterate, mechanic men, turned the world upside down. The effort to grasp new truths, truths which would turn the world upside down, may have been too much for men like Arise Evans. The Bible was the accepted source of all true knowledge. Men as different as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and Gerard Winstanley, the ‘Digger’ from Wigan, both illustrated from the Bible conclusions at which they had arrived by rational means. Simpler men like Arise Evans believed the Bible to be divinely inspired and applied its texts directly to problems of their own world and time, with no idea of the difficulties of translation, nor of the historical understanding required to do so. So Evans thought that Revelation 8 and 11 gave an account of the civil war, that chapters 8 and 9 of Amos set down all that came to pass since the beginning of the Long Parliament, and that in Amos 9:1, the lintel of the door, which is to be smitten that the posts may shake, must refer to Speaker Lenthall. As Christopher Hill pointed out, unlike the Puritan divines who had cited the Bible against bishops and tithes, …

The Evanses studied it very carefully, if less skilfully, in order to understand and so be able to control what was going to happen.

Evans became interested in the multifarious sects that flourished under the relatively liberty of the late 1640s, opposing most of them, especially the tenets of the Fifth Monarchists. In 1649, he had a vision in which he went through France to Rome, where a voice came to me saying, “So far as thou art come, so far shall Cromwell come”. But Evans made a distinction between the ‘history’ and the ‘mystery’ of the Bible, as did William Erbery, who in his Testimony recalled that a chief one of the Army would … usually say that the flesh of Christ and the letter of scripture were the two great idols of Antichrist.

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Propagating the Gospel & Protecting the State – Vavasour Powell & Oliver Cromwell:

According to Welsh historian, A. H. Dodd (1957), the Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel became ‘the real government of Wales’. Those who administered Wales could not afford to alienate Baptist or Quaker missionaries, many of whom were ex-New Model Army soldiers and chaplains, who still, in the years 1651-53, continued to support the Parliamentary cause. J.P.s protected the preachers as a lesser evil than papists or pagans. The Committee’s ‘Approvers’, dominated by republican intransigents, created the first state schools, fifty-nine of them, open to both sexes and offering Latin and Greek, but trying to preach regeneration to the Welsh in English, although most sermons had been delivered in Welsh since the publication of Bishop Morgan’s Welsh Bible in 1588, which may help to explain why many Independent English preachers failed to ‘connect’ with their Welsh congregations. They had even more trouble finding replacements for the ministers. In came the itinerants and in came men from the hitherto invisible classes, to battle forward, often in the gales of hostility. Vavasour Powell, travelled a hundred miles a week, preaching in two or three places a day. He was probably the outstanding Welshman of his time, a brilliant and fearless man not afraid to address A Word for God … against Wickedness in High Places to Cromwell himself. Converts sprouted wherever he spoke, especially in the uplands of the south and the border. In north Wales, Morgan Llwyd, a writer of powerful Welsh classics and a man of mystical temper, sent John ap John of Ruabon to contact George Fox to gain his help in starting an often anarchic movement of Welsh Quakers, which may be from where Dorcas Erbery, Nayler’s ‘prophetess’ sprang. George Fox, on his own mission, found God raising up a people around Cader Idris in mid-Wales in 1657. Cromwell himself said that ‘God had kindled a seed’ in Wales. As Presbyterians penetrated Flintshire, Baptists, Congregationalists and Quakers multiplied along the eastern border and also began to plant in the west.

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As Protector, Cromwell sought to act as the guarantor of an accepted constitution while elected assemblies came and went, to check the evident tendency of an all-powerful single-chamber parliament to veer towards elective dictatorship and to secure for the executive a degree of independence and separation from the legislature. As Protector, he became a strong believer in the separation of powers. But he didn’t find it easy to pursue a moderating course. It brought him into conflict with the influential millenarian preachers in London, including Christopher Feake, Walter Cradock, Vavasour Powell and John Goodwin, who all had a considerable following in the Army. The open hostility of many Rumpers towards army officers did not help the situation. Skippon, clearly a moderate, was dropped from the Council of State at the same time as Harrison, leaving the army almost insultingly under-represented.

The Power & the Glory:

In the Interregnum, the Councils of in the North and in Wales, created by the Tudors, were abolished, the local power of the feudal aristocracy curtailed, and the authority of Whitehall and ‘London’ extended over the whole of the two countries. It seemed obvious to historians like Christopher Hill that the Revolution established a much greater unity among the regions of England, and indeed of the three kingdoms and the principality. But contemporaries worried about centrifugal tendencies. They were no doubt influenced by the examples of the Netherlands, where the republic’s unity derived mainly from the dominance of Holland, while the other provinces clung onto their independence, often with paralysing effects on policy. They were also disturbed by the case of Switzerland, where protestant and Catholic cantons were at war, which Cromwell himself insisted was brought on by external papist intervention. In the early 1650s, England had nearly intervened in the French wars of religion, an intervention which might have created a breakaway republic in the south-west. There were also revolts from Spanish sovereignty of Portugal, Catalonia and Naples, and Cossack risings in Russia and Poland.

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John Lilburne (pictured above) became a Quaker after retiring from the Army in the 1650s. The radical ‘Levellers’ proposed a great deal of decentralisation for England, including local courts at York, and greater county autonomy. William Walwyn, one of their leaders, said that the Swiss cantons were nearest to his ideal. In 1647, Cromwell had argued against such constitutional projects:

Would it not make England like Switzerland, one canton of the Swiss against another, and one county against another? And what would that produce but an absolute desolation in the nation?

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By the time the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales Act lapsed in 1653, the enterprise had spilt out to produce a myriad of sects and creeds, many like the ranters or Anabaptists, often called ‘Quakers’. Such men, rivalling even the most radical Baptists, offered a serious threat to tithes and all established order. They were appearing in many places, from Dolgellau to the Vale of Glamorgan. As Cromwell made himself Lord Protector, the Welsh Republicans moved into opposition. Vavasour Powell tried to organise insurrection in Wales and Ireland. The Blackfriars’ fulminators were also blasting the parliament, the council, the army, and everyone in power in scurrilous terms, and by late November 1653, they too were concentrating their shafts upon Cromwell himself, calling him the man of sin, the old dragon, and many other scripture ill names. Harrison was reportedly railing against him every day and the Anglo-Dutch peace negotiations, and there were allegations that he and his party were planning to take over the command of the army. He was certainly capable of seriously dividing it, and his favourite preachers were, according to Woolrych, …

… aspersing the loyal majority of its officers as janissaries and pensioners of Babylon, corrupted by wealth and power.

Vavasour Powell, in particular, told the generals that:

… that the Spirit of God had departed from them; that heretofore they had been precious and excellent men, but that their parks, and new houses, and gallant wives had choked them up.

At Sunday service on 18 December, he denounced the ‘Lord Protector’ from the pulpit, calling him a perjured villain, leading to his imprisonment, but the Fifth Monarchist’s excesses were losing them such public sympathy as they still commanded, and they ceased to be a serious danger when they lost their seats of power, both at Westminster and in the Army. Harrison was quietly cashiered when he refused to give any assurance that he would support the Protectorate, but only two or three other officers followed him in resigning their commissions. Not so long ago it was customary to account for this by portraying the Protectorate over-simply as a conservative reaction, but this was at best a half-truth. At least in its earlier years, it showed a stronger impulse to reform than the Rump had done. Although Cromwell was at heart a constitutionalist, with a strong respect for parliament as an institution, he still believed that he had a higher duty to promote what he called the interest of the people of God than to bow to the wishes of an unregenerate majority. And while he was conservative to the extent of preserving a national church and respecting the rights of tithe-holders, he upheld broader religious liberty than any elected parliament did in his lifetime. During the early weeks of the Protectorate, the first concern was to secure it against those, mainly the Fifth Monarchists, who were publicly denying its legality, prophesying its early fall and inciting their flocks to disobey it. Feake and Powell were against it again immediately after their early release and were consequently rearrested, though Powell escaped to Wales.

Restoration, Revolution & Toleration:

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As the system started to come apart, there was a revival of the old alliance of royalist moderates and Presbyterians to engineer the restoration of Charles II. Independents and Baptists, far more numerous in Wales than the Presbyterians, caught the first full blast of repression. Nearly a hundred and twenty ministers were thrown out of their livings and subjected to harsh controls. In December 1656, the Fifth Monarchists in south Wales seemed to have followed Morgan Llwyd and Vavasour Powell in renouncing militancy and from current plans for a rising. The Quakers were pursued like mad dogs and Vavasour Powell died in jail. Whole communities braved the horrible Atlantic crossings to create pioneer settlements in ‘the New World’. In the 1670s, as Charles ‘flirted’ with the Dissenters in order to secure toleration for Catholics, moderates in Wales tended to drift back towards the old Parliamentarians and away from the radical puritans. The Welsh Trust, an educational enterprise of Puritan temper which allied moderate Dissenters and Anglicans in 1672 when Charles issued his Indulgence, came to serve as an opposition to the court. When the indulgence ended within a year, to be replaced by the Test Act excluding non-Anglicans from office. At the time of the ‘Popish Plot’ of 1678-79, there was a violent incident in southern Wales when the Catholic seminary Cwm was raided and sacked, priests were thrown into jail and there was heavy confiscation. Four Welsh priests, two of whom were Jesuits, were hanged in savage persecution.

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In 1679, eleven of the twenty-seven Welsh MPs voted for the Exclusion of James II. In these circumstances, many of the old Roundheads came bubbling back to the surface and there was a return of the Quakers and Vavasour Powell’s radicals. In consequence, there was a sharp reaction in the 1680s, a massive renewal of persecution of Dissenters, and major further emigrations to Holland and America. In ‘matters of religion’, therefore, the monopoly of the national church had been broken, and while the House of Commons remained hostile to the idea of religious toleration, nonconformity shook off its revolutionary political associations and, despite continuing persecution, proved that it had come to stay. Those who remained survived through the indulgences offered by Charles II and James II until at the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they won a limited but essential measure of toleration in the Toleration Act of 1689 recognised these facts. Presbyterianism and Congregationalism were not included in the Anglican church, but that church was subjected to Parliament and government. The Puritan Revolution within the state church may have been defeated by 1660, but the Great Britain of the succeeding two centuries was unique among the great powers of Europe for the strength of its evangelical tradition and its toleration of diverse traditions.

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Not until 1685 was some degree of calm restored to Welsh politics with a restoration of Toryism among the gentry classes. It was only after 1688 that governments came to assume that ‘trade must be the principal interest of England’, and that warfare should be confined to supporting this objective through its Navy. Even Charles II in 1680 could not be persuaded of this. By then, Parliament controlled foreign policy, and used the newly mobilised financial resources of the country, through aggressive use of sea power, to protect and expand the trade of a unified empire. The anti-Dutch policy which had continued to be pursued by the pro-Hapsburg Stuart Kings was replaced by the policy of colonial expansion into the western hemisphere, first against Spain and then against the French. It enjoyed more support among the gentry and gradually won over a majority in the House of Commons as Dutch power declined and French power increased.

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England itself had by then had been united under the dominance of the London market; separate courts no longer governed Wales and the North. Therefore, ‘cantonisation’ was no longer a danger. William III’s political and economic subjugation of Ireland was thoroughly Cromwellian and complete: the Union with Scotland in 1707 was on the same lines as that of 1652-60. A union of crowns became a union of peoples, a significant punctuation point in the process which made the new and far more real Great Britain into the greatest merchant empire in the world. England, Wales and Scotland emerged from the seventeenth-century crisis geared to the new world of mercantilism and colonialism. Bristol, pictured above in the early eighteenth century, quickly grew as Britain’s most important port, with its ‘Welsh Backs’ for traders from across the Severn estuary. The Atlantic trade was becoming more important than the trade of the East Anglian ports with the continent and Wales, though still controlled by squires, was becoming an important sector of an Atlantic empire and a British nation.

Sources:

Austin Woolrich (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Christopher Hill (1970), God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.

Christopher Hill (1984), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books.

John Lampen (1981), Wait in the Light: The Spirituality of George Fox. London: Quaker Home Service.

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The Labour Party & The Left, 1934-39: Case Study II – Immigration & Working-Class Politics in the ‘new industry’ centres of Oxford & Coventry.   Leave a comment

For ‘Migration’ read ‘Transference’? Processes of Resistance & Retention:

The terms ‘Migration’ and ‘Transference’ were continually conflated in contemporary usage. Certainly, ‘migration’ was (and still is) used as an inclusive term covering voluntary and assisted forms of population movement. In simple geographical terms, it refers to that part of the ‘population equation’ which cannot be accounted for by natural increases or decreases brought about by an excess of births over deaths and vice versa. However, in previous chapters on the ups and downs of the Labour Party, the trade union movement and the Left, I have already established that there were important differences in the causes and catalysts involved in the processes of migration, retention and resettlement. The term is not, however, synonymous with importation or deportation, as a form of enforced movement of population. It was in the interests of many contemporary politicians of diverse ideological persuasions to blur these definitions and distinctions to suit their own purposes. In addition, the National Government and its officials in the Ministries of Labour and Health were naturally concerned to demonstrate that the large volume of unassisted migration, which they estimated as being over seventy per cent of the men known to have migrated in 1936-37, was closely related to their efforts to promote transference as the main policy of dealing with mass unemployment. Social Service agencies and social ‘surveyors’ were concerned to demonstrate the need for their intervention in the migration processes and therefore tended to exaggerate and generalise from the worst consequences of ’emigration’ rather making only passing references to the role of autonomous organisation.

Welsh ‘nationalists’, both of the old ‘Cymric-liberal’ and the ‘new’ narrowly partisan variety, were concerned, by 1936, to represent it as expatriation rather than repatriation, as an imposed deportation or ‘diaspora’ rather than as an exodus. These fringe ‘extremists’ developed their viewpoint into a complete inversion of the truth, claiming that:

… sporadic investigations into and reviews of the living conditions of the transferees … are strictly materialist in scope and ignore for the most part the evil consequences of transference – the loss of corporate life, … of religious life, in many cases the enforced change of language, in fact all that goes to putting off one culture and putting on another … the majority of those who leave Wales for work in England do so under compulsion.

The Welsh Nationalist, October 1937.

Propagandists on the ‘Marxist’ Left also tended, quite deliberately, to conflate state-sponsored and voluntary migration, principally because they saw the ‘free movement’ of workers as a capitalist device aimed at the creation of a ‘standing army’, the dilution of labour and the undermining of trade union organisation in the ‘new industry’ centres. Their propagation of a negative image of the immigrant did not allow for an analysis of differences in the organisation of migration. The negative image was again produced by a narrow focus on the worst experiences of the younger transferees. Thus, the interests of both nationalist and communist propagandists combined to ensure that much of the contemporary literature related to migration was ‘pessimistic’ in nature, dominated by the view that it was something which was done to the unemployed against their will. It is therefore understandable that more recent studies, particularly those done in the 1980s, have tended to maintain that narrow focus. These tended to characterise migration from the Coalfield as an act of defeatism, demoralisation and desperation. But although transference was the only significant aspect of Government policy in respect of unemployment in the period to 1936, the actual level of state involvement was quite limited. Even when the scheme was revived and revised, and despite the publicity given to it by a growing body of opposition, the majority of workers who left the ‘Special’ areas chose to ignore its provisions.

The Strange Case of the Cowley ‘Garwites’:

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The researchers for Barnett House in Oxford which published its local Survey in 1936 found a distinct ‘lumpiness’ in the migration streams to the city over the previous decade, providing clear evidence of familial and fraternal networking. This, they noted, militated against the Ministry of Labour’s plans for a more rational and even distribution of manpower in accordance with with the shifts in the demand for labour and the assimilation of the new elements by the old. Of the 1,195 Welsh workers in Oxford at this time, 215 had employment books which originated in the Maesteg District (covering the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys). By comparison, the numbers from all the Rhondda and Pontypridd districts combined amounted to 224 and those from Merthyr and Dowlais to fifty-five. An even more striking statistic was that a hundred and fifty, or one in six of all the Welsh ‘foreigners’ in the city were from the Pontycymmer Exchange area (i.e. the Garw Valley).

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This prompted the Barnett House enquirers to consult their fellow ‘surveyors’ in South Wales, who advised them that the flow from the Garw to Oxford started in 1926 when a few men made the journey, found employment for themselves and subsequently for friends and relatives. From that point onwards, Oxford attracted a large percentage of those leaving the valley. In the period 1930-36, out of the 1,841 people whose unemployment books were transferred from the Pontycymmer Exchange, 270 (15%) went to Oxford and ‘local observers’ stated that the percentage in the late 1920s was probably in the region of a quarter. The Oxford University sociologist, Goronwy Daniel, lent further support to the view that considerable networking had taken place, as forty-six of the sixty immigrants interviewed by him said that they had chosen Oxford because they had relatives living there.

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From the summer of 1934, the Welsh migrants who found themselves in Cowley, Oxford, began to make major contributions to the Labour and trade union movement in the city. Part of the impetus for the early and extensive migration from the Garw to Oxford was the deliberate act of collective victimisation on the part of one of the colliery companies in the wake of the lock-out. Some of the earliest migrants, like Tom Richards of Pantygog, did not wait until the end of the six-month lock-out in 1926 to leave, setting out on foot for London. Having walked to Oxford along the A40, they had found jobs at the giant US-owned Pressed Steel Works, newly-opened, which supplied Morris Motors and other car manufacturers with ready-pressed bodies for their products. A major strike at the factory for better conditions and union recognition was successful, partly as a result of its being led from ex-miners from South Wales. By that time, a number of older men from the Garw and other valleys, with considerable experience of trade union organisation in the SWMF, had arrived at the works. Whilst the Communist Party in Cowley played a significant supporting role in shaping the course and outcome of the strike, the agitation for it from within the works came from the ‘DA’ (depressed areas) men, among the largely immigrant workforce.

There is a significant body of both documentary and oral evidence to support the assertion that the retention of the trade union ‘complex’ by these workers was a critical factor in the formation and development of the TGWU 5/60 Branch from 1934 to 1939, which contrasted sharply with the failure of the movement to make headway at the Morris Works. That failure can only in part be explained by Willam Morris’ determined anti-union stance since the management at the US-owned Pressed Steel factory was equally hard-line in its attitude to trade union organisation, both before and after the 1934 strike, and organisers continued to be victimised for related activities throughout the latter part of the decade. Also, wages at the Morris Works remained lower by comparison throughout these years. Most observers from the time shared the perception that this was due to the difference in the cultural background among the two workforces.

Haydn Evans, originally from Merthyr Tydfil who took an active part in the strike and who later became a shop steward and foreman at the Pressed Steel, felt that the Oxfordians and Oxonians, mainly farm workers at Morris’, didn’t know what a union was about, weren’t interested and didn’t want a trade union, their fathers having been used to living off the crumbs from the rich men’s tables in the colleges. On the other hand, the Welsh workers had been brought up in the trade union movement, … had lived on ‘strike, strike, strike’ and had been taught “fight back, fight back!” In fighting back, they were just as much at risk from victimisation as the Morris workers but were more willing to run this risk. Haydn Evans again explained:

We had to win … We’d come from a distressed area. We were battling for our livelihood. It was a matter of life and death. If we had lost, many of us would have been blacklisted by other car firms.

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A ‘neutral’ observer from the Barnett House Survey, writing in 1937, also remarked that the distinction between the two forces was widely acknowledged by contemporaries:

It is said … that workers in the Cowley plant are mostly natives of Oxford and lack therefore any trade union tradition; in Pressed Steel on the contrary the men are largely from other parts of the country …

Thus, there is a strong case to be made for the primacy of social and cultural factors in the growth of trade unionism in Oxford; the sense of heritage and solidarity, or ‘clannishness’ among immigrant workers providing a powerful motivation to getting organised by infusing a quiescent trade union movement with militancy.

This is not to say that the Welsh were ‘nearly all Reds’, as they were popularly labelled by Oxonians. The number who joined the Communist Party was probably as small as those who wittingly undercut wages on building sites. But those who were thrust into the leadership of the trade union movement in the city soon also found themselves in leading positions in left-wing politics either as members of the Labour Party or the Communist Party and sometimes, from 1935 in the period of the ‘United Front’ as members of both parties.

One of them, Tom Harris, was a crane operator in the crane shop. He was born in Monmouthshire in the early 1890s, and emigrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, in his early twenties. There he worked as a miner and helped John L Lewis in building up the United Mineworkers (UMWA). He then returned to South Wales in the mid-1920s, possibly to Maesteg, becoming active in the SWMF. It was with this transatlantic experience of migration and union organisation that he arrived in Cowley shortly before the 1934 Strike. Dai Huish, probably from the Garw, was also an experienced member of the ‘Fed’ before arriving in Oxford. Huish was one of those elected to serve on the deputation which, once outside the factory gates, met to discuss the strike situation. Although Huish had been planning the strike action over the previous weekend, it was the idea of his wife, who joined the lengthy meeting, that the deputation should send representatives to the Local of the Communist Party. She suggested this because the Communist Party had provided invaluable help and assistance in organising the miners’ struggles in Wales. In this way, they soon became involved in the city’s trade union and political life more broadly, thus reflecting a growing sense of permanence and a growing mood of regenerated confidence among the immigrants to Cowley.

Images of the Immigrants – Coventry, Slough & London.

In Coventry, it was not until 1934 that the engineering employers faced difficulty in recruiting semi-skilled workers, who were previously available locally through the City’s traditional apprenticeship schemes. It was then that they were forced to look to the Government training centres and transference schemes for a fresh supply of labour. Even then, however, the employers were insistent on such youths, aged between eighteen and twenty-five, having ‘factory sense’ and felt it necessary to ‘earmark’ funds in order that the men could be given a period of training in the works, in the hope that they might be absorbed. Not all engineering employers were as progressive as this, and many trainees faced the ignominy of failing to make the grade and being forced to return home disillusioned and discouraged from making any further attempt at resettlement. Even in those cases where the ‘improver’ from the depressed areas was capable of acquiring enough skill to survive, he was not always made particularly welcome by workmates who generally regarded him as a pawn in a ploy by the employers and the government to reduce wage rates.

Even Wal Hannington, although severely critical of the training centres, was also concerned by the attitude of the conservative-minded craft unionist who refused to allow the recruitment of trainees on the grounds that to do so would represent an acceptance of dilution. Hannington argued that to admit them to membership would enable the unions to control their wages and conditions. His admission that this argument was ‘unorthodox’ is a measure of the extent to which the engineering unions deliberately ostracised men who themselves were firmly rooted in trade unionism. A perusal of the minutes of the Coventry District of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) for this period provides strong supportive evidence that little or nothing was done to integrate trainees and that this inaction stemmed from a policy of principled opposition to the importation of labour in this manner, a policy that was consistently applied throughout the period. Craft-unionists in the engineering industries scapegoated the immigrants for the revolutionary structural changes that were taken place in them, rather than re-organising their unions on an industrial basis, a form of organisation which the immigrants themselves were familiar with and did much to recreate in their new work environments. They were, however, too often seen as perpetrators of dilution rather than as participants in the process. Accusations of under-cutting became generalised to the point where Labour leaders, like Aneurin Bevan, in opposing transference, reinforced the negative stereotype themselves:

… resistance should be made, for considerable resentment and hostility was shown in the South East of England, and Welshmen had acquired a bad reputation for offering their services at wages below the standard Trade Union rates. …

In making this remark, Bevan was probably echoing comments made to A. J. ‘Archie’ Lush in Slough (Lush was a close friend of Aneurin Bevan and acted as his political agent for most of his parliamentary life – see below). It is therefore of paramount importance that, in studying the contemporary sources, historians should distinguish between prejudicial statements and accurate observations based on the actual reality of the impact of immigration upon the new industrial centres. A detailed study of newspaper and oral sources reveals that the Welsh working-class immigrants to these centres were able to counter the negative propaganda and prejudice which confronted them by making a significant contribution to the growth of trade unionism, municipal socialism and working-class culture in these cities. The problem of distinguishing between image and reality was highlighted in contemporary debates concerning the role of Welsh immigrants in trade unionism in the new industries. In 1937, A. D. K. Owen wrote an article for the Sociological Review in which he assessed the Social Consequences of Industrial Transference. Despite his generally negative attitude towards immigration, he concluded that it did have some redeeming features:

It appears that some transferees from South Wales are already enlivening the fellowship of some London political associations and that the tradition of Trade Unionism respected by transferees from Wales and the North is now being appealed to with some prospect effective results as a starting point for organising the workers in many of the new industries in which Trade Unionism has so far obtained no footing.

The following year, Michael Daly published a reply to Owen’s article in which he claimed that, after several months of research into the difficulty of organising the workers in the South East and the Midlands, he was convinced that… the most difficult people to organise are the Welsh transferees. He asserted that the fact that the Welsh came from an area with a low standard of living made them more willing to accept low wage rates and that they were universally hated because of their alleged tendency both to undercut wages and to ‘rat’ on their fellow workers. From this flawed analysis, based largely on the experiences of Welsh transferees in Slough, Daly went on to produce a caricature which undermines his validity as a dependable source. He concluded that the staunch trade unionists among the Welsh had remained in Wales:

For the most part, they are the older type of craftsmen  whose belief in trade unionism is emotional rather than reasoned, and who tend to appreciate unduly the beer-drinking aspect of branch activities … even if they had transferred to the newer areas, it is doubtful if they would be given a hearing.

Unsurprisingly, Daly’s remarks met with stinging criticism in Owen’s rejoinder:

I have personal knowledge of far too many Welshmen who are pulling all their weight in trade union branches in the London area to accept Mr Daly’s broad generalisations on this subject. Moreover, his remarks about the social characteristics of the ‘staunch trade unionists among the Welsh’ are … completely wide of the mark … The ‘older type of craftsmen’ are far from being characteristic of the active membership of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. A ‘reasoned attitude’ to trade unionism is probably commoner in South Wales than in most other parts of the country with a long tradition of working-class organisation. …

‘Archie’ Lush, who was conducting his researches in Slough and elsewhere in the South East, also found considerable anti-Welsh feeling which was usually attributed to a tendency of Welsh workers to work for less than Trade Union rates. Both he and Owen accepted that this allegation was true only in a small number of cases, and in particular where a long period of unemployment had preceded transference, but what is most significant in Lush’s report is the remark that he found no evidence of trade union activity anywhere on the estate. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Slough was less typical of the experience of Welsh exiles than was made out by Daly, and it is also important not to confuse the role played by individual Welshmen, either positive or negative, with a collective assertion of trade union values among the Welsh in London. Unfortunately, some contemporary politicians, like Nye Bevan, some in the social service movement and some historians, writing in the 1980s, adopted and restated Daly’s unfounded assertions, and those of Lush, uncritically, the latter in the context of assessing the role of the Welsh in trade unionism elsewhere in the South and Midlands of England. Eli Ginzberg recorded that:

… it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishman would dream of accepting. 

006Owen also heard many of these criticisms of the transferees who were often subjected to very hostile criticism of their fellow-workers who resented their presence on the grounds that they depress wages. Although much of this criticism was completely unfounded, he found that it sometimes had a basis in fact. The NCSS’s 1939 report on Migration to London from South Wales was equally equivocal in dealing with the issue:

… there have been, and still are, criticisms made of Welshmen  that they are ready to work for low wages, accepting as little as 8d or 10d an hour. Such stories, some mythical and some authentic, are at the root of a certain prejudice against Welshmen on the part of Londoners. … It is, however, not difficult to understand the temptation to a man who has managed to scrape up enough money for a trip to London to take work at any wage rather than go home defeated, or to face unemployment in a strange and impersonal city with no friends behind him.

The Immigrants in Industry – Propaganda & Prejudice:

Of course, this image of the immigrant as one brow-beaten into submission by long-term unemployment which had broken his courage was one which suited the purposes of the ‘social surveyors’. But the reality was that the vast majority of those who migrated had been unemployed for comparatively short periods, if at all. That reality was often conveniently ignored by those who needed to paint the destitution and demoralisation of the ‘depressed area’ men as bleakly as possible. Although more frequently heard in Slough and London, the accusation also carried some potency in Oxford, where it seems to have derived from the immigrants who secured jobs in the building trade and in particular in relation to the Merthyr-based firm of Moss and Sons. This firm was said to have brought many workers with it from South Wales and to have employed them at rates which were below the standards which existed in the Midlands. It did not take long for this to lead to a widespread prejudice against Welsh immigrants in general, wherever they worked. One of Goronwy Daniel’s interviewees remarked about how she had been offended by hearing a woman commenting on a bus that the Welsh were stealing jobs by working for low wages. Marxist propagandists also asserted that the ‘DA’ immigrants depressed wages in order to show that they were in need of the leadership which only the Communist Party could provide. Abe Lazarus, the Party’s leader in Oxford, regurgitated this myth in his article for the Communist Review in 1934:

They came from Wales, from the North-East Coast, glad enough many of them to accept low standards after years of unemployment.

But Lazarus also acknowledged that the major factors involved in wage depression were automation, rationalisation and the dilution, or de-skilling of engineering jobs which the new processes of production entailed. He also accepted that it was the Oxonian agricultural workers who were far more likely, given their non-industrial background, to accept low rates of pay in the car industry, rather than the Welsh miners. In fact, the evidence shows that although at first, the American managers at Pressed Steel tried to use DA men to depress wages, they were unsuccessful in doing so and that, by the time of the 1934 strike, this was not an issue among a largely immigrant semi-skilled workforce whose wage rates were better than those paid to skilled engineers at Morris Motors, where there were far fewer DA men employed. Nevertheless, popular prejudices prevailed. One of Daniel’s interviewees who had migrated to Oxford in 1933 recalled how he had found:

… a strong dislike of Welsh people on the part of Oxford men, who thought the Welsh were taking their work and were all ‘reds’. 

The juxtaposition of these two remarks provides a graphic illustration of the irrational nature of much of the invective which was directed against the Welsh immigrants; they could be branded as ‘diluters’ and militants literally in the same breath. There were others among Daniel’s witnesses who found these labels freely applied to them and their fellow countrymen. One man who moved to Oxford in the late twenties said that the native Oxfordians regarded the Welsh as rowdy and nearly all communists. In turn, the same man’s attitude towards the natives had not changed in the decade he had been in the city. He saw them as insular and prejudiced and politically dead … A much younger man, with little direct trade union experience before leaving Wales also found Oxford natives to be:

… very reserved and independent, and found it hard to understand their Conservative politics and apathetic attitude towards trade unions. 

As late as the 1950s, industrial trade unionism was still seen by many Oxfordians as being alien to the City’s traditions and as a means for the immigrants to exploit a high-wage economy. Unions such as the TGWU were seen as primarily the province of ‘the Scotch and the Welsh’ and whilst it was acknowledged that trade unions are necessary in some jobs like mining, in Oxford they caused nothing but trouble with the chief trouble-makers being the Welsh who were out for all they can get. 

The minute books of the Coventry District AEU demonstrate a continual concern about the impact of immigrant labour upon wages and, in particular, about the tendency of some DA men to go to the factory gates and offer themselves ‘at any price’. However, the frequency with which complaints like this appear in the minutes is perhaps more indicative of a Union which was struggling to overcome its own conservatism and to come to terms with the transformation of work patterns in the engineering industry, than of a tendency among immigrants to accept lower wages. If some of the younger transferees and migrants were involved in undercutting, propagandists such as Wal Hannington had no doubt where the responsibility for this should be laid. However, rather than taking up the challenge of developing new solutions to the problem of dilution, the craft unions simply gave justification to their members’ prejudices. This sometimes gave rise to abusive behaviour on the part of, and even to disciplinary action against some AEU members. When a Welsh shop steward gave evidence to a sub-committee of the District AEU set up to investigate complaints against Bro. Underhill, a particularly uncooperative and belligerent member at the Humber works, Underhill stated that:

… they were not likely to have harmony in the shop when the other members were Welshmen but were only paying into the trade union for their own advantage.

Well into the 1930s, the possibility that Welsh migrant workers might transfer their trade union traditions to their new environments was a major concern of the industrialists participating in the Industrial Transference Scheme. Their image of the Welsh miner, ever since the 1926 lock-out, had remained one of a potential disease-carrier: the disease was ‘Militancy’. The same applied in the new industries more generally; personnel departments were ordered not to hire Welshmen; employment exchanges were asked not to send Welshmen for interviews; the immigrants were blamed for strikes regardless of the origin of the dispute. As Eli Ginzberg, this evidence suggests that the Welsh were no favourites with English foremen and managers. He also suggested that, while in general terms the Welsh were not the major instigators of the drive for organisation, they frequently lent their support to that drive and were seldom as uninterested as they appeared to be in Slough. At the same time, he thought it not unreasonable to expect that out of half a million immigrants there would be some who cut wages and many who would obtain work locally before the local unemployed had been absorbed. When she conducted a survey among the young immigrants in London in 1939, Hilda Jennings was difficult to understand why previously loyal SWMF members were so slow to join trade unions in the capital. One of the reasons given was that membership of the Federation was seen as a tradition to which they had subscribed without exercising much thought:

It was felt generally that Welshmen are not unduly backward at joining the Trade Union movement compared with Londoners and workers from other parts of the country. Indeed, several key positions are held by men who have recently come from the mining valleys. But, considering the traditions of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, it was urged by the Trade Unionists who had contributed to the enquiry that there were too many Welshmen  in London outside the movement, and too much tendency to apathy among them. 

From this evidence, it is clear that it would be wrong to assume that strong, collective trade union traditions could simply and easily be transferred from the coalfield context of homogeneous, close-knit communities to the diasporic and atomised existence which many migrants found themselves living in a large and heterogeneous metropolis. Conditions within the recipient areas needed to be favourable in order for retention to take place successfully. By contrast, although some of the trade unions in Coventry were concerned about dilution to the point of being slow to organise among the unskilled and semi-skilled immigrants, there is little doubt that by the end of the decade these immigrants had settled well into the pattern of militant trade unionism which had already been well established in the city’s factories before they arrived. Also, from about 1934, trade union membership began to grow again in Coventry, as elsewhere, though it wasn’t until 1937 that this became more rapid. Richard Crossman, the Labour parliamentary candidate at this time and subsequently MP, wrote of the DA men in 1970 that:

Once they had uprooted themselves they looked back with horror on the distressed areas they had left, and accepted both the management’s insistence on ever increased intensity of labour in return for the swelling wage packet, and the collective solidarity and discipline on which the shop-stewards from the first insisted, as the price of admission to the mass production line.

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The St. John Ambulance Brigade leads a parade along Cross Cheaping in Coventry in 1933 (photo by Sidney Stringer).

The ‘Influx’ to the Cities & its Impact on Local Politics:

Organisationally, the local Labour Party in Coventry was successful in drawing together a team of spokesmen and women who could handle municipal politics. More time and effort was required to prepare for municipal power, and Labour slowly came to attract candidates who were not active in their union or working in factories. Of the thirty-one Labour councillors and aldermen whose occupations can be identified in 1936-38, only seven were, or had close links with engineering workers. There were a number of middle-class activists, including clergymen, a number of women recorded as housewives, and about one-third were Co-op employees. A number of Labour activists got jobs with Coventry Co-op because jobs in engineering would not give them enough time off to attend Council meetings and carry out Council business.  The Co-op was the only source of patronage, and thus a useful refuge for Labour activists. However, it’s clear that Labour in the 1930s was also able to attract some non-working-class support, while its leadership was only able to remain in office because they had severed many of their links with the trade unions.

Over a period of fifteen years, Labour leaders had succeeded in taking the Party from a situation where it had ill-defined policies and no clear electoral strategy to one where it concentrated all its energies into the drive for municipal power. The result of its victory over ageing if not senile opposition meant that Labour, far from having stormed a citadel of capitalism, had to preside over the renewal of the city, making up for several decades of neglect. Though many of Labour’s policies were aimed at improving the conditions among working people, such measures were bound to improve the services to employers as well.

006 (3)

By 1937, the car industry in Coventry was enjoying unbridled expansion and the editor of the Telegraph acknowledged that Coventry’s problem was not one of a shortage of employment, but rather one of a shortage of the right type of labour. Such unemployment as existed, he suggested, was due to an increase in the number of people who had come to the city to try to find work for which they were unsuited. Thus, the continuation of unemployment at five per cent could largely be accounted for by these ‘industrial misfits’. In an interview with the enigmatic Captain Black of the Standard Motor Company, the Telegraph discovered that over five hundred additional workers had been taken on by the Company in the previous twelve months. New factories were being built or planned and existing workshops reorganised to cope with the demand for increased supplies. The output of one large manufacturing works was fifty per cent up on ‘the normal’ for September. Thousands of cars were leaving the city every day. The following month it was reported that two firms of body-builders were setting up new factories on the outskirts of the city, giving employment to a further seven thousand workers. The expansion was so overwhelming that some elected representatives began to ‘call halt’ and to reflect the growing national concern about the concentration of industry. In October 1937, the Midland Daily Telegraph was reporting almost daily on the debate among councillors which was becoming non-partisan:

Councillor J. C. Lee-Gordon … questioned whether Coventry required these new factories, and raised the issue of the new schools and houses that would have to be provided to meet the needs of the labour which, he assumed, would have to be imported … Similar opinions have been heard in Labour circles … The viewpoint has been expressed that towns situated in the prosperous areas should not encourage the construction of new factories, but that industrialists in search of these sites should be quietly shepherded into the distressed areas. …

By this time the Labour Party in the distressed areas and nationally had begun calling unequivocally for the end of the Transference policy and its replacement with the planned relocation of new industries. Its report on the ‘Distressed Areas’ had been published earlier in the year, produced under the chairmanship of Hugh Dalton MP. Its recommendations included these two points. Brinley Thomas’ 1938 article on The Influx of Labour into the Midlands examined the origin of ‘foreign’ employment books exchanged in the Midlands Division of the Ministry of Labour in July 1937. As in Oxford, the presence of these ‘foreign’ books in the Coventry Labour Exchange indicated that at some point between 1920 and the middle of 1937 the owners of the books had moved into the area. The Coventry and North Warwickshire area, including Rugby and Nuneaton, had 18,822 foreign books exchanged within it, of which 4,044 (21.5%) were originally issued in Wales, 2,364 in Scotland (12.6%), 2,010 (10.7%) from the North East and 3,271 (17.4%) from the North West.

In Oxford, the Communists had remained weak until the founding of the October Club at the University in December 1931. This doubled their membership and led to the reorganisation of the party branch in 1932. However, it was the Pressed Steel strike of 1934 which transformed the branch into an effective force in local politics with a significant working-class base. The ‘twelve days that shook Oxford’ provided the spring-board for the growth in tandem of trade unionism and working-class politics within the city. Soon after the strike, the party had about seventy members, though less than five per cent of these were openly members. The majority were public members of the Labour Party. Local leaders were already moving away from the ‘Class Against Class’ policy, doing their best to play down the ideological divisions between the two parties. For their part, local trade unionists and councillors had little time for the TUC circular which called for Communists to be debarred from office. The leaders of the Pressed Steel TGWU 5/60 Branch decided to appoint what delegates the branch so wished. The ‘United Front’ line won support in the Trades Council, which adopted the following resolution in April 1935:

(The Council’s) strength and activity is due in no small measure to the presence on the Council of members of the Communist Party … In our daily experience CP members have … thrown themselves into the work of strengthening the Trade Union movement … In the past twelve months, the local Trade Union membership has increased by well over three thousand and we cannot understand why the TUC should want to disrupt this splendid work …

In July 1935, the Cowley and Iffley Labour Party and the local CP agreed to a ‘United Front’ slate for the forthcoming local elections. Their decision was endorsed by the City Labour Party with only one vote against. This ‘United Front’ was led by workers from the ‘DAs’ who were beginning to gain prominence in local politics. In September, four of them were endorsed as Labour Party candidates, though they were also secretly CP members, with one nominated as an openly CP candidate on the same ‘slate’. One of the five, Tom Harris, told the Oxford Mail that he was a strong supporter of the municipalisation of all the public services… However, by the end of the local party was clearly under some pressure to adopt a more moderate slate and the CP candidate was persuaded to withdraw his nomination in order to relieve the situation and maintain the unity of the Party (presumably, the Labour Party).

At this point, a young man who had cut his political teeth helping to organise the housing campaign in south Oxford earlier in the year, Richard Crossman, was announced as a candidate for the Headington Ward. Later in life, after becoming a Labour MP in Coventry and a Cabinet minister in the Attlee Government, Crossman acknowledged the debt he owed to the working-class politicians he had worked alongside in Oxford. Another post-war national political figure, Patrick Gordon-Walker, was adopted as Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Oxford for the General Election of November 1935, in which he was unsuccessful. Throughout 1936 and 1937, the Oxford Labour Party continued to defy the line taken by the national party, supporting affiliation by the CP. The Labour Party NEC’s rejection of this was deplored by the local party. By the Spring of 1936, the strength of the party in both the colleges and ‘the town’ was such that Oswald Mosley was forced to leave the City ‘by the back gate’.

Concern about the frequency of ‘wildcat’ strikes at the Pressed Steel, where the 5/60 Branch had come under increasing control by the CP, led to Ernest Bevin and the National Executive of the TGWU to appoint a full-time organiser for the area. Tom Harris was one of the candidates for the new post, but he was passed over in favour of Jack Thomas, who hailed from the Aberdare Valley. Thomas had become Chairman of the Lodge at Aberavon pit at the age of eighteen and then moved to Swansea to work as a labourer for the Corporation, becoming a rank and file delegate at the first TGWU Conference at Scarborough in 1925. As the Secretary of the Union’s Corporation Branch in Swansea for twelve years, he also became Chairman of the Swansea Labour Association in 1935. He began work in Oxford in January 1937. The Communists at Pressed Steel had their suspicions about his appointment which were confirmed by a speech he made to the Trades Council soon after his arrival, and they issued a stern warning to him in their factory broadsheet, The Spark:

Let him remember that the Pressed Steel Branch of the TGWU was built up by the UNITED forces of the workers long before Mr Thomas had heard of Pressed Steel. The workers in Oxford active in the Trade Union and Labour Movement believe in Unity. Mr Bevin’s anti-unity ideas don’t cut any ice here. Mr Thomas’ job is not to make anti-unity speeches … but to get our works organised.

As the Communists’ strength grew, their argument in favour of the ‘United Front’ grew louder, and a resolution was carried which led to the establishment of the Oxford Unity Committee. The Labour Party almost doubled its membership between 1936 and 1938, to over six hundred, including many Communists. The real roots of this growth were laid, not in the October Club or the University Labour Club, but in the building up of a strong party organisation in Cowley and Iffley, dominated by car workers and especially by former South Wales miners. In January 1937, in addition to the Chairman, treasurer and her husband, Frank Pakenham, all the other six ward officials were Welsh. In 1938, Patrick Gordon-Walker was selected to stand again in the Oxford by-election. The Liberal Party had selected Ivor Davies, who offered to stand down from the by-election if Labour did the same and backed a Popular Front candidate against the Conservatives. Eventually, Gordon Walker reluctantly stood down and both parties supported Andrew Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, as an Independent Progressive. Quintin Hogg, the Conservative candidate, defeated Lindsay in the by-election, but the latter was in no doubt about how the political complexion of the City had been changed by what had happened in Cowley:

We have heard a lot about Oxford ceasing to be a sleepy University town in an agricultural county. There lies the fundamental reason for Labour’s growth.

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Red ‘Influx’ – Rule by the Sweepings of Great Britain:

The phenomenal growth of working-class politics in Oxford in the five years before the outbreak of war to a point where a left-wing victory, previously unimaginable, had become possible, was a key indicator of what might have happened in other ‘new industry’ centres had a general election taken place in 1940. However, the process of political recovery on the Left had to wait a further six years to come to fruition, though the seeds were widely sown before the war. Historians have argued about the role of the war itself in bringing about the Labour ‘landslide’ victory of 1945. What is clear is that immigrant workers from the Depressed Areas played a key role in this political recovery. Their success lay in the way they were able to reflect, articulate and organise a general mood of resistance and recovery among the new working class in Cowley and East Oxford, which was forged from old traditions of trade union organisation and militancy originating in the older industrial areas. The fact that Abe Lazarus, District Organiser for the CPGB, missed election as a Cowley Councillor by only twenty votes in 1937 gives a clear indication of the extent to which the newcomers had succeeded in shifting Oxford politics to the left. The assertion of a leading Welsh immigrant – we changed their outlook – reflects the reality of the immigrant contribution to the transformation of the political life of ‘the City of Dreaming Spires’ in the 1930s.

In 1935, the Communist Party developed a campaign about the housing conditions on the new Florence Park Estate which began with a deputation of the estates’ tenants to the Sanitary Committee of the Town Council in May. It had been built on marshland which had regularly flooded and when the estate was finished there were a series of related problems, both major and minor, which resulted partly from the speed with which the houses were erected. These problems have been described by one of the first tenants on the estate, a Welsh immigrant, and are well documented in the civic archives. The Tenants’ Committee published a pamphlet entitled The Oxford Rent and Housing Scandal – Who is Responsible? But from the other sources, and in particular, from the report of the independent surveyor, it is apparent that, although the problems provided a focus for a broad-based tenants’ campaign, serious cases were isolated and that the majority of the housing on the estate provided attractive, if expensive homes, to immigrants who had generally experienced far worse housing conditions in South Wales. The Allport family from the Garw Valley described the contrast:

When we arrived we were impressed. … we were coming from Wales and the house had the old fires in the best rooms. This was a modern house with the small grates – it was heaven! I can remember how I ran around the rooms. There was a bathroom, which we had never had before – we had had baths in front of the fire. … just imagine the difference – we were delighted – like walking on air…

By the late 1930s, the militancy of the immigrants had spread to the housing estates in East Oxford. The Welsh workers interviewed by Goronwy Daniel were paying between twenty and twenty-five shillings for five-roomed houses. The average net weekly pay packet of the fifty-five men interviewed was fifty-eight shillings and their usual payment for board and lodging was twenty-five shillings, almost identical to the rent they had paid in Wales. The married Oxford Welshman, however, had rented colliery houses for his family for only 10s. 6d. in south Wales, but paid 17s. 9d. in Oxford. Moreover, the loss of the ‘sub-economy’ made available through allotments, coal ‘patches’ and slag-heaps affected the migrant family more than it did the individual migrant. Thus, the relatively high wages which could be earned in periods of full-time working in the car factories were offset to a considerable extent by high rents and other financial factors which closed the gap between income and expenditure.

The rent strike which took place on the Great Headley Estate in July 1939 demonstrated the apparent intractability of these problems. The majority of the husbands on the estate were employed at Morris’ or Pressed Steel and were continually faced with the risk of being laid off, often for extended periods. The lowest rent on the estate was nineteen shillings and the highest twenty-four. The Gazette, the Labour Party’s local periodical paper, claimed that the risk of the landlords in building the estate was negligible compared with that taken by many of the tenants who have been compelled to emigrate from the Distressed Areas. Faced with the impossibility of getting a cheap house, they had no alternative but to take houses at exorbitant rents. The paper went on to report the case of one man who had been out of work for five years before arriving in Oxford and securing a job at the Morris Radiator factory. He then sent for his wife and family, who had only been in Oxford for a fortnight when he was thrown out of work. He received thirty-three shillings unemployment benefit for himself, his wife and two children, out of which he was expected to pay nineteen shillings per week in rent. He was being threatened with eviction. With the migration streams to Oxford drying up in 1938-39, as workers were being attracted to Coventry and elsewhere, the local Labour Party campaigned for greater security for migrant workers and their families in terms of their housing needs as well as in employment.

By 1936 in Coventry, the pressure for accommodation and the increased cost of living in the new housing estates was such that sub-letting was a common practice, especially among immigrants. Despite the Corporation’s belated attempts to catch up with the demand for cheap housing, there were regular complaints in the local press throughout the summer and autumn of 1937 that the costs were ‘greater than in most places’ and were ‘ridiculous’ with many immigrants finding themselves ‘at the mercy of landlords’. In September 1938, a local report on Coventry by the NCSS found that many migrant families had no choice but to rent housing at high rents. Nevertheless, oral evidence shows that, by 1939, migrant families were able to rent houses at fourteen shillings per week. The Labour administrations after 1937 had, by this time, led to the Corporation’s house-building programmes so that immigrants to Coventry were able to maintain a significant gap between earnings and rental payments. Neither did Coventry’s builders have similar problems to those faced in Oxford. The Nuffield Survey’s war-time report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that in 1941, despite the effects of the November 1940 Blitz, the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it had stood at the outbreak of war and that, although larger family houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. Mary Jones described her reaction, similar to that of the Allports in Cowley, to the change in accommodation involved in her migration from the Rhondda to Coventry:

Comparing the house I was living in with the house I came from I thought I was in heaven! I thought of the old house and black-leading the grates. …

In Coventry in 1929, Philip Noel-Baker had captured nearly half of all the votes cast at the general election and whilst the fortunes of the Party in the 1931 election followed the national trend, in 1935 the role of former Welsh miners in municipal affairs in England attracted the attention of leading politicians. In November, Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in Coventry in support of Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the practical failures of Government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working-class politicians:

Mr Oliver Stanley, the Minister of Labour, with all his university education, had made a mess of his job. The Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet in the speaker’s opinion was better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party.

In the local elections in Coventry, the Labour Party made steady headway against the Lib-Con coalition until it finally won control of the City Council in 1937, becoming one of the first local parties in the country to take control of a municipal authority. The taking of municipal powers by the Party had no impact on class relations within the city, nor on industrial relations in the workplace, but it remained dedicated to advancing the cause of municipal socialism. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the gulf between workplace and municipal politics was such that the growing power of Labour in the Council was not challenged by the growing power of the Communist Party in the unions. It seems from this that ‘activism’ in the trade union movement, especially among engineering workers, did not generally lead to candidacy for the city council. There appears to have been a clear division between the two representative roles.

The tendency of Welsh migrants to Coventry towards left-wing politics reinforced a pre-existing tradition, in marked contrast to the situation in Oxford. This tradition was primarily ‘syndicalist’ in nature since it focused its attention upon industrial struggles within the factories. Immigrant trade unionists such as Jock Gibson were already spreading the influence of the Communist Party in the 1930s to the point where it had a ‘significant presence’ at forty factories throughout the city. However, its growing industrial strength was not reflected in the general party politics, since those engaged in ‘the struggle’ in the economic field did not show any great interest in the social field, unlike in Oxford, mirroring the position adopted by many of the leading employers who, despite many appeals, refused to involve themselves in local politics. Hence the dominant political élite in the life of the city remained a group of small businessmen and professionals who formed themselves into a Lib-Con coalition which by the Thirties had remodelled itself as ‘the Progressive Party’. Their loss of supremacy, from 1937 onwards, was attributed by their supporters, not to an overspilling of militancy from the factories into the social sphere but, according to the Midland Daily Telegraph to:

… the rapid drift of population from the depressed areas … a steady stream of potential left-wing supporters. 

The truth was that, with no common principles other than the opposition to socialism, no policies other than curbs on public spending, no electoral machinery and a declining social base, it was clear by the mid-thirties in Coventry that the Con-Lib Coalition had been clinging to power by default. It had been able to protect itself as the social leadership of the city and use its powers to look after its social base but had lacked the will and ability to develop policies that could have encouraged industry to support it, or to attract working-class voters to it. Its inability to plan to meet the needs of the city and develop a modern infrastructure meant that its removal ended an obstacle to progress, not just for working people, but to a wide range of commercial and industrial interests. It had outlived its usefulness, and Labour’s victory in November 1937, besides making possible the application of genuinely progressive policies, also provided an opportunity to make the city more responsive to the needs of modern mass manufacturers. The ‘influx’ in itself provided a further factor in Labour’s progress to power in Coventry, but it was not a primary one. Nevertheless, in the 1938 municipal by-election, the ‘Progressive’ (Lib-Con) candidate in St. Mary’s Ward, near the city centre, had played upon the prejudices of electors who were predominantly ‘old Coventrian’ in winning his seat. This ploy was attacked in a Labour eve-of-poll leaflet, which in turn brought a strong retort from the Progressives’ leader:

They had picked out from Mr Friswell’s speech at his adoption a sentence referring to rule by the sweepings of Great Britain, and had divorced it from its context … What Mr Friswell had indicated was that the coming of so many of the Labour Party’s supporters to Coventry had had a serious effect on Council elections. He was sure that the old Coventry people did not want Socialists in control of their affairs.

Midland Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1938.

The ‘context’ referred to was Friswell’s claim that when he had spoken of ‘the sweepings of Great Britain’ he was quoting what a small shopkeeper had said to him about his district. However, in the full civic elections the Labour Party, surprisingly, did not advance on its 1937 position. This was due to the fact, as George Hodgkinson noted, that many of the newcomers had not yet been registered to vote despite the rapid growth of artisan dwellings reported by the Telegraph. Evidently, the immigrants to Coventry from the South Wales valleys were not as settled in the city by the late thirties as were their compatriots in Cowley, although larger in numbers. Thus, the argument advanced by Conservative agencies within the City that it was the large influx of labour from socialist areas over the year preceding November 1937 that was the major factor in the Labour victory reflected their belief in ‘the myth of the old Coventrian’ as much as it did the reality of the processes of migration and settlement.

The 1937 victory was greatly facilitated by the creation of a large individual party membership which enabled many managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an increasingly important role alongside shop stewards, conveners and trade union officials. It was an ‘alliance’ which was carefully nurtured by strong leaders like George Hodgkinson and Sidney Stringer who shaped the Party into an organisation which was capable of winning elections and running the City successfully. In addition, the radical liberalism of many chapel-goers in the City was transformed into support for Labour’s progressive provision and planning of social services at the municipal level. In particular, the advocacy of Christian Socialism by Rev. Richard Lee, the Unitarian minister; George Binns, Methodist lay-preacher; John Fennel, Ivor Reece (Congregationalist) and Howard Ingli James (Baptist), led to growing support among their congregations fuelled by the influx of workers from areas of the country, like South Wales, where Nonconformity was still comparatively strong. All of these pastors spoke on Labour platforms within the city.

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The Immigrant Road to 1947:

Many of the Welsh immigrant workers, like ‘Jehu’ Shepherd, were attracted to Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre, where Ingli James had his ministry in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Shepherd became the organist and choirmaster and for many years ran a Male Voice ‘Glee Society’ in the city for the young Welsh immigrants. Besides supporting the initiatives which the immigrants had taken to establish an image of respectability in their new environment, such as the Glee Singers, Ingli James also affirmed to a wide audience, the society and culture from which they had come. He continually referred to the miners in his sermons, and his unashamed championing of working-class causes and politics brought him into conflict with the established professional Coventrians among on the diaconate in the church and more broadly in the city. May Shepherd recalled one of his sermons:

Ingli James was a great preacher, very down to earth, and a pacifist. 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 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 the other day, and paid for it. Did I say I paid for it? No, never, when I think what those men had to go through to get that coal for me to enjoy, and then I say I paid for it. No money would pay for what they did!”

I can see him now in that pulpit!  

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James’ sermons also dealt constantly with unemployment. In 1942, he preached a sermon entitled How Green Was My Valley, coinciding with the distribution of the Holywood film in Britain. The politics of the young immigrant men and women in his congregation, like the Shepherds, had a major effect on the development and direction of James’ ministry, as his 1936 article for the Midland Daily Telegraph reveals:

Coventry is today faced with the difficult task of welding a host of newcomers into a community, in fact of making a city, which is not the same thing as a mere collection of streets, or conglomeration of people… Almost every week strangers appear in our congregation, often in such numbers that one has difficulty  in getting in touch with them. Many are young, and trying their wings for the first time. It is an important part of our work to meet their needs both spiritual and social, to provide them with a place where they may find friends and feel at home.

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‘Before the Blitz’: Broadgate, Coventry City Centre in 1939.

Some of these newcomers were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions. James shared their impetus to social reform, which he articulated in his book, Communism and the Christian Faith, published in 1950, in which he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Queen’s 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 how he came to his vision of Christian Socialism during his ministry in Swansea before arriving in Coventry:

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…  

Of course, many of those he ministered to in Coventry had experienced ‘the struggle’ first hand but came to their visions via a variety of routes. But in his writing, as in his sermons, he was also distilling the essence of the shared experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars, the migrating millions from the Depressed Areas. Compared with Cowley, some of the most prominent Welsh figures in the local party in Coventry did not arrive in Coventry until the later 1930s and made their impact after the Second World War. These included Ernie Roberts, AEU District Chairman, William Parfitt from Tylorstown and Harry Richards from Tonypandy, both of whom became Lord Mayor, and Cllr. Elsie Jones, who, in 1958, made the following poetic contribution to a Party publication celebrating twenty-one years of Labour rule in the City:

Born and reared in a mining area I realised the need for reforms very early in life –

Because I loved loved light and sunshine I knew men and young boys who, during winter, seldom saw either –

Because I loved peace and a tranquil home, and I saw peaceful men become violent at the spectacle of their semi-starved families –

Because I loved music and culture, and the arts, and I knew boys and girls with wonderful natural gifts who would never get a chance to express them –

Because I loved freedom and independence, and I saw proud men grovelling for the ‘privilege’ of working for a week road-mending.

How green and beautiful was my valley. How black the despair in the heats of its people.

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More broadly, it is apparent that together with Elsie Jones, the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were largely conditioned by their memories of the ‘depression years’ elsewhere in Britain. When the Labour Government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to defend it in Coventry and issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and, according to the Coventry Tribune (Labour’s own local paper) 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. If we are to take this statement literally,  there certainly was quite a large ‘lump’ of exiles from the Monmouthshire Valleys in Coventry at the end of the thirties, so it is quite possible that a number of them would have known him personally as their former MP. The growth of municipal socialism in Coventry, from 1937 onwards was, like Bevan’s own role as Minister for Health and Housing, a practical expression of the principles of progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to attain to better living conditions than those which they had been forced to endure between the wars. Reflecting on his experience of the ‘two Britains’ he witnessed in the Thirties, Ingli James recognised that although Marxism was ultimately incompatible with his Christian Faith, it provided an empirical means for Christian Socialists to explain the injustices and inequalities of the capitalist system:

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 the rights of the individual and without resorting to violence. … we must show how it might be done.

Labour’s coming to municipal power in 1937 proved to be a harbinger of their post-war supremacy in local and parliamentary politics; the election of Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman as the City’s two MPs in 1945 confirmed the Party’s status as the leading political party in Coventry. By that time, the migrants from the Depressed Areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales had shown, by their various contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the new industry towns, that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns in an economic and political system which had displaced them. Nor were they prepared to be acquiescent in the face of stereotyping, which was often grotesque and prejudices which were always difficult to overcome. In the retention and transposition of their traditional values and institutions, they made an ‘ark of the covenant’ for themselves and thereby found a powerful means of confronting and overpowering those stereotypes and prejudices, and of fostering a positive self-image in their new environment. In doing so, they enabled and enhanced the recovery of working-class politics and culture in the 1930s. When the Lord Mayor of Oxford visited the Garw Valley in 1960, he told those assembled that those who had left the valley thirty or so years before had…

… entered into the life of the community of Oxford to the fullest, … in churches, chapels, football matches and in the Council; in all walks of life … they were highly respected citizens of Oxford.

The memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain, old and new, long before 1945. Those who had lost everything had also lost their fear; they had everything to regain and were determined to be in control of their own remaking. The trade union movement and the Labour Party were the major and long-term beneficiaries of this resistance and recovery.

Sources (for both ‘case studies’):

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? London: George Allen & Unwin (Publishers).

Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press. (Especially Peter Stead’s chapter on ‘Wales in the Movies’).

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

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishers).

 

 

 

 

Posted January 26, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Assimilation, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Coventry, democracy, Deportation, Economics, Education, Egalitarianism, emigration, Ethnicity, Factories, First World War, Genesis, George VI, History, Immigration, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, multiculturalism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Oxford, Poverty, Proletariat, Remembrance, Respectability, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Security, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Wales, Warfare, Welfare State, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, xenophobia

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The Labour Party and the Left, 1934-39: Case Study I – How Red Were the Valleys anyway?; The Politics of Unemployment, Militancy & Migration.   1 comment

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‘Red Walls’, ‘Heartlands’ & ‘Little Moscows’:

We may well ask, in borrowing and adapting the title of Richard Llewellyn’s famous 1939 novel, whether Britain’s industrial valleys and towns were really quite so ‘red’ as some made them out to be at the time and over the decades since the Thirties. The myth of Maerdy in the Rhondda as a ‘little Moscow’ has remained a potent one, and has been used to justify the political hegemony of Labour in its ‘heartlands’ and, most recently, to explain the victory of the Conservatives beyond the ‘Red Wall’ of the ‘Northern’ constituencies in the 2019 General Election. In Wales, the metaphor of bridges seems more appropriate, since the Bridgend constituency, in the geographical heart of the region and on the edge of the Coalfield below the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore valleys, was taken by the Tories (the town and the three valleys make up the County Borough of Bridgend). Maerdy became a myth because it was the base of Arthur Horner, Communist and future leader of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. As such, the intransigence of its miners’ lodge, which it shared with other pit villages, was deliberately channelled by the militants in the ‘Fed’ and the NUWM, giving it a longer life as a ‘little Moscow’. Its styles were present wherever there were some everywhere in the valleys. In the face-to-face conflict with the Labour Party nationally enjoined by the Comintern’s Class Against Class policy between 1929 and 1934, the CPGB took over the Rhondda Labour Party, stood Horner as a parliamentary candidate in 1933 and got within three thousand votes of getting him elected. Horner then renewed working with other left-wing organisations ahead of the ‘Popular Front’ policy adopted by the Communist International the following year.

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In the Thirties, as the expansion of the Social Service movement sought to ‘irrigate’ the South Wales Coalfield, it was accused by the ‘Left’ in general and Communists in particular, of becoming a form of ‘dope’ for the unemployed, contributing to the process of ‘demoralisation’ in coalfield communities, rather than alleviating it. Allen Hutt took this view, making no differentiation between the efforts of the churches, the Quakers, the ‘social service ladies and gentlemen and other charity mongers’. Wal Hannington, Communist leader of the NUWM, also argued that those who, by word or deed, divert the unemployed from the struggle against the Government were, whether they knew it or not, leading them into demoralisation rather than rescuing them from it, and in so doing, were acting as instruments of government policy. He pointed out that the word ‘demoralisation’ did not only refer to behaviour involving corrupt practices and indulging in mean and contemptible acts but could also be applied to a person being deprived of courage and self-reliance. Both the government and the movement itself remained extremely sensitive to this accusation which was echoed by Labour MPs and therefore could not be dismissed as the babbling of a militant minority. The 1934 Pilgrim Trust Report had suggested that the ‘generous impulse’ of the Nation had gone far to soften the bitterness of spirit that would brook no palliatives and Wyndham Portal stated that, whilst there was…

… no doubt that men were averse … to associating themselves with a club which was subsidised by Government monies, opposition was ‘gradually dying down’. 

However, while the hostility may have gone, the apathy had not, as his own report revealed that though there were a hundred and fifty unemployed clubs throughout the region, they involved only about twelve per cent of the total unemployed. Portal suggested that there should be a settlement with a warden and his wife carefully vetted to ensure that the ‘right type’ of people were appointed who would operate the occupational centres ‘on appropriate lines’. Firstly, they were to encourage transference by fostering a wider sense of ‘citizenship’, breaking down loyalties to class and locality. Secondly, they were to seek out and develop the right sort of leadership for the communities in which they settled. However, those who knew the valleys better could see the contradictions involved in this strategy. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, the Honorary Secretary of SWMCSS expressed this concern in the Second Annual Report of the Council:

… Leaders in Churches and Sunday Schools, Trade Union Lodges and Workmen’s Institutes, Unemployed Men’s Clubs and Boys’ Clubs change with every month, while ‘Transference’ skims the cream from our community and leaves it with the same burdens of maintenance and ever-deepening problems of social leadership. … The flower of our young manhood, with all its potentialities for leadership is leaving us in a steady flow. 

Several less ‘official’ surveys confirmed that many of the younger unemployed ‘kept away’ from the centres for a variety of reasons. Apart from the obvious association of them with activities preferred by older men such as boot-repairing and upholstery, it soon became apparent that these institutions were not, as they claimed, run in the best traditions of democratic organisation which were the norm in coalfield society. In his survey conducted for the Carnegie Trust in the Pontypridd area, A. J. Lush found that, out of the ten occupational clubs in the area, only two allowed members ‘a fair measure of responsibility for control and management’ and that many of the organisers were ‘stalwart conservative zealots’, chiefly concerned to provide ‘strong moral leadership’ and often ‘terribly ignorant on the most vital subjects inherent in the work… .’ Their lack of understanding of the needs of the unemployed would lead them to organise programmes of lectures which had little or no relevance to their audience. One unemployed miner remarked to James Hanley that ‘these places’ were run like ‘a kind of honest British Working Men’s Club’. Communists were often excluded because it was feared that they might spread dissent and division:

… the Social Centre is not very keen on having you if you’re a Communist. They’re very worried about us, … and they’ll have to worry a lot more soon, for the whole valley is turning that way as time goes on…

Certainly, what one American sociologist, Eli Ginzberg described as ‘mendacious propaganda’ did contribute to the failure of settlement houses and clubs, which were constantly under attack from the ‘Left’. Percy Watkins, of the NCSS, encountered considerable opposition when he visited Rhydyfelin to suggest the setting up of an occupational club in Taff Vale. Communists regularly referred to settlement houses as ‘dope houses’ where injections were administered to the unemployed so that they might more willingly bear their lot. Referring to the Brynmawr Settlement, Ginzberg noted widespread resentment at the statement that Mr Peter Scott, who had first arrived there with the support and under the direction of the Society of Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee, had taken this little town under his wing. This had led to a deep distrust, not just of the National Government, but also of the Society of Friends and the Council of Social Service, both of which were perceived as being under government control, so that when the populace learned that the Government was actually giving financial support to the Council, its distrust turned into hostility. Another American Sociologist visiting the coalfield, G. H. Armbruster, found a similar antagonism in the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire:

Passionately class conscious, the population resents the charitable features of the institutions and their origin from the benevolence or deception of a class that tradition has taught them to hate.  ‘They are here to keep us quiet’ is a common oobservation … Individuals  who had long taken advantage of the facilities offered remarked that they initially had to face the derision of and open antagonism of their fellows. ‘Aye, you’d a thought we were blacklegs’ one man saidwho had largely been responsible for the start of construction of an unemployed men’s clubin his community told me. … The trades unions and the Labour Party also initially fed this opposition.

This antagonism was amplified by the way that the new institutions were seen to be in open competition with the miners’ institutes, despite the latter’s acceptance of financial support from the NCSS. Many older unemployed miners would have nothing to do with new Centres because they saw them as weapons in an ‘underground war’ to destroy the institutes. Some Hanley’s witnesses went into flights of rhetorical language on this issue:

Now a lot of miners don’t like the look of things at present, the way these centres and camps are spreading about. And I ask you – why will they bring these damned centres right on top of our own institutes? Many men think they’re out to break the Miners’ Institutes.

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Even those who attended the clubs shared this scepticism and explained their participation by suggesting that they had every right to whatever ‘crumbs’ they could snatch. Philip Massey, in his survey of Blaina and Nantyglo, concluded that the acceptance of these small benefits did not make people content with their conditions. Indeed, several of the activities started through social service grants were being run by men with firm left-wing views. They had decided that, by the mid-thirties, it was too late to start boycotting the centres and that, though the Social Service movement was ‘a farce’ and ‘a sop’, they should take advantage of the resources available and use them for their own ends. Others, however, continued to feel that the centres were a continual and humiliating reminder of their dependence on this damned charity and that damned charity and that they conditioned the unemployed to accept their worklessness:

… All the Centres have done so far as I can see is to create a lot of jobs for people who don’t really need them. They travel about in cars and ask us how we’re getting on, and we go on mending boots and making tables, and not a thought about work in the air at all.

It is evident from these responses that the majority of the unemployed, both young and old, saw the settlement movement as a further intervention by the State. It was not easy for communities already at the mercy of the means test and transference measures to interpret the actions of these alien social workers in any other way than those of a quasi-official group of officials who had been sent to bring further demoralising pressure to that which they already felt. Referring to the Tonypandy ‘riots’ of 1910, one miner suggested to Hanley that the intention of the government was the same as it had been back then – to break the miners’ spirit. It was this belief that conditioned many of the responses of these communities, families and individuals to unemployment and impoverishment. That is why it is important that one of the major responses ‘from below’, that of voluntary migration, should not be confused with the dominant official response to unemployment, that of ‘Transference’. The migration response has been too readily characterised as one of acquiescence and defeatism rather than one of resistance to, and escape from, the web of state intervention in the coalfield.

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Equally, it has been too easily assumed that the extent of resistance to state intervention from within the coalfield itself can best be measured by reference to the number and nature of demonstrations and the level of political action within its institutions and organisations. However, it is important to see both migration and militancy as complex responses in the context of the wider political and cultural traditions of coalfield communities, rather than simply assuming that the processes of immiseration led automatically either to widespread and uniform demonstrative action or to abject surrender. Given the diverse conditions of unemployment which existed in different communities, it is understandable that the ‘militant’ response should have been more detectable in some communities compared with others. The older coalfield communities which endured higher levels of long-term unemployment throughout the decade from 1929 to 1939 were those with the greatest propensity to direct political action. Although these ‘eruptions’ were the products of latent frustrations and resentment, they were sporadic events which occurred in response to specific grievances in the local operation of government policy and, although dramatic both in their nature and effects, they were rarely part of a broader political strategy. Therefore, the crude causal analysis of contemporary propagandists such as Donovan Brown when they wrote about the 1935 demonstrations against the new UAB scales, need to be treated with considerable scepticism:

There has always been in South Wales a tradition of militant struggle and extreme radicalism. English bourgeois standards have never penetrated deeply into the villages of the Welsh mining valleys. Steadily worsening conditions have replaced the spontaneous native culture of of the days when miners taught their apprentices the perfection of the Welsh metre, with a vigorous political consciousness. The village forms a perfect unit for unit for militant organisation around the pit; there class consciousness has arisen quite naturally, while the coal owners live many miles away in beautiful manors – we are reminded of the Chartist days when the Welsh mining villages constituted enemy territory  … poverty, and the traditional militancy of the Welsh workers, naturally produced a vigorous opposition … Ceaseless activity has also continued among the unemployed … Marches and demonstrations all over the area had previously been taking place … South Wales is ablaze with indignation.

Whilst the broad brushstrokes of this assessment provide a colourful backdrop to a portrait of coalfield society, historians must painstakingly pick out the details for themselves. Otherwise, they will leave us with stereotypical and distorted images of the communities that composed it. Whilst it is clear that the Communists had been active organisers among the unemployed for some years before the 1935 demonstrations, they did not seem to benefit from this in terms of membership and support for their ‘Class Against Class’ policy. Even when they discarded this policy in 1934, and despite Wal Hannington’s well-known efforts with the NUWM, he still failed to attract any substantial support from the voters of Merthyr Tydfil in the by-election of that year.

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However, this evidence of a lack of support for revolutionary socialism should not lead us to the conclusion that ‘the unemployed’ of Merthyr were acquiescent about their condition. In fact, they were far from apathetic, but whilst espousing socialist views, had practical priorities and commitments, like ‘GSW’ (the need to demonstrate to labour exchange officials that they were genuinely seeking work) which would simply not allow time for a marked degree of participation in demonstrations and other forms of political action. Though many had to wait at home for hours waiting for a call to work for three days at their collieries, they were also far from physically or mentally idle, dividing their time between the Miners’ Institutes and their allotments, the latter providing a vital supplementary food supply for their families. J. J. Williams, the local correspondent of the Glamorgan Gazette, commented on the juggling of priorities in the Garw valley:

The new Pantygog Allotments have already become known as ‘the little Moscow’, perhaps as a direct challenge to the old Sunday Market. One member who in debates often talks of ‘taking the gloves off to get down to concrete facts’ never touches the spade unless his hands are gloved.

There were many short-lived ‘little Moscows’, wherever the demands of struggle became so intense that a counter-community became necessary. At the height of the battle against non-unionism, described below, Bedlinog, which Gwyn Williams famously characterised as one of those villages where you need magnets in your boots to stand upright, at one time elected a Communist Chamber of Commerce.

Green or Red? Re-painting the Valleys in the Thirties:

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Graph showing the relationship between average annual unemployment and net out-migration (in black) in given years (July-June).

For Dai Smith pointed out in his book Wales! Wales? (1984), the thirties were ‘laundered’ in the post-war liberal mind to such an extent that their image of ‘passivity and pity’ has obscured the ‘sustaining humour and collective struggle’ that can be found, for example in the autobiographical stories of Gwyn Thomas or in the local newspaper columns of J. J. Williams. For many on the ‘liberal-left’, South Wales became a ‘case-study’. The American sociologist Eli Ginzberg spent some years in the 1930s investigating the social deprivation and institutional response in South Wales for his book, Grass on the Slag Heaps, published in 1942, his title perhaps picking up on the ‘green’ theme from Llewellyn’s novel, published three years earlier. Ginzberg concluded his book with the observation:

It is difficult to help people who will not help themselves, and many of the tragedies that befell the Welsh during the the postwar decades can be traced to their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of their allies, the trade union movement and the Labour party … As early as 1934 Lord Portal called attention to the fact that the leaders of South Wales were noticeably inept, a result of the fact that the most virile and able people had migrated. This kindly interpretation of the ineptitude of Welsh leaders cannot, however, explain … such stupid practices in sending trade union leaders to Parliament as a reward for faithful services to the Federation.

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The preface to Ginzberg’s book was written by Thomas Jones (1870-1955),  the arch-druid of the ‘Cymric’ liberals, who in the 1930s, with increasing success, began to fill the gap left by the collapse of independent working-class education and the decline of the Miners’ Institutes. The ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and its offshoot of ‘Plebs League’ classes in the coalfield could no longer be sustained by the Miners’ Federation, much reduced in wealth and self-confidence. As Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, Jones acted as dispenser-in-chief of aid to the stricken South Wales valleys and Percy Watkins became head of the Welsh section of the NCSS. Between them, they controlled the intersection between social service, educational provision and public guidance. In his memoirs, Watkins wrote of his puzzlement and irritation at the reception given to their attempts to restore ‘standards’ and ‘authority’ in the valleys:

It is a strange thing that these honest efforts of ours to bring cultural opportunities within the reach of the unemployed in the days of their helplessness and hopelessness did not receive the encouragement and support that might have been especially expected from the political side of the Labour movement and from the trade unions. The former preferred to regard the motives of our movement as nothing more than an attempt to provide ‘dope’.

Marching in Step Against the Means Test:

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The ‘dope’ was not intended to smother working-class militancy, which was patchy in any case, or their institutions, despite the rumours to the contrary. Where these were challenged directly, it was by victimisation, company unions, mass unemployment and mass policing. All of these ultimately failed to control the coalfield communities. The reorganisation and recovery of the  SWMF, the continued agitation of the NUWM, and the fact that more national political and public attention was focused on the contrast between the increasingly prosperous areas and the depressed areas within Britain, all meant that by 1934 protest could be better organised and could produce results. Massive demonstrations against the 1934 Unemployment Act took place when the previously abstract idea of ‘popular front’ politics became a living reality in South Wales in January and February of 1935, as hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated within their valleys. The protest marches were directed against new government regulations that would have reduced unemployment assistance in addition to operating the humiliation of the means test.

On Sunday, 3 February, knots of people gathered around banners: local committees of action, churches, chapels, co-operatives, women’s groups, the Salvation Army and the British Legion, Sunday schools, shopkeepers, shop-assistants, teachers, printers, ministers, the miners, the unemployed, women and children, all brought out onto the streets in a collective cry of anger against the continuing injustice of the unemployment allowance rates and the means test. The defiance was that of a whole community. In and about them moved their organisers, Labour and Communist and ILP, the NUWM, political opponents who had denounced each other endlessly in the previous six years. Bands formed up. Lewis Jones, the Communist spokesman for the NUWM, captured the moment in his ‘documentary’ novel, We Live, based on ‘Cwmardy’, based on the Rhondda:

At the bottom of the hill, before turning into the square which led to the rubbish dump, where the other contingents of the Combine were waiting. Len looked back. His eyes glowed with what he saw. The street behind him looked like a flowing river of human beings on which floated innumerable scarlet banners and flags … Although directly in front of the band, he heard running beneath its thrumming wails the deep monotone of countless boots  tramping rhythmically on the hard road … When the front of the demonstration was two miles advanced  and on the summit of the hill to the east of Cwmardy, people were still pouring into the assembling field. Len lifted his head shaply into the air when he fancied he heard the distant strain of music in the direction left of the demonstration. He turned to Mary and the workman next to her. ‘Can you hear anything?’ he asked. They both looked simultaneously past Len and he, seeing their amazement, turned his head to look in the same direction. He drew his breath sharply and his perspiring face went a shade whiter. The mountain which separated Cwmardy from the other valleys looked like a gigantic  ant-hill covered with a mass of black, waving bodies. ‘Good God,’ the man next to Mary whispered, ‘the whole world is on the move …’ 

On that Sunday, the whole population of South Wales seemed to have turned out on to the streets. There were sixty to seventy thousand in the Rhondda marching to Tonypandy; Aneurin Bevan spoke to thousands at Blackwood; Pontypool saw the biggest meeting it had ever had, twenty thousand listening to Ernest Bevin. There were marches and meetings in Neath, Briton Ferry, Merthyr, even in Barry. Down the Aberdare Valley, fifty thousand people marched to Mountain Ash in a procession two and a half miles long through wind and rain. Men and women wore their Sunday best as if at a ‘Gymanfa Ganu’ (Community Song Festival) George Dugger MPor a Sunday School rally, a cry from humanity for humanity, as a local journalist reported, adding the government cannot refuse to listen. Something of the order of 300,000 people marched that day. One person out of seven of the entire population of Wales was out in those valleys. It was the greatest demonstration Wales has ever known, before or since.

The marches were at their strongest and sometimes most violent at the heads of the valleys, especially in Merthyr and the Ebbw Fach Valley, which by this time had learnt to live with long-term unemployment and had come to regard benefit and relief as due by right, rather than as charity. Nowhere was the latent resentment of the effects of state intervention more visibly expressed than in Merthyr, where the UAB offices were ransacked, despite the imprecations of the previously well-respected Quaker, John Dennithorne. They shouted at him, Come down, Old Bug Whiskers! They would listen only to Ceridwen Brown from Aberdare and a local hero everyone knew as Jack Williams, the Communist from Dowlais. The smashing of the UAB offices horrified even the fiery radical, S O Davies, the Labour MP for the borough. His opinions were such that the Communist Party stood little chance of unseating him. On this occasion, however, he denounced the demonstrators as a rabble and was shouted down by Communists and ILP-ers.

Over in Blaina, the demonstrations also blew up into violence. The children of Nantyglo refused to go to school and the shopkeepers shut up shop. Take all necessary measures, their Labour MP George Dugger told them. In the Ebbw Fach Valley, there were seventy in the Communist Social Club and fifty in the Communist Women’s Club; the valley had Communist district and county councillors. The people unleashed a guerilla war against a tough police force and marched on Abertillery singing We’ll make Queen Mary do the washing for the boys! and Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? at Superintendent Baker. A big demonstration was planned for the offices at Blaina when the after the authorities had refused to listen to the Communist councillor Phil Abrahams. The Brynmawr and Nantyglo contingents met up with the Blaina and Abertillery squads near the Blaina Inn. The police came out of it flailing batons, and there were guerilla battles all over the heads of the valleys. At the ensuing trial, six of the rioters got six months in jail, three Communists in the NUWM got nine months and Phil Abrahams was stripped of his civic rights for ten years. In South Wales as a whole, three hundred thousand were estimated to have come out for demonstrations on three successive weekends. In Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and in the other old centres of Britain’s industrial revolution, the same emotion filled the streets.

The National Government was forced to listen. In the Commons, Oliver Stanley announced a stand-still order on their regulations. They did not come into effect for eighteen months, and then in modified forms. It was in the heads-of-the-valleys communities that the unemployed stood to lose the most through the new regulations. This was the only known occasion in the thirties when popular protest, aligned with parliamentary opposition, led most memorably by Aneurin Bevan, actually stopped the National Government in its tracks. South Wales had been at the forefront, and from that moment, despite the continuing horrors, there was a sudden lift in morale in the coalfield communities. Bevan later commented: Silent pain evokes no response.

Staying Down, Striking Back & Reaching Out:

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Aneurin Bevan had been elected as MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929, finding himself in a Parliament in which thirteen of the fifteen Welsh Labour MPs had had, like him, an official connection with the SWMF, the miners’ ‘Fed’. During 1933-34, Bevan proposed the formation of worker self-defence militias against the small, scattered pockets of fascists who took root in south Wales. An eccentric Communist in Merthyr had a strong following among the most isolated and depressed communities and became something of a local hero to them and there were regular clashes around the town. There was some drilling of the militias around Bevan’s home town of Tredegar, and the Communists also organised their own vigilantes, but all such initiatives were smothered by the Labour Party.

Towards the end of 1935, a series of stay-down strikes erupted in pits where non-unionists and company-unionists were ensconced. These ‘stay-downs’ fired the imagination; they were a weapon of repossession. Hundreds of men remained underground in their pits across all the valleys of South Wales in an act of collective defiance that ultimately ensured the demise of company unionism. It was a desperate, tough fight to unhinge the ‘non-political’ union, regain members, and establish credibility among the unemployed in an industry being driven by utterly intransigent coal-owners. Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of this:

It is a story of infinite patience, persistence, care, resolution, and where necessary ruthlessness in what had the makings of a civil war. It is a story of remarkable leadership … with the genius of Horner in the van. The ritual was endlessly repeated, the strikes and arguments, the brass bands, marching crowds, women in the lead everywhere, the police charges, the court cases, the pilgrimage of political prisoners, the banners … The process climaxed in those dramatic stay-downs which caught the imagination of a generation, the long, wretched hours underground, the drama at the pit-head, the upcoming to a triumph.

From 1934 onwards the Fed was reorganised with a rank and file executive, unemployed lodges and a more effective structure. It successfully harnessed the community to its purpose and, in its somewhat shrunken industry, it won. This was one essential core around which the popular mobilisation of 1935 formed. But that mobilisation also demonstrated the limits of the Communist initiative. The CP, with its new Daily Worker offering powerful support for a Popular Front, and a dedicated membership approaching three thousand, moved forward, in the words of Gwyn Williams, with its intelligent, learned, hardened, crusading yet earthily practical men and women with all its dependent organisations, only to run into a brick wall of Labour hostility. The reaction of the Labour party nationally put a brake on the shift towards the popular front in Wales. There was a major rally of the social democratic faithful with the chapels, in particular, setting themselves against the threat of atheistic Communism in the valleys. Following the early months of unity against the UAB and the National Government, throughout the rest of 1935, there was a marked hardening of the Labour position in south Wales. At the General Election of 1935, the Communist candidate in the Rhondda fell well back in the poll.

From the summer of 1936, the Communists in the valleys went on to develop their support for the popular front in the context of the outbreak of civil war in Spain between the populist left-wing Republican government and the Fascist supporters and militias of Franco. In all, 174 volunteers from Wales fought with the International Brigade; thirty-three of them died. The majority of them were South Wales miners, 122 of them, with a further thirty-four of them hailing from the coal ports. Nearly all of them were members or supporters of the CP, for whom serving in Spain was as much a badge of honour as having gone to jail for ‘the cause’. Lodges in the ‘Fed’ raised money and goods for the Republicans and took Basque children into sanctuary. Lewis Jones, the writer of We Live, spent his energies on the cause, dropping dead from exhaustion after addressing over thirty street meetings in support of it in the week that Barcelona fell.

A Royal Command or an Indicative Promise?:

In October 1936, the nervousness created by the mass demonstrations and strikes prompted Captain Ellis at the NCSS to warn against the Royal Visit to South Wales, due to take place in November, at the same time as the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits was to take effect. Although the two-day visit to the Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and the Monmouthshire Valleys had been planned for some time, on 12 October, Ellis wrote anxiously to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace:

I feel bound to say first that I think the day is ill-chosen. The new UAB regulations come into force on October 16th. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between the 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great deal of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given a political significance … When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date in the paper, he asked me to tell you that he felt very strongly that the King should not be taken to South Wales during that week.

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There was some basis in evidence for these apprehensions. In August, the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge of the SWMF had demanded that there should be a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster petition’ of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later that month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge had decided to support the boycott of the Coronation, due to take place in the New Year. However, refusing to heed even the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward VIII chose to go ahead with the visit, albeit a month later than planned, on 18-19 November and, ironically, it was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks (that once employed nine thousand), that he made his (oft-misquoted) remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this. … to find them work. This may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism which Ellis had suggested might accompany the King’s visit, rather than an attempt to embarrass the Cabinet, as some interpreted it. Whatever the case, his visit did indeed acquire a political significance and certainly did not earn him any friends in a government which was already beginning to call for his abdication. Desperately hungry men and women grasped at the words of the monarch but, on the Welsh Labour ‘left’, as the MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious. It was an outrage, he said, …

… to organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go to the Congo.

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He said that the King was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied him,  was the instrument of that persecution. Brown was an unpopular politician, especially in an area that had seen rioting against the Means Test the year before. To counterbalance him and the Minister of Health, Sir Kingsley Wood, the King commanded that Malcolm Stewart, the Commissioner for the Special Areas, dine with him on his train that evening. Stewart had just resigned in frustration at the government’s failure to back him over the introduction of new industries into the special areas. Chamberlain, in particular, was opposed to these measures. Shortly before his resignation, Stewart had published a damning report on the feebleness of existing measures to tackle unemployment. Even before he stepped off the train, therefore, Edward was ‘walking’ into an area of acute political sensitivity. This was made more acute when, visiting a farming co-operative at Boverton in the Vale of Glamorgan, he remarked to an ex-miner working on the farm who said he would prefer to return to the valleys if there were work available, Yes, it is a great pity that something more can’t be done about it. As the tour continued past disused collieries, through maternity and child welfare clinics, into local housing estates, Edward was asked by everyone he met: tell Whitehall to do something for the valleys. The significance of his visit lay in the feeling that someone of importance actually cared.

From Merthyr Tydfil, the King’s party made its ill-fated detour to the Bessemer Steelworks in Dowlais, shut down six years earlier. Just as the closure of Palmer’s shipyards at Jarrow had blighted that town, its plight just highlighted by its well-publicised ‘Crusade’ to London, so the ending of steelworking in Dowlais had ruined that community. Coal mines could be kept running on ‘short’ time work, with miners working three shifts a week, but once a steelworks closed it very quickly became derelict with all its workers permanently laid off. As a result, in 1936, three-quarters of the town’s population was permanently unemployed. Two thousand came out and streamed along the pavements to greet the King on this unscheduled and highly improvised sojourn, and though many of them were radicals supporting the NUWM, they were intrigued to see him and raised their caps, even if they also raised clenched fists. He stood by the defunct blast furnace surveying the scene of desolation, his face drawn and grave, his bowler hat removed as a sign of respect. As he looked on, some of the men, quite spontaneously, started to sing the solemn but beautiful Welsh hymn, Crygybar. The King visibly moved, turned to those next to him and is reported to have said …

These steelworks brought the men hope. Something will be done to see that they stay here – working.

But it was the four words, ‘something must be done’ echoed around the country. Of course, in grammatical terms, there is an important difference between the use of ‘will’ and ‘must’ in his sentence, or phrase, regardless of the context, but perhaps the most important point is that it is expressed in the ‘passive voice’ so that no ‘person’ is specified as the agent of the promised action. Added to this, ‘will’ is expressed in an ‘indicative mood’ as a ‘promise’ and is not an imperative, or a command. It is not the same as ‘shall’ which, when used in the third person or in the passive is emphatic and fulfils the function of an ‘auxiliary verb’. ‘Must’ is a ‘modal’ verb which expresses an ‘imperative’ mood to refer to an obligation, and an internalised one. However, it could only be expressed as a ‘command’ by using ‘have’, as in ‘has to be done’ or, even stronger, ‘will have to be done’. In any case, ‘something must be done’ was a misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise, of what the King actually said, resulting in an important, if subtle, change in the message he was trying to send out.

These four words, as they appeared in newspaper headlines, became a refrain taken up by those of all political parties who felt that the government had done too little to alleviate the suffering of the poor and unemployed. In fact, in his earlier visit to Boverton, Edward had been careful to avoid appearing to criticise the action already taken by the government and the social movement which, as the patron of the NCSS, he was already well aware of. The King’s words, like the Jarrow March, just ended, gained a significance that transcended the immediacy of the plight to which they referred. His intervention simply reflected the growing consensus that something had to be done to create a more just and fair society by bringing jobs to the ‘Special Areas’. As the King, he was expressing the national mood, and although he had told Baldwin the day before that he was prepared to abdicate rather than give up Mrs Simpson, he was now, buoyed up by the success of his visit, beginning to think that it was part of his destiny to put up a fight both for the people and the woman he loved.

Aneurin Bevan declined an intervention to meet the King at Rhymney the next day, saying that he could not associate himself with a visit which appeared to support the notion that private charity has made, or can ever make a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales. But the whole event was turned into another mass demonstration by the coalfield communities visited. The visit to South Wales had demonstrated his immense popularity and ability to empathise with the sufferings of his people. When combined with the politics of long-term unemployment, it made for a heady brew. The King’s opponents became concerned. These escapades should be limited, Ramsay MacDonald commented sternly in his diary, they are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally. Geoffrey Dawson, writing in The Times, called the reported four-word comment of the King, monstrous. He penned a letter in which he dismissed it as a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics. The Daily Mail, under the title ‘The King Edward Touch’, praised his visit:

Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south Wales. … As few Ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from (the unemployed) the tale of their trouble.

Edward later reflected that his words to the people of Dowlais were the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen. The episode made him all too aware that the modern world had made it almost impossible for a monarch to continue to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects and speak what is in his mind. His subjects in South Wales certainly did not object to the political tone of his comment. The Royal Archives at Windsor are the repository of thousands of letters addressed to the King during this crucial period, the vast majority of which are positive.  The following sentiments were shared and expressed by many:

You could profess concern and interest and yet stay stay away … but that you do not do, and may God bless you for it.

We like you for the concern you have for the welfare of the poorest and most unfortunate of your subjects. No other King has gone among them as you have done, or shown signs of appreciating their distress in the way you do.

With hindsight, there can be little doubt that the publicity given to the King’s visit and his spontaneous remarks had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. But it took a world war to bring work to South Wales and by then Edward VIII had become the Duke of Windsor and was leading the life of a useless aristocrat in France.

Today We Live: Re-making the Images of the Coalfield.

Rumours that the South Wales Miners were planning a march on London to restore Edward to the throne in 1937 turned out to be just that. These had been heard by David Alexander, who had first gone to South Wales as a Cambridge undergraduate to shoot a miners’ strike, and returned that year to produce a film called Eastern Valley, dealing with the relief work organised by the Quakers at the top of the Monmouthshire Valleys. In this short film, one unemployed miner explains that he was working now not for a boss but for myself and my butties, whilst an ‘old timer’  admits that although mistakes had been made, a new interest in life had been generated by the Quakers.

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The best known Welsh documentary was Today We Live, made in the same year for the NCSS. The Welsh scenes in this film were directed by Ralph Bond and they told a story in which the unemployed miners of Pentre in the Rhondda debate whether or not to co-operate with the voluntary relief agencies. It is obvious that these unemployed miners had been coached: they were told of the gist of what they had to say but put it into their own words. But although, therefore, a dramatised documentary, the difficulty of living on a shilling a day is movingly conveyed and it is not surprising that the film was so well received in the art-houses of London and New York. It was rare to hear the unemployed speak so authentically, but besides the dialogue, the film was also commended for its stunning images of life in the depressed valleys.

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Donald Alexander was Bond’s assistant on the film and his shot of the unemployed searching for waste coal on the slag heaps, no doubt prompted by his earlier experiences in the Coalfield, was destined to become the most famous image of the Depression years in Britain. The sequence was ‘cannibalised’ in many later documentaries. Alexander’s slag-heap shots became an iconic image of proletarian hardship and played some part for British intellectuals as Dorothea Lange’s monochrome still-photographs of the ‘Oakie’ migrants to California. As the Socialist cause strengthened towards the end of the decade, several groups attempted to challenge the commercial cinema by producing independent films and by arranging their release through independent outlets. In particular, the Communist Party attempted to make its own newsreels to accompany screenings of Soviet classic features. However, these were rarely shown in Welsh halls or even outside London and had little impact on the working classes. Also, they were mostly composed of badly-shot silent sequences of marches and demonstrations.

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Pursuing a Millenarianism of the Oppressed:

At the same time as all this was going on, the ‘Left unity’ of the early months of 1935 was wearing thin by the middle of 1936. At the Merthyr Conference against the Means Test held in July, the claim for direct representation by the NUWM was defeated and in the Autumn the Trades Council reject the request from the Communist Party for affiliation. Relations between the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge and the CPGB were not good either, even where the issue of Spanish Aid was concerned. In the Garw Valley, however, the Communist Party seems to have garnered much of its support through the role the party played in rebuilding the SWMF in the second half of the decade. It is significant that the peak to that support came in the year in which those communities began to recover, fairly rapidly, from the Depression. Linked with this, it is apparent that whilst the Party had failed to attract any significant support for J R Campbell, a well-known figure who stood as a candidate for them in the 1931 parliamentary election, the Glamorgan Gazette reported how, in the 1937 Council election, the people of Pontycymmer were prepared to vote for a respected local Communist and miner:

The declaration of the poll in Ogmore and Garw Council elections took place amid scenes of enthusiasm on Monday night, 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 899 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 eighteen years loses his seat, the number of votes in his favour 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. 

Redmond’s election came in the same week that a new wages agreement between the SWMF and the coalowners was signed, giving increases in wages of between 2s.2d. and 10s. per week, and at a time when it looked as if the decade-long struggle against company unionism and non-unionism in the valley had finally secured almost a hundred per cent membership of the Federation. It is probable that these ‘victories’ and Redmond’s association with them, played a major part in his success. As in other parts of the coalfield, the growth in the electoral strength of the Party was not primarily a response to conditions of poverty and did not reflect widespread avowal of revolutionary socialism, but was a recognition of the organisational ability of its local leaders in helping the community to regain much of its self-confidence. However, in institutional terms, it was still excluded, as in Merthyr, from the official organisation of the unemployed. In November 1937, a series of protest meetings against the Means Test was organised by the Garw Valley Unemployed Lodge and the Pontycymmer Labour Party, with the CP excluded from these events.

Despite these activities, evidence of the existence of widespread apathy on political matters, particularly among the young unemployed, is found in the social surveys of other valley communities. For example, A. J. Lush’s Carnegie Trust Survey was based on interviews with five hundred young unemployed men in Cardiff, Newport and Pontypridd. Of these, only three per cent had any affiliation to a political party or organisation and in Pontypridd, apart from one Communist who was inexorably certain of the facts of the class war, there was evidence of vagueness about the election which was taking place at that time. Lush found no evidence of a swing either to the Right or the Left. The achievements of the Communists among the unemployed in South Wales have tended to be exaggerated by their own contemporary literature, the content of which exists in sharp contrast to that of the Social Service Trusts. Thus, although the NUWM existed in Pontypridd, a ‘coalfield town’, it showed no great success in organising the unemployed and was, in fact, quite reluctant to recruit the long-term unemployed to their ‘ranks’. As other organisers had ‘discovered’, the  physical and mental conditions of these men, old and young alike, would often prove a handicap to organisations based on active protest, including long-distance marches:

It has perhaps been assumed too readily by some that because people are unemployed, their natural discontent will express itself in some revolutionary attitude. It cannot be reiterated too often that unemployment is not an ‘active’ state; its keynote is boredom – a continuous sense of boredom. Consequently, unless a sense of subjective urgency can be expressed by objective political activity, politics can mean little … These young men, products of continuous uemployment, are not likely to believe that an active participation by themselves in affairs will permanently affect an order of things that has already, in the most impressionable years of their lives, shown itself to be so powerful and so devastating.

It is clear that, from Lush’s interviews and other interviews with ‘coalfield people’, including those conducted by this researcher, that there was no sustained militant response to the conditions of unemployment and impoverishment which involved significant numbers of people in any of the valley communities during the Thirties. The popular image, transmitted by contemporary propaganda newsreels and photographs of coalfield society continually on the march, is a myth. Demonstrative action was sporadic, localised and uneven and, where it involved large numbers, was motivated by immediate concerns and basic frustrations and resentments. These feelings could just as easily, and regularly did, produce a somewhat cynical withdrawal from political action. The unemployed did not adopt a revolutionary or militant outlook as a means of confronting their condition. Nevertheless, the determination of the SWMF leadership in the battle against its rival, the South Wales Miners’ Industrial Union and against non-unionism; of minority organisations such as the NUWM in its continual agitation, and of the general leadership of the institutional life of the coalfield communities, enabled a partial recovery of working-class life from the mid-thirties onwards. The ‘United Front’ which emerged from this, though precarious and transitory in many communities, enabled the people of the coalfield quite literally to find both their feet and their voices in a massive demonstration of their collective resistance to state intervention in their lives from the early months of 1935 onwards.

When Bevan and his colleagues in the ‘Socialist League’ were expelled from the Labour Party in 1938 for their advocacy of the ‘United Front’, the ‘Fed’ came to his defence. Bevan told a meeting in the Rhondda that the Welsh miners were the most class-conscious, the most advanced, the most democratic section of the working class. By then, the power and limits of the Communist Party had already passed its peak in the years of the Popular Front. Its base was the ‘Fed’ which by 1939 represented some 135,000 miners, sponsoring thirteen MPs and maintaining a presence in most local authorities. Its executive council was more powerful than that of the local Labour Party. Communists were entrenched within it; Arthur Horner became its President in 1936, proving highly effective. They had their own miners’ journal. In a wider social context, they also had a presence through their classes, their subordinate organisations, like the NUWM and their activism. They charged the atmosphere around the Labour movement in south Wales with their internationalism and within their own society, they had become a distinctive subculture, hated by many, admired by many others, tolerated as a dynamic force by most. The great majority in the Coalfield remained loyal to the Labour Party, but despite the isolation of the Communists during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939-41, the surge of pro-Soviet feeling during and after the siege of Stalingrad nearly carried Harry Pollitt to parliamentary victory in 1945. Bill Paynter, its post-war President, later explained the link between Union, politics and society:

The Miners’ Federation Lodges were pillars of the communities because the Miners’ Institutes and Welfare Halls provided places for the social and cultural activity, and their domination of the local Labour Parties decisively influenced local politics. It is not surprising, therefore, that this kind of background produces a loyalty to the Union so strong that the Union is regarded as a substitute for a political organisation.

… It has often been said of me that I was a miner and trade unionist first and a Communist second. … I have to admit that it has a great deal of truth in it. … It was true, too, of Arthur Horner and most leaders who have lived and worked in the mining valleys of South Wales.

Even though many self-styled revolutionaries were directing this ‘fight-back’ and even though the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments were clearly fearful of the potential for serious and widespread disorder, the successes of this leadership were rewards for their dedication as members of mining communities rather than the products of a ‘millenarianism of the oppressed’. In the longer-term, the acceptance of political reality was made palatable by the installation of ‘Labourism’ as an administrative necessity for an unreconstructed economy and society. The objection to the ‘dope’ perceived in the offerings of the ‘charity-mongers’ was partly a residual mistrust of those who elevated ‘citizenship’ above ‘class’. The assumption of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite was that they could translate the mutuality of these one-class communities into institutional forms ‘better’ served by administering politicians and public servants rather than visionary class warriors. Liberalism shaded into Labourism and the latter became bound by a social and cultural consensus that was addicted to the development of a meritocratic society through education. Neither revolutionary socialism and left-wing social democracy on the one hand nor reactionary nationalism on the other was able to contend politically because they did not see the Depression years as a fall from grace. Those who did were more in tune with popular conceptions and they demonstrated that despite the communal collapse, something could be done. As Dai Smith has put it:

The meaning of the rise and fall of the coalfield society as a collective society was thus undermined from within by a policy of piecemeal accommodation and overlaid by a mythology whose potency derived from its universality as a parable.

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Regaining Consciousness… To migrate or remain?

Research into contemporary qualitative sources reveals that a complex of economic, social, industrial, political and cultural factors determined the extent, nature and direction of the migration ‘streams’. Not least among these factors was the effect of state intervention. Besides political action, resistance to this intervention was expressed by a refusal to participate in government training and transference schemes and a wider rejection of the demoralisation involved in the invasion of the lives of individuals and families by a host of bureaucrats and social workers. Migration was an effective expression of resistance to this form of demoralisation. Thus, while similar factors influenced both transference and voluntary migration, and although contemporary propagandists frequently confused the two, the latter was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment for many individuals and families. Their choice was partly determined by these factors and partly by the nature of voluntary migration contrasted with the provisions of the Transference Scheme. The sense of the retention of autonomy through migration was well expressed by one of the older unemployed of the Rhondda in a written statement to the Pilgrim Trust:

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. …

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Migration thus deserves to be treated as far more than a simple knee-jerk response to economic conditions; it was a class-conscious response for the hundreds of thousands who undertook it. The fact that tens of thousands of Welsh migrants were to be found in Coventry and Oxford in the late 1930s, by which time they formed a significant proportion of the populations of these cities, was not simply due to a series of ‘push’ factors operating upon or from within coalfield society. It is still accepted, of course, that the primary causes of migration between the wars were connected with social and economic conditions. Historians of Wales and British historians on the left have continued to follow what might be called the ‘propagandist’ view of migration, i.e. that people were driven out of the depressed areas by unemployment. For instance, John Stevenson argued that miners left the pit villages in Durham and South Wales for no other reason than that they were desperate to find work. However, the sources show that unemployment was not the sole cause of migration, even if we regard it as the major factor.

Certainly, it is unimaginable that migration would have taken place on the scale which it did, had it not been for the onset of mass unemployment in the coalfield. However, other factors were at work in the period which played a significant part in providing the motivation to relocate. These factors were the general increase in geographical and social mobility; the expansion of new forms transport and communications, including wireless radio; increasing expectations among working-class people in terms of wages, working and living standards, especially better housing; the break-up of the ‘coal complex’, i.e. the acceptance of coal mining as the major means of employment. In addition to these factors, there were many secondary social and cultural factors which played significant roles in the nature, extent and direction of migration, including the decline in health standards in the depressed areas, the role of government and voluntary agencies, the growth of a ‘national’ British culture and the dissolution of the ‘Celtic complex’ concerning Welsh language culture, and the impact of fashion. Thirdly, there were several catalysts, including the decisions of friends and relatives, the attainment of insurable age, victimisation and marital status.

Indeed, given the strength of the practical obstacles to migration which also existed in coalfield society, there needed to be strong compensatory factors at work from within the recipient areas. These obstacles included family loyalties, local patriotism – the sense of belonging to a particular community, region and/ or nationality, house ownership (especially in the older coalfield communities), the sense of loss of skill and trade union traditions as a collier, the loss of the sub-economy of the coalfield. Besides these, there were also obstacles in the recipient communities to overcome; the problems of seasonal unemployment in the ‘new’ industries, homesickness, the shortage and cost of suitable accommodation. Besides, psychological resistance to intervention by state and voluntary agencies and the consequent process of demoralisation was also an obstacle to the success of the official transference scheme. These obstacles were overcome by the careful, autonomous organisation of migration networks which were able to supply information and practical support at every stage of the process.

A National Tragedy?

The cultural gap between the ‘old’ coalfield communities and the ‘new’ industrial centres was not, in any case, as wide as was often portrayed, but it was also bridged by the collective retention of the distinctive traditions and institutions of the coalfield in the recipient areas. These institutional networks were themselves important factors in the genesis of migration as well as in the success of the exodus itself. Yet Welsh historians have tended to follow the ‘nationalist’ perspective in representing the mass migration as a national tragedy. For example, Kenneth O Morgan, writing in 1981 book Rebirth of a Nation: Wales, 1880-1980, wrote of:

A steady drift … of young people … leaving their native land every year, leaving their closely-knit village communities to work in more impersonal … English factories, and to live in anonymous suburban housing estates instead of back-to-back valley terraces with their neighbourliness. Almost as a acutely as for the migrant who crossed the Atlantic to the United States in the previous century, it was a violent uprooting and cultural shock. But it was invariably and necessarily a permanent one, since, as Thomas Jones observed in a famous lecture, “the exiled natives (‘yr alltudion’ of Welsh folklore) never returned”.

Here the elements of alienation, culture shock and permanent displacement are overstated by Morgan, just as they were by many ‘Cymric-liberals’ at the time. He also overstated the importance of the transference policy in the migration to many English towns and cities, as we shall see in the second case study. In this, he is joined by several historians on the left, for whom it suits their purpose to treat ‘Transference’ and ‘Migration’ as synonymous.

(to be continued…)

Sources:

Please see the second part for a full list. Additionally,

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Posted January 22, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Agriculture, American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Austerity, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Communism, Compromise, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Economics, Edward VIII, Egalitarianism, Ethnicity, Family, First World War, George V, Great War, History, Journalism, Labour Party, Leisure, liberalism, Linguistics, Methodism, Migration, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nonconformist Chapels, Paris, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Russia, Second World War, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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The Recovery of the Labour Party & the Left in Britain, 1934-39: Fighting the Right & the Growth of a United Front.   1 comment

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

Following the November 1935 General Election, and Attlee’s subsequent election as leader, the Labour Party was firmly back onto the road to recovery. The components of that recovery were many and varied, but they could be summarised as including the following ten ‘key points’:

  • acceptance of the changing nature, or ‘re-making’ of the working classes, from those based on the older extractive and manufacturing industries to those in the newer, lighter engineering industries, including large numbers of women workers;

  • acceptance of the need to put the ‘National Interest’ ahead of sectional ones, whilst still seeking to develop primary policies to benefit the poorer sections of society, especially the unemployed;

  • giving priority to the needs of the working classes for local and national representation rather than promoting revolutionary activism among them;

  • ending narrow sectarianism and developing a willingness to develop socialist ideas in practice, and across a broad front, and in alliance with other groups, rather than on the basis of exclusive ideological principles;

  • developing co-operative and collective means of organising production, distribution and trade by building coalitions of social and economic organisations, including Co-operative Societies;

  • promoting social justice and equity as long-term aims as well as guiding principles for policy-making;

  • upholding the rights of all to the rights of freedom of association and expression, particularly in their participation in trade unions and organisations;

  • upholding the values of the British people, including ‘patriotism’ and the continuing importance of ensuring ‘thrift’ in programmes of public expenditure by ensuring long-term ‘planning’ of essential public services.

  • upholding the institutions of British Democracy, including its constitutional monarchy and the sovereignty of its people through Parliament, based on universal and equal representation.

  • advancing the cause of ‘municipal socialism’ through the development of local parties committed to encouraging a sense of civic pride and the establishment of social services, especially in health, maternity and education, accessible to all.   

These points are not listed in any order of priority but reflect recurring themes in contemporary sources, rather than the current concerns of sectional and sectarian protagonists within the Labour Party. Clearly, however, there are echoes and resonances which affect our interpretations of past principles and priorities. Of course, these interpretations themselves are not necessarily new, as the Thirties were set in mythology before they even ended. Then, in my lifetime, against the background of economic decline under the final Wilson administration in 1977, John Stevenson and Chris Cook published their ground-breaking book, The Slump – society and politics during the depression, which began the process of de-mythologising the period by attempting to separate the myths, potent as they still were in popular consciousness, from the historical realities.

Certainly, the politics of the immediate post-war era were fought on the record of the National Government in the pre-war years.  As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with the election slogan, ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. The popular view of the 1930s as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when that era had clearly come to an end, the ghosts of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent.

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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Now we have passed the point of ‘No Return to the Thirties’ and the memories of the decade are no longer first-hand fears, perhaps this process will soon be brought to its conclusion and we will no longer be stuck with the powerful and all-pervasive images of ‘the wasted years’ and the ‘low dishonest decade’, even if the Thirties will be forever associated with mass unemployment, hunger marches, appeasement and the rise of Fascism at home and on the continent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. It would, of course, be fatuous to suggest that the Thirties were not for many thousands of people a time of great hardship and personal suffering. At the time, there was a thirst for information on which policy to ameliorate, if not cure this malaise could be based, especially in the Labour Party. However, it took the Party two years until the end of 1937 to set up a ‘Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas’, to produce its report and to agree on a course of action at a special conference in December 1937. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the National Government itself had, in the face of already overwhelming political pressure, passed the Special Areas Act in 1934 to take some measures in four distressed regions to help the long-term unemployed. Commissioners had been appointed and departments created, though Whitehall in-fighting and economic orthodoxy hampered their work.

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But alongside the images of the unemployed must be placed those of another Britain, of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living. Some sectors of the economy grew rapidly, particularly car manufacture, electrical engineering, the paper and publishing industries, and rayon production, all industries heavily concentrated in the Midlands. The output of the UK car industry increased from seventy-one thousand vehicles in 1923 to over 390,000 by 1937, by which time Britain was second only to the USA in the export of motor vehicles. The share of the ‘new industries’ in total industrial output rose from seven per cent in 1924 to twenty-one per cent by 1935. As a consequence of these ‘new industries’, the living standards of people who remained in employment actually improved by about sixteen per cent between the wars. Although the new industries were not sufficiently large to reverse the overall trend of economic decline, they were important in minimising the effect of the Depression for the employed, especially through the migration of workers from the older industries to the new. The economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. As 1936 progressed, it was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War.

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As can be seen from the maps above, giving an Index of Relative Unemployment, South Wales was hit harder than any other region by unemployment and poverty. Average unemployment there was thirty-one per cent, compared with twenty per cent in Scotland and twelve per cent in England. Within Wales, there were also huge local variations in levels of unemployment, from eighty-two per cent in Taff Wells, seventy-two in Pontycymmer and sixty-six per cent in Merthyr and Abertillery down to those in the coastal towns and areas below the regional average, if not the national one. By the 1930s, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire had the highest proportion of people on poor relief in the UK, apart from Durham. To combat poverty, the National government had passed the Special Areas (Development) Act in 1934 and followed it with the Special Areas Reconstruction (Agreement) Act in 1936, which provided financial incentives to industry to move to the four distressed areas of the UK. Most of Glamorgan and west Monmouthshire became one of the ‘Special Areas’. The other areas were Glasgow-Linlithgow-Kilmarnock, South Shields-Hartlepool, and Workington. A few new industries were established in each of the areas, but the effects were inadequate.

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

In South Wales, the social effect of high levels of poverty was devastating. With poverty came malnutrition and disease. The incidence of rickets and scarlet fever soared, and the death rate from tuberculosis was 130 per cent above the average for the UK. Local shops and services became unviable. Chapels found their congregations dwindling as large numbers of people found themselves having to leave their country, moving to the ‘new industries’ of the southeast and Midlands of England.  Some of the migration continued to be ‘planned’ by the Ministry of Labour, which sponsored the transfer of workers. Between 1921 and 1940, over 440,000 left Wales permanently, eighty-five per cent of them from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. They either left with the majority under their own steam, or on the Ministry’s schemes, but by the late thirties, it was estimated that as many as one in ten of those officially transferred had taken themselves back to their valleys. Therefore, those experiencing some form of migration from Wales in the interwar years may well have been closer to half a million.

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In July 1934, Professor Marquand of Cardiff University published an article in The Times arguing for state stimulation of investment by means of a Trust for new industries. But he also admitted that it was unlikely that any government whether socialist or capitalist could do little more than tilt the balance very slightly in favour of regions like South Wales. It was therefore important that the transference policy should be stepped up as the revival of industry in England proceeded. This provoked an angry reaction from y Blaid Genedlaethol Cymru (‘The Welsh Nationalist Party’), the only party wholly opposed to transference at this time, although it advocated resettlement of ‘Welsh’ and ‘half-Welsh’ industrial workers in rural or ‘de-industrialised’ Wales, while the pre-1921 ‘English’ immigrants to the Coalfield could be returned to their counties of origin. The Party accused Marquand of looking longingly towards state aid and admitting that it would never be forthcoming and then hoping that England’s recovery would be sufficient to enable the flower of Welsh manhood to be dumped there. But these were voices heard only as crying in the wilderness of the ‘Celtic fringe’, as Wyndham Portal’s 1934 Report showed that the government continued to advocate transference on the largest possible scale. 

The Portal Report and the continuing emphasis placed on transference by the Government’s ‘Special Areas’ machinery, to the deliberate exclusion of any policy designed to attract new industries did, however, meet with a growing tide of protest and disgruntlement at a local and regional level within Wales. The Nationalist arguments that the ‘best elements’ in Welsh society were being ‘shipped off’, that migration was having an anglicising effect greater than that of the BBC and that the National Government was only concerned to ensure that there there was ‘no trouble’ in Wales, began to have a broader appeal among ‘establishment’ liberals and church leaders alike. They began to accept that transference and migration did not discriminate between the ‘alien accretions’ and ‘the old Welsh stock’, between the citizens of Welsh-speaking Rhymney and those of anglicised Abertillery. The statistical evidence bears this out, as the number of those identifying as Welsh-speakers declined from 155,000 in 1921 to just sixty thousand by 1939. These views were strengthened by the resolve with which the new Commissioner for the Special Areas, P. M. Stewart, set about his task in the New Year of 1935. In his first report, Stewart offered a stern rebuff to the growing tide of national feeling in Wales by suggesting that:

… love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.

In the New Year of 1936, the Government’s policy again came under fire, from a more local perspective, when the Report of the Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve the bankrupt County Borough’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions. Either the borough should be subjected to a wholesale ‘evacuation’ or there should be a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those that remained. Neither was being pursued with any vigour by the Government, but there was one course of action for which no case could be made. That was:

… the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole … It is this last course which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

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In May, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Most of the prominent figures in the Social Service movement in South Wales attended the Conference, including Church leaders and MPs. The young Labour MP for Ebbw Vale (a family scene from where is pictured above), Aneurin Bevan called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of the establishment Liberals who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if the problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken  as there was neconomic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

This was the clearest statement to come from the Labour Left to date, but it was quickly countered by members of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite at the Conference, who suggested that the valleys of East Monmouthshire had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life … However, the majority view of the conference appears to have been that what had been taking place was ‘expatriation’ rather than ‘repatriation’. Later that summer, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, Elfan Rees developed this theme at another conference in Llandrindod Wells, that of the Welsh School of Social Service, taking issue with the recent comments made by Professor Marquand in his recent short book, South Wales Needs a Plan, that a population largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil … a people without roots may be as ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in. Countering this, Rees argued that:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going … the unwillingness to remain idle at home … are the qualities that mark our indigenous population. … if this process of… despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

This division among the left-liberals advocates of ‘Planning’ and the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite helps to explain what Bevan referred to as the ‘complacency’ of ‘The Welsh Nation’ over the policy of transference during the previous eight years. The liberal establishment in the Social Service movement had hoped that it would remove, as they saw it, the ‘alien’ activists typified by A J Cook and others in the Miners’ Federation who had robbed them of the loyalty of the Welsh people. By 1936, they were clearly embarrassed by their newly-formed impression of a large number of people of Welsh origin who were leaving the valleys. Rees and others tended to exaggerate this process (the 1951 Census shows that the proportion of Welsh-speakers remained similar to that of 1931), it is clear that the growing awareness of the indiscriminate nature of migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in the transference scheme in favour of a more patriotic opposition to it. Marquand himself was critical of this hypocritical and manipulative élite and the nationalist passions of persons who hold safe jobs themselves. The response which his overtly political South Wales Needs a Plan received in official circles and the prominence given to it in the ‘responsible’ press was seen by contemporaries as a measure of the extent of the shift which had taken place in national opinion. The journal Planning commented that, had the book been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously, and wryly suggested that Marquand was…

… still young enough to have the satisfaction of knowing that if the ideas he put forward were to go on making headway at their present rate, he would live to see most of them forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.

However, the Commissioner, Malcolm Stewart responded by allocating funds to the National Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire for a ‘Second Industrial Survey’ to be made with Marquand as editor. His team of investigators worked rapidly, publishing the report in three volumes in 1937. As there was little prospect of the revival of the staple industries, the Report suggested that the only alternative to continued mass emigration lay in the diversification of the region’s economy by the introduction of new industries, supported by state action. The establishment of trading estates, like the one already projected for Treforest, near Pontypridd, was seen as a means of ensuring the success of these industries. Thus, by the outbreak of war, the economy of the region was slowly being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament. However, this grudging shift in Government policy did not take place until the end of a decade of mass unemployment and migration. Neither was the Labour Party very far ahead of the government in producing its policies. Its own Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas, appointed in November 1936 under the direction of Hugh Dalton, was not published until May 1937. Despite the fact that the Commission received evidence from a large number of local parties, Labour groups, women’s sections and trade union branches, the report on South Wales amounted to little more than a précis of Marquand’s survey in the form of a thirty-page pamphlet, the cover page of which is pictured below.

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The Report echoed the ‘sentiments’ of nationalists and ‘Cymric’ liberals in its statements that ‘the strength of the Welsh communities were being sapped’ and that ‘youngsters’ were ‘being torn away from parental care’. But the overall importance of the slim document lay in its drawing together of the current ‘middle opinion’ thinking and the vogue for ‘planning’ into a coherent set of policies for South Wales as a region. It criticised the work of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), established in June 1936, over its bureaucratic and onerous financial provisions. Despite the government’s shift in policy, 1937 was the peak year for the Transference Scheme. Welsh nationalists continued to conduct a forceful campaign, often confronting Welsh-speaking juvenile employment officers whom they accused of being ‘determined to force people out of Wales’ and of adopting ‘a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of transference’. But by the end of 1937, the new public consensus had finally succeeded in supplanting transference as the main official response to the problem of mass unemployment in the Special Areas. However, this did not mean an immediate end to the continued exodus of older workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom in the Midland factories was swallowing up more and more labour.

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Above: Pages from the Labour Party’s Report on South Wales, using Marquand’s surveys. 

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

The interwar years are frequently regarded as radical ones in political terms, characterised by popular and revolutionary left-wing support for the Labour Party, the growth of the Communist Party, and hunger marches organised and led by the Communists’ organisation for the unemployed, the NUWM. Perhaps it was the genuine fear of the street violence and disorderly protests over the means test which encouraged the vast majority of the electorate to continue to vote Conservative in national elections, most notably in November 1935. In 1935, the Communists remained a small party with about seven thousand members, but each member was, according to Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (in ‘The Long Weekend’, 1940), an extremely active centre of agitation and … adept at giving a Marxist turn to every discussable topic. The Daily Worker had doubled its size and greatly increased its circulation. In addition, between 1935 and 1937 nearly a million copies of the Communists’ pamphlets and leaflets were sold. Graves and Hodge summed up the commitment required to be a Communist:

To belong to the party meant devoting one’s time and money so whole-heartedly to the cause and having one’s political and social history so carefully investigated that very few sympathisers with the Communist position either desired to join the ‘corps d’élite’ of the party or would have been accepted had they offered.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once acknowledged as a show-down between the Left and the Right in Europe. The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees reverberated throughout the Labour left. While Bevin, Citrine and Dalton won the TUC in September 1936 for the Eden-Baldwin policy of non-intervention, informal discussions were being held by Cripps, Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. Earlier that summer Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski and John Strachey had launched the spectacularly successful ‘Left Book Club’, preparing the ground for a ‘Popular Front’ spanning the ‘Labour Left’ and the Communists, the latter by then having abandoned their bitterly sectarian ‘Class Against Class’ policy.

A volunteer ‘International Brigade’ arrived quite early in the conflict, including 2,762 British volunteers, 543 of whom died in Spain. Most of the British popular press was on the whole for the Republicans, but for the Conservative newspapers, they were always the ‘Reds’ or ‘the Communists’. To many people of René Cutforth’s generation, the war remained the most significant and deeply felt experience of their lives, little remembered, or read about, by today’s ‘soft’ Communists on the ‘hard Left’ of the Labour Party. Cutforth’s observation was particularly true of the mostly middle-class associates of the Thirties’ intellectuals, many of whom, like George Orwell, went to fight for the Republicans.  In Britain, communication across the class divide was almost impossible, but in Spain, some were able to achieve this. It was quite easy to dodge the non-interventionist authorities as the arrangements were mostly controlled through the CPGB, and once the volunteer presented himself at the recruiting office, he could be on his way into battle within a few hours. But, as Cutforth commented:

… the feelings which drove the Spaniards to massacre each other in droves turned out to have little or no bearing on those which had inspired the idealism of the British Left, most of which was derived from the protestant Christian conscience. … That the public school ethics of fair play and esprit de corps had played a large part in the formation of the minds which launched the Thirties movement is obvious from their works, and the British Labour movement always owed more to Methodism than to Marx.

This conscience-pricking idealism was utterly alien to the Spaniards fighting their private war. … their motives were personal, local, regional and sectarian. Communists had no hesitation in shooting Anarchists to gain control of a local situation. …

The foreign comrades were slow to realise that … the Asturias and Catalonia were not divisions like English counties, but furiously jealous little nations. … hundreds of thousands died by execution on both sides. … This … applied even to men obstensibly on the same side – ‘Trotskyite traitor’ was a common verdict. It was the sight and sound of these daily mass-executions which revolted the civilised Western participants. Was this the Revolution they had willed? Was there any real connection between this vindictive bloody mess and the social justice to which they were committed? 

But most of the British soldiers of the International Brigade were not socialist or communist intellectuals, but autodidactic workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales, some of whom I had the privilege of walking alongside in protest against the returning mass unemployment of the early eighties. Their convictions had been built in over generations of deprivation and years of survival underground had made them tough and fearless. Added to this, long-term unemployment had prepared them for the necessary privations of war, even if they were too young to have fought in the trenches like their fathers. To demonstrate their non-sectarian commitment to the cause, one of the two British contingents was named after the mild-mannered former soldier, Major Attlee. When most of the volunteers returned home in the spring of 1937, as the Germans and Italians moved in to support Franco’s side, they and the British Left, in general, redoubled their efforts to rally support for the Republicans in raising funds and producing propaganda. The survivors had had a short, but tough war. Twenty per cent of the entire British force were wounded, and more than three-quarters of the survivors had been wounded. By the time they disembarked from the ferry, the Civil War was already beginning to look like the ‘dress rehearsal’ for something much worse in the Great Confrontation between Good and Evil.

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While the International Brigade volunteers had been on the front line against fascism, Spain had already become the catalyst that brought a greater degree of united action within the organised labour movement in Britain, than any other political issue of the Thirties. As Michael Foot later reflected:

Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.

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Above: Oswald Mosley. leader of the British Union of Fascists, with his ‘blackshirts’.

It was not just the growth in extremism on the Left which alarmed many, but the emergence of radical right-wing groups during the second half of the 1930s. These consisted largely of disaffected Conservatives who demanded a renewed emphasis on imperial unity and tariffs to protect British industry, while at the same time rejecting parliamentary democracy. The financial crisis of 1931 was seen as proof of the failings of the policies of the established political parties. The most notorious of the right-wing groups was the British Union of Fascists established by Oswald Mosley on 1 October 1932. Mosley had been a junior member of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-31 Labour Government, rising to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, one of the four ministers charged with solving the problem of unemployment. His colleagues were J H Thomas, Minister for Employment, who had the primary responsibility, George Lansbury and Tom Johnston. Mosley had a clear and practical policy but was totally frustrated by Thomas who had little grasp of the intricacies of economics. Mosley thought him ‘a drunken clown’ and treated him with aristocratic contempt, but he had been unable to convince MacDonald to sack the incompetent minister because, as the former national officer of the NUR, he had strong trade union support and influence within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Sir Oswald Mosley, baronet, had arrived in the Party via Winchester, Sandhurst, the Harrow Conservative Association and Cliveden so that his rapid rise in the MacDonald hierarchy after 1924 was regarded with suspicion and resented by many of his colleagues. Mosley resigned from the Labour Government in May 1931 when his radical solution to the unemployment problem was rejected by both the Cabinet and the House of Commons. At that stage, both he and John Strachey were both seen as being on the radical left of the Labour Party. Mosley left it to publish his proposals as The Mosley Manifesto, signed by seventeen supporters including Aneurin Bevan and A. J. Cook, the Miners’ leader, along with Strachey and others.

‘They Shall Not Pass’ – Resisting the ‘Blackshirts’:

Mosley formed the ‘New Party’ and was joined by three other MPs, but when this fell apart, they parted ways with Mosley migrating to the authoritarian Right and founding the BUF complete with Nazi-style regalia. His storm troopers were his ‘Blackshirts’, the élite of them housed in barracks at Chelsea, complete with parade ground. Much of his funding came from Lord Nuffield, the founder of the Morris Motor Company, and other wealthy industrialists for some years to come. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was a staunch protagonist for Mosley and on 15 January 1934, his Daily Mail appeared with the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’.

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Above: Anti-Fascists in Limehouse, London. Wherever Fascism was strong, as it was in East London, anti-Fascists were also very strong and could be violent. While Limehouse had a significant fascist vote (see the text below), it was still the safe seat of Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Mosley held military-style rallies, miniature Nuremberg, at which he could posture as a ‘British Führer’. They were also the scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, the ‘United Front’. In 1934, at the peak of British Fascist strength, Mosley led three big rallies, at the Albert Hall, Hyde Park and Olympia. At the Olympia rally the blackshirts, anxious to demonstrate their efficiency as storm troopers shocked the nation with the violence of their attacks upon protesters within the hall. The Times reported the next day ( June) on the methods used:

The Fascist meeting at Olympia last night suffered from continuous interruptions, and the interrupters suffered heavily at the hands of the blackshirted stewards, male and female. … It proceeded easily for the first ten minutes before the Socialists made their first move. 

… It was countered with … a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence. Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing in the end of his resistance, he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays. …

… The speech was suspended at every display of force. When it resumed it improved with a brief homily on the need of Fascist methods to preserve free speech and on the British people having become accustomed to ‘red violence’ over a period of years.

It was a strangely mixed audience … people of middle-age who wore neither black shirt nor badge; people with a tired expression of eye and wrinkled brows; some of the people who bore the strain of war and the cost of peace. 

Olympia set the pattern for all of Mosley’s meetings. When the hall had filled the doors were locked and the speeches began. There was a spotlight worked from the platform and if any heckler interrupted, or even if anyone rose from their seat, they would be caught in the spotlight and as they stood there blinded and helpless a squad of ‘biff boys’ would move and give them a savage beating up in view of the audience, before turning the offender out of the hall. As René Cutforth commented, the audience simply sat there as if mesmerised by the thuggery taking place in front of them:

It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming. Mosley was never short of an audience.

In 1936, about 330,000 Jewish people lived in Britain, less than one per cent of the total population. The East End of London was home to between a half and one-third of them, mostly concentrated into a densely-populated area centred on Brick Lane, so it was a particular target for Mosley and his thugs. He was stirring up racial antagonism in this impoverished area by blaming the Jews for the high rates of unemployment, rent increases and poor wages. During the Slump, it had suffered particularly badly and was a pocket of poverty as bad as anything in the distressed areas of South Wales and the North of England, full of slums, filth and futility. Mosley’s Fascists took full advantage of the general restlessness created by the hunger marches and demonstrations against the means test. They stepped up their parades until the East End felt it was being invaded almost every night. They always marched with a heavy guard of police, who seemed to be as much part of their parade as their own ‘biff boys’. The East End, with its large Jewish community, became the chief battleground of the opposing factions and parties. But there had been ‘skirmishes’ with the BUF at a number of regional rallies. On 12 July six blackshirts at one rally were knocked unconscious by men wielding iron bars. Mosley’s car window was shattered by a bullet as he drove away. At other meetings across the country, anti-Fascists pelted the rally-goers with bricks and stones. and many were injured. At a rally outside Leeds on 27 September, attended by thirty thousand people, Mosley was showered with missiles.

Many of the Jews living in the East End were second-generation, the children of parents who had been forced to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the sanctuary of Britain. Most of the older generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in an enclosed community of crowded tenements, synagogues, baths and kosher butchers. They tended to work in the clothing and furniture trades. They were an obvious target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed the windows of Jewish grocery shops, chalked anti-Semitic graffiti on walls and shouted racist insults during street meetings and as they marched through Jewish areas, such as The Yids, the Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids! In the summer of 1936, the more abusive the blackshirts became, the more the police appeared to protect them from their victims. In September there was particular anger in the East End over two incidents. Fascist thugs threw a Jewish boy through a plate-glass window, blinding him. Later, a further horror occurred when a Jewish girl was caught and strapped to an advertisement hoarding in the attitude of the crucifixion. Neither incident led to a prosecution.

Young Jews did not take these attacks with the forbearance of many of their parents and the official bodies that represented them. They wanted to fight back. Even though they were British-born and British-educated, young Jews felt alienated and stigmatised by the anti-Semitism that flourished in British society. Many became Communists, seeing the party as the most vigorous opponent of Fascism. Others joined the Labour Party, although it was much less active in the fight, contrary to the current mythology of a Labour Left riddled with anti-Semitism itself. Others formed their own self-defence groups or ‘street gangs’. At this time, the anti-Semitic outbursts of the Fascists were reaching a climax, and large numbers of people came onto their streets to protest against the BUF’s overtly racist abuse, and there were scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, ‘the United Front’.

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

When the BUF announced that it would stage a mass march through East London to celebrate its fourth anniversary on Sunday 4 October, a coalition formed to confront Mosley. The battle lines were drawn up, leading to the riots in Stepney which became known, famously, as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ (see the photos below). The prospect of Mosley’s major demonstration, with all the inevitable resistance and ensuing violence, led many to call for it to be banned. Labour MPs and the mayors of London’s boroughs pleaded with the Home Secretary to halt the march. A petition of a hundred thousand signatures was presented to him, but to no avail.

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Mosley had planned the route of the provocative military march of his uniformed racists to go right through the heart of Whitechapel. The coalition of Communists,’ leftists’ and young Jewish activists set to work organising the opposition. The older generation in the Jewish community was dead-set against them. The Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle told readers in the East End to remain indoors and pull down the shutters. But their advice was ignored. The leaders of the Jewish community had lost control of their people. Labour too urged its members to keep off the streets; the Labour-supporting newspaper, The Daily Herald argued with typical pusillanimity that the best way to defeat Fascism was to ignore it. Even the Communist Party at first kept quiet. No official body wanted to be seen encouraging action that would inevitably lead to violence and law-breaking. For most, taking to the streets to stop Mosley’s march was a spontaneous expression of hatred of Fascism. Moseley was not the only public figure to completely underestimate the extent of the determined and deeply-felt opposition to his creed of hate and more than two hundred thousand Londoners, Jews and Gentiles, rallied under the Spanish anti-fascist slogan, They shall not pass! Spain was the constant refrain. For Charles Goodman, an East End Jew who was not a member of the CPGB, it was the motivating factor:

… it was not a question of a punch-up between the Jews and the fascists … in my case it meant the continuation of the struggle in Spain.

Those planning to take part in the counter-demonstration were by no means all Jews or Communists. The bleak turn of events abroad was a mobilising force for thousands with a left-liberal view of the world, whatever their ethnicity or party affiliation, and halting Mosley in the East End had a wider significance, as Harold Smith, an eighteen-year-old office worker and activist at the time, later recalled:

We were young, enthusiastic, Spain was on, Hitler was on the march, it was a British contribution to stop Fascism.

Two East End Communists, Joe Jacobs and Phil Piratin planned the unofficial fightback. A week before the demonstration, the latter arranged a meeting at his house in Stepney for a group of ‘Aryan-looking’ members of the CPGB, who would be able to pass themselves off as Fascists during the march and keep an eye out for any changes to the planned route of the march. In the early afternoon of 4 October a young medical student, Hugh Faulkner, dressed as a doctor and with an empty medical bag, joined the blackshirt demonstration at the Tower of London. He was allowed through the rows of police:

I found myself in the middle of the Fascists and caught sight of a member who worked in my hospital. On the spur of the moment I said “I’ve finally made up my mind. I want to come in with you”. He was such a clot he immediately accepted this … he was absolutely delighted and almost immediately showed me a duplicate sign of the route.

Armed with this latest intelligence, Faulkner ran off to telephone the plan of the march to Piratin and his fellow organisers. Meanwhile, vast crowds had assembled, ready to do battle with the Fascists. They had already built barricades while the blackshirts were being held up by police. The Cable Street riot was not a battle between the blackshirt supporters of Oswald Mosley and his opponents; it was a battle between the police and the anti-Fascists. When Harold Smith arrived at Gardiner’s  Corner at mid-day, where Piratin had placed trams to block the entrance to Commercial Road, he found a sea of people, ‘like the Cup Final’ he said. By then an estimated 310,000 people had turned up to stop the Fascists marching through. Although Communists under Phil Piratin had been the principal organisers of the opposition, it was not a Communist counter-demonstration. In 1936, the Party had only eleven thousand members. But the Party had been able to organise far greater support across a wide cross-section of British society. The police set to work to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators so that the blackshirts could gain access to Commercial Road, down which they had planned to march. They used a combination of brute force and mounted police charges. People everywhere were bleeding from head wounds inflicted by batons and staves. After several charges and forays, it became obvious to Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner, that there was no way that Mosley’s men and women could pass through to Commercial Road, ‘short of mayhem and murder’, so he decided on an alternative route, via Cable Street.

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Thanks to Hugh Faulkner’s intelligence, Piratin quickly became aware of the switch and ordered his ‘flying squads’. As its name suggests, it was close to the docks and lined with ships’ chandlers, lock-ups and warehouses. They were full of carts and heavy equipment which made perfect materials for barricades. As at Gardiner’s Corner, the mounted charges were unable to make headway, and the women in the tenement buildings began throwing everything they could lay their hands on down on the police, forcing them to retreat and, after taking shelter in the lock-ups, to surrender. The demonstrators took their helmets and truncheons and told them to ‘shove off!’ More than a hundred were wounded in the riot, and eighty-three anti-Fascists were arrested. The next day, many of them were sentenced, like Charlie Goodman, to four months’ hard labour. At about six in the evening, the news came through that the march through the East End had been cancelled on the orders of the Police Commissioner, after consulting with the Home Secretary. The demonstrators were elated, while there was despair among Mosley’s followers. They had waited with their ‘Leader’ for almost six hours, ‘kettled’ by the police in Royal Mint Street. The setback was significant, not simply because the march had been stopped, but because of the violence which it triggered.

For the left, by contrast, the Battle of Cable Street was a tremendous victory. The three thousand blackshirts did not pass, as the anti-Fascist demonstrators prevented the police from ushering Mosley’s ‘stormtroopers’ through the East End, a victory which proved a decisive blow from which the British fascists never recovered. It brought together, at least for the following year, a fractured movement that had long been divided on sectarian and ideological grounds on the major issues of the day. It also united people from different ethnic and religious groups and across classes. One of the leaders of the ‘resistance’ recalled that the most amazing thing was to see a silk-coated religious Orthodox Jew standing next to an Irish docker with a grappling iron. A number of men, like Frank Lesser, took such pride in having stopped the Fascist march that they were motivated to volunteer to fight Franco:

It seemed to me that the fight against Fascism had to be fought in England, it had to be fought, and I went to fight it a year later in Spain too. 

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

In the aftermath of the events on Cable Street, the Cabinet met on Wednesday 14 October, with the disturbances at the top of the agenda together with the marches and protests of the unemployed which were happening at the same time. It was not only the disciplined ‘Crusade’ of the men from Jarrow which concerned the ministers. Two other marches were heading through the capital at the same time. One of these was a three-pronged demonstration led by the NUWM against the means test. The prospect of more revolutionaries fighting on the streets of London with the police after the debacle of the previous week in Stepney was more than the politicians could stomach. Some form of action was needed, but it was unclear what the government could do to stop the marches. Stanley Baldwin had recovered enough from a two-month illness to chair the meeting and called on Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, to report on the situation in general and specifically on Cable Street.

Two days earlier, eight days after the riot, the steely-cold Sir John had produced a Memorandum for the Cabinet that showed the degree of concern that he and his colleagues felt. They had faced an almost complete breakdown of law and order on the streets of the capital. The police had been unable to control the demonstration, nor had the Fascists been able to march, as was their right. More clashes were likely as Communists, buoyed up by success, took to the streets again to prevent further Mosley rallies. and demonstrations. The stopping of the march at Cable Street was a blatant denial of free speech to the BUF, as well as a victory over the legitimate authorities. As Mosley complained:

We were prevented from doing what we had done before, marching through London where we had tremendous support and would certainly have won a parliamentary seat.

Then he told his colleagues that nothing should be done to prevent orderly bands of demonstrators marching where they planned. Perhaps surprisingly, however, those who had stopped the BUF in its tracks and beaten back the police were not the object of Simon’s wrath. Instead, he singled out Mosley and his blackshirts for their provocative behaviour and drew attention to their uniform. There was something essentially un-British about a political party dressing up and strutting around in military-style. The Home Secretary spoke of the intense resentment that it caused in the country at large, with the assumption of authority by a private army. That was bad enough, but what was worse was Mosley’s aping the anti-democratic régimes of Europe, where the wearing of black or brown uniforms led to the overthrow of popular liberties … Sir Oswald makes no secret of his desire to follow the German and Italian examples. Simon told the Cabinet that the men and women who dressed as blackshirts looked much smarter than when wearing their everyday clothes. He thought this added to the appeal of the Fascists among poorer people. There was only one solution: uniforms had to be banned.

He also suggested that, on the subject of ‘hunger marches’, action be taken to minimise the risk of violence and that the newspapers should be made aware of the futility of these marches. Baldwin agreed that selected journalists should be briefed so as to counter the favourable publicity given to the marchers and that no ministers would meet any deputations of marchers. Clearly, the ‘nightmare’ on Cable Street was, in part, what led the government to take its hard-line over the presentation of the Jarrow petition. However, the Labour Party conference’s decision not to back the Crusade made it easier for the government, and the ‘Downing Street Declaration’ echoed the speeches which questioned the desirability of getting ill-fed men to march.

Banning uniforms was just one of several measures needed to deal with the disturbances, Simon said. He also threw in a restriction of liberty. He told the Cabinet that the onward thrust of modernity had made the police’s job impossible. Thousands of people could now be summoned at short notice by radio and newspaper., they could travel quickly by public transport, and they could be harangued by demagogues using microphones and loudspeakers. These developments, combined with ‘the European crisis’ and the hysterical fear that an anti-Jew agitation might gain the mastery in this country, meant that the authorities had to have the right to be able to stop demonstrations in future if they feared they might lead to disorder. The Cabinet agreed.

Despite the limitations on freedom of speech, a bill went before Parliament less than a month later. But to the Cabinet’s frustration, the legislation giving the police powers to ban demonstrations was weeks away from enactment. The government restricted BUF activities by enacting The Public Order Act banning political uniforms and allowing the police to ban marches for three-month periods. A coalition of all sides of the Commons came together to stop Mosley, united in hatred of the blackshirt as a political tool, and in loathing of his politics. It was a thoroughly partial piece of legislation in the first instance. Its practical purpose may have been to prevent the recurrence of violence on the scale of the Battle of Cable Street, but its political effect was to cripple the BUF. Denied their uniforms, prevented from marching purely at the discretion of local police, their extra-parliamentary party went into sharp decline. Mosley had few friends at Westminster and he claimed that the British Government had surrendered to red terror.

This forced the BUF back to using more conventional and constitutional political methods. Electorally, they had some local success in the East End. Although the BUF gained support in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, the East End remained its heartland.  In the London County Council elections of March 1937, the BUF won twenty-three per cent of the vote in North-East Bethnal Green, nineteen per cent in Stepney (Limehouse in Clement Attlee’s constituency) and fourteen per cent in Shoreditch. Nonetheless, the fascists failed to win more widespread support. BUF membership (as far as we can tell) rose from seventeen thousand in early 1934 to between forty and fifty thousand by July, organised in four hundred branches. After dropping from that peak to five thousand within a year, it recovered to 15,500 during 1936, reaching 22,500 by the outbreak of war. More generally, the fascists were unable to win parliamentary seats, not even in East London, despite Mosley’s certain declarations that they would. The BUF had no doctrines except jingoism, a professed love of the British flag and the Royal Family, and hatred of Jews and Communists.

In any case, the voting system worked in favour of the two dominant parties. The Conservative Party remained attractive to the middle classes and the BUF was unable to compete with Labour and the trade unions for the support of the unemployed. As the economy improved in the 1930s, the attraction of a political alternative diminished. The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it had been in Berlin in the Thirties where it was extremely easy for anyone to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Below: A press picture from ‘The Daily Worker’  of a great united anti-fascist protest in Trafalgar Square in 1937. Mosley and his followers are seen giving the Nazi salute, their demonstration ringed by a great phalanx of anti-fascists, their clenched fists raised in the salute of the ‘United Front’. Interestingly, despite the hatred, each side nurtured for each other, a single line of policemen was all that separated the opponents and the protest passed without violence, Mosley’s speech being drowned out by the mass singing of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’.  The demonstrators then kept up a continual barrage of anti-fascist slogans.  

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Below: A counter-rally organised by the BUF in Bermondsey in 1938. May Day was traditionally a Socialist festival. The Fascist salute, taken very seriously by the party, was regarded as richly comic by most of the public. 

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

In January 1937, the first issue of Tribune was published, its controlling board including Bevan, Cripps, Laski, H N Brailsford and Ellen Wilkinson. Later that month the United Campaign was launched at a great meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Stafford Cripps, James Maxton and Harry Pollitt appeared on the platform, and Nye Bevan, Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher and Fenner Brockway were among the principal signatories to the manifesto. As the non-interventionist right-wing fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, ILP, Socialist League, Communist 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 and Harry Pollitt sharing a platform and Clement Attlee visiting the remaining International Brigade soldiers in Spain.

From its outset, the Spanish Civil War had absorbed the attention of the international community. It served as a kind of litmus test for whether democracy would survive or Fascism would triumph. In 1938, the outcome of this ideological conflict was more unsure than ever. The official line of the powers, sanctioned by the League of Nations, remained one of non-intervention, a policy willfully ignored by Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. The extreme polarisation of political forces inside Spain, together with the active intervention of Italy and Germany on behalf of the insurgents and the Soviet Union supposedly championing the cause of the Left, turned the Spanish Civil War into the ideological cause célebre of the late 1930s. Conscious that the conflict accentuated the division of Europe into Left and Right, the National Labour MP, Harold Nicolson inclined towards a more robust anti-Franco line in the belief that the government had been ‘weak and confused over the Spanish question’. At a dinner party, he told Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’. The destruction of Guernica, the ancient Basque capital, on 26 April 1937 by bombers of the German Kondor Legion had reinforced his feelings. He wrote to 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.

At the end of February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, ostensibly over Chamberlain’s precipitate and inept handling of Anglo-Italian relations. As a National Labour MP, there was nothing Harold Nicolson could do about the doleful events in Germany, but Eden’s resignation affected him deeply. He had loyally upheld Eden’s handling of British foreign policy, and did not want to become ‘one of Winston’s brigade’. But he had come to the unavoidable conclusion that ‘National Labour’ had ceased to exist as a separate entity. Nicolson was determined to defend Eden, whose resignation speech, muddled and indecisive, had not gone down well. The Foreign Secretary, he revealed to the restless MPs, had resigned not over ‘a little point of procedure’, but on ‘a great question of principle’. He lashed into Italy, …

… a country which has continuously, consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered … our great principles of policy … the rule of law , the theory of the League of Nations, the belief in the sanctity of treaties … butchered to make a Roman holiday.

His speech was warmly received by other critics of Chamberlain’s government, including Lloyd George and Churchill. Supporters of the government thought it damaging to ‘the cause of peace’. But Nicolson had no doubt that Chamberlain was blindly leading the country into a political and diplomatic minefield:

 … their policy is nothing less than the scrapping of the ideas which have been built up since the war and the reversion to the old pre-war policy of power politics and bargaining. This means: (1) that we shall have to buy the friendship of Italy and Germany by making sacrifices. (2) That this frienship will not be worth tuppence once is is bought. And (3) that in doing so we shall sacrifice the confidence of France, Russia, the United States and all the smaller countries.

For many, ‘Tricky Chamberlain’ no longer inspired trust, but nor did the National Labour Party that had behaved like worms and kissed the Chamberlain boot with a resounding smack. But the die-hard Tories were jubilant at having flushed out all the nonsensical notions of the past and having got back the good old Tory doctrines. Nicolson’s pessimism intensified when, on 12 March, German forces crossed into Austria and Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss. Although he still sat on the government benches, he emerged as a leading critic of the government’s foreign policy, claiming that we are going to let Germany become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us. The Anschluss passed off to whispers of protest, but Spain remained a burning issue. Four days after Hitler’s coup, with Franco’s troops on the offensive, Nicolson spoke out forcefully on the issue. He began by expressing his ‘deepest sympathy’ with the Spanish government and his ‘deepest hatred’ for Franco. A Franco victory, he pointed out, would gravely menace Britain’s interests and security. A free Spain, he stressed, had traditionally been of immense strategic advantage to Britain.

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Above: A snapshot from a woman Labour Party member of another anti-fascist gathering at Belle Vue, Manchester, early in 1938, showing women Labour Party members, Margaret Whalley and Mary Eckersley, waiting to attend the United Front rally.

May Day 1938 was one of the largest since 1926 and the message was ‘Spain above all’. Herbert Morrison spoke from the Labour platform, reminding his audience of the heroic Spanish people and their fight against foreign invasion. Hammersmith Labour Party carried a banner announcing that it had collected five hundred pounds to send an ambulance to Spain and West London engineers paraded a motorcycle of the type they had sent. Everywhere in the procession were the tricolour flags of the Spanish Republic, and a red banner proclaimed, Spain’s fight is our fight. Tens of thousands assembled at the eight platforms in Hyde Park to hear speakers from every section of the labour movement call for arms for Spain and the end of the Chamberlain government. As the long column of marchers entered the park, the loudest cheers came for the wounded members of the International Brigade, closely followed by a group of women of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (pictured below), dressed in nurses’ uniforms, collecting to buy milk for Spanish children.

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

In the view of Harold Nicolson, Neville Chamberlain was an ‘ironmonger’ who had no conception… of world politics and was quite unsuited to the task of concluding a successful negotiation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in September 1938. It soon became apparent that Chamberlain, who didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetans were in the Reich or out of it, had brought back sn agreement that, in principle, ceded to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept this arrangement.  At one stage, ‘Baffy’ Dugdale, a National Labourite and member of the Executive of the League of Nations Union, rang up Harold to tell him that she had been sick twice in the night over England’s shame’, and had thrown up again after having read in The Times that the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not … be expected to make a strong ‘prima facie’ appeal to them. Thereupon, she had resigned from the Party. Nicolson himself penned a note of protest to ‘Buck’ De La Warr about National Labour’s refusal to speak out on the issue: He would consider his position.

Chamberlain returned empty-handed from the second round of talks held at Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, but he was given a ‘blank cheque’ from public opinion for his peace efforts. Nicolson told Churchill that the international situation would bring about the end of the British Empire. They discussed tactics should Chamberlain decide to ‘rat again’. They agreed to press for a Coalition Government and the immediate application of war measures since war seemed imminent.  On 28 September, the House of Commons convened to hear the PM clarify the chain of events leading to the crisis. As he entered the Chamber he was greeted by shouts of applause from his supporters, many of whom rose in their seats and waved their order papers. The opposition remained seated and silent, as did Harold Nicolson, ostensibly a government supporter. The next day he addressed a meeting of the National Labour group in Manchester, hitting out at the Government and its advisors, which rallied the Chamberlainite supporters against him. Matters worsened when he voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging to support the PM, leading to accusations of ‘dishonourable behaviour’.

The high point of Nicolson’s parliamentary career was his attack on the government’s foreign policy after the Munich agreement. His stand was uncompromising and brought him much credit from the opposition. Hitler, he stated, had three aims: to swallow the Sudeten Germans; to destroy Czechoslovakia and to dominate Europe. We have given him all those three things, he stated. He would have given him the first of these three, as the Sudetenland was not worth a war. But by Chamberlain’s capitulation on this point, a deadly chain reaction had been set off that led, inexorably, to total surrender. He went on:

The essential thing, the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still ought to resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany … this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat (is) one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occured in our history. … The tiger is showing his teeth, the cage door is open; the keeper is gone … we have given away the whole key to Europe. … Germany will have the whole of Europe in a stranglehold. …

… I know that that those of us who believe in the traditions of our policy … that the one great function of this country is to maintain moral standards in Europe, to maintain a settled pattern of international relations, not to make friends with people whose conduct is demonstrably evil … but to set up some sort of standard by which the smaller Powers can test what is godd in international conduct and what is not – I know that those who hold such beliefs are accused of possessing the Foreign Office mind. I thank God that I possess the Foreign Office mind.

There were other powerful anti-government speeches, by Churchill and Duff Cooper (the only cabinet member to resign), but they hardly dented the government’s huge majority. By 366 votes to 144, the House declared its confidence in the government’s appeasement policy. Thirty Conservative MPs abstained and thirteen remained in their seats. Nicolson, a National Labour ‘rebel’ was among them. The dominance of the National Government and the fragmentation of the Opposition, confirmed at the General Election of 1935, meant that the case of the rebels was not strengthened by their counter-proposals – increased rearmament, grand coalitions, a revivified League, or claiming the high moral ground. Without a proper Opposition, the Commons was barren of new ideas. Those preoccupied with making British foreign policy, tormented by the memories of the horrors of the Great War, were inclined, also on moral grounds, to satisfy Germany’s ‘legitimate grievances’, above all conscious of Britain’s defensive weaknesses and the French lack of will to fight. Also using the tiger metaphor, the Chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper on 23 September that to attempt to take offensive action against Germany … would be to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

The fight against unemployment in Britain continued to the end of the decade. By the winter of 1938-39, the NUWM had changed their tactics from national marches and demonstrations to a series of localised stunts aimed at focusing attention to their demands for winter relief. Their three-point programme called for additional winter unemployment payments of two shillings and sixpence per adult and one shilling per child. They also demanded a national scheme of public works at trade union rates of pay and the opportunity to put their case directly to the ministers concerned. The picture below was taken on 20 December 1938, when two hundred unemployed men made their way to Oxford Street, crowded with Christmas shoppers. They stepped off the pavements and laid down in the roadway bringing the heavy traffic to an abrupt halt. The weather was bitterly cold and snow had been falling as the men covered themselves with posters calling for bread, work and winter relief. Two days later, a hundred men strolled into the Grill Room of the Ritz Hotel, seating themselves at the tables laid for dinner. They followed this by capturing the UAB offices and holding an officer prisoner, flying of a banner from the Monument in the City of London and chaining themselves to the railings of labour exchanges.

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However, in 1939, the threat of war overshadowed domestic problems. Opposition to the ‘appeasement’ policy after the Munich agreement was a lost cause. So too was the League of Nations Union, which was ‘practically dead’ and the National Labour Party was in no better shape. Nicolson devoted his energies to helping refugees from Franco’s Spain and co-operating with Eleanor Rathbone in her work with deprived children in Britain. He also joined the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror and helped the Zionist cause.

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For the Labour movement as a whole, the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’ even before the thirties were properly over. As Harold Nicolson motored home from Westminster to Sissinghurst in Kent on 3 September, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist and shouted: it’s all the fault of the rich! Harold commented in his diary:

The Labour Party will be hard put to it to prevent this war degenerating into class warfare.

Sources:

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920 – 1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishing).

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

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke (ed.), et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Publishers).

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

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The ‘Hungarista’ Horror:

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

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A Child Alone:

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

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

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

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

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

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Daisy, as named on her letter of protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ‘Opposition’:

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

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

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

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

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

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Wallenberg on the Road to Hegyeshalom:

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

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

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

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

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

Rescuing the Jews of Budapest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle for Zugló:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Establishment of the Ghettoes:

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

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

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

The Rescuers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Swiss and the Swedes under attack:

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

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

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

18,000 in the ‘foreign’ ghetto.

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

Jews in hiding in the provinces, number unknown.

Jews granted exemption, approximately 1,000.

Half- and quarter- Jews, numbers unknown.

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

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

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

Protecting the Children:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the ‘nick of time’:

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Present:

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

Though dark our heaven, the star gleams there above.

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

To us, and has defended us.

014

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

 

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

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Britain was at War:

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

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

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

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

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

Appendices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documents:

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

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

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

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

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

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

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

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

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

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

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

The Final Steps to European War:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

Posted September 7, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Austria, Austria-Hungary, Axis Powers, Baltic States, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Colonisation, Commemoration, Communism, Demography, Deportation, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Family, First World War, France, Genocide, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Hungary, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Jews, liberal democracy, liberalism, Migration, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Paris, Poland, Population, populism, Racism, Refugees, Respectability, Seasons, Second World War, Security, Siege of Warsaw, Statehood, Technology, terror, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Uncategorized, United Kingdom, USSR, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War Two

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